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Chris Boardman: 'My living depended on eight minutes a year'

Chris Boardman interview
David Kenning
8 Jul 2016

We sit down with Chris Boardman to get some insight on this year's Tour de France, his own pro career, and all of his current ventures.

As we down to chat with Chris Boardman over a coffee outside a hotel in Pitlochry, two young fans approach for autographs. Perhaps they recognise him from ITV’s Tour de France coverage but it’s clearly their dad who’s the starstruck one, eager to take a selfie with Britain’s most accomplished cyclist of the 1990s. This is, after all, the man who more than anyone else sparked the current boom in cycling in Britain, both through his achievements on the bike that are cited as an inspiration by Bradley Wiggins, and his involvement behind the scenes in technological developments and training that ushered in the era of marginal gains.

Boardman is in Pitlochry to take part in theMarie Curie Etape Caledonia, a scenic 130km sportive around the hills and lochs, and he’s in a relaxed mood as he performs his celebrity duties for the cyclists who have descended on the town. It’s the Tour de France we’re eager to discuss with him, though. ‘I’ve just finished a book,’ he tells us – Triumphs And Turbulence, his autobiography covering 30 years in the sport. ‘The Tour obviously features in that – it’s a couple of years of my life in total that I’ve spent on that race.’ But how about this year’s edition? ‘Don’t ask me too much detail, I’ve not prepped for it yet!’ he protests. 

None the less, we press him for his thoughts. ‘Strategically, they’ve always got a time trial, they’ve always got flat stages, they’ve always got mountains. The ratio changes but it’s always the same people who come out on top.’ So we can’t tempt you to pick a favourite? ‘I’ll be interested to see how Nairo Quintana does, because he got close enough last year to believe he could win. He lost it in the first week in the crosswinds but he pulled back time and finished less than a minute down.’ What about home favourite Thibaut Pinot? ‘He’s a bit more fragile, but the ability’s there,’ Boardman admits. ‘That robustness is part of it. We’ve seen fantastic riders like Richie Porte and even Geraint Thomas who’ve looked like they’re heading for the podium but they have that bad day and lose it.’ 

He won’t be drawn any further though. ‘Well, it’s a fun game we play but in reality it’s not until you get to the Criterium du Dauphiné [the annual stage race held in the Alps in June] that you really know who’s going strong. But the people who win the Tour nearly always go well early in the season. When Bradley won, he won everything he went for, he was up for the fight. Avoiding racing is the first sign that somebody’s not going to make it.’

To be fair, it’s still early May when we meet, with the Tour over two months away. ‘I don’t commentate, I’m studio, which is why I get away with it,’ he adds. ‘If you’re commentating, you’ve got to properly do your homework and be up to date on every aspect. For me, my focus right now is on the features that we put into the programme – I’m about to record one next week on the anatomy of a Tour rider, and we’re doing another on the fall and rise of women’s cycling. So that’s my focus at the moment – the programme, rather than the race.’ 

Talking of which, a popular highlight of the daily coverage is Boardman’s previews of each stage finale, where he rides the last few kilometres while giving a commentary to camera. Are they fun to film? ‘They’re a bit scary because you’ve got to leave it
as late as you dare,’ he reveals. ‘If you do a piece on how the sprint is going to go but it’s a breakaway, then it’s irrelevant. So they’re quite nerve-wracking and they’re very reactive, done on the day.’

Behind the scenes

Scary or not, the team – Boardman along with Gary Imlach, Ned Boulting and new additions David Millar and Daniel Friebe – always give the impression that they’re having fun in front of the camera. ‘We do, and we make an effort to find it, because as soon as the live coverage is finished, people switch off and they go and have tea, but that’s the point when we’ve got to go full-on making the highlights programme. So we leave site at about 8 o’clock and then we drive maybe a couple of hundred kilometres to where we’re staying, so we get there at 11 o’clock at night and we eat out of motorway services, and it’s not glamorous.’ Maybe not, but still fun, surely? ‘I wouldn’t always say it’s fun but it’s very satisfying,’ Boardman admits. ‘It’s a small group of people who come back every year and they fight and they squabble and they walk out and they walk back in again. It’s like a family, really, and we all go round France together crammed into a truck and make a TV programme. It’s quite a privilege, to be honest.’

