The three-time Olympic champion, who is aiming for an unprecedented fourth straight team pursuit Olympic title, talks to the Olympic Channel about his career, Tokyo 2020, and his post-retirement plans.
Great Britain's Ed Clancy has seen it all in a distinguished career spanning over 15 years, winning six world championship titles and three Olympic gold medals.
The Yorkshireman was a latecomer to the world of track cycling, only being talent spotted by British Cycling shortly before he was due to go to university.
In a recent interview with the Olympic Channel, Clancy re-lived some of the most memorable moments of his career, including living with fellow Olympic medallists Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas – "we worked hard, we did some stupid things" – as well as what it was like to watch British Cycling claim four medals at the Athens Games while he was still a junior.
"It is very tough to focus four years of your life on a four-minute event which you're 100 percent sure is gonna be in August in 2020, then all of a sudden the goalposts have shifted. For sure that was quite an instant hit to the system and it's still something I'm dealing with now," he said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Olympic Channel (OC): What were your first memories of cycling, of being on a bike? How did you get started?
Ed Clancy (EC): I started riding a bike just because I enjoyed it. It was no more complicated than that. I never set out to be anyone or do anything. I did OK at school, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. But what I did enjoy was riding bikes. I never had any intention to ride the Tour de France or win an Olympic gold medal. I guess as it got older and older and I had a bit guidance from Kevin, my stepdad.
I guess I can be very thankful to guys like Jason Queally, Chris Hoy, that were around in British Cycling. You know, a few years ahead of my time, that kind of paved the way for guys like me. They went out there, they got gold medals in Sydney and Athens and, you know, provided that level of funding that my generation, if you like, could reap the benefits of.
I got picked up by British Cycling as a junior, really, I was kind of late to the game, I was 17, 18 years old. At the start I lived in a house with Mark Cavendish, and Geraint Thomas moved in a few months later. You can imagine like, you know, we worked hard, we did some stupid things, we cleaned a lot of cars in the car park as punishment. (laughs) But we learned a lot. We had great guidance from a guy called Rod Ellingworth.
It's almost like we served our apprenticeship with British Cycling in the academy. You know, we did French lessons and we were up at half-six doing roller sessions and riding around the track for three hours – once it was as a punishment, but it was to kind of teach us. It was always like a big metaphor for hard work equals success and thankfully, I came out the other side of the academy and graduated onto the "big boy" team, if you like, in 2005, I think I was maybe 19 years old, 20 years old.
OC: The year before that, in 2004, you and Cavendish won British national silver in the Madison. That was an Olympic year too. Being so close to the set up must have been special.
EC: Yeah. Talk about motivation. I can remember it like it was yesterday. We were all in Belgium doing some sort of like amateur road races in Belgium. It was our first taste of racing abroad. I remember the whole academy was crowded around this TV in Belgium watching Athens 2004. And Chris Hoy was on the screen lining up for his kilo (1 km time trial race). And the kilo is no longer an Olympic event, but in my mind, it's probably always gonna be the best. You know, there's a guy there, Sir Chris Hoy, sat on the start line. He's put four years of training into an event that lasts one minute. If he gets the start wrong or if he gets the pacing wrong or, you know, has a wobble and does a bit of a dodgy line in the banking, it's all over.
(French cyclist) Arnaud Tournant got up before Chris, broke the world record, Olympic record, and put himself on pole position. And Chris Hoy came in, last man, and we're all crowded around this TV. And obviously Chris went on to win that. I think from that point onwards, certainly myself and Geraint, we watch that and we were like, 'wow, we've got to be there in Beijing.'
OC: Fast forward to Beijing, you've already won three world titles in the team pursuit. So was it was it a case of 'I know what to expect' or were you still nervous going to your first Olympics?
EC: The last two years leading up to Beijing, 2007 and 2008, we had it good to be honest. I don't remember finishing second in a single race. Every World Cup we did, every world championships. It was a great time of my life. Looking back, myself and Geraint Thomas with, you know, it was just good. You know, life was it was dead simple. It was really uncomplicated. We had one goal in mind, and we were gonna go to Beijing. We wanted to win an Olympic gold medal. And there was there was no sponsor commitments at that point in time. There was no expectation. There was no pressure. As it happened when we went to Beijing, we were probably the favourites, but I honestly think we were too stupid to know any better. We went there, we enjoyed it, we rode our bikes as far as we could and we came away with a gold medal.
