Ordinarily, ‘rider not retiring’ would not be considered ‘news’. When said rider is the most decorated Olympic cyclist of all time, however, it’s worth leading with.
We are speaking to Jason Kenny ahead of the second round of the UCI Track Champions league, for which the celebrated sprinter is due to fly out to Lithuania, subbing in for his wife Laura on Eurosport’s top-class punditry team.
That the 33 year old is on media duties, rather than participating himself, was partly why we wondered if he might have already, quietly, hung up his handlebars for the last time. The other was that he was supposed to have done so once before, only to screw them back on for a golden Tokyo comeback.
The reason both he and Laura are talking rather than racing is simply that they’ve not really trained since the Olympics. Instead they have been devoting themselves to family matters, making it up to their young son Albie for all that time spent on the track, with trips to Legoland and Disney World.
Another Olympic cycle?
Far from calling time on his career entirely, much to our delight, Kenny isn’t even ruling out the possibility of competing in another Olympic Games.
“I’m back on the track this afternoon, actually,” he says.
So we’ll see what happens, see where we end up, see what happens with the team. If I’m in the team, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make sense to stop.
His relaxed, quintessentially northern, attitude towards it all is, we gather, just how he is. It’s hard not to wonder, however, if he’s not still partly riding on the wave of feeling from winning his seventh – and least expected – gold medal.
If you went to bed on the night of August 7th expecting to wake up to find a member of the Kenny clan had clinched another Olympic gold medal, you weren’t alone. If, however, you correctly called the one that won it, you were definitely in a minority.
“The stars aligned,” he says, with no small amount of modesty, of his keirin victory. It’s true that he got lucky but, as the ancient saying goes “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. The opportunity presented itself, and Kenny was prepared:
“I know that Harrie [Lavreysen]’s not going to be keen to go early, because he’s going to drag the two fast boys behind him. And then you’ve got Matty [Glaetzer] and Max Levy in front of him they probably don’t feel like they have the legs to take it on early either. So it was just that perfect opportunity. Had the race gone normally, I’d have just been a sitting duck on the front in all reality. So we had to try something. So yeah, it’s just one of those things. We gave it a go and it worked out.”
Has an Olympic victory ever been described in a more understated manner?
If you have somehow not seen it, go away and watch it now. If you have, you probably ought to watch it again, anyway. We’ll wait here.
Kenny, following directly behind the derny, had Matthew Glaetzer immediately behind him in the line. As the pilot prepared to peel off the track, the Australian seemed to back away from the Brit’s wheel.
That was when Kenny, far sooner than was remotely sensible, went for it.
It was as audacious as it was unlikely. It was brilliant.
And as we could talk about it all day, and the man himself doesn’t seem to mind, we’re eating into our previous amount of allotted time to discuss the upcoming Lithuania round of the UCI Track Champions League.
Kenny was impressed with what he watched from the comfort of his couch, and is looking forward to his ringside seat on Saturday.
‘They’ve gone big’
In his view the Champions League has been a real boon to track cycling, and “has come at the right time. We would have really struggled as a sport. There was some racing on, but we were lacking volume and then Covid came along and shut it all down. There was a good chance that we were going to be experiencing a few lean years with people scrambling for a bit of racing. So it’s come at an ideal time. Hopefully it’ll kickstart track racing back up again”.
As well as that they have done it, Kenny has a lot of respect for the package that the organisers have put together:
“They’ve gone big, straight out of the blocks. I appreciate it was a massive challenge to do that, but the concept is really good. There’s a bit of freedom in regards to making the racing how the organiser wants it, how you guys want it, and that makes better racing, ultimately. Sometimes in the past we’ve been a bit restricted with regulations, and it’s made racing below that top international level quite difficult to put on.”
Asked to expand on that, Kenny offers as an example the rules that require sprint racing to be made up of a certain number of qualifying rounds – in the Track Champions League the qualifiers are run with three riders – with quite a long minimum time between them.
“To cut through that and just get down to the racing, which is the exciting bit, to try and get it all in into a programme that’s about two or three hours long, which is ideal for sitting on the sofa watching something. It’s not so intense that you can’t take your eyes off it. You can go make a brew and come back in, and it’s just there in the background. It’s the same as watching the football, or the Formula 1.”
From an athlete’s perspective Kenny believes the thick and fast, “bang, bang, bang” of the racing, compared to the Olympic competition, which takes place over three days, “will test their fitness a bit.” He points to a few surprise results that we’ve already seen:
“You saw some people start quite strong and fade. Harrie Lavreysen obviously couldn’t get around in the Keirin. I think his legs finally abandoned him, which is really good to see, because it shows it’s not easy. And we saw Jeffrey Hoogeland not quite make the final for the sprint. It’s really good to see the guys like Nicholas Paul and Stefan Bötticher getting stuck in and really making it tough. There is an opportunity there if you can get to the final in good shape. It’s not all about the favourites, necessarily.”
The decisive factor, in Kenny’s view, is that “we’ve got used to such big recoveries and [as a result] being able to go really deep, knowing that you will have time to recover. Whereas once your legs fall off, if you’ve only got 20 minutes off, you’re not going to feature in the next race.”
Although there are no British men on the sprint side of the competition, Kenny is tipping Sophie Capewell, who is currently in 18th place, to start to pick up some results.
“Sophie’s really fast and she races really well,” he says, “And I think the back-to-back racing will really suit her, so she’ll get better as she goes on. Hopefully, she’ll start getting through the rounds a bit more and popping up in the finals.”
‘If I’m good enough, then yes’
And can we expect an appearance from King Kenny himself at some point in the future?
“If I’m good enough and, if I qualify, then yes, it’s obviously a good opportunity to go racing, to get [UCI] points that we always need not.”
That’s a commitment, right? A qualified one, but there’s definitely a “yes” in there.
For this weekend, and the final round in Tel Aviv, however, “I’ll be track centre, just floating around the track. It’s such a great buzz when you’re in there,” Kenny says.
That it’ll make me want to get back on my bike and get training and get racing again.
“Because that’s what I really like doing. That’s what I love, when you get to the track centre, and everyone’s turning up with their best kit and looking really good and fast. I love that and thrive off it.”
Reports of Jason Kenny’s demise really have been greatly exaggerated. We are very relieved to hear it.
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The UCI Track Champions League returns for round two on November 27 and you can watch all of the action live from 16:30 GMT on the Eurosport app, eurosport.co.uk and discovery+. Find out more about the “mind-blowing” new era for track cycling.