Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain's track revolution


Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain’s track revolution

Team Great Britain put the rest of the world to shame when they took seven of the ten gold medals on offer in the Beijing Olympic track cycling events. How did this nation, not traditionally a cycling powerhouse, get to this point? A new book by Richard Moore tracks the progress of the British programme. Cyclingnews offers an exclusive excerpt from “Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution”.

Shane Sutton has been involved with cycling all his life. He has seen it all. He has certainly seen how badly teams can be run – he was part of a British team that started the 1987 Tour de France, whose owner vanished halfway through, and was never heard of again (with the riders going unpaid for their three weeks of toil around France). He is therefore in a good position to analyse what makes the British team successful, to define what it is that has led to such a spectacular transformation from laughing stock to superpower.

Does it come down solely to the investment of millions of Lottery funding? “Nah, the thing that makes us successful is good leadership,” says Sutton, not pausing even to consider the question. "But it doesn’t just come from the PD [performance director]. Leadership happens throughout the programme and it’s the key to everything. Now we’ve got underpinning groups – young riders who are following the lead of the Chris Hoys, the Jason Queallys.

“These senior athletes are responsible for their own success but also for the success of the programme downstairs. So these athletes provide leadership in that way. If you’re a young junior and you’re training with Chris Hoy, he’s an icon for them, and you need icons. These guys have been instrumental in the way this programme has moved forward.”

Sutton continues: "Chris and Jason are … okay, I’ll say it, they’re nice guys, but they both have that c**t element. You gotta have it. Need it. He believes in himself 100 per cent. Bottom line, he’s selfish. He’ll admit that. It’s all about Chris. But he needs to be like that, and when you take him away from the performance, from this arena here, you wouldn’t get a nicer guy.

“Chris loves training. Loves it. Very few are like that. Normally you’re pushing athletes, saying, “Come on, you gotta get your arse in gear.” But with Chris you’re pulling him back, pulling him back, pulling him back. He’s a trainaholic: he just loves getting up, going to work and leavin” everything on the track. That’s it."

Much of what Sutton says chimes with what Peter Keen tells me. “The thing that stands out among hugely successful athletes and coaches is a fascination with the process,” says Keen. “They are genuinely fascinated by the process, not just the end result. It’s something Chris Hoy and Chris Boardman have in common. In fact, they have quite a lot in common: a total unwillingness to accept mediocrity around them; a willingness to challenge for better in quite a constructive way.”

According to Sutton, it is Hoy’s trainaholism that should see him continue to perform at a high level for several more years. “I was thirty-nine when I retired,” says Sutton. “Queally wanted to pack it in a while back, but I told him, “Keep going as long as you can. Stop if you start going backwards and looking stupid. But enjoy it, because before you know it, it’s over.” I wish I could go back and do it again, mate. Take it a bit more seriously.”

Chris Boardman’s involvement with “the programme” – as he refers to it – “gives me satisfaction because you’re surrounded by problems all the time”. Also, “you have to take risks to stay ahead.” Boardman therefore likes to think "outside the box’, or outside the sport of cycling. “On the equipment research and development front,” he reveals, “there is no one with anything to do with cycling involved in that. There are fifteen people who we work with on everything from clothing to handlebars. They come from Formula One and further afield – we’ll be taking another new step soon.”

(A few months later I find out what he means, when a tie-up between BAE Systems, the global defence and aerospace company, and UK Sport is confirmed, to “deliver expertise in structural and mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, mathematical modeling and simulation, human factors and materials science” to the sports of cycling, sailing, canoeing, rowing and bob skeleton.)

So much for the equipment; how about the athletes? How are they prepared? How do they compete – within the rules?

“We’ve got this saying, ‘performance by the aggregation of marginal gains’”, says the fast-talking Dave Brailsford, repeating the phrase more slowly for emphasis: “performance … by … the … aggregation … of … marginal … gains. It means taking the one percent from everything you do; finding a one percent margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards; if a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those one percent gains, in absolutely every single thing we do. Now, it’s my belief that some guys don’t do that; that they rely on doping instead. And they neglect all the little bits. I suspect some look on doping as a substitute for training properly.”

Hoy says, “I would agree with Dave [Brailsford]: I think some guys maybe do see drugs as the biggest part of their preparation, with the result that they don’t pay as much attention to every other detail, trying to squeeze everything out of every other area. But that’s what motivates me to put in 100 percent everyday. I try to go into the major competitions knowing that I’ve done absolutely everything I possibly could.”

“Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution” is available at Amazon.com UK for £15.99. Also available from Amazon USA.

I just finished this excellent book and highly recommend it.


I just ordered it.

We had a seminar taken by one of the BCF coaches early in the year. Incredible level of detail they went to. There is some really cool technology available to measure cycling performance and training loads but the Brits to it to a new level.

Please expand.

Did it differ much from what Craig Palmer is doing?

While extremely important at the top level there were other factors that made a bigger difference. Leadership being one (refer above) interestingly their is often a claim made the most important person in the program is Steve Peters the teams Psychiatrist (not Psychologist) who also happens to be a top Masters sprinter.

