Interview: ‘The Paralympics was everything I’d previously experienced and more’ - Craig MacLean

Craig MacLean is a picture of concentration before a velodrome sprint start. Main photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty
Craig MacLean is a picture of concentration before a velodrome sprint start. Main photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty
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WHEN Sir Chris Hoy wanted to assemble a Braveheart team to compete in next weekend’s Thunder Drome festivities to mark the launch of his eponymous velodrome in Glasgow, there was little doubt about the first name on the teamsheet.

After all, he’s said on many occasions that without the early input of fellow Scot Craig MacLean there may never have been any of those gold medals.

It is easy to forget, but when Hoy first hit the big time, MacLean was the main man in Scottish cycling. As well as winning a silver in the 1999 World Championships alongside Hoy, the Highlander also won silver in the individual sprint after becoming the first Brit for over half a century to make the final.

These days, however, the roles are reversed. While Hoy, Britain’s most successful Olympian, was dominating the London Velodrome, MacLean was also winning gold, only this time as the able-bodied pilot to the paralympian “stoker”, partially-sighted Anthony Kappes, in the tandem sprint, pictured below right.

It was a familiar support role for the Grantown-on-Spey rider who mentored Hoy – the younger of the pair by almost five years – when the two Scots were shuttling up and down to GB squad sessions south of the Border. It was also a welcome return to the big stage after MacLean missed out in going to Beijing in 2008 when he, Jason Kenny and Jason Queally were all chasing the one remaining place in the team sprint squad and the Scot missed out.

“It was a lot more joyous watching Chris and the guys in London than it was watching on the telly when they were winning medals in Beijing. I knew I had no chance of getting to London, whereas in Beijing I narrowly missed out and knew that their margin of victory meant that I could have been been winning gold,” he says. “It was fantastic to be in London four years later and to be able to cheer the guys on without any bitterness.

“Racing at the Paralympics was a lot better than I anticipated. It’s been quite hard for me coming from high-level able-bodied sport to the tandem because, although we won the two world championships we were eligible to compete in, we were racing in front of 100 people. Getting yourself motivated for that doesn’t really require a big event mindset, whereas the [London] Paralympics was everything I’d previously experienced and more in terms of able-bodied sport. I hadn’t thought of the home Games being a whole lot different until I actually experienced it. I was lucky enough to witness some of the able-bodied racing and it made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. So to be part of it a month later was absolutely incredible – I hadn’t anticipated anything quite as remarkable as it was.”

Yet, while MacLean is not the main event, at either the Games or Paralympics, his full-time role as a pilot does mean he will probably get paid to ride his bike every day until the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where he is expected to partner partially-sighted countryman Neil Fachie in the tandem sprint.

“Being half of a tandem changes the dynamics because you’ve got someone else there who you have to compete on behalf of, which ensures you stay completely motivated,” he says. “Even in the [able-bodied] team sprint you never really race as a team. It’s all about fulfilling your individual role so you’re not giving an awful lot of consideration to the other members of the team. When it’s a tandem you have to nurture your partner and really work together to get that unity and exploit both of your strength.

“I’ve had to adapt more than I expected so I’ve been proactive in trying to change my physiology. I used to train for 17-second bursts rather than long, drawn-out sprints which can last a minute and a half, so you need a very different body shape. For me that’s meant less gym and a lot more road mileage.”

MacLean is quick to point out that the nurturing and mentoring role he has so often assumed “is no coincidence”, but there is a palpable aura of regret around the rider who should have been one of Scotland’s sporting greats.

Now 41, the turning point of his career came in 2008 when he missed out on going to Beijing. He had been suffering from puzzling injuries and illness. Then, at the Olympic trials, MacLean was six-tenths of a second off his best. “Sixty or seventy metres into the ride I thought I was going to pass out. I consciously had to back off,” he said.

Missing Beijing was effectively the end of his top-level career, but it was also the culmination of almost 15 years of steadily deteriorating health. Told that he had an unidentifiable viral condition (probably a form of glandular fever) he was staggered the next year to find that he was suffering from what should have been an easily identifiable and easily-treated condition. MacLean said: “I was dealing with an illness that I didn’t know I had until it was picked up [just after Beijing]. There’s no doubt that had a massive effect on my career and my athletic ability and, when you put all the pieces together, it suddenly explained why I wasn’t recovering from injuries, why I wasn’t sleeping well, or recovering from competing. It turned out I’m coeliac, which should have been fairly easy to pick up, and which makes it all the more frustrating. Basically, I was malnourished. There was this cloud hanging over my career and it’s nice to know what it was – even if it was 15 years too late.

“Within eight weeks of changing my diet it was like flicking a switch in terms of how I felt on the bike and being able to go out and do two consecutive days of training. That was 2009 and just a few weeks earlier I’d been unable to hold up my new baby without feeling faint and I’d have to pull over halfway through my drive to training because I felt so shaky and light-headed. Then, suddenly it was completely different. Of course I wondered whether my results would have been better, but it’s dangerous to think like that.”

Dangerous, yet impossible not to. It’s hard to think of a man who has won World Championship gold, Olympic silver and Commonwealth Games gold as an under-achiever, yet it is nevertheless difficult to wonder what would have happened had MacLean been hale and hearty throughout the past 15 years. So, as the next generation get ready to do battle in the Scottish Championships this weekend at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, spare a thought for the Braveheart enjoying one last fling with his old friend and adversary in the Thunder Drome.