OC: It wasn't just the gold medal. You came away with the world record as well.
EC: I really think that British cycling in particular around that period of time was quite pioneering. We were we were led by Sir Dave Brailsford. Looking back, he was so focussed, nothing came above performance. That's all Dave cared about, you know. Of course, British Cycling had sponsors and partnerships and so on, but all they cared about was winning. He was a winner. This whole 'marginal gains' thing, you know, Dave himself will tell you that, you know, he didn't invent marginal gains, but he certainly implemented it pretty well. And, you know, like a lot sports I believe at that time, cycling was still pretty traditional. There was training methods from eons ago.
And British Cycling at that point in time was more than happy to throw the rulebook out the window and say, now we're not gonna do it that way. We're gonna train like this. We're not gonna go to training camps there, we're gonna do this instead. We're not gonna put four endurance guys in the team pursuit, we're gonna put a couple of sprinters in there and a couple of endurance guys, and we're not gonna do one lap turns, we're gonna do one and half lap turns and so on.
And, you know, really when you think back, we kind of moved the game on quite quickly.
We to be honest when we got to Beijing, we did have a little bit competition from the Danish who have always had a good team pursuit squad, but really when we got to the big day, it was it was ours to lose.
OC: By the time London came around, obviously a home Games, you won a gold in team pursuit and an omnium bronze. Every British Olympic and Paralympic champion got a gold postbox that year. Where is yours? What was that like?
EC: Yeah. It's in Huddersfield. It's still there. I've got a nice double postbox right next to the train station in the heart of Huddersfield. So it's nice. I should visit more often. They were talking about re-painting them red but thankfully it's still gold and it's still looking great. That was a nice touch.
I've been to three Olympics so far, Beijing, London, Rio, and they're all special for different reasons. But you look at the hype, there was much talk about the London Olympics when we were in Beijing. You know, you'd win an Olympic gold medal in 2008, and the talk wouldn't be about a gold medal. It'd be about the Olympics in four years' time.
And it was everything it kind of promised to be. You know, it got to the point where people on the Tube in London started making conversation with each other. And I really just think it kind of brought everyone a little bit of joy, even if it was just for a couple of weeks.
OC: Speaking of Rio, your third Olympics, your third gold medal, and Bradley Wiggins had come back to join the team. You know, looking at all the guys you've raised with: Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, Owain Doull, Peter Kennaugh, a lot of them did fairly well for themselves on the road. Was there a reason you never really crossed over to a ProTour or WorldTour team? Was there a reason you chose to stick mainly to the velodrome?
EC: Yeah, there's a good reason for it. I was rubbish. If I put my heart and soul into riding the road, and I lost five or six kilos, I think I'd probably be good enough to carry bottles for Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome in not even the Tour de France, but in the whole build-up races, you know, something like that.
You know, I could make a living. I think I could have made a living as a pro road rider. However, you know, if it's either that or winning Olympic gold medals, one of those scenarios excites me a lot more than the other. And I wanted to keep doing the track. You know, I didn't want to be an average Joe riding the road.
OC: You were actually planning to retire, weren't you, after this summer. So what went through your head to come to the decision that you were going to go for the extra year?
EC: It wasn't an instant decision, to be honest.
When I first heard the news. I got a bit of paper, and I did a positive, I did a negative and I wrote down all the pros and cons of cracking on for another year and then after I did that, I kind of looked at the paper and nothing was going in at that point in time. I kept looking at a bit of paper and I kept adding things and taking away things for the next week or so.
And then I came to the conclusion that we've come this far, the Olympic Games is a special thing, it is a special event. This one in particular, Tokyo 2020, will be, I believe… I'd love to think this is a start of a beginning. If we can, as a world, come together, get over the worst of this coronavirus, put on the world's greatest sporting event… You know, win, lose or draw in Tokyo, wouldn't that be great to be part of something like that? So, you know, you might have to wait another 12 months for a final hurrah, but it's gonna be that little bit more special, I believe.
OC: Team GB and British Cycling were one of the first Olympic teams to really invest in sport psychology. Have you been speaking to the team doctors, the psychologists, about helping to cope with the mental side of things right now?
EC: I have, yes. To be completely honest and open about this, I have good days and bad days. And, you know, on the good days I sort of wake up like, you know what, I'm still getting paid, I still ride my bike for a living, the sun's out and we're having some great weather, and I get out and I ride my bike and I'm happy and smiling. And I'm like, you know what? If I could do this forever, I would.
