We caught up with World Champion Chris Hoy as he yet again took the title for the Kilo at the National Track Championships in Manchester earlier this month.
During his rather successful week of gracing the podium Chris took some time out to talk to RCUK on training, psychology and the gruelling Etape route up the rather steep Alpe de Huez.
LIVES: Originally from Edinburgh but lives in Manchester
EVENTS: Kilo, Sprint, Kerin (Track)
GB TEAM: Olympic Podium Programme
GB DEBUT: 1996 (Debut, Manchester Worlds)
PBs: Team Sprint: 44.075 (Athens Olympics), Kilometre: 1:00.711 (Athens Olympics)
The most important thing is that there are no brakes. It’s a single, fixed gear so you can’t freewheel – that’s the biggest scary factor. When you get on the track for the first time and you try and stop pedalling the bike gives you a kick up the backside. The bikes are just lighter obviously because there are no gears, no brakes. It tends to be a little stiffer, more responsive and it’s the purest form of cycling. It’s a very simple bike and it’s also cheaper to buy than a road bike.
So what should we be thinking about when we’re pedalling?
You have to just try and become as fluent and as smooth as possible. You can tell the guys that ride big gears on the road aren’t used to track when they come down, they’re just really choppy. Riding rollers is good in a small gear, even just riding small gears in general helps with smooth pedalling. That’s the biggest thing – to be fluent on a bike and to be efficient because you can get guys, you can see they’re putting a big effort in, but they are just not going anywhere and if you can be smooth you can save a lot of energy.
How do you feel in the approach to the Nationals; do you still get nervous?
You get nervous because it’s a test of your own form, it’s not necessarily about who you’re racing against. But on the other hand the guys we’re racing against are world level athletes, it’s not as if there are only one or two guys who are any good. In the sprint we’ve got five or six guys who are right up there, World medallists, Junior World Champions, Olympic medallists, and in the Kilo last night it doesn’t matter who you’re racing against because you’re racing against the clock. So every time you get on the track you want to do well. There’s always a bit of pressure, a little bit of nerves to get the best out of yourself so if there’s no pressure that’s when it becomes hard to perform well.
Sometimes, I think the nerves come from when you’re not very prepared. Because it’s early season and we’ve been doing all the general training, been out in Majorca on the road for the last week, I’ve not touched a track bike for 10 days – I’ve not done that before a championship before. So you’re always a bit unsure, a little bit nervous of how your form is going to be but I’m pretty happy, I’ve done relatively well so far.How much tapering would you do for something like the Nationals?
We wouldn’t taper for this event. We’d taper for maybe two events of the year. You’d have your major target, your primary target and a secondary target that would maybe be three of four months before that, so you’re going to do a semi-peak and then you come down and go back. So we just train through these kind of events and use them as training.Something like the World Cup event, would you use that as preparation for the World Championships?
Yeah, I tend to use one World Cup as a secondary target, this year it will be LA, in January. So I will ride Sydney without too much specific preparation, hopefully go ok without having to taper. You train through that and then we’re in Perth after that, just for about a month doing general work as well. So hopefully, get money in the bank there, back up a little bit before LA, hopefully do a good ride in LA and then do some more specific work prior to the World Championships.Having a bit of a rest, do you generally find that your times drop down?
Well in theory, that’s what is supposed to happen but it doesn’t always work that way. It’s funny – the human body is a weird thing you know. Sometimes you feel like you’re in the shape of your life and the form’s good and you’ve done all the right preparation – like the Commonwealth Games this year in Melbourne I went in to it, really happy with my form, I couldn’t have been happier with the way things had gone prior to that and I got up there and I was creeping, you know. It was weird, and then 2 to 3 weeks later having done virtually no training and my morale was quite low and I just got back up and won the World Champs and did my second best time ever for the Kilo so…
Do you think it is a bit of a psychological thing, because you know you prepared well so you expect more from yourself?
Yeah, I don’t know, I think it’s just like anybody, you know, you wake up some days, no reason for it, you feel good. Sometimes you feel bad and you can’t explain it and you just have these natural cycles in the way you feel everyday. So you know ideally you want it to be 100% perfect on the day for the most important races, but it doesn’t always work that way.
How do you keep your motivation up at times like that? Is it having a strong team around you?
Yeah, I think you just have the belief that it will come eventually, you know, you do it everyday. Well not every day but you’re training all the time you’re at the track, probably four or five times a week. It’s second nature to you, but at the same time it’s really once every 4 years for a minute or so, a few seconds every four years that really count and you know it almost doesn’t matter what’s happened before then. You get to the start line in the Olympics and you think: ‘right, this is what matters for the rest of your life’. One minute in your life and if you can get it right in that one minute, you know you’re laughing. So that’s when the pressure comes because you know nothing matters before that and it’s all about what happens at that time.So how much specific work did you do perfecting your start in the beginning?
A lot of stuff, a lot of work. I came from a BMX background and that’s all we used to do. Gate snaps all the time. Out of the gate, practice again and again and again and you get the technique that suits you and suits your style. And for here we do starts every week of the year, at least one session every week for the whole year virtually. So you’re doing a minimum of four starts a week for 52 weeks of the year. So, that’s a lot of starts for 10 years and you’re doing that again and again and again. You could have not been in the starting gate for six months, we still do standing starts but not being in for six months and you put the bike in and first time you get it right, but some people really struggle with the countdown and get the timing and get snagged in the gate.
At the level you are at now is it a case that you don’t need to think about each part of the race, it just comes more naturally?
