Chris Hoy's autobiography has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for some months now. With the European track championships taking place this week I decided I could procrastinate no longer. I would read it, page the first to page the last, no skipping, no skimming and no putting it down to read the latest Artemis Fowl, no matter how much it might make me want to poke my eyes out with knitting needles. Why haven't I been able to read it before now, you ask? Well I've already read Richard Moore's Heroes Villains & Velodromes, which is really a biography of Hoy masquerading as a book about Team GB. Is there really enough material in Hoy's story to pad out two books without one simply repeating the same stories as the other?
Title: Chris Hoy - The Autobiography
Author: Chris Hoy (with Richard Moore)
Year: 2009 (updated 2010)
What it is: What it says on the tin, the autobiography of (Sir) Chris Hoy, Britain's Olympic hero.
Strengths: Fills in some of the gaps left in Hoy's story by Moore in Heroes, Villains & Velodromes.
Weaknesses: It's a typical cliché-riddled British sports autobiography. Also, most of it has already been told in Moore's own book.
Rating: ** (2 out of 5)
Maybe I should fess up the various reasons why I'm totally the wrong person to be reading this book. First up, I don't get the Olympics, and Hoy defines himself by that five-ringed circus of sport. I simply don't understand why countries feel they need to buy international prestige by spending vast sums of money trying to win all those bangles and baubles. I can understand how they had some value during the Cold War, when seeing who could chuck a spear the furthest or run away the fastest was far more preferable to the alternative ways of waging war. After the Cold War ... nope, not getting it.
Then there's track cycling itself. I can take it or leave it, sort of like cauliflower. Now before you go getting the lynching ropes ready, I should point out that it's not like I said that watching the individual pursuit was about as thrilling as watching paint dry. That's Hoy's take on the discipline. And a view I don't share. (One of the things that does amuse me about track cycling is how the various trackies can never seem to be able to decide what is the ne plus ultra of their sport. On the road, it's obvious: it's
the Ronde the Tour de France. But ask a trackie ... Well Boardman will tell you it's the hour record, obviously. Wiggins - quelle surprise! - tells you it's the individual pursuit. And Hoy ... well funnily enough he thinks it's the sprint. And I thought economists were bad at reaching agreement.)
There is one other reason I'm the wrong person to be reading a book like this: I don't really like the standard formula used to construct most British sports autobiographies. And Hoy's autobiography sticks rigidly to the tired and trusted formula, right down to his (ab)use of words like gutted and irony, which are staples of the genre. Most sports people seem to understand irony even less well than Alanis Morissette did. And let's be clear: failing to win this, that or the other is hardly on a par with being eviscerated.
Gutted and irony were not the only words all but leaping of the page at me (it's a sign of how bored I am by a book that I start noticing the repetition of certain words). No, there were also naïve (which Hoy kept saying he wasn't) and - top of the list by a country mile - surreal. Hoy's use of surreal suggests he's never even once sat and watched a Luis Buñuel film. Isn't there a single editor in the whole of HarperCollins willing to stand up to Hoy and tell him that Gavin Hastings asking for your autograph is not surreal? Unless of course Hastings was dressed as a lobster and driving a pink double-decker bus at the time.
Thankfully my own deficiencies are no barrier to talking about this book, as Hoy himself offers a template by which the book can be judged: "What I like, particularly in a book about sport, is an insight into what it's like to compete at a high level, and what it takes to get there, and stay there - ideally sprinkled with a few semi-humorous anecdotes." Let's start with the last first, anecdotes.
Really, where would the great British sports autobiography be without anecdotes? Those really interesting little stories that say so little but fill up so much space. Things like the time your flight got diverted to another airport and you had to catch another plane but thankfully you still turned up in time for your race. Or how you decked it on a roundabout just days before an important race, got yourself a bit of road rash but not to worry, it didn't affect your performance on the day (actually, that story got me wondering what size biography Dave Zabriskie would write, as Hoy took a whole two pages to tell of his road rash incident. Z would need to publish in three volumes if he was to expend that much time on even half his spills). Such anecdotes are essential for the radio and TV circuit you have to endure when promoting a book. And of course they go down a treat on the after-dinner speaking circuit (after a fine five course meal and the best of a bottle of plonk, most things go down well enough). But reading them sober ... I nearly sobbed.
