Sir Chris Hoy Interview | Gold Medals, E.T, And Inspiring The Next Generation Of Cyclists
"There will always be other nations that come back and raise the bar. It’d be boring if we won all the time."
My phone rings; private number. As situations go, this one normally results in me hanging up immediately. Today though, I do something different. Today, I answer the phone. I do this not because I’m interested in claiming PPI or discussing an accident that wasn’t my fault, but because I’m 99.99% sure there’s an all-time Olympic legend waiting for me at the other end of the line.
“Hi Jack, it’s Chris Hoy here,"
Sir Chris Hoy, knight of the realm. Sir Chris Hoy, six-time Olympic gold medallist. Sir Chris Hoy, the greatest Olympian Britain has ever produced. That Chris Hoy, talking to me now, on the phone, on a Thursday. It’s a surreal moment.
"You can have your main character jump on a bike, back pedal three times, and be transported to a magical kingdom."
Hoy, who retired from competitive track cycling in 2013, is currently promoting ‘The Flying Fergus’ series. A collection of children’s books, co-written by Chris Hoy and Joanna Nadin, and illustrated by Clare Elsom, they tell the bike-based adventures of nine-year-old Fergus Hamilton and his friends as they travel back and forth to a parallel universe called Nevermore; a place where cycling is banned and Fergus’s Dad is being held captive by an evil king known as Woebegot.
“It started about two years ago. I was thinking of ways to inspire kids to take up cycling and the book idea was one that came out of leftfield a little bit. I hadn’t done any creative writing since I was probably about 12 or 13 at school, so it’d been a long time. I never thought I would get the chance to write books for kids," Hoy tells me.
“It’s been one of the most fun things I’ve done since I retired from cycling. That’s the strangest thing. I never really expected it to be as much fun as it has been. My hope is that once kids have finishing reading the books they’ll want to get out and ride their bikes," he adds.
As a father of one, with another one on the way, I was curious to see how much being a Dad had influenced Hoy’s shift into children’s literature and whether it had impacted on the book’s content in anyway.
“I guess he [Hoy’s two-year-old son Callum] was a little bit late to the party as we’d already started the books before he was born. But what’s fun now is I’m telling him the stories, or my own version of them at least. Not actually straight from the book, but little snippets. I’ve been introducing the characters to him, so hopefully by the time he’s four or five he’ll be old enough to actually sit and read the books with me.
“The whole experience has just been a really fun thing to do, because you suddenly realise how fertile kids’ imaginations are. You know, there are no rules with kids’ books. With adults’ books there are so many things you can’t write about, and the whole approach is just much more rigid. Whereas with kids’ books, you can write about anything. You can have your main character jump on a bike, back pedal three times, and be transported to a magical kingdom. And kids are just like, ‘Yep. Yep. That sounds plausible. We’ll go with that.’ They love it," Hoy says, before throwing in the all-important caveat that “...kids are also your toughest critic. If they don’t like something, they’ll tell you."
While preparing for my chat with Sir Chris, I’d heard a rumour that it was Steven Spielberg’s 1982 alien blockbuster ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ that had got him into cycling in the first place. Now, of course, wanting to question an Olympic icon about the influence a made-up alien with a magic finger has had on his life is one thing. Actually doing it is something very different entirely. Hoping, beyond hope, that the E.T. rumours are true and that he’s not going to immediately cite me as a prank caller and hang up; I ask Sir Chris Hoy about E.T.
“That’s correct. I’d never seen a BMX bike before I saw E.T. And it was just, for me, a whole new way to ride a bike," he says.
Before my mind has the chance to conjure up images of Hoy floating about in front of the moon, he cuts off my line of thinking by adding: “Not the flying off into the sky with E.T. on the basket bit, but the scene at the end when the kids are on their BMXs going round corners, going over jumps, getting chased by the police. It just looked really exciting and that’s what sparked my imagination."
"I’d never seen a BMX bike before I saw E.T."
I was interested to know if Sir Chris hoped the ‘Flying Fergus’ books could have a similar impact on school children today as E.T. had on a young Hoy back in the early eighties.
“It’s two-pronged really. I want to encourage kids to read, first of all. My sister used to love books. She always had her nose in a book, and would read anything. Whereas I needed a lot of encouragement. But when I found an author or a type of book enjoyed, I would read the whole lot.
“In many ways, I’m reaching out to kids who are a bit like I was. Kids who need that encouragement. Hopefully we’re going to inspire kids to read… but also when they’re finished we want them to put the books down and think: ‘I’d like to get out on my bike now, and be active,’" says Chris.
Whenever you hear about celebrities getting involved with stuff such as this it’s easy to be cynical about the financial incentives behind it. Hoy though is clearly very passionate about getting kids riding bikes and reading books. Noble causes for sure, but I couldn’t help wondering whether he yearned for the thrill of competitive cycling. Would Hoy, if it were possible, choose to ride Fergus’s magic bike to a parallel universe where his life still revolved around the Olympics and chasing velodrome gold?
