Sir Chris Hoy is looking at the stars on my cycling tights. ‘Are they Japanese Keirin?’ he inquires. No, they’re AnaNichoola, I say, thinking he’s talking about the designer. In Japan, Hoy explains, keirin riders wear shorts that denote their rank, with the top rated sporting stars down theirs. I’ve involuntarily singled myself out as one of the cycling elite. That definitely puts me in the right company.
Hoy is at Warren House in Kingston, a stunning Victorian country house located down a private road packed with gated properties, to lead a ride of schoolchildren round nearby Richmond Park.
The children have won a competition celebrating first bikes and their prize is part of Hoy’s role as an ambassador for Evans Cycles to inspire the next generation of cyclists. He launched his range of children’s bikes at the end of November, after unveiling his new endeavour Hoy Bikes earlier this year.
It’s all part of the Olympic hero’s new life. Hoy retired after taking his sixth career gold at London 2012, overtaking Sir Steve Redgrave as Britain’s greatest Olympian as he did so. ‘It’s been great to get some balance in life and do things I couldn’t do before,’ he says. This includes launching Hoy Bikes and his work with Evans. ‘I do still get to ride, of course,’ he says. He looks a little wistful when he adds: ‘Part of my brain still feels involved competitively. I miss the buzz of competing and being with the team on a daily basis.’
Instead, he has been following the World Cup in Mexico and is looking ahead to Glasgow 2014. His top picks are Becky James, the Scottish Paralympic tandem team of Neil Fachie and Craig MacLean, and the female counterpart led by Aileen McGlynn. ‘We should get a couple of gold medals,’ he says, but warns that the threat to Great Britain’s home nations will come from Australia and New Zealand. ‘We will see the next generation coming through,’ he says. It’s an exciting prospect.
As is a future with more children on bikes. Hoy is pleased that cycling is no longer seen as an unusual activity. ‘It’s become a mainstream thing to do and a way to get about.’ Other than safety, which we will come to, Hoy says the main barriers to children, and in fact anybody, cycling are practical ones. ‘For people cycling to schools, or offices, one of the biggest issues is where will you store your bike and can you get access to showers?
‘If schools and workplaces can make it as easy a process as possible from arriving wet, muddy and sweaty to sitting down at a desk looking presentable, that will help. Some companies are doing this really well, like Sky. There’s an underground park for bikes and showers in the basement so you can arrive in muddy Lycra, get showered and changed then go up in the lift. By the time you get to the office it’s like you’ve just stepped out of your front door.’
Schools can also help by taking children to nearby cycling facilities and running after-school clubs, as well as working with British Cycling to get cycling on the sports curriculum, he says. ‘All it takes is one or two teachers who are interested in cycling to run a bike club after school. It does eat into your time, but it’s a very worthwhile thing to do.’
He also enthuses about facilities away from traffic, such as the new Odd Down road circuit in Bath. He supports training schemes like Bikeability but adds that he never took the Cycling Proficiency test himself. ‘A lot of it is common sense,’ he says. ‘The roads were quieter when I was a kid, I suppose. But I would only ride on roads where the traffic wasn’t too bad. I would take routes that were less traffic-heavy and quieter. They were usually more fun anyway.’
‘Safety is in the headlines a lot for the wrong reasons,’ he continues. ‘You never want to read stories like we have in the last couple of weeks.’ But Hoy’s stance is that cycling is ‘inherently a safe activity’. ‘I heard Chris Boardman talking about road safety and he said you’re safer on a bike in traffic on a road than you are in your own bathroom. More people die in accidents in their own bathrooms than on bikes.’ There are, however, ‘things we can do to minimise the risks,’ he says. ‘It’s just trying to get the people in power to do what they can to change legislation.’
When it comes to getting very young children started on bikes, Hoy favours balance bikes over stabilisers. ‘They don’t teach you how to balance,’ he says. It’s no surprise to hear that he learned without stabilisers. Nobody could argue with Hoy’s balance, or in fact any part of his technique.
Our time is up and outside, the excitable crowd of schoolchildren await their hero. Hoy is greeted with deafening screams. ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ a well-dressed woman in a Merc asks me as I leave the scene. ‘Chris Hoy,’ I tell her. ‘Oh,’ she says, patting her hair. ‘I think I’ll pop in for a cup of tea to have a look’. It looks like it’s not just the schoolchildren for whom Christmas has come early this year.