Sir Chris Hoy, the winner of six Olympic gold medals and two-time Commonwealth Games champion, knows what it takes to win. His legend is such that at Glasgow they’ve even named the velodrome after him. “If I can do it anyone can, because we all start off with a chance of gold,” he says, suggesting that all you need do to secure Games glory is to pick the sport that’s best suited to your body and pursue it with relentless determination and hard work.
But I beg to differ. Hoy is very likeable and engaging, but no normal person could win an Olympic cycling gold – let alone six of them. No normal person is driven enough, crazy enough, to push themselves to the outermost limit of human endurance year after year in pursuit of a prize that can, by definition, only have one winner.
He has made a BBC documentary – Sir Chris Hoy: How to Win Gold – to put his case. But to support my case, I cite his description – when he talks exclusively to Radio Times – of a typical day in the run-up to the London Olympics of 2012 when he was in his mid-30s, losing races and trying to hold his place in the British team.
He would, he says, cycle 30 minutes to the gym, do two hours of heavy weights and then ride home for lunch. In the afternoon he would ride an hour to a track, put in another three hours of intensive training, then ride home again. Hoy went to bed “absolutely shattered”, woke up aching, then did it all over again, six days a week, month after month.
“You take it one day at a time, one step at a time,” he says. “You just keep your head above water.” And this is a man who had already won four Olympic golds so, in theory at least, really had nothing more to prove.
Hoy’s wife, Sarra, an Edinburgh lawyer, still sounds traumatised by the experience. “I don’t think I’ve ever really got over London,” she says in the programme. “I personally was so stressed by the whole thing that by the time we got there I just really wanted it to be over.”
In the months before the Games she would drive to work and back in tears. “He desperately, desperately wanted to do it,” she remembers. “To see him come home having put so much effort into the training sessions that would leave him just absolutely physically exhausted and fatigued and in pain... He pushed himself to such a limit that he thought his heart was going to burst. That’s difficult for a wife to hear.”
Slacking was not an option. At one point Shane Sutton, Technical Director of British Cycling, had to give the great Olympian a dressing down, ordering him to stop tweeting, go to bed earlier and cut out all distractions. “We gave him a right bollocking,” he recalls. “His lifestyle was not befitting someone who had won three gold medals in Beijing... It was kick-a**e time.”
Hoy’s father, David, might have had something to say as well, given his investment in his son. When he was a boy, he would drive through the night on Fridays from Edinburgh to the south coast of England while his son slept in the back of their ancient Citroen, watch him race, then drive back through the night on Sunday.
Elsewhere in the programme, Hoy talks to Graeme Obree, a cyclist from Ayrshire who was the individual pursuit world champion in 1993 and 1995 and an inspiration to his young compatriot. “No one had more desire,” says Hoy.
Obree certainly does not think that normal people can become world champions. He describes his narrow victory over Andrea Collinelli in Bogotá in 1995.
“He was never going to win... I actually needed to win it,” he says. “I am willing to die than get beaten by Collinelli... I am willing to accept heart failure to beat that Italian.”
He meant that literally.
Obree is also celebrated for his attempt to break the world hour velodrome record in Norway in 1993. He cycled 51.151 km in 60 minutes – almost a kilometre short of the record. Weighed down by a terrible sense of failure, he forced himself to stay awake all night to prevent his aching body from seizing up. Early the next morning he went out and tried again – and broke the record by 445 metres. Well-adjusted people simply don’t have that drive, says Obree. You have to be “verging on the insane” to be a world champion, he says. You have to be willing to squeeze every last drop of energy from your body like toothpaste from a tube.
Obree says he was driven by a desperate need to prove his worth. After his victories he had a breakdown, twice attempting suicide and ending up in mental institutions because “there were no more rungs of the ladder to climb”. He knows of several other former riders – those who came second, third or fourth – who have turned to alcohol, drugs and even suicide. “There’s an awful lot of human wastage.”
Obree has regained his equilibrium, and says that he hesitates when asked to train young cyclists who yearn to become world champions. He asks if they have a plan B. If they do have a fall back, they’re not hungry enough to succeed. If they don’t, given the immense sacrifices required, they probably need psychiatric help.
Which brings us back to Hoy. The most successful British Olympian of all time doesn’t appear crazed, obsessional or unduly driven. Indeed, he comes across as genial, relaxed and a model of normality.
Ask why he chose to compete in London when he had already won four gold medals, and he gives a bland response about his desire to compete in his own land and defend his titles. He jokes about having spent his life “riding my bike around in circles”. He does acknowledge some “tough times” in his cycling career, but insists: “I loved doing what I did.” He admits part of him longs to be competing in this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where the velodrome carries his name, but says he is “pretty happy in retirement”.
Appearances can be deceptive, however. Though his wife is expecting their first child, his new passion is motor racing. His goal is to compete in the Le Mans 24-hour Classic in 2016 and he had finished a session at Silverstone just before we speak on the phone.
Motor racing, like sprint cycling, is a sport where every marginal gain counts. I phrase my last question carefully, for it’s on a subject on which Hoy has been conspicuously coy. If this September’s Scottish independence referendum is won or lost by the slimmest of margins, I ask, would he regret not having spoken out? The phone immediately goes dead.
Sir Chris Hoy: How to Win Gold is on tonight at 10:45pm on BBC1