By Mike Rowbottom

mikepoloneckThere is a familiar sense of routine to the year for Craig Pickering right now as he prepares for another summer as a top class sprinter. Beyond it, however, there now lies a sense of rising excitement as this 26-year-old looks forward to resuming his other sporting life - as a member of the British Bobsleigh squad aspiring to Olympic medals at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Pickering, from Crawley in Sussex but now based with the Marshall Milton Keynes Athletics Club, has already achieved more than most athletes would hope for in their career.

European 100 metres junior champion in 2005, the year he came to public notice by beating the Athens relay gold medallist and former European champion Darren Campbell at the Bedford meeting, he added the UK indoor title and a European Indoor silver medal over 60m in 2007, when he also won the 100m at the European Cup.

It was a massively promising launch for this bright and no-nonsense young man, so much so that he was soon being lauded in some parts of the media as the new...well, fill in your own name. Linford Christie? Darren Campbell? Hope of British sprinting? All of these, and others.

Craig Pickering Beijing 2008 4x100m relayCraig Pickering (left) blows it for the Great Britain relay team at the Beijing 2008 Olympics

It was unhelpful pressure. When Olympic year rolled around in 2008, Pickering - who was being coached by Malcolm Arnold as he did his degree at the University of Bath -  was picked for the sprint relay team. And soon discovered a bit more about the downside of top level sport.

Selected as the last leg runner in the sprint qualifying round in the Beijing Birds Nest stadium, he set off too early from his mark and the baton did not get round. Pickering, for all that he occasionally appears a little grumpy round the edges, is one of the most honest sportsmen you will ever meet, and it was entirely characteristic that should take the entire responsibility on himself.

For all the frustration of Beijing, there was still the rainbow of a home Olympics on the horizon for Pickering and his fellow sprinters. But by the time London 2012 arrived the young sprinter had been put out of the reckoning by a back problem which required an operation. And in October 2012 he heard the news that his UK Sport funding had been cut. Joy.

craigmarch14Craig Pickering pictured at the British Bobsleigh press event to mark the end of the 2012-2013 season

What happened next, at first glance, had a touch of inevitability about it given that his coach Michael Khmel, whom he had joined when moving from Bath in 2009, was by then the performance coach for the British Bobsleigh team, having left UK Athletics after many years of service.

So it was a set-up?

"Not at all," Pickering insists. "In fact, he didn't really want me to do it. He would rather I had stayed with athletics."

Such has been the rate of the sprinter's improvement in his short experience of this alien sport over the winter that Khmel's sentiments may now be shared by a number of his rivals - either abroad or at home.

That said, despite his impressive demonstrations of nerve and commitment in three World Cup races and the World Championships held last month in St Moritz, Pickering is not yet where he wants to be - which is in the flagship four-man bob whose performances this season, notably the World Championships, where they finished fifth, offer a genuine prospect of medals in Sochi. Pickering, as he is swift to point out, still has a long and winding track ahead of him. But he is very determined to get to the part of it where he wants to be...

Pickering's race experience thus far has been as the brakeman in a two-man bob driven by the four-man bob's pilot, John Jackson. As he has wryly pointed out, this is all good for him as it means his chances of being spilled onto the ice are negligible.

The thought, however, must surely have passed through his mind as he set off on his first push in earnest, having had two - yes, two - dry land practice sessions. It puts one in mind of Spitfire pilots...

Surely there must be a classic bobsleigh pusher dream, where they see the sled racing on ahead of them and they are just to weary, or unwilling, to follow through and hop in. Hamlet would have made the world's worst brakeman.

hamletHamlet, Prince of Denmark - and fundamentally unsuited to the role of brakeman in the bobsleigh event

The suggestion, tentatively put, is battered straight back by Pickering.

"You start off in control, and then you give someone else control over you," he says. "But that's just what it is. I don't sit round dwelling on the nature of the sport.

"It's just about getting experience of the starts now. I am getting the feel of the bob.. It's not too hard jumping into it even though you are moving at speed – you just have to put the weight on your hands.

