Cycling: Boardman struck by yellow jersey fever: Britain's Olympic champion is ready for his Tour de France debut on Saturday. Robin Nicholl reports

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The Independent Online
IT IS nearly a year since Chris Boardman first sampled red wine and the passion of the Tour de France. It was a heady day in Bordeaux. He had just broken the world hour record in sapping humidity on the track, and the Tour was in town.

Alongside Miguel Indurain, Boardman was presented from the Tour podium as another world-beater.

This week, after finishing the washing up at his Wirral home, he talked of climbing on to that podium again when the Tour opens in Lille on Saturday, then promptly pleaded guilty to raising British hopes.

The man who gave British cycling its first golden day for 72 Olympic years in Barcelona is under scrutiny to bring home the yellow jersey of the Tour leader 32 years after Tom Simpson became the only Briton to wear one.

'I have been a little naughty in egging everyone on about my chances, especially in the opening seven-kilometre time trial,' Boardman confessed. 'It's a lot to expect of me in the first six months of my professional career.'

Boardman's talent for racing against the clock became public knowledge when he won the Olympic pursuit gold medal. That knowledge, now fuelled by the hype of the Tour's two days in southern England, has kick- started the dream machine.

It has Boardman winning on the opening day, known as the prologue, to take the famous colours, and still be wearing them when the race pops from the Tunnel to race from Dover Castle to Brighton prom on 6 July.

Before that there are two road race stages and a team time trial, and anything can happen, as Boardman is anxious to underline.

'This is racing at a different level. Riders are prepared to turn themselves inside out to achieve something, pushing everything to the limit,' Boardman said. 'They will do crazy things, like attacking for three hours to gain television publicity, and taking suicidal risks on mountain descents.

'Winning the prologue by 10 seconds will mean nothing if a sprinter picks up time bonuses for a win in a road race stage. Also my team's best team time trials riders have been injured.

'I am not giving myself a way out, but I don't want people to think that I have let them down. I don't want to string people along, but looking at it logically it is not too likely that I could keep that jersey.

'I am nervous because I realise what an opportunity is being presented to me. I am going to do everything I can, but I just hope people understand what I am up against.

'Whatever happens it has still been a great first year. It is very hard to earn respect but I am starting to make a reputation with my peers. You don't have to convince the world you can be the best. Just your boss who pays the wages.

'Until a year ago the Tour never appealed to me. I could see just how much was involved, and nothing I had seen in pro racing had altered my mind.

'It all changed in Bordeaux. I thought then, and only then, that I might ride the Tour. . . I didn't drink red wine until Bordeaux.'

That is Boardman the realist. The dreamer in him imagines completing the 3,972 kilometres, Alps and all. That is three weeks of hard graft, and the most Boardman has tackled in one race is eight days.

Roger Legeay is the manager of his team, which is sponsored by GAN, a major French insurance company. He may adopt the no- risk plan that has blooded riders such as three-time winner Indurain, and pull Boardman out before the race reaches the Pyrenees in the second week.

'I will be gutted if I don't make 10 days,' Boardman said. 'If I am still going well and climbing OK I would like to race to the finish. I am not aiming for anything special in the overall positions. That is too much to expect, but I can see a time in the future when I could do something.'

He has fought through the self-doubts in his first two months as a pro ('As things got tough I began altering my sights and looking for ways to escape pressure') to produce attention-grabbing performances ('I have been looking for a Tour place all year').

Boardman's contract has an 'escape' clause which allows him regular visits home to his wife, Sally, and his three children. 'It was essential because if I was finding things were getting tough I could go away from the team. This way I could get through a bad patch without becoming totally depressed.'

Now there is no time for depression as the countdown begins, and Boardman leaves the family and the washing-up, to join his team-mates - including Greg LeMond, the American triple winner of the Tour - for a ride into the unknown.

(Photograph omitted)