Why Jamie Staff turned down GB track return
Great Britain have still not found anyone quite like Jamie Staff. So much so, he says, they tried to get him back.
"Even last year, at the World Championships, they were like, 'We want you back'. But I'd made other commitments and I love what I do," he recalls.
Staff, now 38, rode to gold with Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny in the men's team sprint at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. Hoy and Kenny have fought on to London 2012 but Staff, troubled by injury and keen to see more of his family, called it a day.
The problem for British Cycling is that Staff's skill and pace as "man one" in the team sprint - the team's leader for the opening lap - were almost unparalleled. Replacing him has proved impossible in the years since his retirement.
Hoy and Kenny have been moved up and down the order, with others such as Matt Crampton and Ross Edgar shunted into the line-up, but the magic combination has yet to emerge.
Hence, Staff says, the offer to bring him back out of retirement and reunite the full, golden Beijing line-up. But by "other commitments" he means his new job, as a coach to the sprinters in the United States track cycling team.
Jamie Staff, in US coaching guise, chats to Ross Edgar, tasked with filling his GB shoes. Photo: Getty
He now lives in southern California's Orange County, far removed from his years spent at British Cycling's base in Manchester. The drive to abandon his coaching career and return to cycling for Britain, even at a home Olympics, did not exist.
"My wife's spent most of her adult life in California and she found it pretty hard being over in the UK, living somewhere notorious for being pounded by rain," says Staff. "I was away travelling and racing; she was at home with two young kids, in a village, with rain. She struggled and it got hard.
"I miss certain things - like road rides in the countryside, because LA is a concrete jungle - but I don't know whether my back would have coped with more riding, and, more than that, you have to want it.
"You've got to want it more than anything else, and that's what people don't realise. You've got to want to do it and I was ready to move on, to be a family man and be there for my wife. There's more to life than just sport."
That may be, but Staff has remained within his sport to coach a US outfit which, he says, needs much the same treatment as the British team of a decade ago. He has been given both the budget and the backing. Now he is set for the long haul, charged with turning American track cycling into something resembling Britain's successful programme.
Doing so means watching the British at work. While filming the GB team sprinters in their qualifying heat at the Olympic Velodrome on Friday, Staff felt an odd pang of disappointment at no longer playing his part in that success story.
"For the first time, watching GB get on the line for the team sprint qualifier, I actually missed racing," he says. "I was standing there, filming it, and I wished I was up there.
"Part of me wants to go out there, still be in front of the crowd and enjoy every moment of that. But a big part wants to move on."
British Cycling could not confirm that Staff had been approached last year. But, if Staff did turn down the opportunity to rejoin his team sprint colleagues, he is certainly not short of opinions on how Britain - who won bronze in the event on Friday - can best replace him.
Highlights: GB men's team sprint win bronze in Olympic Velodrome
"Even I was surprised. I was expecting someone would be able to step up when I retired," he says. "And I know Jason Kenny can do it. He could go out there and I've no doubt he could go as quick, possibly even quicker than me in man one. But then that leaves another spot empty.
"I would personally put Jason at one, Ross [Edgar, currently riding in Staff's old position] at two and Chris in three. The time they would gain from Jason in one is better than the couple of tenths they might lose with Ross in two."
Has he suggested this to his former employers?
"I met [performance director] Dave Brailsford and [coach] Shane Sutton in the hotel the other night and mentioned it. The coaches know what they're doing; they're not silly. They're trying different combinations.
"To me, though, it's obvious. I know Jason doesn't enjoy riding at one - he says he doesn't get to go fast enough - but at the end of the day you're out for medals, not to enjoy yourself."
In his career, Staff managed both. He can quickly pinpoint all sorts of tiny moments from that glorious day in Beijing: snapshots of panic on reaching the Olympic final, a calming chat with psychologist Steve Peters, strange tranquility in the seconds before the race, then jubilant phone calls to family having stepped down from the podium.
"Every year got better and better. We're looking at each other each time saying, 'Seriously, this cannot be happening'. Even we were surprised," he says.
"I was so fortunate, it was an amazing time to be a part of British Cycling. I email Chris Hoy still, now and then. We had our good times; we're still good friends.
"And it's a shame because, for the likes of Chris, London 2012 is his last race - probably - and he might not be able to double or triple up.
"But I'm not going to put it on my shoulders," Staff adds with a smile. "They may have failed in terms of getting someone new, but I haven't let them down."