Callum Skinner’s performance at the recent world track cycling championships in London mirrored that of the British team. After a sketchy start things improved to such an extent that in the end all concerned could reflect on a hugely successful five days in the velodrome.
For Skinner, the 23-year-old Glaswegian who is a popular and unassuming member of the British squad, it means a new sense of optimism for the Rio Olympics in five months.
After anchoring the team sprint squad to fifth on the opening night, he was fifth in qualifying for the sprint and progressed to the quarter-final, taking Denis Dmitriev to a third and deciding round and coming within an inch or so of knocking out last year’s silver medallist.
It was, as his coach Jan van Eijden said, “a huge step up. Callum has really stepped up this season, but particularly at this championship. I’m really, really pleased for him.”
Ever since he represented Scotland at the Delhi Commonwealth Games as an 18-year-old, Skinner has been optimistically dubbed “the next Chris Hoy.”
It was Hoy’s gold medal at the 2004 Olympics that inspired the then 12-year-old to take up track cycling. Four years later he broke the Scottish schoolboys’ 200m record and won the inaugural Chris Hoy Trophy – presented by Hoy himself.
Yet Hoy is both inspiration and burden. Hoy acknowledged it himself as he reflected on Skinner’s progress, and made an important – easily overlooked – point: “Callum is a lot better than I was at his age.”
“My quickest ever 200m was 9.8 [seconds] in Beijing, when I was 32. Callum’s done 9.8 here at 23.” Still, though, Hoy agrees that the younger Scotsman is “in an unenviable position” as the rider expected to fill his shoes as man three in the team sprint. “But it’s important to remember that he’s only 23,” Hoy adds. “I didn’t win a world title until I was 26.”
As well as emulating Hoy, Skinner’s other big challenge, as man three, is to follow Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny before bringing it home on the third lap. “The first two are the quickest guys in the world,” Hoy says, “so all Callum has to do is hang on and do a reasonable last lap. I still believe they’re going to win the team sprint in Rio, purely because Callum will improve his standing start.”
Skinner can look back with satisfaction on his performance at this month’s world championships. He even managed a wry smile at the latest Hoy comparison: “Kian Emadi took a bit of the ‘next Chris Hoy’ pressure off me in the last couple of years but it does seem to be seeping back in,” he said.
“One of the things about Chris is his legacy in this team,” Skinner continued. “The coaches who worked with him know what it takes to produce a good ‘man three’ [the anchor leg]. That’s something that’s been really helpful.
“It took a while for Chris to show signs and eventually medal, and in cycling sprinters tend to peak a little later than endurance riders. To get anywhere near his kind of success would be incredible. But I’m out there to emulate it as much as possible.”
Watching the British trio’s team sprint performance, it was easy to spot flaws. They weren’t the tight unit of old – though Hoy let quite a gap open in the Beijing Olympics, before bringing it home in the final lap – and the effort required of Skinner just to follow his flying teammates was apparent.
“From the outside looking in I can understand why it looks quite disappointing,” said Skinner, “but as a team we were really encouraged. I doubt there’d be many man threes who could hold on to 17.0 [seconds – Hindes’ time over the opening lap].”
Skinner’s task seems straightforward if daunting: “If I can get on the back of [Hindes and Kenny] we’ve probably got the fastest team in the world.”
But his place in the Rio team is not guaranteed: “I’m also being chased [for the man three position] by Matt Crampton and Lewis Oliva.”
Of course, they might be a slicker, tighter unit if Hindes didn’t go out quite so fast, if he held back a fraction. Skinner, relishing the five months he has to progress further, shakes his head at the suggestion that Hindes might hold something back. “If I put myself in Phil’s position, that’s quite a hard thing to grasp. We spend all our time trying to go as fast as we can. It’s up to us to go faster, it’s not up to him to hold back.”