Chris Hoy doesn’t really want to talk about cycling. Instead, he’s regaling us with anecdotes about his time on a yet-unaired episode of Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel, BBC One’s current Saturday night quiz show offering.
He reveals, spoiler alert, that he ends up being beaten by Bez out of the Happy Mondays. He would like to go on Pointless Celebrities, but hasn’t quite got the call yet.
This is the life of Britain’s most famous cyclist, the track cyclist that had more Olympic medals than anyone else - until his record is beaten of course.
It’s all quite surreal, having this conversation in the middle of the National Velodrome of France, in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Of course, Hoy isn’t here to chat about his appearances on light entertainment, but in his role as ambassador-cum-designer of the UCI Track Champions League, which is about to kick off for its second season, with rounds in Mallorca, Berlin, Paris and London.
Having retired almost a decade ago, the six-time Olympic gold medallist missed out on taking part in the Track Champions League by nine years, an event that the serial winner would have loved to race in, to show off track cycling to a new audience.
The competition is trying to fill the gap between the World Championships, the UCI Nations Cups, and the Olympics, in an interesting an accessible way.
“I would have loved it,” he tells Cycling Weekly. “It’s a shame that I wasn't still riding, to enjoy it. But I feel privileged to have been involved in helping to set up the show anyway. This is the dream, really, this is what you want your sport to be. You want it to be portrayed and given the right platform to show people what it can do and what it's about.”
Instead of taking part on the track, Hoy helped set the event up, being one of the key voices the organisers listened to when designing the format of the racing, which is split between sprint and endurance categories, and getting athletes on board.
The goal is to get people more switched on to racing the boards beyond the biggest events, and also to help the best athletes earn a living.
“To me, as someone who loves the sport, it's about reaching a wider audience,” Hoy explains. “Trying to elevate the sport from just being for track cycling fans to the general public. It’s to educate them, to raise the profile of the riders, to raise the profile of the sport.
“I know I’m biassed, but there is nothing more exciting than watching a great track race. But for various reasons, we haven’t managed to engage or get traction with the general public beyond the Olympics Games every four years.”
“We also need to provide the opportunity for athletes to make a living out of the sport,” the Scotsman continues. “Rather than being drawn away to the road, because you get paid a salary, or having to rely on national federations and sponsorships, this is a first step towards giving them a proper living. These serious, professional athletes deserve better.”
In a way, it’s a bit like the T20 cricket of track cycling, adding excitement and a bit of razzmatazz to an established format.
There’s no revolution, this isn’t The Hundred (to stick with the cricket analogy), it’s merely shortening things up, and modernising things. Even the most ardent track fan must admit that the traditional World Championships programme can get a little wearing after a while.
The Track Champions League will even be entering the metaverse this season, potentially a first for any sport.
“I don't know if you saw it last season, but that first first night in Palma, when the lights and the lasers came on, it was amazing,” Hoy says. “I've been part of the whole setup of the whole thing, I've been involved with the organisation, and the planning of the structure of the race programme; involved at quite considerable length. But even with that, it was amazing. It was absolutely incredible. It blew us all away.
“The presentation of the format, the way it's condensed, the way it's not dumbed down is all good. We're not pandering to an audience that hasn't got the attention span to watch it. I don't think we're altering the sport or doing anything that has taken away anything good from it. I think all we're doing is packaging and putting in a format. It's not contrived.
“To me it's distilling it down to the real essence of what track cycling is about: the excitement, speed and drama. And tactics. There's no sitting around, waiting for an hour and a half for 15 teams to do team pursuit qualifying. You know, it's bang, bang, bang action.”
However, despite that, it isn’t just some kind of performance, or slightly fixed, like many six-day races, there is a lot at stake on the line, from ranking points to money, money that means a lot to track riders; the fact that the men’s and women’s competitions are equal and pay out equal money means that it’s all the more attractive to riders. They seem genuinely keen to take part, especially in the sprint category.
“This has the spectacle and it has the drama, but it's not scripted,” Hoy argues. “It's not contrived. This is serious racing. There's UCI points on offer. There's prize money on offer, and the fact that every single position from first to 18 counts, means you're going to battle it out.”
There are still teething problems to be worked out; while the sprint fields for both men and women look stacked, some of the world’s best endurance athletes are missing, largely due to calendar issues. It’s hard to do a full road season and then compete at the highest level on the track, which explains ominium world champion Ethan Hayter’s absence, along with much of the top ten in that event.
However, heading straight into the series from the World Championships gives it an impetus; the added bonus of qualification for the competition actually gave some athletes extra motivation when competing in Paris last month. The event organiser are keen to stress this is not about volume, it's about quality, so the next four weekends should provide some top level racing and entertainment for us all.
The UCI Track Champions League begins on Saturday 12 November in Mallorca, and can be watched on GCN+, Eurosport, and Discovery+. Rounds in Berlin, Paris, and London follow.
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