“Well, I’ve got a lot of things I’m doing now. I’ve got my own range of bikes that I make, I’ve got the kids’ books, and I’ve taken up motorsports. The motorsports have kind of taken over the competitive element of my life nicely, but it’s not like the cycling days when that was my sole focus. Motorsports is just a part of my life. It’s quite a nice leveller. When you’re racing, it’s everything. But as soon as you step out the car, you can switch off from it," says Hoy.
“I haven’t completely given up on my bike either. I still ride an average of five or six times a week anyway. Just for fun. Just to get out, and stay fit and active. I enjoy it. Cycling will always be a part of my life. It’s one of those activities that if you’re enjoying it, and want to carry on enjoying it, you can do it almost indefinitely," he adds.
"...I never thought I was going to get a gold medal at the Olympics let alone six."
Winner of two gold medals at London 2012, three gold medals at Beijing 2008, one gold medal at Athens 2004 and a silver medal at Sydney 2000, Hoy stands alongside track cyclist Jason Kenny as the joint most successful British Olympian in history.
As someone with a handful of swimming certificates and a Woodham Athletic FC Under 14s’ ‘Player of the Year’ trophy to their name, you might think I could easily imagine the reality of living your life as a sporting titan. But you’d be wrong. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how surreal it must be for Sir Chris to walk around with the ‘most successful British Olympian’ tag day-in, day-out.
“It’s still so weird because when I first started and won my first Olympic medal – a silver medal in Sydney, I never thought I was going to get a gold medal at the Olympics let alone six. So to be mentioned alongside Sir Steve Redgrave, and people like that, it’s a strange one. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it," Hoy says.
With fewer cities putting bids in to host the Olympic Games due to spiralling costs, the plague of performance-enhancing drugs making viewers cynical, and the retirement of star Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt; there’s a sense that the greatest show in sport is losing too much of its sparkle, too much of its magic, to stay relevant. Hoy though is unmoved by such concerns, and still views the Olympics as the absolute ultimate.
“The Olympics capture everyone’s imagination," he tells me, “It’s a global thing. It doesn’t matter whether or not you know something about a particular sport. If you say you’re an Olympic champion, there’s an understanding that it means something pretty special. Track cycling, for me, was the most exciting sport to be part of. Every time you got on the track, there was this gladiatorial atmosphere. Some stadiums only hold three or four thousand people, but everybody’s who been to a major track cycling event mentions the atmosphere because it’s such a cauldron, such an intense place to be."
Looking ahead, what hopes does Hoy have for the future of track cycling?
“I’d like to see track cycling become even more mainstream, and be made more accessible for more people. And not just for competitions, but as a thing for people to enjoy generally. I do a lot of the beginner sessions with kids and adults, where they’ve never been to a velodrome before and they come down and give it a shot. And without doubt, without exception, every single person who comes off the track after the first run has a massive smile on their face and are absolutely buzzing with adrenaline," Hoy says, before adding, “I’d love the sport to grow to a point where, alongside the Tour De France, velodrome and track cycling has become a huge national sport."
The first two decades of this century have seen Team GB take an iron-like grip on Olympic track cycling. But with various international rivals determined to knock us off our pedestal, how much longer can the UK’s cyclists be realistically expected to own the podium?
“It happens every four years. After the Olympics, other nations really make a huge fightback and Britain hasn’t dominated between the Olympics in the last two Olympic cycles. In those periods, the Australians and the Germans were probably stronger and had more success. But by the time the Olympics have come around, the British team have really focused on that one event. And they time it right," say Hoy.
“There will always be other nations that come back and raise the bar," he adds, “but that’s what sport is all about. It’d be boring if we won all the time. It would be quite nice if we did, but the point is that Britain might not dominate to the extent where we’re winning 70% of the gold medals at the Olympics. I think we’ll always be a force to be reckoned with and hopefully be in the top two or three nations at most events although, but obviously, things change.
"Every time you got on the track, there was this gladiatorial atmosphere."
“Athletes retire. Coaches move on. It’s a constantly evolving thing but what we do have, the huge advantage we do have, is this huge interest in the sport with lots of kids coming in at the grassroots level. This doesn’t guarantee success but it does give you great potential for success in the future."
After my time talking to Sir Chris Hoy has come to an end, I can’t help but think about how nice the symmetry would be if thirty years from now a new legend of British track cycling was explaining to some journalist over the phone that it was the fictional adventures of Hoy’s universe-hopping protagonist and his magical bike that planted the seed of their Olympic success back when they were at school.
While we wait to see whether or not this particularly fitting scenario plays out, let’s all petition to make regular screenings of E.T a part of the national curriculum.