Interview: Sir Chris Hoy takes on 24 hour Le Mans race and fatherhood
“I’ll tell you when I get a chance,” is Sir Chris Hoy’s response when asked what he does to relax amidst his relentless round of commitments. It may be the first Olympic year in two decades that hasn’t involved the Scot straining every sinew in pursuit of a gold medal but, in many ways, his life is busier now than it was when he was the talismanic leader of Great Britain’s mighty track cycling team.
The country’s greatest ever Olympian finished his career on a high in London four years ago when he equalled, then overtook, Sir Steve Redgrave to lift his gold medal tally to six with triumphs in the team sprint and keirin. Since then, Hoy has thrown himself into a dizzying array of new challenges, projects, ventures and, most important of all, become a father. Compared to the singular focus of an Olympic athlete it makes for an intense schedule.
“Sleep mainly,” is his only real switch off, he says. “Get to bed then start again in the morning. The last few weeks, or months really, have been especially busy. But it’s stuff I enjoy and want to do. You do sometimes wish there were a few more hours in the day to squeeze a bit more in.”
Hoy has filled his “retirement” by taking on a number of ambassadorial roles, helping to mentor young cyclists as well as other youngsters, working as a media pundit, launching a range of Hoy Bikes, designing a spinning class for a leading gym chain and co-writing a range of children’s books. Amidst all that he has prolonged his competitive life with a move into motorsport and later this month will fulfil a lifelong ambition to compete in the famous Le Mans 24 Hours Race.
And, if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, there is 20-month son Callum, who is “doing great but in nursery now and constantly bringing bugs back”.
Fatherhood is the central totem to his life and, despite the hectic diary, it is Callum, who was born 11 weeks premature in October 2014, and wife Sarra at home in Manchester who provide the main focus of his attentions. Hoy readily admits that his life as a professional athlete required a large dose of selfishness – sleeping and eating patterns had to be assiduously followed as everything was tailored towards having him in prime physical condition. That has all changed now.
“I really don’t know how athletes manage to do it, having kids while they’re still competing and being able to stay at the top of their game,” he says. “I take my hat off, even more so to mothers. Someone like Jessica Ennis-Hill having her first baby then bouncing back to become world champion in the space of the year.
“I maybe wouldn’t have appreciated just how big an achievement that was until I had my own child. It’s an incredible thing.
“But in the same way, for all the difficulties it brings, I think being a parent changes your perspective so much that it helps you to deal with the pressures of competition a bit better. You realise that, as important as it is, there is a perspective there and you can deal with the big moments. You can think, well as long as my kid is alright, life’s OK, and you can take success and failure in sport and not be so serious about it.”
Hoy, who was famously inspired by the movie ET to take up BMX racing as a youngster, is looking forward to watching young Callum discover his passions in life and encourage him down those paths. His own parents were his biggest, most high-profile supporters. Whenever the former George Watson’s College pupil stormed to gold the sight of his proud father David with his saltire-adorned “The Real McHoy” banner wasn’t far away and the footage of mum Carol’s famously tortured viewing of that keirin final in London was almost as compelling as the race itself.
“The biggest thing I noticed growing up when I was doing BMX racing or playing rugby through to secondary school level, was seeing the parents who were so desperate to see their kids do well that they were almost living their lives through their kids and putting huge pressure on them to the point they weren’t enjoying it. Then, when they get to the age when they could choose themselves, they stopped doing sport.
“My parents were very good at supporting me and giving me the chances, taxi-ing me back and forward to training and competitions. But they never pushed anything on me and that’s the biggest thing I hope to learn when it comes to Callum – give him the chances to do things and there may be times when he doesn’t want to do things and needs a bit of encouragement but not a push because they’ll push back.”
In time young Callum will no doubt be encouraged to read his dad’s books. Co-written with Clare Elsom, the third in his cycling-themed Flying Fergus series, The Big Biscuit Bike Off, is due out at the end of the month.
“That’s been brilliant, something I never imagined I would do,” says Hoy. “It’s an opportunity to sit down, with no rules, just write what you want with the intention to inspire kids to ride bikes and read books. I’m really delighted with the response. We launched the first two titles on World Book Day and kids are great because they are totally honest and give you instant feedback. So far it’s been really good.
“I wasn’t that really bookish as a child, though my sister was a big reader. That’s kind of why I wanted to do it. When I was young, if I found an author I liked then I would read everything I could from them. Roald Dahl was my big favourite when I was wee. But I needed a bit of encouragement. So we’re trying to reach out to kids who perhaps weren’t that interested in reading books initially but if they get hooked by the bikes angle then they can get into it.”
Hoy is speaking to me in Livingston after presenting Bo’ness Academy student Abbie McCallum with the Sky Sports Living for Sport Student of the Year award for Scotland.
Hoy is an ambassador for the Sky Academy which provides sports, creativity projects and TV skills studios for schools, with the aim of reaching one million young people by 2020.