"Even so, the first time I went down the run in a bob I was surprised. People tell you what it's like but until you do it you don't understand. It's really rough – like being on a really large roller coaster that could go wrong at any time. Scared? I was a bit, but you don't like to dwell on being scared."

craigjohnjacksonjan12koenigseeCraig Pickering in the two-man bob driven by John Jackson at Koenigsee

Pickering is keenly aware of his place in the overall scheme of things – and his opportunity to become the third British athlete to have competed in a summer and winter Games after  Marcus Adam, the 1990 Commonwealth 200m champion and 1992 Olympian who came tenth in the two-man bob at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, and Allyn Condon, who ran in the 2000 Sydney Games and then formed part of the four–man bob which came fifth in the World Championships in 2007 before finishing 17th, after one calamitous spill, at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

"What happened last summer was very frustrating, but the good thing was I went to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 so at least I experienced a summer Games," says Pickering .

"I'm going back to training for athletics now. The best case for that would be to run a personal best and go to the Moscow World Championships. But my main goal for the next 12 months is to win an Olympic medal - and whatever I can do to help that is going to be worthwhile.

"I think a lot of people thought I was a bit crazy for trying it. But as I have been successful more people are coming up to me and saying 'I think I might give it a go.'

The British four-man bob's placing at the World Championships was not just the best for seven years – it also offered two tangible reasons for optimism in that the team missed a medal by just 0.07sec, and they produced the fastest run in the second of the four scheduled runs. Deeply promising.

Pickering raced at St Moritz in the two-man bob with Jackson, finishing 19th out of 38  -  but he drew on the inspiration as much as any other team member. "When it is that close, you know you are in the medal zone," he said. "If we had been a second behind, we would have felt very differently. But when it is down to a few hundredths, you know you are in with a chance.

"I was very pleased for them. But now I have to try and get into the four-man bob myself. At the Olympic test event in Sochi after the World Championships I was only two hundredths of a second slower than the GB1 two-man bob when I pushed GB 2.

"There was no expectation for me at the World Championships in terms of position. I had no idea of what was going to happen. The main goal was to learn how to do the bob.

"I have come into the sport and had four races, and I feel I am as good as anyone else. Now I want to carry on training and working hard and improving every day to have that chance of getting an Olympic medal.

"It feels almost within touching distance."

Gary Anderson, Performance Director for British Bobsleigh, is not about to disagree.

"Craig has been excellent," he says. "He's arrived in the middle of the winter season, which is always very tough, and he has got to know the other guys and gone straight in at the deep end.

"With other athletes such as Lolo Jones and Tianna Madison coming into the US squad, the expectation on Craig from outside was huge. But he has done brilliantly, and there is so much more to come.

lolowinterbergdecFormer world indoor 60m hurdles champion Lolo Jones waves to the crowd during a competition in Winterburg last December where she represented the US bobsleigh team

"As far as we were concerned, there was no result expectation for Craig. The idea was to get him to experience the lifestyle in bobsleigh and the World Cup scene. I didn't care if he came first or 30th at the World Championships, although obviously the higher the better.

"He knows now what the demands of the sport are when it comes to next winter. We have had some very talented athletes who have come into the sport. Obviously we are looking at sprinters. And while the door is certainly not shut on anyone else ahead of Sochi, if we take anyone else then they have got to be better than Craig."

Would it be fair to say, you wonder, that not every athlete has taken to this potentially perilous event with the aplomb exhibited by Pickering?

"Yes, I think you could say that," Anderson responds with the hint of a chuckle. "We have found that some people just don't like the experience of sitting in a sled travelling at 90mph."

Fancy that.

"We have done very well this year, and we know we can do even better," Anderson continues. "We are not going to be satisfied until we are winning medals. It's very exciting for everybody. This four-man bob started as a crew and they are now a team. They are very special - and to break into that squad it is going to be very difficult task for Craig.  But that has to be his aim. We know he can put pressure on the other three brakemen.

"I would say at the moment that the strength in depth we have in our squad is the strongest it's ever been. To have three teams racing in the World Cup is unprecedented. It's exciting going into Sochi because we think we can be medal contenders. And our GB 3 and GB 4 teams are under-23 – we also have our eye on Pyeongchang in five years' time. Our aim is to be the cycling of winter sport.

"It was a hugely valuable experience to take part in the Test event on the Sochi track last month. We didn't get involved in the all the whingeing and whining about track time that some of the other teams. You expect home teams to have that extra advantage. You just have to get on with it.

"But what I found most encouraging was the reaction of the four after they had been down the run. They said to me: 'Gary – this track was made for us.'

And it's a track down which one British athlete is desperate to speed.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. To follow him on Twitter click here.