I n Switzerland this week there was an early Christmas miracle. During a low-key track meeting on Wednesday at the velodrome in Grenchen, near Bern, John Archibald set a sea level world record, 4 minutes, 10.177 seconds, for the 4,000-metre pursuit.
Who is John Archibald? To give him his full name: John “Brother of Katie” Archibald. Katie is the Olympic, Commonwealth and world champion. She came to the sport relatively late and John, four years her elder, started even later. But his trajectory over the past couple of years would be the envy of the Space Shuttle.
To put his performance in Grenchen in perspective, the 4,000m pursuit is the event that Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree dominated in the 1990s. When Boardman won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, his fastest time was 14 seconds slower than Archibald’s ride this week. Obree’s best was in the same ball park.
Never mind Boardman and Obree, Archibald is quicker than Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas. When he won the pursuit in Beijing in 2008, Wiggins’ Olympic record, which he set in qualifying, was 4 minutes, 15 seconds. Thomas’s best is a fraction of a second better than Wiggins’.
It’s true that times have been tumbling in recent years – there are now a lot of riders clustered around 4.11 to 4.13, which Archibald did on his way to a Commonwealth Games silver medal earlier this year – but still, his performance in Switzerland was truly exceptional.
What’s even more remarkable is that he’s doing it outside the British system. Instead, he is part of a team, HUUB Wattbike, whose five members all live together in a house in Derby. They have been competing in World Cup track meetings and last weekend, at the Olympic velodrome in London, caused an upset by winning the team pursuit, beating Great Britain – winners at the last three Olympic Games, lest we forget – into third.
It’s the greatest of sports stories: the outsiders taking on and beating the establishment. In a team event it’s harder to do, which only makes it more satisfying. “To get four guys in great shape on race day is really hard work,” says Archibald. “The rivalry we’ve got with GB adds fuel to the fire. We get on well with the guys in the British team, but there is certainly some tension.” Especially in the defeated British team, you imagine.
But back to the original question: who is John Archibald? He turned 28 in November. He’s from Glasgow and until recently he was living at home and working in the family business, Archers Sleepcentre, a chain of 12 bed and mattress shops throughout Scotland. He’s a former swimmer, who competed at national level.
Initially, inspired by his sister, pictured, he tried time trials and road races. He had immediate success and was invited by Scottish Cycling’s endurance coach, Mark Mckay, to have a go on the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow.
It took some persistence. Archibald was apprehensive. He was enjoying himself, racking up big time trial wins, clocking fast times, and at the back of his mind he wondered whether it was too late. He was the wrong side of 25. McKay knew that time was of the essence, so when Archibald did eventually show up at the velodrome, he was given VIP treatment. “They laid it all out for me. Access to the track, strength and conditioning coaching, a nutritionist. It was an accelerated process. It had to be, because I didn’t have time to waste. I was 27. I didn’t have five years to develop. Everyone is the same, but when you first see the 45-degree banking in the velodrome, you’re thinking, that looks daunting. I was nervous, a bit shaky and scared of crashing. I’ve had a few crashes. But having seen what Katie’s done, that wasn’t something that was going to hold me back.”
In about eight months Archibald went from novice to Commonwealth Games medallist. A big factor in his improvement was taking a sabbatical from the family business. Initially this was for the Commonwealth Games. But the Games came and went and, well, now he finds himself in a house in Derby with his HUUB Wattbike team-mates, hoping to go to the world championships in Pruszków in late February, and even daring to dream of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
You would think that a sea level world record would be a guarantee of selection. But Archibald isn’t part of the British programme and isn’t sure what the selection process is for the world championships. “I hope they have a reasonable look at me,” he says, “and see that I don’t just want to go; I want to go out and win it.
“I’ve not had contact with the British team. Have I tried hard enough? Not really. It’s difficult to describe. I did the European championships for GB in the summer but it was a strange time; it was too short notice, it was in the middle of the road season, and it didn’t go to plan.”
Archibald is the latest in a great tradition of maverick Scottish cyclists. If Obree is the lodestar, there’s also Robert Millar, David Millar, round-the-world record breaker Mark Beaumont and Archibald’s sister, Katie. Chris Hoy is the exception: a rider who came through the system. Several other Scots are now part of that system, thanks in no small part to the velodrome in Glasgow named after the six-time Olympic gold medallist. Archibald acknowledges this: “The Glasgow velodrome is a pretty monumental part of the story for all of us, especially Katie.”
Back to Switzerland on Wednesday. There were parallels with Obree’s 1993 hour record in Hamar, Norway, set before a crowd of one man and his dog. “It was a morning session,” says Archibald of Grenchen. “There was barely anyone there in the morning, maybe ten people. It’s a small meeting – I did it last year – but it’s a nice event and there’s a good atmosphere. The Swiss are very welcoming.”
He could be channelling Obree when he adds a killer detail: “They have nice wingback chairs on the podium.”