Cycling: Boardman plans for the pressure

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As Britain's foremost cyclist contemplates a return to the road, Robin Nicholl learns how setbacks have changed his racing regime

THESE are critical days for Chris Boardman. He has spent the past six months reviewing his "poor" 1997, revising his training system, and recovering from illness.

"This period is the key," he said before returning to his European campaign after a spell at his Cheshire home. "It's critical. My condition is the best it has been all year. I just need a chance to prove it in races."

Six years ago he put British cycling on the Olympic gold standard for the first time in 72 years. He followed that by becoming the first Briton to wear the revered yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader for more than a day, then tacked on three world titles with world records to match.

Inside five years he had achieved what others would consider a lifetime's work, including an MBE. Amid the triumphs, fate issued a warning. His 1995 Tour de France ended minutes after starting. Boardman was carried from the course with a fractured wrist and ankle.

He came back with a string of victories, including an Olympic bronze, and regained the world hour record (56.375 kilometres) and the world 4,000m pursuit title, also with a world record. Both were in Manchester and to deafening adulation. Then it went quiet, by Boardman's standards.

He wore the Tour yellow last year after winning the opening time trial in Rouen, and won a bronze medal in the World Time Trial Championship in San Sebastian.

"I was scarred by last year's poor results," he said. "I thought I had arrived at the point where things stopped going up, and that this could be it. When I got ill early in the season I ignored it somewhat and pushed on with training. It was a mistake."

Boardman caught influenza in February, and spent weeks trying to shake off its effects. "It hit hard and for a lot longer than I wanted. It left me down for weeks. Now my body seems to have clicked, and I have races coming up that I can get my teeth into."

A change in training philosophy was introduced by Denis Roux, the trainer of Boardman's GAN team, after Boardman admitted to overtraining. They cut out hard riding stints of two to three hours. "It seems those were damaging to me," Boardman said.

Before the inevitable pressure of the Tour de France in July, Boardman faces an important date at home. Britain's new race, the nine-day Prutour, opens on 23 May in Stirling, and he will be backed by the Australians Stuart O'Grady and Henk Vogels, Sweden's Magnus Backstedt, Germany's Jens Voigt, and Italy's Eros Poli.

"It is my only race in Britain and I would dearly like to make the most of it. It doesn't fall at an ideal time, and it is impossible to peak for that and the Tour.

"Tough choices have to be made but hopefully I will get there with some good form. The course doesn't suit me but maybe I can win the leader's jersey in the opening time trial, and then one of our team can take it over.

"The only major difference to our Tour de France plans from previous years is that a high placing in the overall positions is not an initial objective. That takes the pressure off me a little. I will just go for the opening time trial, a stage win, and take it day by day in the mountains."

He will contest the World 4,000m Pursuit Championship, the discipline that made his reputation, "simply because it is convenient to fit in this year. I have nothing to prove there."

The World Time Trial Championship in October is his final challenge of the year. "It is important that all the major players are there in Holland. I am never consistent at the end of the year, and I want to settle that score before I move on."

His career may stretch to another four years. "To put on a time limit is important," said Boardman, 30 in August and a father of four. "Retirement is very much on my mind. The way I do things is very intense. It gets results but it is very time- consuming.

"I will go for another two years and make it count. Then see what happens. I may find that there are still things I want to achieve and I am motivated to continue. So I could go on for four years.

"I am not one to say I will carry on while I can still get the money. I want to give 100 per cent or not do it at all."