“Abbie’s helped improve the lives of all the kids at her school through running numerous clubs and extra-curricular activities,” says Hoy of the 18-year-old winner. “When Abbie was 12 or 13 she said there was really nothing like that and now there is a list as long as your arm with dance classes, team sports and all kinds.
“The participation is up in the hundreds so it’s amazing. I was saying to her that when I was her age most kids don’t really think about helping others or volunteering, it’s all about yourself when you’re that age. So for her to have done what she has done, it’s inspiring.”
The motto of the 2012 Games was Inspire A Generation and Hoy has not left that sentiment in London. He devotes a lot of time to speaking to young people, from mentoring elite GB cycling juniors or simply giving inspirational talks to schoolkids.
“There are times when it’s a few days in a row and others when it’s a few weeks inbetween. It’s something I get a lot of pleasure from,” says Hoy. “Seeing kids getting more confident, learning new skills and enjoying themselves. Sport is obviously central to my life but it’s not necessarily about creating champions. It’s all about them seeing the benefits of sport in general, for health and confidence.
“With the Sky Academy it’s about giving youngsters opportunities to develop skills and improve their lives. They’re not all into sport or the creative side of things so it’s about what each individual child is motivated by and trying to develop that.
“It’s just realising how much opportunity and fun I’ve had from sport in general, cycling in particular, all the places I’ve been to, people I’ve met. You just don’t switch off from that, you want others to experience it too. It’s not simply about creating an Olympic or world champion, it’s fundamentally about enjoyment. For me it wasn’t just about winning medals, it was the whole process, being part of a team, experiencing the highs and lows, it was incredible.”
Hoy turned 40 on 23 March this year – a birthday which, remarkably, he shares with Redgrave, Mo Farah and Roger Bannister – but the pipe, slippers and allotment remain a long way off. In a couple of weeks he will drive in the second-tier race of Le Mans 24 Hours Race which, along with the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix forms the Triple Crown of motorsport.
He raced in the British GT Championship in 2014 after going through Nissan’s intensive driver development programme and the new challenge to qualify for, and now race in - the prestigious event in north-west France - has filled the competitive vacuum following the end of his professional cycling career.
It took Hoy 1 minute 0.711 seconds to win his first Olympic gold in Athens 12 years ago in the 1km time trial so Le Mans, which he hopes will last roughly 23 hours and 59 minutes longer, presents a new challenge of endurance. He will race in shifts with co-drivers Andrea Pizzitola and Michael Munemann.
“It’s been good,” he says. “I’ve had final testing before we get out to Le Mans and did an eight-hour test through the night to get used to the dark. It’s the first really long, double stint I’ve done at night and it went really well. Once I settled in I wasn’t really conscious that it was night time I was so focused on driving.
“I’ve been doing a lot of simulator stuff, on board video and physical training to stay fit.”
His fellow former Olympic champion and GB cycling team-mate Victoria Pendleton enjoyed a similar career gear change when she switched saddles to become an amateur horseracing jockey, ultimately placing fifth in the Foxhunter Chase at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Hoy has many hurdles to clear but is hoping he can enjoy similar success.
“The aim is to finish the race,” he says. “It’s such a demanding event and when you see the fall-out rate to get to the finish line is no mean feat in itself.
“So many things could go wrong or right that there is no point focusing on the end result. You could do the best you can and the car might fail. In the first lap you could have contact and not even get in the race seat yourself. So you just do the best you can, get preparation and the car right, get qualification done and see what happens.”
Hoy’s Olympic odyssey began in Sydney in 2000 when he was part of the British team that won silver in the team sprint. His life has been defined by the four-year cycle of the world’s greatest sporting event and while, for the first time since Atlanta in 1996, the team flagbearer from London 2012 will not be competing, he can’t stay away.
He will be part of the BBC team in Brazil and, having retired before the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and not getting the chance to compete at the velodrome which bears his name, has had time to get used to being on the outside looking in.
“It felt stranger in the first year after I retired, those first few months when I wasn’t training consistently while the team were preparing for the next championships,” he explains. “I’ve been so busy with other things that I haven’t felt any pangs about the Olympics yet but that may change when I get out to Rio. It will be odd to realise that you are sitting on the other side of the fence watching.
“But I’ve been to the Commonwealth Games and other championships as a spectator and part of the media. I have to say I really enjoy it. As much as you’d love to be out there competing it’s actually brilliant to sit back and take it all in, see it as this big entertainment spectacle, and appreciate that you used to be part of it and what a cool thing it was while it lasted.
“These last four years the Le Mans thing has really been the replacement focus, albeit a much lower intensity, so it’s almost been like a mini Olympic cycle.”
That phrase – Olympic cycle – doesn’t quite carry the same ring now that the titanic Hoy is no longer in the saddle, powering around the velodrome boards radiating an air of utter invincibility. But, as he has embraced with the alacrity that defined his sporting career, the wheels of life keep on turning.