Road Cycling

The Chris Boardman Interview | How One Rider Shaped the Future of British Cycling

More than two decades ago, his pioneering ride in the Olympics kick-started a cycling revolution. And that was just the start of it...

As Team GB’s cyclists pedal out onto the Siberian pine boards of the Rio velodrome this weekend, expectations will be running high. At the London Olympics four years ago, the British track cycling team won an incredible seven of the ten gold medals up for grabs, as well as one silver and two bronzes. In Beijing, they did even better – seven golds, three silvers and two bronzes. Can they match these tallies? The early signs are good. Yesterday’s opening session saw the men kick things off with a gold in the team sprint, while the women set a new world record in team pursuit qualifying.

This kind of dominance by one country is pretty much unprecedented, and has left the more traditional cycling nations scratching their heads or crying foul. In London the French famously questioned whether British cyclists had “magic wheels”. In fact, the secret to British cycling’s success, and the reason the team are firm favourites for most events in Rio, is far more prosaic. It’s the result of hard work – both on and off the track – and science.

“They were enthusiastic amateurs, but when it came to competitions British cyclists didn’t have a hope in hell.”

The likes of Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and Sir Bradley Wiggins will no doubt be feeling nervous as they compete over the next few days. Likewise their coaches, support staff and the millions of British cycling fans back home. For one man watching over all of this however, these scenes will be less nerve-wracking than satisfying. If he wasn’t so modest, he might even allow himself to feel smug. Because the reason these cyclists are in the position they are, the reason they enjoy such huge financial and public support, has everything to do the life and career of Chris Boardman.

To properly understand Boardman’s impact on British cycling you need to wind the clock back to before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Back then, Chris tells me as we sit down and order coffees in the comfortable, if unshowy, environs of his private members club in London, things were very different. “I was part of a very small group, a very small club that were involved in high level cycling in the late 80s, early 90s.”

They were all amateurs. Chris himself was a carpenter, he explains: “It was segregated until Atlanta, which was the first time pros were allowed to ride in the Olympic Games.” Although they were enthusiastic, when it came to competitions the general consensus was that British cyclists didn’t have a hope in hell. “We turned up and we made up the numbers,” says Chris. “That’s what we did.”

It wasn’t just that there wasn’t a proper program for elite cyclists. There wasn’t much for cyclists of any kind. Cycling just wasn’t really something British people did in the 80s. There was no cycling culture in the UK. Riding bikes was foreign, something the French and the Dutch were into.

“In the late 80s, early 90s you were a smelly, geeky guy if you rode to work. It was a slightly weird thing to do.”

If anything bike-lovers were viewed with a bit of suspicion. “In the late 80s, early 90s you were a smelly, geeky guy if you rode to work,” says Boardman. “It was a slightly weird thing to do.” Small wonder then that the last Brit to wear the maillot jaune (the famous yellow leader’s jersey in the Tour de France) had been Tommy Simpson, way back in 1962. Or that when Boardman rolled onto the track in Barcelona, Britain hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in track cycling for 72 years.

All that changed in the space of a few short days that July. Boardman turned heads on his very first outing, setting a new world record in qualifying on his famous Lotus-built bike. He then proceeded to destroy the competition, overtaking his hapless opponent in the heats and winning his semi-final with ease. When it came to the final he utterly obliterated Jens Lehmann, the reigning world champion in the discipline, overtaking him with three laps still to go.

Boardman in action in Barcelona. His bike, designed by his friend Mike Burrows, was made by car manufacturer Lotus who allowed Burrows to test prototypes in their wind tunnel. Photo: Boardman Bikes

The story of the German champion being beaten by a woodworker from the Wirral made headlines round the world. But perhaps more importantly, at least as far as Boardman and British cycling were concerned, it made the British Olympic authorities sit up and take notice. “Five years later when lottery funding came on stream, they went ‘right, we’ve got all this money and we’re giving it to sport.’” Sports where Brits had the potential to win medals – and gold medals in particular – were to be the main beneficiaries. And Boardman had proven that even with very little funding, cycling could provide a big, golden return on investment.

