Chris Hoy and Kristina Vogel: for track cycling to succeed, we need to hear the stories behind the medals

Chris Hoy and Kristina Vogel reflect on gender inequality, the marginalisation of track cycling, and retirement from track cycling

Clock08:47, Wednesday 25th October 2023
Chris Hoy and Kristina Vogel at the UCI Track Champions League


Chris Hoy and Kristina Vogel at the UCI Track Champions League

Sir Chris Hoy and Kristina Vogel were part of the golden age of track racing, both winning multiple Olympic golds during those years in the 2000s and 2010s when track cyclists were superstars. Since then, track cycling has slipped into the margins of the sport.

Speaking to GCN at the first round of the UCI Track Champions League, Vogel and Hoy reflected on changes within track cycling since their retirements. Track cycling is a more equal, inclusive sport than it once was, but the public appetite for track racing has waned. As far as these Olympic stars are concerned, the sport can forge a route back into the limelight, led by the power of human stories.

The pair themselves have very different stories. Hoy enjoyed a well-timed exit from the sport having claimed every accolade under the sun, whilst Vogel had retirement forced upon her by a life-changing accident in the velodrome. Even so, track cycling at the highest level has given them each an education in determination and adaptability that has equipped them for success in life beyond cycling.

Getting track back into the mainstream

A decade ago, when Hoy and Vogel were racing, track cyclists were household names. Now, it’s a fringe sport. GCN asked Hoy and Vogel what it will take to get track cycling back into the mainstream.

Vogel says that for track cycling to capture the public’s imagination, we need to communicate the human stories.

“I think that is what people are interested in, and I think we lost it a little.”

Few cyclists have a story as captivating as Vogel’s, who won her first Olympic gold medal three years after a car crash put her in a two-day coma, before having her career cut short by another life-changing incident. Her dominance within track cycling was undeniable, but it’s her story that has made Vogel one of the most celebrated track cyclists in recent years.

“It's fine to see boys and girls winning,” she says, “but [...] what are the stories behind the medals? Who are the humans behind these medals?

Hoy agrees, adding that for the public to get excited about track, we need to know the people behind the aero helmets.

“The reason in the UK track cycling was booming was because, well, the results were there, but also people knew the names,” Hoy explains. “They knew Vicky Pendleton, they knew Mark Cavendish, me, whoever else, Jason Kenny – everybody. They were household names. And that's missing now.”

As we’ve reported, Hoy seems a little exasperated at the lack of support from media outlets for track cycling, saying, “the general media doesn't seem to have the same love for it that it used to.”

“We have the best women's squad,” says Hoy, “and now, the women's sprint squad is so strong. If the general media wants to show that they are behind trying to raise the profile of women's sport then how about showing some of the cyclists? Because they’re bloody awesome. That's the frustration I think.”

Gender inequality in cycling

With that, talk turned to gender. The TCL offers absolute parity between the men's and women’s races, with the same number of participants, the same events, and the same prize money. GCN asked Hoy and Vogel about the status of gender equality within track cycling.

“We’re still learning, and still improving,” Hoy says, “but I think track cycling has done a decent job of it, and done a decent job of responding and reacting to suggestions.”

“Don’t forget,” notes Vogel, “that women’s and track cycling is brand new. The first time [it was in the Olympics] was in 2000, just 23 years, so we have had to grow up.”

Given that women’s track cycling is still relatively young, it’s hardly surprising that during Vogel’s career, the gender imbalance was extreme.

She recalls the 2013 Paris Grand Prix, in which, “my boyfriend got sixth, and I was first.” And yet, says Vogel, “Michael got double the prize money of me, for sixth place – for sixth place!”

When she was racing, female riders were treated with dismissal, and were often asked to cede time on the track to the men. Even with a gold medal around her neck, Vogel felt she was playing second fiddle to the men.

“At the Olympics in London,” she recalls, “everyone just noticed the men's – the men's, the men's, the men's squads, the men's squads. And me and my team were like, ‘Hello! We are still here!’ So, no one noticed women cycling.”

Hoy points out that British Cycling did everything it could to redress the balance, even back then.

“We always got paid the same,” he says. “The same salary, or grant, and in many ways, there’s more sponsorship opportunities for the female squad as well. Internationally, maybe not for prize money, but on the whole we were a sport that was ahead of its time.”

Track cycling hasn’t solved gender inequality quite yet. Vogel says that in Germany, the junior women’s squad are crowdfunding for a minivan after the government only supplied funds for one to the men’s junior squad.

Even so, Vogel says track cycling is a lot closer to gender equality than other disciplines of cycling, both in the quantity and quality of competitions, and the rewards that the riders receive.

“We have the same competitions, the same level,” Vogel explains. “When we see Grand Tours on the road, for ages there has been nothing for the girls, only now do they have something.”

“There's equal places for equal men and women starting here [TCL]; there's equal prize money at UCI level and Olympics, but just see, Chris Froome is a millionaire,” says Vogel. “The girls are not getting half of what he earned, you know?”

Hoy says that to create gender equality across the whole of the sport, we need to create an equal platform for all, just like in track cycling.

“It’s chicken and egg, though, isn’t it?” Hoy remarks. “Because if there’s not enough women competing and the numbers aren’t great then it's like, ‘we need to get more in’. Well, how do you get more in? You need to give them a platform.”

“You can see it in track cycling,” Hoy continues, “how fast new events, even the team sprint when it first came on, or other events – women's team pursuit, you see the world record, drop, and drop, and drop. It’s massive, the level gets so much better and higher so quickly when the opportunity is there.”

Applying a world-beating mentality to the real world

During their years as world-beating track cyclists, Hoy and Vogel have developed skills and attributes that have seen them reach the highest level in their sport. In retirement, these same skills have gone on to equip them for the challenges of life outside of track cycling. Hoy and Vogel agree that training and racing have taught them to plan, set goals and stay determined, but both say the most important thing the track has taught them is to adapt to change.

“When you make plans in cycling,” Vogel explained, “it never ever goes like that.”

“It’s always good to have a plan B or C,” she said. “That is what helps a lot in real life; to know how to focus and how to be flexible.”

For Vogel, who’s cycling career was cut short in 2018 when a collision with a stationary rider during training left her paralysed, this seems especially poignant. The event was a tragedy that shook the cycling world and changed the course of Vogel’s life. Incredibly though, in the years since, Vogel has adapted to the change and built a successful life beyond racing.

It goes to show that, as Vogel puts it, “it is in an athlete's DNA to be focused, concentrated, and flexible.”

In retirement, both Vogel and Hoy have had many successes beyond cycling, but nothing, they say, ever comes close to the thrill of crossing the line first at the Olympics.

“Having that medal on your neck, having the national anthem, is still one of the best moments of my life, so nothing can match it,” says Vogel.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” agrees Hoy. “Your whole career, all the effort, all the training, all the sacrifice is worth it for those microseconds.”

Hoy describes the difficulty some athletes face in the years following that golden moment. He compares the feeling of winning to a drug: for some, once they’ve tasted it, normal life can lose its sparkle.

“It's like people who try one drug and need another drug and another drug to get that high.”

With six Olympic golds to his name, Hoy knows that feeling better than almost anyone. To step down to normal life, he’s had to come to terms with the fact that those moments are in the past.

“For me anyway,” he says, “it’s about moving on and doing different things and accepting that it’s not going to be that absolute, ultimate spike of emotion and adrenaline and everything.

“Starting a family; having kids; seeing them experience things; doing other things in life: it might not be quite the same spike of euphoria, but it doesn’t mean to say you can’t enjoy your life.”

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