[i]Steve Peters, cycling’s psychiatrist
Olympic gold is a matter of conquering fear, says Steve Peters, cycling’s psychiatrist
David Walsh

Summer seems a long time ago, yet the Beijing memories have hardly dimmed. Sailors, swimmers, cyclists . . . especially the cyclists. Even when you say it now, there is a vague sense of unreality: 14 medals, eight received on the highest step. How un-British was that performance? What was clear in the months before the Olympics was the thoroughness of the cyclists’ preparation. Under an intelligent coaching team, the training was first class. In a sport where such things matter, the equipment was state of the art. And the man who masterminded the programme, performance director Dave Brailsford, said the best thing he did was hire a psychiatrist.

Not a psychologist. Psychologists have been around sport since Bill Shankly was convincing good footballers that they were great. But psychiatrists? Dr Steve Peters, the man chosen by Brailsford for a central role with the cycling team, believes he may be the only psychiatrist working with elite sportsmen in Britain.

You may wonder whether the average sportsman would notice the difference between the psychiatrist and psychologist. There is a difference. A psychologist, Peters once said, can show you how to drive the car. The psychiatrist will lift the bonnet, show you how the engine works, then teach you to drive. When there’s a breakdown, the psychiatrist’s pupil may be in the better position.

You think it’s the usual mind game, played by cleverer men. Then you go to Richard Moore’s book about Chris Hoy and the GB cycling team, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes. There is a chapter on Peters. You read Bradley Wiggins’s autobiography and there’s another chapter on Peters. Hoy and Wiggins won five gold medals in Beijing. They may know something we don’t. Victoria Pendleton says that without Peters’s help she would not have become a world champion and an Olympic gold medallist. The shrink has some important people on his side.

WE MEET at his home in south Lancashire. Within 10 minutes Peters’s discomfort is apparent. He wants to speak about his work, not about himself. “I don’t want people to know every detail about my life,” he says. “I’m not a pop star. To be effective, a psychiatrist has to be as invisible as possible. I need to remain neutral, so the people I work with don’t come to me with any preconceived ideas. This is why Freud would sit behind the patient so he could not be seen.”

Peters was born in Middlesbrough, into a family background where it wasn’t expected that you would go to university. He earned a place at a local grammar school, excelled at maths and the sciences and was the first pupil in the school to take four A-levels. He read maths at Stirling University and taught for eight years, before returning to university and graduating in medicine from St Mary’s in London. He spent 12 years working with people with serious personality disorders at Rampton high- security hospital and became undergraduate dean of the medical school at Sheffield University. Seven years ago he began working with British cyclists. His arrival coincided with Britain’s first steps towards world domination in track cycling.

Peters bristles at the notion that his role has been exceptional. “People say to me, ‘What do you think happened in cycling?’ The sport has got the best performance director of any sport, you’ve got world-class coaches, you’ve got world-class athletes and I was just one cog, helping the wheel to turn. My area of expertise is in the field of psyche, and I should be good at it, I have been doing it long enough. When I was a surgeon, if you operated on someone, they didn’t come back to you after the operation, shake your hand and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m alive, you managed it’. They expected to come out of it. It should be the same now. I should know what I’m doing.”

A man knows his job and does it: the mechanic taping the handlebars, the nutritionist deciding what to eat on the morning of the race; Peters is the brain electrician who can fix the wiring inside your head.

The sense of ordinariness disappears once you ask him to take you through his modest, belated athletic career. He ran from 13 to 15 but it wasn’t like he was the next Roger Black. He stopped after two years and didn’t return for 10 years. Even then, it was twice-weekly training sessions and low-key competition at the weekend. It was fun, nothing more.

At 40, Peters thought to hang up his spikes. Someone told him about the masters circuit. “I changed my mind about retiring and for the first time in my life decided to take athletics seriously. I started weights, I went to the gym, which I had never done, I did speed endurance sessions. It was bizarre: my times just kept dropping until I was 44 and hit 10.9s for the 100m. From nowhere, I was third in the East of England rankings and someone wrote about an up-and-coming athlete, young Stephen Peters. I got a letter inviting me to join this Olympic training camp. I wrote back and said, ‘Actually, I’m an old man, I’m not up- and-coming at all, I’m 44’. But I was loving it, really enjoying seeing my times drop.”

At the age of 46 he ran 22.21s for the 200m; he became masters 200m world champion at 50, running 22.5s. “At the time I was beginning my work with elite athletes and I would look at myself, thinking, ‘You can’t go out there in a world of elite sport with this random approach to your own training’. I structured my training, I worked on my mental skills and realised I had exactly the same concerns as the athletes I was working with — anxieties, feeling pressure, insecurities, that feeling of things getting out of control.”

Peters learnt to train his mind, which was the right starting point for the exercise that would dominate the rest of his life. He returned to the track last week, early preparation for his 2009 season, and ran 11.7s for 100m. As his fitness improves, he hopes to get that time down to 11.4s or 11.3s. He is 55 years of age.

