Sir Chris Hoy is Britain’s most successful Olympian, but how has he translated success on the cycling track to success in the world of business? BQ editor Peter Ranscombe meets the budding entrepreneur to find out.
Prefer to listen? Find the podcast version of this article here.
As the audience settled down to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the excitement in the cinema was electric. But before fans immersed themselves in the world of Rey, BB-8 and Kylo Ren and were stunned by the on-screen death of one of the franchise’s major characters, they were treated to an even more shocking revelation – Olympic cycling champion Sir Chris Hoy is in fact a robot. Or a “Hoybot” to be precise.
The spoof trailer, put together for car maker Nissan, played on the idea that Hoy’s sporting prowess – first on the cycling track and then in racing cars – meant television commentators had long branded him as a “machine” due to the power of his legs. And the short film shown before the Star Wars movie amusingly suggested that he was indeed a cyborg, using technology developed for Nissan’s cars to help him win races on two wheels and four.
So what did it feel like to be turned into a robot on the big screen? “It was great fun – absolutely amazing,” grins Hoy as he prepares for his BQ Scotland photo-shoot at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester. The city has become a home away from home for the retired cyclist, who won six Olympic gold medals and one silver for Team GB, as well as 11 world championships and two Commonwealth golds for Scotland. “I haven’t even seen it on the big screen yet – I was invited to the Star Wars premiere but I couldn’t go because I was working.
“I was sent the final edited version for approval and I thought it was well-cool. We did two days of filming with the car on an airstrip in Athens, but I wasn’t involved in the other bits of filming. I loved the idea of it – it was a bit tongue-in-cheek. But it also raises an interesting question about how far away we are from creating the technology that would allow us to race a fully-automated car against human beings.”
There’s something very appropriate about Hoy ending up in front of cinema audiences. Born and bred in Edinburgh, Hoy was inspired to take up cycling after watching the climax to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, as the child stars of the film tried to escape from the authorities on their BMX bikes. “ET was the spark, that’s what really got me interested in BMX cycling,” Hoy told the audience last November at the Festival of Entrepreneurship, the companion event to the Scottish Business Awards, both of which were supported by BQ Scotland. “I started racing in Edinburgh and all over Scotland and eventually all over the UK.
“The routine would be that on Friday after school I would get in the house and do my homework and then I’d get my bag packed for the weekend. My dad would get in from work and we’d put the backseat of the car down, we’d put a single mattress in the back and the bike in next to me. I’d get a duvet and a pillow and we’d leave in the early hours of the morning. I’d sleep most of the way and that would be the start of the weekend. I’d race all weekend and then I’d get home just in time for school on Monday morning. I absolutely loved it. It was never a case of pushy-parent syndrome; it was purely me and my parents were there to support me and guide me along the way.”
Hoy began his BMX riding at the Danderhall track in Edinburgh, eventually racing on the continent and even at the world championships in the US in 1987. Around the age of 14, he joined Dunedin Cycling Club and began riding road bikes and eventually competed in track races at Meadowbank velodrome, sitting in the shadow of the 1970 and 1986 Commonwealth Games stadium.
The cycling club was run by husband-and-wife team Ray and Doreen Harris, who taught him a very important lesson when it came to setting goals, a skill that served him well during his career as first a sportsman and now as a budding entrepreneur. “One evening during the winter, the junior riders in the club were sat down and Ray introduced the concept of goal-setting,” Hoy remembers. “He told us to write down our ultimate dream for our sport. We then wrote down our medium-term goal for the next four years and then our short-term goal for that season. Ray read out our answers to the group and I was the only person who wrote down that they wanted to be an Olympic champion.
“I wasn’t even the best in our group at that point. I had the mickey taken out of me by my mates – ‘Why do you think you could become Olympic champion?’ they asked. The simple answer was that I didn’t know if I could, but I thought ‘Why limit myself?’ Rey said it was great that I had a dream but asked me how I would get there? So it all came down to setting goals. He said to write a plan and then break it down into stepping stones. That means you can forget about the long-term goal because it seems so far away and instead concentrate on each of the stepping stones or short-term goals.
“As long as you have a sound plan then all you need to do is keeping hitting those small steps along the way. That was really what I did for my whole career – I used that technique. I still use it now. As a budding entrepreneur, starting out on the bottom rung of a whole new ladder, those are the steps that I’m taking.”
Those steps appear to be paying off so far. Not only has Hoy teamed up with cycling retailer Evans to launch his own range of eponymous bikes, but he’s also developed his own clothing line with Vulpine, introduced a selection of cycling accessories and spare parts, created the Pure Ride spin class for the Pure Gym chain, and in March will publish his first collection of children’s books, written in partnership with Joanna Nadin.
“That was one thing that I never planned,” laughs Hoy. “The idea was floated to me and I thought ‘Why not?’ I didn’t have any experience of writing children’s books and so I co-wrote them with Jo, who is an amazing author.”
The series of six books, Flying Fergus, tells the story of a nine-year-old boy and the adventures he has on a rusty old bike he inherits from his father. Hoy’s own son, Callum, was born in 2014 and so is still a wee bit young to appreciate the books.
“There’s a Callum in the story and a lot of friends, family members and team mates have given me inspiration to create characters in there too,” says Hoy. “In a couple of years’ time, Callum will be old enough for me to read him the stories and then in four or five years he’ll be old enough to read them himself if he wants to.”
