Glasgow 2014: McCallum racing towards dream finish

James McCallum. Picture: Getty
James McCallum. Picture: Getty
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SPEAK to James McCallum and there is no doubting what these Commonwealth Games mean. Like many, qualifying for such events was always an ambition but this summer’s sporting jamboree is different – this is the realisation of something more emotional and something with far greater personal resonance. You know that because it’s etched all over his face. It’s merely confirmed by what he says.

“It blows your head apart because when I was a kid I used to watch the Tour de France, then ride into town and sprint up and down the Rottenrow imagining I was in the Tour de France,” he says. He is animated and enthusiastic and, with a refreshing absence of cynicism, his heart is worn on his sleeve. “Now I’m going to be doing that with guys who’ve actually been in the Tour and guys I’ve grown up with like David Millar, some of the biggest names in cycling. The fact it’s going to be in Glasgow makes me feel so privileged and to be part of the biggest team ever is a dream come true. It’s the sort of thing dreams are made of. It sounds very clichéd to say that but that’s exactly how it feels because you can probably see my mum and dad’s house from the velodrome.”

The purpose-built arena is the venue for the points race and the scratch race. He won bronze in the latter in Melbourne in 2006 and always thought that was his strongest track event but he has improved in the points race in recent years and now has an eye on finishing well in that one too. He will also take to the road, everyone else’s road race being something of a trip down memory lane for him.

For some, their sport is a means to an end; it sates their competitive desires or was simply the only area they excelled in. With the likes of McCallum, it is a passion. A large part of who he is, he verges on the evangelistic, which is why he is looking forward to living out his own boyhood fantasies while, hopefully, igniting the fire in the belly of the next generation.

As he is bowing out after the Games, it is a fitting venue for the 35-year-old to make his curtain call. He grew up nearby, his first bike was bought in a shop opposite the Barras.

“It was in a tiny little shop just across from the Barras where my granny used to take us to get a jar of mussels. I was ten years old and got it for Christmas. Every boy in the family was given a bike, I just happened to be the one that stuck with it.

“I’ve got quite a lot of energy as you might have noticed, so my parents had me doing something every day of the week to try and get me to sleep. Then cycling just took over. People ask you what religion you are: I’m a cyclist. Every Sunday I’m out on my bike at 10am. It is religious.”

Years ago like-minded people worshipped in secret. With road racing on Scottish roads illegal, it was a covert operation, with people dressing in suits like they were headed to the office. In McCallum’s case, so many of the hours he spent in the saddle was as part of his daily commute. Living in Uddingston but nursing in Edinburgh, he did the daily commute by bike. Back then if he stopped off to buy a paper or nip into a coffee shop for a drink, he invited stares. Nowadays, he loves the fact that cycling is so popular that the sight of a shaven-legged man dressed in lycra is no longer the oddity it once was.

“The blueprint is there. It’s just about getting the facilities, which we have, the coaching staff, which we’re getting, and having the access for young kids. It’s just how we implement this pathway because it’s all there. I say to people all the time ‘two arms, two legs, no different’. You don’t need to have a romantic name and come from some fancy place in Italy. Cycling has changed. GB is a superpower, although there are still a few countries that will give us a run for our money.”

An event co-ordinator for Scottish Cycling from 2008-2010 until he could go pro full-time, he recognises the opportunity the Commonwealth Games are offering the sport in this country.

“This is the Genesis moment. Things are growing and stabilising and I can now walk through Starbucks in cycling gear and not get pointed at or laughed at so you can tell something has definitely changed. Being a teenager in Glasgow and having to shave your legs wasn’t an easy upbringing! It meant I was a pretty good runner as well as a kid.

“Events like this, for cycling and other sports, this is the shop window. This is where you capture the imagination and inspire people.

“My grandfather was a cyclist as well. He passed away when I was a little kid but it’s nice to maybe think he’s there and maybe he created all this, you never know. It’s great to have that as my life legacy.

“One of the coolest things that I’m proud of is no matter what happens with my cycling life, if everything disappears, on my daughter’s birth certificate under father’s occupation it says: ‘Professional Cyclist’. That is pretty cool.

“It’s so privileged to think you’re a professional athlete and have done something that as a kid you always wanted to do. You are living a dream. Now I have the chance to end it at the Commonwealth Games.”

So much of the road route, through the streets of Glasgow, is ingrained in his memories but he refreshed the recollections by taking part in the British Championships over the same course and says it felt brilliant.

“Racing round there last year, the crowds were just unreal. But what’s really surreal is when you’re riding through Blythswood Square or Kelvingrove Park and someone shouts ‘go on Jimmy!’ You think ‘who are you and how did this happen?’

“The sport has gone from being so niche to being a legend in its own lunchtime so I’m going to live the moment and enjoy it. It’s going to be bonkers.

“The Games is going to be so big for Glasgow. It’s like the Olympics were bubbling along and then, boom, they were so big. Then there was [the Winter Olympics in] Sochi and kids were suddenly lying on a baking tray in the kitchen. All that’s going to happen and that’s what the legacy will be for Glasgow.”

Having given his all in Glasgow, he will step aside from professional cycling to spend more time with his daughter, young Penelope Isabella. In that respect the future is still something of an unknown but he is adamant that the time is right.

“Any minute now I’m going to wake up but I couldn’t have asked for a better format to go out on. What’s next is a very good question. I have spent 20-odd years at the top end of sport and I am who I am because of cycling. It would make a lot of sense to use everything I’ve learned in some capacity within the sport. When you are in something you always see holes that can be filled and how you can make things better.”

For someone so constructive and positive that attitude isn’t surprising. But first he has a dream to live out and a Hollywood-style ending wouldn’t go amiss.