CYCLING’S team doctor, Roger Palfreman, first asked him to work with the GB squad seven years ago. In 2004 Brailsford asked him to visit Pendleton. “This girl has massive potential,” said Brailsford, “but she’s not producing. We’ve had different psychologists work with her but we can’t seem to get anywhere.”

Peters flew to Switzerland, where Pendleton was based. “My first impression was that you had this really astute, really good woman who was completely taken over by her chimp. Let me explain: there are two aspects of your brain that work independently of each other. One is quite emotional and irrational; the other is logical, capable of making good judgments. I call the emotional part ‘the chimp’. He was controlling Vicky.

“But we have a choice here, logic or emotion, it’s up to us. Because Vicky was so ready to change and so capable of understanding what she had to do, I was very excited. ‘I can fix this’, I thought. Dave was delighted: ‘Can you have her ready for the Athens Olympics?’ which were eight weeks away. ‘No’, I said, ‘it will take much longer — 12 months would be my guess’.”

Pendleton had a disastrous Athens. “Down on the track after her race, she was distraught. ‘I don’t want to get on the bike again, I will never be a cyclist, I’m finished’, she said. I could see this amazing person, but all I could hear was this chimp. I had to shut the chimp up and talk to the young woman. ‘Go back to Manchester, take time out and then come to see me’. It was the woman who replied, ‘I’ll come and see you’. She has proved herself a phenomenal pupil. A year later, she became world champion and is now Olympic champion.”

Within the team, Peters’s work is widely admired. “Chris Hoy said publicly that I had helped him a lot and helped to get his mindset right. He’s a leader, so everyone followed. One of the cyclists said, ‘If you don’t see Steve, there’s something wrong with you’, and the whole basis of seeing a psychiatrist was reversed.”

But Hoy: surely there wasn’t much need to tamper with the mechanics of his mind? “You can be very motivated but actually lack confidence. So you can’t say someone is mentally there, because the package isn’t right. With Chris, there were one or two chinks but we addressed those. But in a general sense you are right, Chris is very strong and very driven.”

Given Peters’ training and passion for helping people, you suggest that his expertise and energy could be better used to help those who are mentally unwell. “That’s true,” he agrees. How does he justify it? “I was 52 when I went full-time into sport. I had done 20 years within the system and have fond memories of patients who recovered and got back their lives. I have often thought athletes are no different to other people with, say, depression. They’re in a world where there is a public expectation on them to deliver for us, something that makes our lives more colourful, and while I understand you saying I could be running clinics in depression, it is no good getting one of my depressed patients better if they don’t have anything to return to. Sport plays a big part in people’s lives.”

Does he believe he changes people, makes them better? “It’s the wrong question. Let me make this simple. Imagine that inside your head there are 100 light bulbs — 30 red and 70 blue. The red don’t help you at all, the blue bring out the best in you. When you come to me, the reds are on, the blues are turned off. I help you to switch off the reds, switch on the blues, show you how you can do that, and then you’ve got to keep them that way.

“People will say you have changed, but you haven’t, you’ve just learnt some good mental skills. Vicky Pendleton can flick off her anxiety lights when they light up and switch on the lights that tell her she is a confident young woman.”

He tells, finally, of a favourite moment. “I’ve worked with the cyclist Jamie Staff for three years. He is a winner, a guy who rigorously monitored every aspect of his performance before Beijing. To watch him in the velodrome on his gold medal evening was a delight. Everything about him said he was in total control, an athlete there to do business. He led the sprint relay team off, broke the world record for that first lap and when it was all over, he walked back to the pits and sat down, almost robotic but totally comfortable in himself. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked. He just said, ‘I’ve never felt this calm in my life’. Minutes after winning a gold medal, he said that.”

Putting the Peters principle into practice

VICTORIA PENDLETON A gold medal winner this summer, the cyclist, inset, attributed much of her success to Peters: ‘I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Steve. After Athens I got a lot of criticism about being too weak. Steve could see I was deeply unhappy with my performance, because I was not doing it for the right reasons. He taught me to care less about other people and more about myself, to be more assertive. The concepts Steve taught would help four out of five girls in everyday life. If I had known these at 14, I would have been much more happy and less full of teen angst’

SARAH STEVENSON The tae kwon do athlete, who won bronze in Beijing, was another to benefit from working with Peters: ‘Before I saw him, I would think, “What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?” I would look at other people and think they were better. He gets you to think that you want to be there, you want to fight. He gets you focused on what you are going to do and that makes you enjoy it rather than worrying about why you are there. I wish I’d met him 10 years ago’

DYLAN HARTLEY The England hooker received a six-month ban in 2007 for eye-gouging. He turned to Peters. ‘I had to stop getting in off-the-ball situations. What he gave me was a clear plan before every game to think with the logical part of my head, and channel my energy so I still tackle and run with the same energy that I used to put into trying to annoy someone’


Fantastic read. Thanks big John. And Merry Christmas.

There was an article is Athletics Weekly, I think, about Steve Peters and his training is of a very “high qaulity”/“less is more” approach.

Stuff like 100% 100m x 4 with long recoveries, and 300m at 100%.

there is this


Bradley Wiggins book also gives another voice to that story/area

Yup, important point