More than two decades later, people still talk about the importance of that win in attracting funding. In 2014 when Jenny Jones won Britain’s first Olympic medal on snow, British Ski & Snowboard’s performance director spoke excitedly about it being the sports’ “Boardman moment”. Of course the growth in British Cycling which followed Chris’ gold wasn’t just down to him as a rider, a fact that no-one is more keen to point out than the man himself. Always unassuming, he explains: “I think the most important thing that came out of [Barcelona] was a sequence of events. It wasn’t actually my personal winning – and that’s not false modesty – it was that Peter Keen, my coach, got credibility from that event.”

“When lottery funding came [in], sports people went: ‘Brilliant! Shit, what do we do with this? We’ve never had money before.’ Whereas Peter Keen went: ‘Well, I’ve got a strategy, here’s my history and my credibility.’ So they went ‘great’ and gave him money. He set up British Cycling and employed Dave Brailsford.” Brailsford of course is the performance director known for his meticulous, data-driven approach who played a pivotal role in track successes in Beijing and London 2012. He’s since gone on to manage the phenomenally successful Team Sky, masterminding Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory and Chris Froome’s triple.

Interestingly, while Brailsford is lauded in sporting circles for his performance analysis, much of the groundwork for this approach was laid by Peter Keen, at least according to Chris. “He was fascinated by performance. He was the sports scientist. He was more interested in what was happening rather than what the result was.” Peter Keen’s work on making small improvements rather than obsessing over the end result formed the basis of Brailsford and British Cycling’s much-feted focus on marginal gains.

Boardman tackles a climb on the Tour of Lancashire in 1993.

“[Peter] was interested in the journey rather than the destination. He gave me a fascination with being better rather than being the best, and if you get that bit right then it tends to lead to being the best. Peter drove a lot and that taught us to be the people who talked about numbers and [all] the technical aspects. Because we were fascinated by performance, that’s what we talked about. And then somewhere the term ‘The Professor’ got coined.” Boardman can’t remember exactly where the nickname came from, but he believes the moniker is as much Peter Keen’s as it is his.

The science-focussed approach Boardman adopted (which has since proved so successful for British Cycling) also has another, more unexpected source however. The revolutionary bike had played a big part in his Barcelona victory and Boardman and Keen were already thinking outside the box when it came to design. But in the years immediately after 1992 it was Boardman’s biggest rival Graeme Obree who really pushed them to do things differently.

Graeme Obree on his homemade bike, Old Faithful. His unusual aerodynamic riding position, with hands tucked underneath the chest, was later banned by the UCI. Photo: Wikipedia

The Scotsman won individual pursuit at the World Championships in 1993 and 1995, and in the mid-90s he and Boardman one-upped each other several times in chasing the prestigious “hour record” – the furthest distance ridden in one hour. Yet Obree’s strange-looking homemade bikes were mocked at the time, and with his awkward personality (he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder) he was considered something of an oddball. Boardman however believes he was a misunderstood genius, despite their rivalry.

“Graeme was the first true innovator. He didn’t get credit for it at the time, but I’m quite determined that he does now. Because we effectively copied Graeme. We took what he did and we built on it. He was the first person who genuinely stopped thinking about the history of the event and started thinking about the demands of the event. He forced the world of track cycling to change. He just didn’t think about things in the same way.”

As well as bike design, Boardman and his coach Peter Keen also thought about his training throughout the 90s in a different way to how British cyclists had previously. “British Cycling, or the British Cycling Federation [as it was] had enough money to exist, but it couldn’t do anything special,” he says. Yet with a bit of imagination and a bit of bodging, they made things happen. “I needed to do some work climbing [so] I found a local sports centre that let me ride a bike on their treadmill. We simulated the Alps and the Ardennes Classics on their treadmill.”

“We simulated the Alps and the Ardennes Classics on a treadmill [and] altitude by kicking my son out of his bedroom and sealing up the windows.”

On another occasion they built what was effectively an altitude training facility in Chris’ son’s bedroom. “We simulated altitude by kicking George out of his bedroom [and] sealing up the windows. We got the door to be airtight and took it down to about 16% oxygen, which is about 2,000 metres. I slept in there, trained in there, watched TV in there for up to 12 hours a day for six weeks.”

Their innovative, DIY approach “might not have been very pretty, or it might have been held together with gaffer tape,” but it was impressively effective. Boardman’s performances throughout the 90s speak for themselves. On the track he took gold in the 1994 and 1996 World Championships.

