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Chris Boardman interview

Chris Boardman interview
James Witts
22 Apr 2015

'The Professor' gives us his insight on designing Boardman bikes, the 'Secret Squirrel Club' and the future of cycling.

‘I talked to a chap at Giro about patents. He said you have two choices: you can pour your money into that or you can spend it staying ahead of the game. I’ve always found the latter more fun.’

So says Chris Boardman in the Merseyside brogue that’s made him a national institution while commentating on the Tour de France. For the past 13 years, Boardman has shared his inside knowledge of the pro peloton as it winds its way around France. Since 2007, he’s done the same for recreational riders up and down the country thanks to Boardman Bikes.

That trademark lower-case font, the yellow ‘c’ melding into white ‘boardman’, consumes most of the downtube, its confidence emblematic of an increasing force in the notoriously competitive and, at times, vindictive business of cycle manufacturing. (Note the demise of the LeMond brand once Greg questioned the purity of Lance Armstrong’s achievements.)

So impressed was Halfords that earlier this year it acquired Boardman Bikes for a reported £10-15million. In all honesty, it didn’t come as the greatest of shocks – Halfords is the sole distributor of Boardman’s affordable Performance range of bikes, which shifts around 50,000 units a year.

Chris Boardman bike

Boardman remains a minority shareholder and the 46-year-old is adamant expansion, rather than retirement, drove the sale. ‘I wanted to make the company bigger and better,’ he says. ‘We have over 20 R&D projects we want to push on with, but we needed millions to make them come to fruition. For the original investors, it got too much risk. We’ve done the putting houses-on-the-line thing and don’t want to go there again.

He’s certainly in a strong position. Boardman rode August’s Ride London 100-miler and reckons 5-7% of the bikes were his. That’s up to 1,750 bikes in the Classic race alone. Not bad for a man who by 2004 had taken a break from professional cycling to indulge his first love, scuba diving (including a monthly column in Diver magazine), when he received an email from a complete stranger.

Boardman bikes

That stranger was Alan Ingarfield, a keen triathlete and the man who came up with the idea of brand Boardman. Of course, former professionals launching their own range of bikes is nothing new – see Eddy Merckx, Mario Cipollini and Sean Kelly for examples. ‘But I didn’t just want to let Alan use my name and rake in the profits. I wanted to make innovative bikes.’

Unlike many bike manufacturers who launch a top-end model that grabs the headlines before diluting those technologies into a more affordable range, Boardman and Ingarfield started with the masses, pinpointing the £500 mark and a rider’s first proper road bike. Around the same time, Halfords was looking to sell more bikes but was struggling to interest established brands.

Chris Boardman tt

‘The big manufacturers wouldn’t sell to Halfords because you’d have to push past the buckets and mops to arrive at the bike section,’ says Boardman. ‘But we created what they were after.’

A commitment from Halfords to stock the range in 450 stores attracted investment from businesswoman Sarah Mooney, and in 2007 Boardman Bikes was launched. The Performance range – bikes under £1,800 – took off, followed four years later by the pricier Elite range, which was wisely distributed through independent channels. The reason was simple: would you spend £5,000-plus on a bike that sits next to an aromatic Christmas tree designed to hang from your car’s rearview mirror? It’s a business model that remains to this day, despite Halfords’ acquisition.

It’s the top-end where Boardman can truly liberate his inquisitive mind. His Bromsgrove office is littered with notepads filled with ‘coffee shop’ component sketches, many that saw light of day in this year’s AiR/TTE 9.8, including the internal front brake, internal cable routing and aerodynamically advanced top tube that bows slightly in the middle. It also employs high-modulus unidirectional carbon for a light but stiff offering.

That Lotus

It’s a snapshot of the innovation that drove Chris Boardman’s racing career and how he acquired the nickname ‘The Professor’. His reputation for detail – he used to tape up window frames in his Wirral home, switch on the heater and turbo train for hours on end to simulate racing in warmer climes – and technical acumen propelled him to 4km pursuit gold at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The 23-year-old former carpenter won Britain’s first cycling gold for 72 years, sending his profile through the roof. It also highlighted the influence of technology on cycling performance like never before.

Chris Boardman geometry

Keen amateur cyclist and self-taught engineer Mike Burrows (who would later design Giant’s Compact TCR range) hit upon the idea of replacing the traditional diamond-shaped frame with a lightweight one-piece shell that would enable the rider to adopt a more aerodynamic position. Burrows produced a prototype and, with car manufacturer Lotus, created a bike that not only launched Boardman to Olympic gold but also brought his attention to the benefits of wind-tunnel testing and carbon – both of which are at the heart of the Elite range.

‘Carbon’s just ace,’ he says. ‘You can mould it to any shape you want and it has incredible strength-to-weight ratio. It’s hard to get away from it simply being a brilliant material.’

Boardman’s love of carbon is reflected by the public – the AiR 9.4 is the most successful model in the Elite range; not surprisingly, the sub-£1,000 Team Carbon is the best seller in the Performance range. Of course, carbon’s not much use unless it’s manipulated into something that rides beautifully.

Chris Boardman prototype

‘All the design and R&D happen in the UK,’ says Boardman. ‘We use a firm in Wycombe for much of the prototype stuff, and aerodynamics are refined in Brackley. We’re talking computational fluid dynamics [CFD], as well as wind-tunnel time.’ Manufacturing takes place in the Far East. ‘We currently use a company in Taiwan. Everyone loves the idea of bikes being made in Britain, but carbon manufacturing doesn’t happen in the UK for a reason and that’s cost of volume.’

