It was the sight of a familiar face dropping in on a track session at the Manchester velodrome earlier this week that prompted Ed Clancy’s mind to race back in time.
Rod Ellingworth’s presence trackside got Clancy casting his thoughts back more than a decade to the early days of his time with the Great Britain Cycling Academy.
Ellingworth was the coach back then, while a teenage Clancy raced alongside and against Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas for a place in the British squad for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
In his own way since, each man has helped transform British cycling from a developing nation into the pre-emininent force on the track and on the road; Ellingworth in his coaching role with Team Sky, Wiggins in his pioneering Tour de France victory, Cavendish for his many sprint victories, and Thomas for his success on both surfaces.
Clancy, too, helped shape that transformation, winning a place alongside Wiggins and Thomas in the 2008 team pursuit squad that won gold, before going on to claim two more Olympic titles in the same discipline over the next eight years.
“Rod popping his head in on a track session the other day just reminded me of that first academy with him and Brad and Geraint,” reflected Clancy, fondly, before adding with a laugh: “It also reminded me that in short: I’m old.”
Not too old, but at 33, conscious that time is no longer on his side.
That Clancy is still in the velodrome in the depths of winter speaks to his appetite for success and his passion for riding his bike.
He has already made history, becoming the first man to win three Olympic golds in the team pursuit in Rio, but two-and-a-half years in to the latest cycle, Yorkshire’s most successful Olympian of all time finds himself rejuvenated in the pursuit of extending his own record.
“As I was saying to Rod the other day, I’m enjoying this Olympic cycle more than any other,” says Clancy.
“I don’t know why that is. Everyone knows me as ‘crazy grandad’ because I’m a little more carefree and self-assured than the younger men are.
“As you get older you work out what your values are, you slowly work out what really matters and what doesn’t, and what you’re all right not stressing about.
“I’m in a pretty good place, and as much as the young lads in the team pursuit squad are nuts, they remind me of myself and Geraint when we were young lads.
“They’re great fun and I love hanging around with them. They’re also top banter and it’s a great team spirit.
Now I want a fourth Olympic gold medal in the team pursuit. It’s never been done before, and it would be pretty cool to finish my career with that.Ed Clancy
“And that’s important because this sport is tough at times. There are times when you can have a laugh and take the mick, but when it’s time to work, when it’s the big selection days for the track and you’re in your last days before a major championships it’s not always fun and light-hearted. When we work hard, we work hard.
“But that camaraderie keeps things light and it does help you get through those tough times.
“And these guys are keeping me young, even if they can’t stop the clock moving forward.”
Among those tasked with keeping up with Clancy in the team pursuit squad are fellow Yorkshiremen Charlie Tanfield, 22, and Ollie Wood, 23.
Both bring different attributes to the team pursuit, including a hunger to improve that excites Clancy.
The three of them will be vying for a place in the four-man GB squad for the annual world track championships in Poland at the end of February, when Great Britain defend the title they won last year, the fifth team pursuit global gold of Clancy’s much-garlanded career.
Tellingly, though, it was the first world team pursuit title he had won outside Olympic year since 2007, which serves to emphasise how adept the British team has become over the years at peaking at just the right time.
Not that Clancy expects an easy ride to a repeat of history.
“The cold, hard truth is that the Australians weren’t there last year and if the Aussies turn up to the worlds with their A-team and their A-game it will be hard to beat them,” admits Clancy.
“We’ll do everything we can to be as close to them as possible, and if we’re on a good day I still think we can beat them.
“But it’s more important that we recognise where we’re at as opposed to talking ourselves up as the best team. We’re chasing them, as opposed to them chasing us. And that’s advantageous for us from a psychological standpoint.
“I never think it will be all right on the night, I’m constantly questioning myself: ‘is this the right way to do it? Should we play our A-card more often? Does success breed success?’
“I look at myself and ask ‘have I still got it’? I’m 33 now and have still got it, but am I still going to be able to step it up in 18 months time in Tokyo?
“It’s good to keep questioning yourself, the team and the strategy because that’s how you keep moving forward.
“I’ve found over the years that the key is to always be slightly uncomfortable with where you’re at, to constantly evaluate yourself and where you’re going.”
For Clancy the direction he has been travelling the last dozen or so years has been obvious, Olympic gold, even if by his own admission there have been times in non-Olympic years when he has lacked the motivation.
But after Tokyo, and by the end of the 2020 road season, the wheels will stop turning altogether.
“One hundred per cent that will be it after Tokyo,” says Clancy, who will ride on the road with new British team Vitus this year. “I’m finishing at the end of 2020, whatever. If my road team wants me to come back and ride a few road races, maybe a Tour of Britain, then maybe I will.
“But I’ll be 35 in Tokyo. When you look at the ages of Chris Hoy (37) and Bradley Wiggins (36) when they retired, it’s not too old, but I’ll be 39 in Paris (2024 Olympics) and I think that would be too old. I’d rather jump before I’m pushed.
“I’d like to go out on a high in Tokyo. It’s funny how down the years your motivation changes. When I first started riding, what made me hungry was standing on top of the podium with three of my best mates.
“Four years later it was doing it in front of a home crowd. In Rio it was about three golds in a row.
“Now I want a fourth Olympic gold medal in the team pursuit. It’s never been done before, and it would be pretty cool to finish my career with that.
“After that, I’m excited about setting up the next chapter.”
That chapter is a cycling academy, one that Clancy is in the early stages of developing.
“I could probably bring more to the cycling world not as a cyclist by that point,” he says of the ambition to create a rung below British Cycling, where it all began and still continues for him to this day.
“Right now, though, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing in my life. I can’t do this forever, but I also appreciate that I’m doing something that gives my life meaning, and there’s just not a lot of downside to it at this point.
“So why not carry on doing what I’m doing?”