Other days I get up and I just feel like everyone does. I feel frustrated and kind of feel like… I had this big sort of master plan of how we're gonna go to my final Olympics, and then I was going to crack on with my kids cycling academy and then was going to do some work with this human performance business at the start 2021 and continue work along those lines and I'd really kind of set myself up, you know, for life after cycling as well. It is unprecedented and you can't predict these things, so I'm not going to beat myself up about making that plan and being disappointed when it's had to move down the line.
A long time ago now, I was probably my early 20s, and I can't remember what what was on my mind, to be honest, but I remember I sat down with (Team GB sports psychologist) Dr. Steve Peters. He sat me down and he said… it was like a scene out of a movie. The facts of life: he said the goalposts move, there's no guarantees, and life is unfair. It wasn't supposed to be a negative conversation. It was more just, if you can get your head around those three things, you can really sort of become a master of your mental wellbeing and this is a great example of it.
I guess it's like coming to terms with grief.
You know, there's different stages. You have anger, you have denial, and so on and so forth. And eventually, everyone comes to acceptance at the end. I think I'm still somewhere along that line of anger and denial. But one day I'll get to acceptance, and then we'll just knuckle down and get on with the job.
OC: You'll be 36 next year if you make it to Tokyo. You've got a lot of younger team-mates coming through. Do you see yourself almost as having a leadership role? Does that sit well with you?
EC: I honestly don't… It's a funny one, I don't see myself as a leader. I've had some conversation with Iain Dyer, our coach, and the majority of the time he's quite complimentary about how the younger guys look up to me now, or looked to me to lead certain conversations, particularly like the more challenging ones or the conversations that are easier not to have.
I don't know, I kind of feel a bit uncomfortable about saying that, you know, it's like I'm just one part of the team and I don't think I'm any more important than the young lads or any more important than the coach or anybody else, the logistics guy or girl sitting in the office. We all do our bit. We all try our best.
OC: So what happens next year after the Olympics? You've got your cycling academy. Is that something you're looking to build more into? Chris Hoy has done some broadcasting with the BBC, is that something that would interest you?
EC: I wouldn't say no, but I'm mindful that, you know, there's Sir Chris Hoy, and then there's Ed Clancy. I wouldn't necessarily want to be a full time broadcast or anything like that, but I don't think I'd be a bad thing. And I'd probably quite enjoy being out there and sort of seeing the races.
You mentioned the academy. I absolutely want to keep pushing the academy. Put it this way. When I retire from cycling, I'm never going to do another road race again. I'm never going to go into the garage and do an hour interval session. But, you know, 100 percent I'll get up on a mountain bike, or my trials bike, and meet up with my friends and do a few jumps or, you know, chase each other through the woods or whatever it is. For kids, it's very easy for them to kind of… technology so good these days, and it's so easy for the kids to sit there these days on Instagram and that's all right, but I still think there's an alternative out there. I've been in and out schools and stuff and speaking to head teachers about this academy idea. A lot of kids have forgotten how to play unless they have an iPad in their hand. They don't necessarily know what to do. So, yeah, I'm keen to offer another alternative. You know, there's all sorts of academies out there for rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, football, you name it. But it's going more complicated to do the same thing with cycling. We'll give it a go.
OC: Would you say there's anything your cycling career has taught you that that you're going to take even after you retire?
EC: Yeah, this is the same for any sportsperson, any Olympian. You learn an awful lot of lessons from sport. My little sister said this to me once, she was like, "well sports doesn't really matter." And I thought about it and I was like, oh, she's kind of got a point. You know, it's not 'real life'. We're not saving people. You know, we're certainly not like an NHS doctor or nurse, holding the nation together. We're just kind of a bit of light entertainment every four years. But then I thought about it more and I was like, no, you know, what we really are is kind of like a metaphor for life. If an athlete works hard, you can achieve great things, be it a gold medal or a pot of money if he's a Premiership footballer or whatever.
And that's the main lesson of sport, you've work hard, you achieve things. And that lesson is applicable to any walk of life, any business, any job, any kid going to school. And hopefully that'll bring you some sort of joy. You know, I came to this sport when I was 17, 18 years old, just a ridiculous kid, but I think I've learned a couple of things along the way perhaps.