One of the most interesting sub-plots to this weekend’s UCI Track Cycling World Cup in London, as well as in the run-up to the Olympics, will be the battle between Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny in the individual sprint. But at stake is a prize that trumps a gold medal this weekend, or even at next month’s world championships in Melbourne: the single place available in the British team for London 2012.
It is enough to induce a headache among the GB selectors, with Shane Sutton, the performance manager, admitting the difficulty, while at the same time describing it as “a beautiful situation to be in.”
Outlining the dilemma, Sutton said: “You’ve got a very speedy young athlete, who’s super fast, and the current world champion. And then you’ve got the great Sir Chris Hoy, triple Olympic champion, who’s got power to burn. So you’ve got power versus speed.
“How do you pick? Do you race them off? This World Cup and the world championships are both important. There is a discretionary line in there, but whoever performs best in the world championships probably has one foot in the door.”
This World Cup, being staged in the new Olympic velodrome, might therefore be regarded as a rehearsal not only for the Games, but also the world championships. Hoy admitted that the line-up for the team sprint, in which Ross Edgar will join him and Kenny, has an “experimental” air about it.
But it seems that Sunday’s sprint competition will be the real deal. It is the event in which Hoy’s pre-eminence in the British team is most under threat, along, of course, with his bid to defend all three of his Olympic titles. “There are so many other riders out there,” said Hoy when asked about the challenge posed by Kenny, his roommate while in London. “With there being no restriction on numbers here there are good French, Germans, Aussies, Dutch, Malaysians, but if you start worrying about other riders it’s detrimental.”
Being challenged by teammates is not new to Hoy. Before the Athens Olympics he faced stiff competition for one of two places in the kilometre from Craig MacLean, Jamie Staff and the defending champion, Jason Queally. Even before Beijing, as he pointed out, he wasn’t guaranteed his place in all three sprint events until the world championships in Manchester, where he won both the sprint and keirin.
In Beijing he and Kenny met each other in the final, at which point the sprint coaches, Jan van Eijden and Iain Dyer, left them to their own devices. “There was no favouritism or tactical advice,” recalled Hoy. “They shook our hands and said, ‘Well done, you’re in the final, you’re guaranteed gold or silver; it’s up to you now.’”
That presented a problem, joked Hoy. “You get to the final of the Olympic Games and think: this is the one time you want to have some advice! People were thinking, this poor young lad [Kenny], in his first Olympic Games, against the older, experienced rider... But I was essentially more of a novice than Jason in the sprint.”
In the event, Hoy beat Kenny in two straight rides, and although the gap between them has narrowed in the intervening years, it might not have closed completely. While Hoy maintains a consistency that Kenny can only envy, the 23-year-old, on his day, has managed to beat his 36-year-old teammate and rival. The difficulty for Kenny has been in maintaining that form. As if to demonstrate this, Sutton said that Hoy is “coming back to his best”, with his condition comparable, at this stage of the season, to pre-Beijing, while Kenny admitted his form is returning after a “rubbish” start to the year.
Kenny echoed Hoy in saying they consider themselves teammates first, rivals second - if at all. “I’ve never really thought about it,” said Kenny. “When we’re sharing a room we don’t talk about racing. We’ve yet to fall out over it, well, majorly anyway. [Racing] happens on the track, everyone gets a bit flustered, but then it’s all forgotten about afterwards, which I think is the way it’s got to be. It’s only bike racing, at the end of the day.”
A novelty for Kenny this weekend will be wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion, which has passed to his shoulders after Grégory Baugé was stripped of the title for drug test infringements. Kenny will be presented with the jersey in a ceremony on Thursday. “I’m not sure how it’ll feel,” said Kenny. “Hopefully it’ll be special, but it doesn’t really change anything, being so close to the world championships.”
“I hope it will be a boost for Jason,” said Hoy. “He deserves it, it’s just a shame he’s not had the opportunity to enjoy and it and to have had the glory from winning it. It’s not the way he wanted to get it.”