Boardman set for tour de force

Ian Stafford talks to a Briton whose preparations for a second successive Olympic gold have been exhaustive
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The Independent Online
#Chris Boardman surveys the Olympic athletes' village and delivers a small nod of his head. Was it just four years ago that he became the first Briton to win a gold medal in Barcelona? So much has happened since then.

Now he is back where, in a sense, it all started. World titles, one-hour records, Tour de France yellow jerseys - they have all come Boardman's way since he first announced himself to the British public's consciousness in the first week of the 1992 Games. "It's like an anniversary, isn't it?" he says, smiling to himself. "What happened last time changed my life completely. I can't believe it's just been four years. It seems like a lifetime away. Still, the Olympics is always a special place to be at."

There is a notable difference this time in Atlanta. Boardman only arrived at the Games late last Thursday night, having first completed the Tour de France the previous Sunday. Even before Saturday morning's bomb, he felt that something did not seem right.

"There's just not the same magic here as there was in Barcelona. I don't know whether it's because I've moved on so far since those days, or just that the magic in Atlanta is dimmer, but everything seems so temporary, as if the Games have been hastily assembled without having any chance of leaving any lasting legacy."

The explosion in the Centennial Park, of course, erased any chance of the magic becoming brighter, but Boardman, like Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, who had to concentrate on their rowing final hours after hearing the news of the city-centre mayhem, is refusing to let the downbeat atmosphere affect him.

"It goes without saying that I'm desperately sorry for those who were killed or injured, and their families, but I've come here to do a job and I can't let anything deter me from this. You just can't cater for nutters, can you, but I refuse to let them affect my life."

Despite the confusion and the gloom in Atlanta, Boardman returns to the Olympics in a relaxed frame of mind. His attitude, so he says, is in stark contrast to four years ago. "It's a big difference from Barcelona. Then, it really was make or break time for me. I knew, as I lined up for the final, that my actions over the next few minutes could result in my life never being the same again.

"I was aware of the millions of people watching the final around the world, and especially back home in Britain where, because I was one of the earlier events, and I was doing well, I knew that the country was following my progress. That was pressure; probably the greatest pressure I've felt in my career. I've always adopted the view that you don't have to like a situation, as I didn't back in Barcelona, but you have got to be able to deal with it.

"Now I'm far more relaxed about it all. It's no longer make or break time for me. I've achieved a lot since 1992 so whatever happens in the Olympics I know that I should have a good professional career ahead of me, with more Tours de France and World Championships to look forward to."

Does this mean that Boardman has lost the hunger and the edge required to win an Olympic gold medal, or does his relaxed state of mind suggest that he is mentally in far better shape and therefore a stronger proposition?

"Well, with me, it's definitely the latter. Nothing is going to concern me this time, and that can only be for the good. Anyway, the competitive edge is stronger than ever. There are those people in sport who want to win because their ambition is to be the best and others who succeed through their fear of losing. I fall into the latter category. My life may not depend on winning here anymore, but I'm still afraid of losing."

He has come to Atlanta on the back of finishing a Tour de France, arguably the most gruelling sports event in the world. His emotions about his tour performance range from disappointment, to fear and hatred, and finally to satisfaction.

The disappointment is down to his final position. Most would settle for 39th, but Boardman was looking for a top 10 finish. "I knew it would be difficult after I had a viral problem not long before," he said. "Nevertheless, I'm very disappointed with the result."

You suggest that perhaps he is, after just his third Tour, having pulled out early in his first and crashing on day one of his second, being a little harsh on himself. He perks up. "Well, when you consider that 40 per cent of the starters fail to make Paris at the end, it's not so bad, is it?"

Then he realises another, confidence-boosting fact. "Miguel Indurain abandoned his first two Tours, and then finished 83rd in his third, and he didn't do too badly in the end, did he?"

The fear and hate for the Tour stems from his nightmare two stages during the 21 days that cost him a higher placing. In particular, the 263-kilometre stage to Pamplona in Spain will haunt him for some time.