When he took his show on the road he was a blisteringly fast time triallist, winning several World Championship medals, a bronze at the Atlanta Olympics and so many of the opening Tour de France stages that the French dubbed him Monsieur Prologue. With the first of these he ended Britain’s long maillot jaune drought in emphatic style, finishing the short 7.2km course fully 15 seconds ahead of five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain, who could only manage second.

These successes played a key role in securing future funding for British cyclists, and his thinking helped set the template British Cycling’s successful data-driven approach. But Boardman’s work wasn’t finished when he hung up his cleats. Wearing various different hats, he’s continued to play a huge role in the biking revolution that’s swept the UK in recent years.

Boardman wears the maillot jaune after winning the 1994 Tour de France prologue. He was the first Brit to pull on the tour leader's jersey for 32 years.

Off the saddle he’s perhaps best known for Boardman Bikes. Now a partnership with bike retailer Halfords, the brand specialises in making bikes that the general public can actually afford. “In 2007, we were the first people to make a sub-£1,000 carbon fibre bike. We made something that was cool – and that the pros were using – accessible to everyone. That was a game changer,” says Chris. The sheer number of Boardmans you see on the streets of Britain’s cities suggests the company has become an effective tool when it comes to spreading the cycling gospel.

This is something that Chris cares about passionately. He’s become well-known for his advocacy, using his public profile to push for pro-cycling policies. In this, as with his professional career, he’s not afraid to do things differently or put noses out of joint. In a Sky News interview earlier this year he ridiculed the government’s proposed budget for bike infrastructure: “It’s insulting to our intelligence that this is dressed up as ‘investment’ in cycling.”

It’s a charge he repeats to Mpora, explaining in exasperated fashion: “The amount of funding that was allocated is the equivalent of 70-odd pence per person – and the strategy was launched for consultation on Easter Sunday morning. It was just insulting the way it was done. It basically says: ‘I’m obliged to do this, but I don’t want to.’”

It’s insulting to our intelligence that this is dressed up as ‘investment’ in cycling.”

Chris isn’t all about screaming from the sidelines though – he also works to effect change behind the scenes. In fact, when I meet him he’s come straight from the House of Commons, an experience he finds rewarding and frustrating in equal measure. Promoting cycling, which can reduce pollution, congestion and bring massive benefits in terms of public health, is a no-brainer for him. Unfortunately, evidence isn’t enough to sway everyone.

“I’ve just been having a conversation with an MP who agreed that sadly, we [as people] don’t make evidence-based decisions. Even at the highest level, people don’t make decisions based on evidence. We make them based on what we like, gut feeling. You can have mountains of evidence, mountains of logic, which we have, but if the people who hold the purse strings don’t like it, it makes no difference.”

It’s not hard to understand his frustration. This is someone who based his whole career on a scientific data-driven approach. A man whose very presence at these high-level discussions is proof that evidence is superior to gut feeling. But if converting people to the cause is occasionally a slow process, Chris is also encouraged by how far cycling culture in this country has come.

Chris tests one of Boardman cyclocross bikes. Photo: Boardman Bikes

“The Tour de France came to the UK in the 90s and everyone would go: ‘It’s great!’ But then they turned round from this colourful experience which they quite liked and there was nothing there for them. No sportives, nothing if you weren’t already in a cycling club. But when we came to 2007, there were mass participation events that were things that people could get involved in.

“The Tour came back to London and two and a half million people stood by the road and watched it, [and by then we] had a way to engage with normal people.” Gone are the days of cycling being a weird, fringe activity or something that the French or Dutch did better than us.

The link between mass participation and elite performance is an obvious one. Greater numbers at grassroots level means a bigger talent pool of cyclists, whose increased chances of success then inspire the next generation. It is (if you’ll excuse the pun) a cycle – a virtuous circle of growth and improvement.

If Boardman ever needed affirmation that this particular cycle, one that he played a huge part in setting in motion, is moving in the right direction, all he needs do is look out from the BBC commentary box over the next few days: At the team, at their world class, science-driven support operation, at the fans who’ve travelled to Rio to see them and at the millions watching at home. Regardless of how many medals Team GB win this time around (and of course we’re hoping they win them all) British Cycling and cycling in Britain are here to stay. To a large extent, we have Chris Boardman to thank for that.

Read more from the Olympic Issue here  or follow the latest Olympic news here.

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