Inspiring children to take up cycling was also one of the motivating factors for Hoy to launch his bike brand. Back in 2010, two years ahead of his final Olympic Games in London, Hoy sat down with his manager, Rob Woodhouse, to begin to plan the future once his cycling career came to an end. “When you’ve got a blank page and you could literally start from anywhere, it can be quite difficult,” explains Hoy. “Sometimes it can be good to have some parameters to work within, but we were pretty much starting from scratch. I had to decide what the bikes would look like, who they would be for, what level we were pitching at, what kind of partner we would work with and Evans was our first choice.
“Our brand matches up with the retailer – we’re trying to encourage people into cycling, we don’t want to be too elitist or exclusive. Having been to most of the Evans store throughout the country, I know that the people who work there are cyclists and are all passionate about bikes. That’s what I wanted – I didn’t want my bikes to be sold in a random store by people who didn’t care.”
The adult range was introduced in 2013, swiftly followed by a selection of children’s bikes. “It was a lot more work than I thought it would be,” laughs Hoy. “I don’t know what I imagined it would be like, but it took a huge amount of effort to get the momentum going and get it all up-and-running and to do it properly and not fob it off to other people but to really get involved. Then you can feel proud of it and feel the end product is something that you genuinely created, it’s not just your name on it.
Consumers are smart, you can’t pull the wool over their eyes and I wouldn’t want to; they know if you’ve genuinely been involved in the process and design or if you’ve just fobbed it off to someone else.”
Dipping a toe into new water can be a daunting prospect, but Hoy says that he has received a warm welcome from the entrepreneurial community, both at the Scottish Business Awards and accompanying Festival of Entrepreneurship and during other business events. “
Often if you’re new to something – no matter what it is, whether it’s a new sport or a new industry – there can be potentially people saying ‘He’s a newcomer, we’re not going to welcome him’ but that couldn’t be further from the truth from what I’ve experienced so far,” says Hoy. “What I’ve liked is that businesspeople are very open and very willing to share advice. They’ve not been protective or secretive at all. I’ve chatted about bikes with Horacio Pagani, the Argentinian founder of the Italian car company behind the Zonda. He’s an engineer and an entrepreneur who created a brand without a history behind it or a pedigree in motorsport, like Ferrari. It was fascinating to hear from him about how he went about creating a product and creating a brand.
“Closer to home, I sat with Chris van der Kuyl at the Scottish Business Awards. He’s an amazing guy and hearing his story about Minecraft and meeting his team was inspiring. The business world in Scotland is a very close-knit community; everyone is so supportive of each other and very friendly. Chatting to Chris, you’d never know that he’s such an amazingly successful man. No pomp and ceremony about him, but when you realise what he’s achieved and what his companies have achieved then it’s amazing.
I bumped into him in London a couple of weeks after that and we spent an evening catching up. It’s not just Chris though – other people have been very welcoming too.”
Entrepreneurship wasn’t something that was suggested to Hoy at school. His Jiig-cal form – or “Job Ideas & Information Generator – Computer Assisted Learning”, the questionnaire filled-in by thousands of pupils in the 1980s and 1990s – suggested that he should become an advocate or a brewer, while his teachers told him that he couldn’t become a cyclist and that he needed to get a degree.
He left school in 1994 and began studying mathematics and physics at the University of St Andrews, but it was physiology that caught his imagination and so he transferred to the University of Edinburgh to study applied sport science. “I have a great aunt who still asked my mum after the Olympics when was I going to get a proper job?” smiles Hoy. “I can understand that. I never really thought I had the skills to become an entrepreneur – I’m still not sure if I do, but what I do know is that the one thing you need as an entrepreneur is drive, that desire to push yourself and not just accept the easy answer or being told that you can’t do something. And you need to be passionate about it.”
As well as demonstrating his own passion and drive on the cycling track, Hoy also had role models at home to show him what business and hard work were all about. “My dad ran his own business in the building industry,” explains Hoy.
“The work ethic from my mum and dad was immense. Mum worked on sleep studies at the hospital at night. In many ways, the whole BMX thing was a way of spending more time with my dad. Little did we know it would take off and become something we did every weekend and led into road and track cycling.”
As the camera shutter whirs and the flashgun pops during the BQ Scotland photo shoot, Hoy is waiting to hear whether he’ll be racing for Nissan at the Le Mans 24-hour race in June. Having grown up with a boyhood passion for cars, Hoy got hooked on racing after a corporate track day at Jonathan Palmer’s track in Bedford.
Palmer advised him to get a Caterham, which Hoy drove during a documentary he made for the BBC about world rally champion Colin McRae. He was spotted driving by the Radical race series, which invited him to take part in its entry-level championship in 2013.
“It took off from there,” explains Hoy. “Nissan is an Olympic and Team GB sponsor and asked me to come on-board as an ambassador for its partnership with Team GB and, off the back of that relationship, a motorsport opportunity arose.”
Hoy drove alongside teammate Charlie Robertson for Ginetta-Nissan last year and the pair won the LM P3 championship in the European Le Mans Series. Now, Hoy is looking forward to finding out if he’s been selected to take part in the legendary 24-hour Le Mans race this June.
Beyond Le Mans, there’s also the small matter of the Rio Olympics in August. “I’ll be doing some punditary for the BBC,” Hoy reveals. “It’ll be very different. I’ve not been to an Olympics that I haven’t competed at. My first Olympics was Sydney and before that I’d only ever watched it on the TV. So it will bring back all the emotion that you forget about until you’re in the Olympic village or in an Olympic venue. All the excitement and the nerves and the adrenaline. When you first arrive you try to play it all down and stay calm and not let yourself get swept away by it all, but when you’re there as a spectator you can just go ‘Wow, this is all amazing’.”
Our BQ Bulletin emails will land in your inbox at 7.30am, Monday to Friday, with a mix of the latest local business news, national news, and features to inspire you. Sign up here!
Click here to read our privacy statement