He’s also keen to sing the praises of popular co-presenter Ned Boulting. ‘Ned’s made a big difference because he’s just discovered cycling in the last 10 years,’ Boardman explains. ‘It’s like going round France with a big kid. We see a mountain and it’s, “Can we ride up it? Can we?”’ His lack of a cycling background isn’t a handicap, according to Boardman. ‘He’s curious and he’s a good reporter, so he asks good questions. And his questions represent a big chunk of the viewing public at home, because a bit like Wimbledon, the Tour de France is probably the only race of the year that transcends the sport. The audience is a very broad church.’

Boardman, however, brings the kind of insight that can only come from having started the Tour six times, winning the opening prologue time trial three times and becoming the second Brit ever to wear the yellow jersey. In road-racing terms, the Wirral-born racer was the ultimate specialist, a master of the short individual effort against the clock. ‘My living depended on eight minutes a year,’ Boardman explains. ‘Everybody would go for a three-week race but I’d go for eight minutes [the time it took to complete the typical prologue distance of around 7km]. That was my job, and then after that, anything else was a bonus.’ 

Perfect preparation

With so much at stake there was little margin for error, the pressure intense. ‘The nerves started around the time of the Four Days of Dunkirk [a stage race held in May], which is when I’d start the Tour build-up,’ Boardman explains. ‘By a month out, it was totally intense, an incredibly nerve-wracking time for me, but when it came off, it was fantastic.’

When it did come off, it was all down to the meticulous, forensic preparation that earned him the nickname The Professor. ‘I always rode the route beforehand,’ he says. ‘For years I could remember every pothole and ridge on the prologue. I couldn’t remember the kids’ birthdays but I could remember every change in the orientation of the road. You never do dress rehearsal on opening night, so by the time you get there, there are no surprises because you know exactly how you want to play everything.’ Everything? Sometimes there are factors outside your control, surely, such as the weather in 1995? A wry smile crosses his face. ‘Oh yeah, I remember that…’

Starting the 7.3km prologue as favourite, Boardman was one of the last to set off. Early riders had enjoyed good conditions but by the time Boardman descended the start ramp, the skies were dark and rain was falling heavily. With the smooth tarmac turned into an ice rink, most riders were exercising extreme caution, but this was Boardman’s one shot at glory. ‘It was a combination of greed (mine) and pressure because the team hadn’t got any results. Once it started raining, everybody was half a minute down apart from me – I was two seconds down. I got to the bottom of that descent and it was one bend before the finish but I didn’t make it… There was a reason I was only two seconds down!’

Losing grip on the bend, Boardman fell and hit a barrier, narrowly avoiding being run over by the following team car. At the hospital, an X-ray revealed a broken ankle, but while the result was disappointing, Boardman has no time for regret. ‘I had a fantastic holiday, a week on morphine, so I can’t complain,’ he philosophises. 

Still, he came back to win the prologue on two further occasions, in 1997 and 1998. Not a bad achievement, though Boardman admits the accompanying yellow jersey had never been a major ambition. ‘I never wanted to turn professional because it looked really hard and it was really scary,’ he confesses. ‘It was a different sport and I had to fight to make it work. I didn’t appreciate it until later on, because I came from being a pursuiter, and then the Hour record was the focus. We thought, let’s see if we can take that and do it at the Tour de France, and it worked, but I didn’t value it enough – I didn’t know how much it meant until afterwards.’ 

Boardman doesn’t regret the lack of prologue time trials in recent Tours either. ‘Even though the prologue was my stock in trade, I prefer the trend towards putting cobbles in, putting known crosswind stages in, putting a little berg 5km out from the finish,’ he says. ‘They’re horrible to race but people like surprises and all those things have made it a much richer programme to watch.’ This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the forward-looking mindset that always made Boardman one of the sport’s great innovators.