On what it takes to get there and stay there ... well don't we all know the answer to that one already? Dedication, that's what you need. Hoy's fine enough at explaining what keeps him going - how he needs the challenge to change a little each time, otherwise he'll get bored and complacent and probably quit. Of course, what he's not good on is the why of it all. We know that he became a BMX bandit after watching ET, and that he quit mountain biking and the road - and the various other sports he was into, like rugby and rowing - simply because he wasn't good enough at them. Which rather suggests the only reason he stuck with the track was that he was good at it. But there's clearly more to it than that, isn't there?
Which only leaves his ability to explain what it's like to compete at a high level. On the non-competitive side of that, the Team GB set-up, he's pretty slight. We get the usual story about Dr Steve Peeters and being taught how to spank the monkey. And we get a fair bit of praise for Shane Sutton. But most of what Hoy tells about the Team GB set-up concerns its early years, when he would argue he succeeded in spite of and not because of the programme.
But what of competing itself? What of actually riding the kilo, keirin or sprint? For me, he doesn't manage it, he doesn't take you onto the track itself, let you see it the way he sees it. He explains bits of the how, but you never really feel like your'e riding along with him.
One area where Hoy's not bad is in actually addressing his own weaknesses on the track, particularly his lack of tactical nous: "my tactics were a bit one-dimensional. They weren't tactics so much as tactic, because I only had one." In the keirin, his tactic tends to be to ride at the front the whole way round. In the sprint, it tends to be rolling around for two laps and then letting the other rider lead him out. In the kilo ... well he seems to be borrow from one of Guimard's old time trial maxims: start fast, get faster and finish flat out.
By and large Hoy's tactics have worked for him. Until March this year and an incident Hoy recounts in the update for the paperback edition of the book. This was in Copenhagen, when Robert Förstermann caught him napping and raced all three laps of the sprint, going balls-out from the gun, just like a junior in a road race. By the time Hoy realised what the German was doing it was too late, a gap - twenty metres - had opened up. Hoy clawed his way back and Förstermann began to fade but the finish line arrived in time for the German.
At the time, Hoy was dignified in defeat, at least publicly. Unlike Dave Brailsford, who went around telling anyone who'd listen that Hoy had been disrespected, that his opponents were ganging up on him, that they weren't respecting the rules of the sport. Hoy on the other hand didn't criticise Förstermann at the time (though in the book he does now make a comment that what Förstermann did "goes against the sprinter's unwritten ‘code', since it is traditional to roll around the first lap or two together, before going all out for the line"). He acknowledged that the failure had been his own and his opponent had been more tactically astute.
Another area that Hoy's weak on is giving us some idea of how much he actually races in a year. Consider his reason for skipping the Commonwealth Games this year - their proximity to the European track championships ... actually, hold that thought a moment and let's digress briefly and consider Hoy's take on the importance of the games themselves: "The Commonwealth Games meant - and still mean - a great deal to me. These games have their critics, though I expect they are generally people who haven't experienced them first hand. It is worth emphasising that it is athletes who give their sporting competitions meaning; if it means a lot to the athletes, you can be guaranteed dramatic and entertaining sport."
Post-Delhi, we now know just how much the Empire's quadrennial school sports' day really means to Hoy, his fellow Team GB gold-diggers and various other of Brailsford's Babes. Of course, unlike the Team Shy riders, Hoy didn't shun the sub-continent for fear of catching Dengue fever or Delhi-belly. No, he stayed away because - he claimed - the games clashed with the European track championships. Yes, that's right, the European track championships which start a month after the last cycling event in the Commonwealth Games ended.
Which brings me back to the question at hand, how much Hoy actually races in a year. It's an aspect of Hoy's sporting life that the autobography just doesn't give a handle on. Four weeks between track meets sounds like more than enough to me, but is clearly too little to expect Hoy to endure. So exactly how much racing does he actually do in a year? Take this year: has he raced at all since Copenhagen in March? Did he race at all before March? And will he be racing at all after the European Championships this month?
There's all sorts of other stuff I'd love to know about. Such as how does he survive financially if his Team GB team-mate Bradley Wiggins couldn't survive on what Team GB was paying him and only started making money when he joined Cofidis? Track racing - at Hoy's level - seems to be a sport which only survives because of public subsidy and that subsidy is not designed to allow the athletes become fat cats. So how is Hoy doing well enough to be able to wrap an eighty-grand Jaguar round a tree?
All told, I don't think Hoy revealed much more about himself than Moore already did in Heroes, Villains & Velodromes. There really doesn't seem to be enough in his story to justify two books from the one publisher within such a short space of time. Perhaps if he'd been interesting in saying nothing this wouldn't be a problem. But he wasn't. Even by his own standard for judging such a book, Chris Hoy's autobiography falls short of the ideal.
* * * * *