Cycling: Boardman ready for his ascent

Robin Nicholl on British hopes for the Tour de France starting tomorrow
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The Independent Online
Chris Boardman is changing treadmills. After honing his mountain- climbing technique on a power jogger at a local sports centre, Britain's big hope is headed for a treadmill with wheels, the Tour de France and its 3,535 kilometres of torture.

Last year he never saw the mountains, the teeth of the Tour. After a historic debut when he became the first Briton to carry the race leader's yellow jersey for three days by winning the opening time trial, he pulled out on the 11th of the 21 days in the saddle.

"Quitting is not an option this year," Boardman said. "I do not consider that completing the Tour is a big enough objective for me. It's going to be tough but I have to work for something.

"It's more frustrating for me when people in the street are looking for success. I am not at that point yet. I know it's disappointing for those who are looking for someone to support.

"I want to win the prologue time trial again, but that is more as an insurance. The Tour may be a most satisfying experience but it will not be pleasant. If someone does not make it hard for me then I will.

"I don't like cycling but I found I was good at it. It's painful, dangerous, and goes on for a long time, but I am a natural competitor. I enjoy winning even if I don't enjoy the experience of doing it. Money is not the main consideration. Racing is more a lifestyle, and a way of measuring success."

Any success this year depends on the Alps and the Pyrenees, and Boardman, who is as analytical as a research chemist, has prepared for the challenge. He has felt the slopes of l'Alpe d'Huez and the Galibier mountain under his wheels, and has maintained his climbing build-up in a Wirral sports centre.

"I rode my bike on a runner's treadmill at the centre, adjusting the controls to alter the gradient and the speed. An hour of this after two hours of road training is very effective."

There is no substitute for the mighty Tourmalet in the Pyrenees or the serpent-like climb to the Alpine ski resort of l'Alpe d'Huez. If Boardman sees the Tour as "a trip to hell", these are the sharp prongs of the devil's fork. "We have tried to analyse what went wrong when I have had a bad climb. We still don't know the answers, so it is down to educated guesses."

He is making up for his lack of Tour knowledge by going to those whose legs and minds have stored the agony like pedalling memory banks. Eddy Merckx, the Belgian who won five Tours de France, has produced a mountain special, made of titanium, in his bike factory to help Boardman.

"I talk a lot with Robert Millar," Boardman said. Millar has 12 years' experience of Tour mountains, and 11 years ago the Scot won the red polka dot jersey of the Tour's best mountain climber. "His advice was the reason I went to Grenoble so that I could ride on the mountains in the heat. I find it difficult climbing in the heat. But it lashed with rain all the time I was there.

"Because I am from northern Europe my sweat has a much higher salt content than Miguel Indurain of Spain. Now we are trying to overcome those losses by using specialised drinks."

Last year's Tour suffered temperatures topping 36C (nearly 97F) and Boardman's attempts to recreate such heat by training under layers of clothing on home roads did not work.

Behind his development is his trainer, Peter Keen, and for the past 18 months Roger Legeay, the manager of his team who are sponsored by the French insurers, GAN. "He [Legeay] doesn't give me a hard time, and he takes the stress if any from sponsors," Boardman said. "He doesn't pass it on to the riders. Sometimes though, I see it in his face and it makes me feel a little responsible."

Yet in one year Boardman achieved more than many do in a career. "I made it hard for myself with that Tour success and two world titles. If I win one title this year it will be seen as failure."

Such success has more than one price. As Boardman progressed from Olympic champion to world record holder then to his Tour mini-triumph and world titles, he has had to sacrifice time with his children, Edward, Harriet, and George.

"I don't unwind and I am not good at sitting still, but I like spending time with the kids. It eases the guilt of missing out on their growing up. They don't wait, and that's one of the expensive parts of this job."