Inventing marginal gains

Before making the transition to the road, the Hour record had been the major testing ground, driven by his fierce rivalry with Graeme Obree. As the pair pushed each other to ever greater heights, did they develop a friendship off the track? ‘No, we didn’t even meet five times a year, and it was always at or around a competition,’ Boardman admits. ‘But there was a deep admiration on my part because, thinking about things like marginal gains, Graeme was the first true innovator and we copied him and utilised his thinking.’ Boardman’s admiration for Obree is clearly heartfelt. ‘He was the first to stop thinking about the history of the event and start to think about the demands, and had the courage of his convictions when there were people casting aspersions and making jokes about his riding style – me included!’

Unfortunately, Obree’s road racing career never took off, bringing a close to their rivalry. ‘Graeme could have been a fantastic prologue rider,’ Boardman muses. ‘One of the things that held him back was that he could never be managed and he went to the wrong people to start with, Le Groupement, whereas my boss, Roger Legeay, gave me the freedom to learn at my own pace, do my own thing, focus on what I believed in – and I was remunerated accordingly,’ he continues. ‘That’s what Graeme needed, somebody to let him do it his way and decide if that had a value, rather than tell him what to do.’ Obree later claimed that pressure to get involved in doping was what drove him away from the sport, while fellow Brit David Millar, with the weight of expectation on his shoulders, was pushed the opposite way. Boardman considers himself fortunate never to have experienced that kind of pressure.

‘I found a niche doing one thing right at the start of the race that I’m fortunate had a value,’ he explains. ‘I couldn’t climb with the rest of them, I couldn’t recover every day, but I could do this one thing that was about understanding the demands of the event before anyone else did – they can now – so I was lucky in that period to have some kind of stability. It was pretty miserable towards the end and there was a strong reason why I’d had enough, but it’s amazing when you look back and see why we were getting a good kicking all the time in our team.’

Don’t look back

Not that Boardman feels any bitterness towards his supercharged rivals. ‘It’s self-indulgent to look backwards and a waste of time. I certainly look back and think is there anything I can learn, that I can apply going forwards, but I don’t spend any time looking back and thinking what should have been.’ 

Ultimately, it was personal reasons that led him to quit the sport, mainly health problems caused by low hormone levels and the bone condition osteopenia. ‘I had some marital issues as well, because I was just a selfish twat,’ he also admits. ‘All that came to a head around ’98 and it wasn’t fun any more. I think the end of my career was actually ’97, even though I didn’t stop then.
I realised what we were talking about was doing the same thing again and the fun for me was in trying to be better, working out what was the gap and how do we close it. I realised that none of us believed I could do any more and I just lost interest.’

Seeing out a career in the peloton didn’t appeal. ‘I wasn’t a journeyman, I didn’t do it to be a pro, I did it to see what I could do and be the best. It didn’t have to be cycling, it could have been something else, and now there are business elements, there’s trying to advocate cycling. Whatever it is, it’s just trying to be the best I can be.’

With a property in the Highlands, Boardman now spends at least two months of the year in Scotland. ‘I still love cycling but for different reasons now. I don’t keep a road bike at home, I ride a cyclocross bike and a mountain bike. I love Scotland for the right to roam, so I’ll get my OS map and go out and explore, listening to my audiobook for two hours.’ But although he has moved on from road cycling, his passion for all things bikes runs deep. ‘That’s the beauty of cycling,’ he adds. ‘It can be your trip to school, to get down to the shops, to go on a sportive, or for your livelihood or anything in between. And that’s why the bicycle is the most wonderful, underrated tool on the planet. It’s right up there with the printing press, if you think about it. I wrote a book last year on the modern bicycle and went to look at the Austrian army, where they learn to sword-fight on bikes, and its involvement in the emancipation of women… the diversity of this machine is under-appreciated.’ 

He also dabbles in commentary on track cycling for the BBC. ‘As soon as the racing’s finished, we go for a beer and a curry with the BBC curry club. The whole package is great – watch some sport then go out with friends. And that’s pretty much every job I do now,’ he says. 

No wonder he’s so laid back. 

‘Yep, living the dream.’

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