Boardman the time lord

Simon O'Hagan finds that the world record holder has saved his best to last
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The Independent Online
The Home crowd cheered so loudly when Chris Boardman broke the cycling world hour record in Manchester last month that it hurt his ears even through his carbon-fibre helmet. This week the pedal will be on the other foot, as it were, when the world time-trial championship in Switzerland pits him against two local men who could give even the brilliant Boardman a ride for his money.

Alex Zulle and Tony Rominger are, like Boardman, in peak form after finishing first and third in the Tour of Spain - the Vuelta - last weekend. "They've had excellent preparation and just enough time to recover," Boardman said last week. "The crowd will help them, but I won't mind that. At this level the motivation comes from within."

What gives the contest added spice is that it was Rominger's hour record that Boardman broke, clocking up a lung- lacerating 56.375 kilometres, an improvement on the old best of an astonishing 1.084km. That performance, coming after he had won his second world pursuit title six days previously, marked Boardman's complete rehabilitation from a series of troubles earlier in the season, and if he can add the time- trial title in Lugano on Thursday, he will be able to look back on his biggest year since his sudden international emergence with the pursuit gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

It is something which did not seem very likely when Boardman, suffering with a virus, struggled to complete the Tour de France for the first time in July. Finishing - in 37th - was an achievement in itself, but he had hoped for so much more after the disaster of 1995, when he crashed out on the opening day. Paradoxically, though, it was the nature of his Tour ride that has enabled him to surge back to the top over the last two months.

"The thing about the Tour was that I wasn't able to damage myself because my body wasn't allowing itself to be used to its full potential," Boardman said. "I actually benefited from that. My uptake of carbohydrate was being impeded, which meant my body had to become more efficient. Certainly, adaptations took place over three weeks which you couldn't have simulated in training. If I'd done well there it probably would have eaten up all my energy and enthusiasm for the rest of the season."

An acute awareness of what his body is telling him, an ability to learn from experience, and perhaps a greater willingness to rationalise disappointment than his rivals possess have helped bolster Boardman's prodigious talent, and out of the frustration of his Tour experience came a determination to meet three big goals left to him over the remainder of the season.

Coming so soon after the Tour, the Olympics in Atlanta was never going to be one of them. "It was nice to come away with a bronze medal, but at the moment I'm only really interested in winning," Boardman said. Having triumphed in the world pursuit and the hour-record attempt, Boardman, who has just turned 28, goes to Switzerland in what he believes is the most consistent form of his life.

At 40km, the ride will suit Boardman for length, but two draggy climbs will be more to Zulle's liking in particular, while at 34, the "calculating" Rominger, as Boardman describes him, will want to make the most of a chance of glory in front of his compatriots. "The course is not too technical, but quite hard," Boardman said. "I'd definitely prefer something flatter. Having said that, a one-off time-trial is not the same as a time-trial after five or six stages of a tour, and I'm better in one-offs."

In the absence of Miguel Indurain, Olympic time-trial gold medal winner, other contenders include the Spaniard Abraham Olano, second to Indurain in Atlanta, and the man who took Indurain's crown in this year's Tour de France, Bjarne Riis of Denmark. But both Riis and Olano are feeling the effects of a long season, and Boardman thinks there could be "a lot of top riders not giving 100 per cent and a lot of average riders giving 110 per cent". As someone who combines both quality and commitment, Boardman is the man to beat.