Boardman is back in the saddle

Britain's gold medal cyclist faces a hard season. He talked to Ian Stafford
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It may have been an unlikely place to have begun world domination, but in a small cafe, just outside Chester, it looked as if aliens had landed. There must have been 40 of them, sitting wall-to-wall, in their pointy helmets and feet, and their multi-coloured, skin-tight clothing. A sign outside said the Eureka Cafe, but as you walked in through the door you could have been entering the Twilight Zone.

Outside a bicycle was perched against the side of a car while each alien filed past peering at it with reverence as if it were a dead king lying in state. Before one could utter the phrase: "Take me to your leader," the leader appeared, lean, fit and still pinching himself at his rapid ascendancy.

They all may have looked like extras from The X-Files, but in reality they were cyclists from the Wirral, including the leader, who turned out to be Olympic pursuit champion, Chris Boardman, who starts his major comeback tomorrow in the Paris-Nice race after his injury during last year's Tour de France.

Predicting an overall top 10 finish in the Tour, Boardman crashed out after just two and half minutes of the Prologue, on day one of a three- week race. The multiple fractures to his left leg, plus a broken right wrist, ended his Tour almost before it had begun, and kept him out of the cycling for three months. It sounds like a disaster but Boardman, perversely, appreciates his misfortune.

"Well, although these things happen, I still felt a bit daft about it but, in terms of my career, it was the best thing that could have happened to me," he said. "I'd gone from winning the Olympics to breaking the one- hour record, to world championships, to winning a yellow jersey on my first Tour, and it was going too fast for me.

"It was beginning to get away from me. There was even an element of going through the motions. It's something you realise as you sit in your garden, with the sun on your face, and you actually have time to reflect on the past four years. I now have a clearer direction, and feel more balanced about my career, and about life."

Although Boardman has already registered a seventh in the Tour of the Mediterranean, that was nothing more than a training run. His season begins in earnest tomorrow, and if he has his way, he is hoping to make a spectacular start to what promises to be the biggest year of his life.

"I'm looking to win Paris-Nice," he said. "I think that's a reasonable and feasible objective. It would be a nice stepping-stone, along with the likes of Milan-San Remo, and fit into my plan of scoring a string of good results leading right the way up to the Tour."

The Tour, of course, is the race that really matters. As Boardman says: "If the Olympics and the Tour were to be staged at the same time then, as far as I'm concerned - and most top riders would agree - there would be no contest. The Tour would always come first."

But after last year's disaster, following his early withdrawal from his debut the year before, Boardman has yet to complete the race. Unnerved by previous experiences, Boardman predicts a different story this time: "My objectives in the Tour will be the same as last year's - to finish in the top 10, and to wear the yellow jersey for as long as I can. The only difference is that I won't be so reckless this time and crash in the rain. If that sounds ambitious, you've got to remember that I finished second to Miguel Indurain in last year's Dauphine Libere, which is France's second biggest race. So this is a reasonable goal."

Two days after the finish in the Champs-Elysees, Boardman flies to Atlanta to prepare for his attempt to win the Olympic time trials towards the end of the Games in August. The thought of claiming a second Olympic gold, to add to his pursuit title, hardly daunts him.

"I see myself as the strongest contender," he said. "I'll be up against Indurain, but I've beaten him before and see no reason why I can't win another title, it will depend on how I'll feel after the Tour. But I'm hoping I'll be totally recovered, with the most perfect preparation under my belt."

It was at the Olympics, of course, when the Boardman story really begun. "It may seem like yesterday to most people, but so much has happened to me since the 1992 Games that it seems like a lifetime to me," he said.

His transformation, from unemployed cabinet-maker, to international cyclist, has been remarkable, even more so when you consider his attitude just four years ago.

"When I was being interviewed in Barcelona I heard these things coming out of my mouth, statements like 'I'm only here for one medal.' As I was making these comments another part of my brain was standing back and saying: 'God, I can't believe you've just said that.' I said these things because if you looked at my performances and times then it was clear that I could win the gold medal, but another part was telling me that only other people win the Olympics."

Back in 1992, Boardman was quite happy to let his unique bike from Lotus hog much of the limelight. "I was the first British competitor at the Games to win a gold medal. People just seemed to love the space-shuttle technology," he said. "But people kept making the analogy between me riding that bike, and a Formula One driver handling the best car. The fundamental difference here is that I'm the engine. If the media had taken one second to glance over the track they would have seen what the opposition was riding, which was a carbon-fibre, monocoque frame, just like mine.

"It was slightly irritating that the bike may have taken a little away from what I had achieved, which is why I used a more conventional bike for the one-hour record."

The world one-hour record is the blue riband of the sport. Francesco Moser had held this record since 1984 but, just a week before Boardman made his attempt, an amateur from Scotland called Graeme Obree, riding a home-made bike, smashed the record in Norway.

"It certainly took the edge off the attempt because I suddenly found myself trying to break Obree's record, and not Moser's," Boardman said. "What made it worse was that Obree diluted the one-hour record. He made a big point of emphasising how he likes to drink beer and eat marmalade sandwiches before he races, giving the impression that anyone could break it. The record lost a lot of its kudos as a result.

"It was entirely within the rules, but after I had announced a date for my record attempt, he suddenly went for it the week before, which, to say the least, I found annoying. People always try and lump us together, which I don't like, because we are very different people, with very different approaches to our sport. I use scientific and technological methods in training and racing, while Obree uses very individual methods. But he's very talented, if eccentric."

Seven days later, just two hours before the Tour de France came to town, Boardman broke Obree's record in Bordeaux . "For one day it overshadowed the Tour," he recalled. "I found myself on the Tour podium standing in front of Miguel Indurain in his yellow jersey. A year later, almost to the day, I was wearing the Tour's yellow jersey, but back then he probably didn't know who the hell I was."

"I bet nearly all of the Tour peloton didn't know or care who the Olympic pursuit champion was. It just didn't figure highly. The one-hour record, though, was different. That launched my professional career."

It was a move Boardman did not particularly want to make. The thought of being a cycling professional did not appeal to him. "The way I saw it professional cycling meant at least 90 race days a year, at 200km a race, incorporating great pain and some danger. But I realised that in order to move forward in cycling I really had no other option."

Still, it took a lot of convincing, particularly when Boardman was on the verge of quitting early into his professional career with the French team, Gian. "I'd gone from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in an ocean and it was hard to take," he said. "I'll never forget the Criterium International in France. I was going flat out up a climb in a 200-strong peloton when, suddenly, a hundred of them left me for dead! I was in a state of shock as I watched them disappear.

"I really thought about whether I could make this work, but then I found myself sitting in a London hotel watching a rep trying to sell his product to another guy across the table. I thought 'That's not me'. That's when I knew I just had to do it. Once I accepted it, it all became easier."

He won a couple of stages of the Tour of Mercia, and suddenly discovered that he could mix it with the best. Success followed in the 1994 Tour when, making his debut, Boardman took the prologue and held on to the yellow jersey for three days before withdrawing on day 11. Two World Championship titles (pursuit and time trial), concluded a successful campaign in which Boardman finally arrived and gained respect among the professional ranks.

Despite his injury-enforced absence, his fellow riders in the peloton now know precisely who Chris Boardman is.

He has come a long way. But as he says his goodbye to the Eureka Cafe aliens, and prepares to drive home with his wife, Sally, and baby Oscar, the youngest of his four children, Chris Boardman acknowledges that his potential achievements this year could put everything else in the shade.

"As long as I don't fall of my bike again it could be a very good year," he concludes. Indeed it could.