It was almost four years ago that Shane Sutton, head coach to the British team, predicted that Chris Hoy would not, or should not, appear at the London Olympics. “If Chris Hoy makes the team,” said Sutton, “then it will mean that us coaches won’t haven’t done our jobs properly.”
“Look,” said Sutton recently, when asked about his famous forecast, “with Sir Chris [Sutton always insists on the “Sir”] we’re not talking about a normal athlete. We’re talking about greatness here. That’s what the others are up against.”
Greatness has prevailed, then, as Hoy prepares for his fourth Olympics. As he was in Athens, where he won his first gold medal, and Beijing, where he won three gold medals to become Britain’s most successful Olympian in a century, he is not a peripheral squad member, or somebody who scraped through selection, but the mainstay of the team: “the leader of the pack,” as Dave Brailsford, the performance director, has described him, “the rider the others instinctively look to when anything’s up.”
He has been excluded from the individual sprint in London, with the selectors opting for the younger Jason Kenny. So have Hoy’s powers waned? Does he have the same hunger? The evidence from his dominant performance at the World Cup in London in February, and from the world championships in Melbourne in March, suggested that his powers have not waned, and that his hunger has not diminished. In London, especially, he marked out his territory at the new velodrome, which will host the Olympics, by winning two golds and a bronze medal.
There was no question, either, about who was the crowd favourite as Hoy was cheered to the expensively-installed rafters every time he took to the track. Perhaps the “Sir” helps. Perhaps it is his imposing physique. Or perhaps it is the aura that surrounds the country’s most decorated athlete, but whenever Hoy was introduced to the crowd, the crowd responded. “It was incredible,” says Hoy, “and I responded to them as well. It was like the world championships in Manchester in 2008 when I beat Theo Bos [the world champion who was considered unbeatable], but it was like that multiplied by two. You don’t listen to it but you can’t help being lifted.”
The home crowd in London will naturally have big expectations for Hoy, believing he can repeat his Beijing performances in the keirin and team sprint. “People talk about pressure, but I love it,” he says. “I really love it. It’s like nothing else. I wanted to feel at home on the London track when I competed there, and I did. I felt like it was my track.”
At the world championships in March, Hoy was not as dominant as he had been in London the previous month. And yet one of his performances, in the keirin, stole the show. He was well-positioned with three laps to go of the final, sitting behind Maximilian Levy of Germany, Simon Van Velthooven of New Zealand and his British team-mate Kenny.
Inside two laps to go, Kenny let a small gap open to Levy and Van Velthooven. Hoy seemed to think about coming around the outside, but as he made his move, Kenny sped up. As Kenny accelerated, going over the top of the leading pair, they, too, sped up. Hoy was still fourth, but he found himself hopelessly boxed in, confronted by a wall of human bodies.
There appeared to be nowhere for him to go. He dropped to the bottom of the track, sitting behind Levy and moving up the inside of Van Velthooven. Coming into the final bend it still looked as though he had no chance, but then, somehow, he spotted a gap and dived between Levy and Van Velthooven, who adjusted his line a fraction, as though to let Hoy through. Then it was a straight race for the line, with Hoy pipping Levy for perhaps the most dramatic of his 11 world titles.
“I’ve watched it a few times on YouTube,” says Hoy. “People have been raving about it, but if you watch, you notice that I was almost apologetic with my celebrations. I didn’t feel that I necessarily deserved to win. It was an instinctive move and it worked out, but I’d rather not have been in the position where I had to make that move.”
It was potentially dangerous, too. “But you haven’t got time to think,” he says. “It was purely an instinctive reaction; conscious thought takes longer. You expect a bit of a ripple on the last bend; you flick out a little bit to make it further for the guy on the outside. But still . . . ”
Hoy returned from Melbourne, to his “blueprint” for success – the training programme he had drawn up the previous autumn – trying not to relate everything back to Beijing. “It’s important to remind yourself that it’s new. You can’t replicate what you did in the past. Every challenge has to be new.”
There was still work to be done. Sutton spoke to Hoy the night after the worlds. “There are a few things we need to change, mate,” he told him. Sutton had been “sitting back, taking an overall view,” says Hoy, “and he sees things we don’t see, and the coaches don’t see. He sees our body language on the bike; there are little things he picks up on.”
As the Olympics loom – and he is in final approach mode – Hoy sounds enthusiastic. He is determined to enjoy them, he says, particularly as he is “99.9 per cent certain” they will be his final Games.
“It’s not about stepping stones any more,” he says. “You get tired of talking about this thing on the horizon. You go to other races and don’t get a chance to celebrate properly because it’s all about the Olympics.
“Even when you win a world title, the response is: ‘You’re world champion – that must give you confidence for the Olympics.’ Everything is related to that bigger picture. But it’s so massive now, there’s no avoiding it.”