I’d loved cycling for years. I saw ET when I was six and that got me right away. It was the chase scene, the way they use their BMXs to go over jumps and fly round corners. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. When I was 16 I began to focus on the track in the Meadowbank velodrome. That became my sporting obsession. Apart from that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. There was a lot of pressure on deciding on a career – what university are you going to go to, what’s your end goal? But really, all I wanted to do was ride my bike.
Obviously, I thought about girls. Mainly about how frustrating it was that you couldn’t get the attention from them you wanted. It’s funny when I watch things like The Inbetweeners now – it seems like a documentary of my teenage years. I wasn’t one of these guys who could chat up the girls easily, I didn’t have the confidence. It was the hardest thing in the world, to get a word out. I just sat there grunting. I remember my sweaty palms, practising the ceilidh dancing in PE as a warm-up for our first proper school ball, with kilts and everything. There were more boys than girls, so the big fear was being one of the leftovers. Aw, God, that was terrible.
It was the hardest thing in the world, to get a word out. I just sat there grunting
When it came to cycling I wasn’t one of these young prodigies. I wasn’t brilliant. But I was good, and learned early on that if I wanted to win a race I had to practise a lot and train really hard. Sometimes I did that and won, and I knew I could keep improving. I’ve carried that lesson with me my whole career. I enjoyed a challenge, I enjoyed the journey – how good could I be if I kept training, how much could I progress, how much faster could I go?
There’s no way the teenage me would have believed he’d win Olympic medals or world titles. If you told him six gold medals, that is just so beyond what he could imagine. There wasn’t a real culture of success in British cycling then – Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman and that was it. It’s drummed into you at an early age – you have to get an education, get a good degree, get a good job; that’s the recipe for happiness. But actually, I discovered if you find something you’re passionate about and you’re willing to work at it, there’s no reason you can’t make that your job.
If I’d had my son Callum when I was still at the peak of my cycling career I’d have missed out on a lot. I was only away for five days last week and I could see a difference when I came back. I just wouldn’t want to have been away on an eight-week training camp when he was six months old. You can’t press pause and come home and catch up. It’s gone. It’s amazing being a dad, watching all the stages Callum’s going through. Remembering being a teenage boy and thinking of all the phases in between, imagining watching him making those strides through life. It’s exciting.
The biggest thing I’d say to my 16-year-old self is that it’s not about winning. It’s about enjoying what you do and giving it your all. That’s what my grandmother said to me when I was wee. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do; you could be sweeping the streets, you could be a teacher, a sportsman, but take pride in what you do and give it your best. That way you’ll get 100 per cent back. I’m incredibly happy in my life now, so I wouldn’t change anything that came before in case I ended up somewhere different.