Monday interview: Hancock's heartfelt connection makes British Speedway Grand Prix success so special (From Bournemouth Echo)
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Monday interview: Hancock's heartfelt connection makes British Speedway Grand Prix success so special
IF any other competitor in any other sport had whipped away a British hero's moment of glory in his own backyard, they might have considered themselves lucky to gain muted applause.
Having set a devastating pace throughout, the stage was set for Tai Woffinden - fresh from his charity bike ride to raise money for Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital - to raise the roof at the Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff.
The people's choice had shown unstoppable form and seemed destined for the top of the rostrum.
As the final approached, the record-breaking Millennium Stadium crowd waited with bated breath, only for America's grand old master Greg Hancock to take the chequered flag.
But there were no sighs or dampened spirits. The crowd roared with untempered adulation for one of British speedway's - not least Poole's - favourite sons.
Not even preventing Pirates talisman Darcy Ward from winning on his British GP debut could kill the mood.
Why? Because speedway's 44-year-old standard-bearer has retained a heartfelt connection to the country that gave him the grounding to win two world titles and a swathe of club accolades across the globe.
Having won in Cardiff for the third time, equalling Pirates legend Jason Crump's record in the Welsh capital, Hancock told the Daily Echo: “All of them have just been incredible because of the support I have received in Britain over the years.
“I have always tried to give back everything I could. The UK was my training ground and played a massive role in everything I have achieved.
“It taught me how to be a team rider and how to cope with going from the tape so many times in different track conditions, so winning here has always been special.”
Hancock's British odyssey began as a star-struck rookie alongside world champions Erik Gundersen and Jan O. Pedersen at Cradley Heathens 25 years ago.
“Those guys and people like Simon Cross were huge. I was in the same team as my heroes, these unbelievable riders who were there trying to help me. I just wanted to go in and win everything, to do what my idols did.
“Cradley gave me some of my great years and I learned so much. It was a trial period for my career, where I found my feet. Everything built and built and built from that point.”
From there, Hancock established a tried-and-trusted connection with fellow Statesider Billy Hammill at Coventry Bees before averages scuppered their partnership.
“As it turned out, I lost out at the last minute after all the other clubs had put together their teams,” recalled Hancock.
“I had nowhere to go, I had suddenly been penalised for being good and I didn't like that.
“I said no to British speedway for a while, it had made me feel bitter. After all the years of hard work I put in, to just get kicked to the kerb like that really hurt me.”
After his sabbatical, spells with Oxford and Reading followed, but it was the sudden nature of his return with Poole that sent shockwaves round the world last year as Hancock helped to inspire a remarkable turnaround which secured the Elite League title - his maiden top-flight triumph in the UK.
“Matt Ford (Poole promoter) had called me so many times over the years and for one reason or another I always had to say no, but last year I couldn't and didn't even try to,” said Hancock.
“Chris (Holder) was pretty influential in what he said about the young guys they had there and Matt's drive was a big factor too.
“To be in the team with Darcy (Ward) and then have these fresh guys like Josh Grajczonek, Rohan Tungate and, of course, Maciej (Janowski) was so good and I had the time of my life.
“It was rough in the beginning. I had a hard time getting everything to work on the British tracks again, I was so frustrated and remember apologising to Matt after the third meeting.
“In the end we managed to work it out and we got that one last chance. Every meeting seemed like that, like we had to win to stay in the game.
“Suddenly, we were there and we didn't look back. It was a great way to win.
“For me, the great thing about Poole was the compatibility. Everything worked and the people just always found a way to make things happen.”
And while many speak of the demise of British speedway as a force in the modern era, Hancock insists it is still the place to go for young, aspiring riders.
“The weather is always something you're up against and I think if you can learn to ride the tracks in the UK then you can go anywhere, without a doubt.
“You need to do a couple of years in whatever division because you have wide tracks, narrow tracks, deep tracks, rough tracks, even horrible tracks - you get a bit of everything.
“Maybe you don't get all the top guys these days but the competition is still tough and it is an art to learn these tracks.
“To this day, I'm convinced no American could go and race in Poland or Sweden without coming through England first.”