MacLean worth place in Commonwealth Games limelight

Scotland's Neil Fachie and pilot Craig MacLean take Race 1 of the men's Sprint B Tandem final. Picture: Jane Barlow
Scotland's Neil Fachie and pilot Craig MacLean take Race 1 of the men's Sprint B Tandem final. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT CANNOT be considered vindication because he had little else to prove. It wasn’t redemptive either, because there was nothing he needed to be delivered from.

But there was considerable poignancy traced in the achievements in recent days of Craig MacLean, the man who led Neil Fachie to double Commonwealth Games glory in para-cycling tandem events while in the process picking up two gold medals for himself.

In the role of pilot, the muscular MacLean has helped Fachie become one of the faces of the Games. Now that we are accustomed to his self-deprecating humour, MacLean is bound to have enjoyed the tweet from Abby Burton, a press officer for Team GB, who revealed yesterday that she has been fielding media requests for “Craig MacLean’s bum” in the hours since the rider has been featuring large on television screens across the world. His has become the bum of the Games.

It is pleasing that he has been able to find some late period glory, particularly in front of the watching Chris Hoy. It was often felt that MacLean struggled to step out of Hoy’s shadow when in fact it wasn’t quite like that. In a sense, he helped pave the way when setting out in the mid 1990s, into a cycling world that was much different to the well-appointed one we are so familiar with now.

Their stories are interlinked. In fact, Hoy would be the first to admit that MacLean helped pave the way for his own success on the track. He was the pilot for many Scottish cyclists long before he was Fachie’s man, and it was Hoy’s own father, David, who once described MacLean as being like a climber on a rock face, gouging out footholds to make it easier for those such as his son to scale the peaks. And so it proved.

MacLean might have done more scaling of peaks were it not for a debilitating digestive condition known as coeliac disease, diagnosed only after he had finished his own individual track career. It is one reason why he returned without a medal from the Athens Olympics in 2004, when he was reckoned to have been in his prime. That is not to say he has not already tasted success. He earned a silver medal in the team sprint event at the Olympics in Sydney, when Hoy was one of his team-mates.

In the eyes of many, the Commonwealth Games was meant to be the perfect way for Hoy to have ended his own career. It was indeed easy to wonder whether he had any sense of regret at having denied himself the opportunity to taste the thrill of riding in front of such a frenetic home support by retiring last year. MacLean himself pondered this on Friday night, after he picked up his and Fachie’s first gold medal of these Games, in the tandem kilo event.

But you can also imagine Hoy being as happy as anyone that the velodrome to which he has given his name should be the setting for his old friend’s return to prominence. If it couldn’t be him out there, in his own branded arena, then surely there was no-one better to take the acclaim than MacLean, who was once described by Graeme Herd, the former head coach of Scottish Cycling, as an artist compared with Hoy, whose attention to detail saw him dubbed “the scientist”.

That’s not to say MacLean was in any way lax in his preparation – one needs only to watch the brilliant short film by Finlay Pretsell and Adrian McDowell called Standing Start, which studied an intense MacLean pre-race, to know this.

Of course, MacLean’s willingness to provide such impetus on Fachie’s behalf is not a completely selfless act. One assumes he still earns a comfortable wage from his efforts, with funding contributed from the public purse. At 42, it’s not a bad way to make a living. It also means he can continue to train in the deluxe surroundings of the national cycling centre in Manchester, with younger cyclists who could probably not imagine the amount of scratching around the likes of MacLean, and Hoy, had to do to make their own way in a once under-funded sport.

Since the notion that cycling might ever become a serious profession was once considered laughable, MacLean is a trained piano tuner. He certainly tugged on some strings on Friday and Saturday evening.

Few can possibly begrudge MacLean his time in the sun. He was typically eager to ensure Fachie was the star of the show on Saturday, as his 30-year-old apprentice on the back of the bike deserves to be. After all, he was the one whose legs had to keep up with MacLean’s, and for this achievement alone Fachie merits a medal.

In another touching vignette on Saturday evening, MacLean guided Fachie, who suffers from a condition known as night blindness, towards his family and friends, like the good pilot he is.

Fachie’s own story is a triumph of perseverance. After struggling at the Beijing Olympics, back when he was a runner rather than a cyclist, he decided to switch disciplines. Six years later, here he is – the talk of Scotland.

And so, too, is MacLean, with the golden couple continuing to fulfil media obligations yesterday on various radio and television shows. It feels fair, somehow, that a rider who was robbed of some of the glory from his own career because of a combination of illness and misfortune should discover that by helping someone else reach the top, he too has been able to re-announce himself on such a high-profile stage.

It was why at least one reporter in the Chris Hoy Velodrome on Saturday evening, when he turned his gaze back to his laptop screen in an attempt to put into words what had just unfolded, was suddenly aware of his eyes having become wet.