You do have to rely on yourself occasionally, like last night I hadn’t ridden the Kilo since March and it was… you feel a little bit rusty because I don’t do Kilos in training. You do components of the event in your training but not the actual full event, so it’s funny, sometimes you do have to give yourself a little reminder of what you need to do. I felt a little bit alien last night, I was riding around, I wasn’t concentrating, I was looking at the scoreboard seeing who was concentrating but it’s hard, there’s not a big crowd, there’s not much atmosphere, its hard to get the best out of yourself.
Yeah, I’m kind of new to the Sprint and the Kerin. I tended to focus on the Kilo and the Team Sprint in the past, but I have been watching. I always watch the Sprint and the Kerin at the World Cup and the World Champs, just because they are great events to watch but you certainly keep an eye on the big players and other nations and you know what their strengths and their weaknesses are and you try to exploit that when you are racing against them but it’s hard too. The top guys are so good on the whole. You know, you get someone like Theo Bos who’s got good top end speed, good acceleration, he’s…(Craig MacLean walks over) mmm, yeah, Craig McLean’s not that bad either (laughter). But there are certain strengths and weaknesses that you have and vice versa with the other riders and you try and play of your strengths against their weaknesses.On a completely unrelated note how was Alpe de Huez?
Oh, it was pretty grim, it was… I mean I enjoyed the whole experience, it was just so different to anything I have ever done before and I didn’t want to fall in the trap of doing too much preparation for it because it’s obviously going to be detrimental for the sprint. So I kind of went into it blind – I didn’t really want to think about how bad it was going to be. I got like a really low gear (34/27), so I knew I could get up anything with that and I just paced it really, just took it steady. At no point was I trying that hard, just really soft pedalling the whole way and we kept stopping until we stopped at the top of the first two climbs to re-group. About 15 of us rode together then just kind of went on, on our own after that, I was knackered. It had been six and a half hours at the bottom I had been riding for and I was just like, I haven’t ridden six and a half hours on the road before never mind continuing up for…(Laughter)
Taking it K by K then?
I was, the thing was I took a look at my speedo and I was doing eight kilometers an hour, then I looked at the sign and it said four kms to go and I thought I am almost there, then I thought, wait a minute, half an hour, I have still got half an hour of climbing to go, just riding along! But yeah it was nice because you’re kind of trying to distract yourself. You’re also thinking about the Tour de France and kind of thinking about the ghosts of the legendary riders that have ridden up there and you remember seeing it hundreds of times before but when you ride it yourself it’s just a whole new experience.
So a new outlook towards the endurance riders then?
Yeah, well absolutely, I have always had respect for what these guys do but when you actually try it yourself it’s a different kettle of fish yeah.
Will you do it next year?
No, I think Jason’s going to do it again, Jason Kenny’s going to have another go, but no I think once is enough, for 93 kilos doesn’t really go up hills very quickly.
Yeah, I mean depending on the speed you expect to go at and the event itself.
Do you aim to ride a bigger gear for an important event?
Not really. There is a certain cadence band that you’ll use, optimum cadence that you’re going to get the maximum power out of. So, if you put a massive gear on you’re only going to go at a slowish time and you’re going to be way off that and you’re going to be struggling. So it’s about getting that right gear selection to get the speed you hope to go at. Watch the top guys on video or if you see them in races just look at the guys that are beating you – that’s what I’ve always done, looked at the guys that were faster than me and think, ‘how are they doing that? What are they doing differently?’ And just look at the small details and try and experiment with that. You have your own style and technique but at the same time look at the other guys and see how they are doing it.In terms of trying to increase your speed how much of that work is done in the gym?
Gym? It’s been a very gradual thing. I haven’t improved much, I’ve kind of plateaued. You always improve a lot at the start. It’s like anything, you can have a steep learning curve. But from sort of 1999 onwards it’s just been like every year, maybe five kilos, two and a half to five kilos gain in the squat, one rep max. So I think the initial strength you have, if you’ve never been to the gym before and you have a good six months, or 12 months of quality training with the right technique and the right advice, then you do see a difference. If you like – your bottom end curve. You come out of the start gate and you can really kind of have a press and pedal hard at that speed. Obviously it doesn’t always transfer across to your top end speed. You see some guys that are built like stick insects that can pedal like anything and you don’t need to have massive big legs to pedal fast at top end, but at the same time it does help with your start, yeah.
We try not to do too much upper body, I used to do upper body when I was younger. You can put muscle mass on quite easily and you don’t train to get big because you can get big quite easily so yeah, it’s more the frontal area it’s just your aerodynamics. If you’ve got big shoulders and big arms then it’s a lot of air compression. You’re trying to be as small as you can but at the same time you obviously use your arms doing cleans or even when you are squatting you’re holding the bar. For dead lifts as well, and just riding the bike. When you’re doing starts you’re kind of holding in that strong brace position. It’s an isometric move, you’re not moving your arms – it’s isometric strength so you do use your arms and inevitably you will put that mass on but you try not to do too much.
So once you’re over your start is it quite relaxed once you’ve got the bike going?
Yeah you don’t want to be too tense so all the work we do, the main exercise is the squat, deep squatting because that works your quads and your lower back and your glutes and they’re the main muscles you use when your riding. A little bit of leg press, a little bit of dead lifts and we still do quite a bit of core stuff. If you can squat with a good technique, keeping your posture right without a belt on, at a couple of 100 kilos+, then your core stability is getting a really good specific workout and that way you don’t need to do too much stuff. But to get to that stage you have to do a lot of work on the Swiss ball, a lot a work, you know core stability work.
Right so we’re off to practice those squats! Look out for more interviews to follow as we continue the ‘World Champion’ theme over the next few weeks.