Thursday, 28 August 2008

Heroes, Villains and Veoldromes, Chris Hoy and the Track Cycling Revolution, Richard Moore (2008)

HarperSport 13 978 0 00 726531-2 Quarto 310pp £15.99
A well-written and enjoyable biog of Sir Chris taking in the evolution of the entire track cycling phenomenon that came out of the east of Scotland in the 1990s

Just how do you explain Britain’s emergence is as the pre-eminent force in world track cycling? It is an important question, now that Hoy has brought back three gold medals from the Beijing Olympics?

And who better to answer the question than Richard Moore – and ex team mate of Hoy’s, and now a writer who has already shown his talents as a biographer?

This book came out on the eve of the Beijing games, so takes the story up to the British team’s crushing performance at the world track championships in Manchester 2008. So complete was their demolition of the opposition, that Moore confidently concludes with a promise that there will be much, much more from Hoy. How right he proved to be. You can expect an updated version of this book with a new final chapter any day now, I would guess.

Moore is a diligent journalist who is successful at rooting out the early twists and turns in Hoy’s life: his attitude to BMX racing; the emergence of a dedicated track cycling team in Edinburgh (City of Edinburgh Race Team) in the early 1980s; and, his relationship with his trainers. This is a book that is rich in interviews – with Peter Keen, Chris Boardman, David Brailsford as well as fellow competitors from the UK and beyond.

Moore certainly appears to come close to nailing what makes Hoy special – a fantastic raw talent, married to an obsessive zeal for training. In one of the most interesting passages, a despondent Hoy seeks out Chris Boardman for advice. The Wirral rider’s suggestion is that Hoy needs to devise a training programme that really excites him, rather than one that he simply feels that he has to follow. Given that the Scottish rider apparently always trains on Christmas day – because none of his competitors will be doing so – this was just the kind of advice to help him turn the corner.

Along the way there are plenty of colourful diversions – particularly Hoy’s unsuccessful attempt at the kilometre record, at altitude in Bolivia, and a fascinating chapter on Japanese kerin racing.

Does Moore answer the central question, however? Obliquely, yes – but readers are left to fish for conclusions.

The disappearance of East Germany in 1990 removed from the scene the long dominant presence in track cycling. Like other Warsaw pact countries, the GDR: invested very heavily in facilities (Moore paints a vivid picture of the vast Cottbus complex of training facilities and velodromes); developed talent from a very young age; allowed mature athletes to effectively be professionals by employing them as soldiers; and, utilise a systematic doping programme.

Since then, track cycling has been relatively open. Most success has gone to those countries with the best infrastructure, generally the traditional European cycling nations, or Australia. (The Australian Institute of Sport was founded in 1981 to prevent further national embarrassment after the Montreal Games where the Aussies won no golds.)

The arrival of the Manchester velodrome in 1994 is clearly the springboard from which much of this success took flight. Just as important, however has been the investment in track cycling that the National Lottery has allowed. In 1996, British cycling received just £22,750 in state funding. This had grown to £2.5m in 1999, and now stands at about £4m per annum.

Britain’s home grown back room team is clearly exceptional – Brailsford, Keen and Boardman in particular. But they have also recruited specialist coaches and others from abroad, most notably Australia.

Also largely absent from Moore’s book are any real villains. Yes, the UCI dropped the kilo from the Olympics, but quite why never becomes clear, nor who, exactly are the shadowy forces behind the move. In the context of Hoy’s success in other disciplines, it also appears that they did the Edinburgh rider a huge favour.

Nevertheless, this is a hugely enjoyable book – particularly to those who, like me, have been watching Hoy since his early days at Meadowbank in the mid 1990s. Given his success, it will doubtless sell to a far, far wider audience than would otherwise have been the case. In doing so it will play its part in bringing this most spectacular sport to a much wider audience.

PS August 2008

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