Dave Brailsford and ‘The Secret Squirrel Club’

Boardman has proved a master at recruiting the most innovative minds in the business – never more so than when working with British Cycling. After the 2004 Athens Olympics, where GB won two cycling medals, performance director Dave Brailsford and Boardman had one of their regular meetings in Starbucks. Despite Wiggins’ and Hoy’s success, GB retained the reputation as King of the Qualifiers and, as Boardman says, were still considered mediocre when it mattered.

‘We wanted to lose that image, obviously. Dave and I discussed it and we felt there was a huge number of smaller developments that could make you go quicker. So I was officially appointed Head of Stuff. It ended up as marginal gains but really it was Head of Stuff.

‘I spent loads of time going around the world talking to manufacturers,’ he adds of his spell at what was known as the Secret Squirrel Club. ‘Our line was performance first and then work out if we had enough funding. Thankfully, the Lottery put us in a privileged position because we didn’t have to satiate commercial demands. It was all about performance.’

Chris Boardman research

British Cycling began spending more time in the wind-tunnel at Southampton University. As well as experts in the industry – like sprint coach Jan van Eijden – they also used the services of people from beyond the bubble of cycling. According to Boardman, this was key to the success of British Cycling, and that of his own range of bikes.

‘All the big ideas came from the non-biking industry. We visited the military, F1, academia, aviation… When we first went to McLaren, they knew nothing about cycling. And because they didn’t know, they always asked, “Why do you do that?” And we replied, “We don’t know.” You suddenly realise how restricted by tradition you are. For example, if I say to you will you use 39cm bars? You might say yes. What about 27s? No? Why not? What is your rationale for not doing that? A mix of ignorance and expertise is the ideal marriage for breaking boundaries.’

In came fashion designer Sally Cowan, who used to design underwear but was now driving development of skinsuits – with nothing off-limits. ‘We even looked at skinsuits with sequins on to see how it affected windflow. But that’s nothing compared to what Rob [Lewis of CFD experts TotalSim] came up with. Again, he knew little about cycling so wasn’t inhibited. I remember one example of CFD where Rob penned an aero helmet, with a piece of string and ball attached, hanging just in front of the rider’s head. By disturbing airflow, he said you’d get a localised loss but a net gain by the time it flowed over your head. I said that wouldn’t be allowed but there’s no reason a computer mounted on a bike couldn’t deliver similar benefits. He’s the sort of person who can make leaps like that.’

Rob and Sally exemplify the method Boardman uses to build an innovative team, relying heavily on external services rather than bringing everything in-house. Partly that decision’s down to cost – you could spend hundreds of thousands on a piece of software or manufacturing tool and it’s out of date before you’ve mastered its use – but it’s also down to continuing to drive things forward.

‘There are many manufacturers who find good people and stick with them,’ he says. ‘There are benefits to that but I prefer the option of being able to move around. That’s not being disloyal to the people, but even if they do a really good job on one project it doesn’t mean they’ll be good at the next thing.’

The future of cycling

Chris Boardman design

‘Integration will drive the future of the cycling industry,’ Boardman says matter-of-factly. ‘All cables will be tucked inside and bike manufacturers will look to integrate stems, forks, seatposts… You used to just buy frame and forks. It’s something component manufacturers need to evolve with.’

Boardman cites innovative French bike manufacturer Look as an example of a company that’s leading the charge to integration. Its latest model, the 795 aero road bike, is a fluid creation where the monobloc carbon stem integrates with the frame. It’s not all about shapes, of course. Boardman suggests the wiring from electronic groupsets such as Di2 could be replaced by applying a copper strip to the final layer of a carbon mould, essentially hardwiring the frame. ‘But that would take a huge shift for companies like Shimano to come on board.’

What about the future of brand Boardman? In the past it has sponsored the UnitedHealthcare cycling team on the Pro Continental circuit, but with the Tour de France accounting for up to 80% of many teams’ annual media coverage, ‘you get what you pay for’ when it comes to the second and third divisions of pro cycling. ‘Our bikes are capable but aligning ourselves with a WorldTour team would incur costs that would have to be passed onto the consumer. It would also mean less R&D.’ For now, Boardman’s highest-profile riders come from triathlon in the form of 2012 Ironman Hawaii winner Pete Jacobs and the Brownlee brothers.

The hour record

Chris Boardman dropouts

Boardman the man’s profile is set to grow, however, with rule changes in the Hour record luring many professionals into raising the benchmark. In September [2014], Jens Voigt set a new official UCI Hour record of 51.115km and Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara are widely believed to be planning attempts in 2015. Boardman broke the Hour record in 1993 and 1996 before the UCI deemed technology had played too great a role and downgraded the 56.375km he achieved in 1996 to ‘Best Human Effort’. Since then, attempts at the hour record have been defined by what is disallowed – modern aero equipment and extreme aero positions. After his previous efforts were struck off, Boardman set a new official record in 2000 of 49.441km using a bike similar to the one Eddy Merckx used to set his record in 1972, but earlier this year the UCI softened their technological stance and will now allow track-legal pursuit bikes. As a man who broke the Hour record three times, what does Boardman think of the changes?

‘It’s good because the UCI went too far the other way,’ he says. ‘Both Graeme [Obree] and I showed that aerodynamics are a huge part of our sport, but our sport was so wrapped up in history, they didn’t know how to handle these innovations. I just wish they’d have more than one record for altitude, sea level, indoors, outdoors… Why restrict the record?’

That’s typical of the Wirral’s most famous cycling son. Always the innovator; always looking to understand the present so he can improve the future. His democratic outlook means advancements won’t be restricted by patents, but will ensure Boardman Bikes continues to innovate and Chris Boardman the man is free to sketch, test and define the future of cycling.

Follow Chris Boardman on Twitter

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