‘As a heads up,’ says Sir Chris Hoy’s PR lady in that breezy-yet-bossy voice that is public relations, ‘Chris doesn’t answer questions that relate to politics or Scottish independence.’ Very well, I reply. ‘Can you confirm that you will not ask Chris any politics-related questions?’ she insists. I promise I won’t, but my fingers are crossed. For goodness sake — 2014 is the year of the referendum on Scottish independence; this is a Scottish special edition of Spectator Life; Chris Hoy is our nation’s greatest Olympian, a man who won six cycling gold medals for Team GB and who just happens to be as Scottish as a lorne sausage. He’s been quoted in support of the union on the ‘Better Together’ website. It would be a dereliction of duty not to ask him. So, four questions into our interview: can he be persuaded to come out in favour of Great Britain?
‘Sorry,’ he replies, laughing. ‘It’s something I’m steering well clear of at the moment.’ At the moment, I repeat back to him: so is he keeping his powder dry for an explosive late intervention? ‘Sorry,’ he repeats, not laughing. ‘I’m keeping well out of any political debates on the referendum.’ I press on. David Bowie has just come out and urged the Scots to stay, would he … ‘I’m not getting involved in either side,’ he says, this time with real firmness. He doesn’t sound annoyed, exactly, but there’s a resolve in his voice — the sort of resolve that pushes a man to Olympic glory again and again — that tells me he’s not about to give in.
He’d rather talk about his new business venture, Hoy Bikes. ‘I just wanted to demystify the bike-buying experience,’ he says, sounding very much like an entrant on Dragons’ Den. ‘You sometimes see people on bikes that must have cost them thousands and thousands of pounds, but have been very poorly set up — you know, saddle too high, saddle too low. That not only means you might get injured, it just spoils the whole enjoyment of riding a good bike. So all our bikes come with a Fit Kit, which sounds obvious I know, but you’d be amazed how many people need it.’
It’s hard not to be moved by Hoy’s enthusiasm for cycling, even when he is just plugging his latest product range. The sport has dominated his life and he is positively evangelical about it. He first felt the excitement of ‘going somewhere under your own steam’ at the age of about seven or eight, cycling with his father by an old railway track in Edinburgh. The thrill never left him. ‘For me, getting to turn that childhood excitement into hobby and then into my whole career was just an amazing thing.’ I suggest that he probably doesn’t cycle much for pleasure these days; it must be all celebrity appearance rides and charity events. ‘No, no, no,’ he replies, ‘I still cycle — probably four or five times a week. At this time of year, with the weather not being great, I might go on a static bike. But I find the time, because it’s been a part of my life for so long and I’d miss it if I didn’t.’ He pauses for a moment to catch his breath. ‘I just love riding my bike.’
Having retired from international cycling, Hoy has transferred his competitive impulse into car racing. Last year, he competed in the SR1 Cup, a championship for fanatical novice motorcar drivers. On his debut he finished fifth. Does he find it difficult not being the best? ‘Do you know what, no. For so long in cycling I was just working in fractions — training so many hours just to improve by a half-second or something. With the cars, in the space of just three or four weeks, I can look back and see how much I’ve climbed up the ladder, so that’s really fun for me.’
Is it true he had to have his racing car adjusted to make room for his enormous thighs? ‘Well, yes,’ he says, a little reluctantly, ‘I had to get a smaller steering wheel because the one I was racing in last year was so small I was catching my hands on my legs when I was changing gear and braking.’
Those mega-thighs are a source of enduring interest. They have three Twitter accounts named after them, and Hoy has become a cult figure among the gay and weight-lifting communities. ‘It’s a bit weird,’ he says. ‘If I were a female, I’m not sure people would be so obvious about wanting to touch a part of my body, but because I’m bloke I get it all the time.’ Hang on, do people come and ask if they can touch his legs? ‘Quite often they touch them without asking!’ he replies. ‘I’ll just be standing in a queue or whatever and I’ll feel a hand on me. It’s odd in a way, but it’s all right.’
Being fondled in public is not the only downside of his celebrity. He doesn’t like being dragged into political debates — like, er, the independence question — or being asked about issues he feels insufficiently expert to comment on. ‘I’ll fight for the things that I’m into, like cycling, or making cycling safer or more popular, or just getting kids involved in sport, but I don’t have any plans or ambitions to get into politics at all.’
Still, his reluctance to discuss the fate of his country is intriguing, since everything about Chris Hoy seems so very Scottish. His childhood heroes were Scots: the cyclist Graham Obree, the racing driver Colin McRae and the rugby player Gavin Hastings. He’s a ‘massive fan’ of Andy Murray and his favourite novelist is Iain Banks. ‘When he died last year, it was a real shock. I’ve got his last book, and I almost don’t want to read it, because once I do, it’ll be like he’s really gone.’
Hoy has a typically Midlothian character too — unpretentious and sensitive, steely yet anxious on behalf of others. As we wrap up, he seems concerned that I didn’t catch everything he said. Don’t worry, I tell him, we definitely got the bit where you made an impassioned defence of the union. ‘Oh, very good,’ he says, and gives another nervous laugh.