"It had seven major climbs in it, and I found myself struggling in the very last group of riders in the race. It took me eight hours to finish. Every single minute I kept telling myself I couldn't carry on any further. When you are struggling, and you know you have five or six hours still to go, it's very difficult to be positive about the situation.

"Then you had to remind yourself that, after 17 days of riding in the Tour, and with just four more to go before you hit Paris, you can't get off the bike despite the desperate urge to do so. But I can tell you, it was touch and go throughout that day," he added.

The satisfaction derives from the fact that he not only stayed in the saddle for that particular stage, but he also saw Paris for the first time in his Tour career. "I would have hated myself if I had packed it in," Boardman admits. "The fact that I stuck it out is so very pleasing to me.

"The Tour becomes a very personal challenge to the individual rider. During my nightmare stage I became very emotional. I know that if I had succumbed it would have been psychologically difficult to have faced the Tour next year. I would have felt a beaten man.

"When you ride into Paris and you can see the finish, it is also difficult to contain your emotions. You've been through hell for the past three weeks, and now you know that it is nearly over. I think you can only say that you have beaten the Tour if you win it. But if you finish, as I did, then you can get on with your life with the satisfaction that the Tour, at least this year, failed to beat you."

After listening to all this, you can be forgiven for thinking that the man cannot possibly be in any shape to win road racing's individual time trial gold medal on Thursday. Boardman, though, sees it differently. "Right now I'm a little tired, but I will have nearly two weeks to recover from the end of the Tour to the start of my Olympics, and that will be enough. I'm already in good shape, and I feel genuinely confident about my chances."

Having cycled the 52.3km, four-lap route around the streets of Atlanta, he considers this to be a doddle compared to the Tour. "It will be like a flat-out hour's racing. That's nothing after what I have just faced in France.

"The course is a bit rolling, which will suit Indurain more than me, but I'm still happy. The weather might pose problems, especially the heat or the heavy and sudden showers that seem to hit Atlanta. I rode the circuit today in the rain and, I must admit, it smacked a little of the Prologue stage of the Tour de France two years ago when I slipped and crashed out in the rain.

"I've got over that little trauma now, and my bike, which I specifically designed, will be able to cope with the course. There's absolutely no reason why I can't win. I definitely feel that I will ride well and produce a fast time which, hopefully, will be good enough on the day."

Yet there is another reason why Boardman is highly motivated for his event. The Wirral-based cyclist saw how his feat to win the 4,000m pursuit title in Barcelona could not be repeated by Graeme Obree, the hot favourite to continue Britain's success in this event, after a recent virus resulted in a dramatic loss of form.

Boardman clearly takes a dim view of all this. "I'm very disappointed not to have defended my Olympic title," he says. "The pursuit would probably have been the easiest route for me to have won a gold medal again. "I can certainly say that if I had entered it I would have won. That's not being arrogant, just honest. Pursuiting is a quantifiable goal and nothing has been achieved this year that I can't beat.

"I would think that Obree is gobsmacked by what has happened to him this week. He's had his knocks before, he knows cycling's all about despair and elation, and I'm sure he will bounce back from it. But I'm equally certain that he'll be asking himself if he is capable of keeping up with the best in the world anymore.

"He's not been going well all year and in many ways I'm surprised he was selected for the British team at all. It's pretty obvious that his selection was based on record, not form."

It has left Boardman with a small point to prove next month at the World Cycling Championships in Manchester. "I'll have enough time to make a full recovery from the Tour de France and the Olympics, and I'll be going for the world title, that's for sure," he said.

"It's not often you can go to a World Cycling Championships less than an hour from your house, so I'll be really up for it. It should be interesting to see what happens. I won the pursuit two years ago and let's just say that I'm confident this time as well."

Maybe, but let's get the Olympics out of the way first, Chris. After the first week, the Britons have won just one gold medal. A medal of any description would be welcome boost to Britain's stocks in Atlanta in 1996.