It was Steven Spielberg’s fault. “I was six when I saw ET,” says Sir Chris Hoy. “It changed my life. I wasn’t interested in cycling at all before. The bikes I’d seen in Edinburgh just seemed functional things for getting from A to B. Then I saw those BMX bikes on screen and I was hooked. It wasn’t the scene where they cycle across the sky, but when they get chased by the police and they’re doing jumps and skidding round corners. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to do that.”
He dreamed of getting a £110 Raleigh BMX bike for Christmas. “A lot of money in those days. But my parents, being canny Scots, had different ideas. Dad picked up a £5 bike from a jumble sale, stripped it down, sprayed it black, put on new grips and some BMX stickers.” Four years later, Hoy was leading in the semi-final of a BMX world championship race when disaster struck. “Immediately after the last jump, my foot slipped and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it back on the pedal fast enough. Two riders overtook me and I lost a place in the final. I was in tears afterwards.”
On the drive home, his dad said the problem was not just bad luck, but lack of focus. It was his fault. “It seems my dad was being harsh but he wasn’t. He was trying to get me to learn from my failure.” What did he learn? “I thought I was home and dry so I allowed my technique to fall apart.” Taking responsibility for the failure meant the remedying of it was in his own hands. “That was very liberating,” he says.
Hoy, now 44, cites this story in his new book for children, Be Amazing, which tells them that if a scrawny nobody from Edinburgh can make it – winning six Olympic golds and 11 world championships – they can too. He understands his demographic: “There’s a good chance you won’t have heard of me,” he says, “because I stopped racing in 2013.” After all, his daughter Chloe (three) and son Callum (nearly seven) weren’t born when he won his last medals, at the 2012 London Olympics. That said, it’s the kind of self-help manual that grownups might benefit from too.
Be Amazing implicitly endorses the lessons of positive psychologist Carol Dweck’s growth mindset philosophy, as well as the Stoic philosophers’ insistence that you must only be concerned with things in your control and develop inner calm rather than be consumed by passions. “Failure,” he writes, “allowed me to make little changes that made all the difference. A fixed mindset says, ‘I’m never going to be good’, ‘He’s far better than me’, ‘I can’t code because I’m terrible at maths.’ It becomes the truth if you let it. But my point is that you have it within you not to let it become the truth.”
In other words, amazing doesn’t come to you – you have to go to it. The book offers techniques: surround yourself with positive people, identify your passion, follow your dream by converting it into a goal and breaking it down into tasks. “I once watched a video about a tightrope walker crossing a huge canyon without any support or safety net. A reporter asked him how was he not overwhelmed by the fear of death. And the answer was because he broke it down into one foot in front of another, focusing on the little steps to the goal rather than the enormity of the goal itself.”
Hoy also recommends techniques he picked up along the way. Three weeks before he won his first gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Hoy was summoned for a talk with sports psychologist Steve Peters. Hoy was competing in the Kilo Time Trial, an event in which athletes would race one after another in order to post the fastest time covering 1,000 metres.
“[Steve] said to me, ‘I want to post one scenario. What’s going to happen if someone breaks the world record just before you get to the track?’ I told Steve I hadn’t thought about that. He said, ‘You should envisage that so it doesn’t overwhelm you.’
“I was so glad I did: just before I went on, three guys broke the Olympic record. By visualising the possibility in advance, I was able to keep my focus, just keep my head down and get on with what I knew I could do. I was last to compete. All I had to do was cycle four laps against the clock faster than anyone else. And I knew I could do it. And I did.”
Hoy’s book will appeal to those of us who aren’t naturally gifted. “Whatever sport I played – rugby, rowing – there were always naturally talented people who were better than me. But the temptation, which I saw again and again, is to become complacent in victory. You don’t work hard enough as a result.”
So setbacks are an opportunity – if you think about them correctly? “That’s right,” he says. “Eventually, winners got overtaken by people who didn’t have as much natural talent, but who failed and learned from it – and put in the work to overcome their lack of natural ability. I certainly had no natural ability as a cyclist!”
He quotes Beyoncé: “I wanted to sell a million records and I sold a million records. I wanted to go platinum; I went platinum. I’ve been working nonstop since I was 15. I don’t know how to chill out.” But that suggests success is a simple equation: work plus will equals amazing. Even if it’s true, we cannot all be amazing. Someone wins gold, someone comes last, don’t they? “Yes, but say if Usain Bolt wins in 9.5 seconds and you come last in 9.8, you’re not exactly a failure.”
One of Hoy’s heroes is Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis champion always graceful in defeat, and prepared to admit that, on the day, he was beaten by the better man. “I’ve tried to emulate him by not losing it in defeat, but behaving like a gentleman. Hard work! And I know I haven’t managed it always.” But isn’t there another way? Think of John McEnroe, throwing rackets and tantrums, all the way to winning Wimbledon? “You could do that,” he laughs. “But what a waste of energy! And also, I don’t think it works for many of us.”
He hasn’t seen Lance, the recent documentary about cycling legend and drugs cheat Lance Armstrong, but has some thoughts: “You have to have your own moral compass. You have to compete as though you’re on a level playing field. If you’ve read that someone is a drugs cheat, you can’t let that affect you.” Again, pure stoicism: focus only on what you can control.
The adrenaline rush of top-level racing may be gone, says Hoy, but the quotidian realities of being a parent more than compensate. “My life’s great now but in different ways.” Hoy was recently photographed at home with his kids. A cycle track has been chalked on the drive, Chloe is on a balance bike, Callum’s graduated to pedals, and Dad’s at the rear of the peloton on his racing bike. So would he call himself a pushy parent?
“What I learned from my parents is just to be a source of unconditional love for my children. I try not to be pushy. You see that a lot where children are clearly being pushed to achieve something their parents never did. I don’t want to be like that.” Hoy does, however, gently press his kids in the right direction: Chloe was cycling before she could walk.
But I’m still wondering: after the uphill climb, how do you manage the descent from Mount Amazing? Kevin Keegan once told me: “After playing football, there’s nothing like it again. Management is a pale attempt to hang on to the excitement.” Hoy says: “I really understand that feeling. Ever since I retired, I’ve known it to be true. But I’ve also striven not to try to recapture the feeling I had, say, when I was winning gold at the London Olympics.”
Is his post-cycling dabble in motorsports – he competed in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 2016 – an attempt to get that rush back? “It’s not about trying to replicate those feelings I had,” he says. “That’s always a mistake. I just love driving really fast.”