Cycling: Boardman sweeps the new boards: Richard Williams reports on the inaugural competition at a pounds 9m velodrome

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The Independent Online
IN FRANCE and Italy you see bank managers and architects out on their racing bikes on sunny Sunday mornings, sheathed in Dayglo Lycra and burning up the asphalt, their heads full of boyhood dreams of Anquetil and Coppi. To the British, by contrast, cycle racing is a sport that belongs to frosty dawns on the Doncaster by-pass. In that context, yesterday's inaugural meeting at the pounds 9m Manchester velodrome offered a rare opportunity to invest the sport with a little glamour. A little, but not too much.

While the great names of contemporary cycling - Bortolami, Chiappucci, Fondriest, Millar, Mottet, Hampsten and Ugrumov - were gathering in the royal park of Monza for the start of the 88th Giro di Lombardia, the last classic road race of the European season, drizzly Manchester played host to Ghijselinck, Stirratt, Rozendaal, Whitcombe and De Peuter: a scratch collection of 50- odd riders from eight nations competing in a varied programme of sprints, pursuits, keirins, points races and devil- take-the-hindmosts. Denmark, who replaced Italy at three days' notice, eventually won the competition, with Britain and France in joint-second place.

Conceived as part of Manchester's bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, the velodrome went ahead despite the failure of that venture. Now, operating under the title of the National Cycling Centre and run by the British Cycling Federation on behalf of the Sports Council, it will host the World Track Championships in 1996.

Built on the site of the old Stuart Street power station, the new stadium is quite a thing of beauty. The track, 250 metres of pale blond Baltic pine strips, banked at 12.5 degrees on the straights and 42 degrees on the curves, is encased in a dramatic oyster-shaped shell, with a fine lattice-work aluminium roof. It is Britain's first indoor velodrome, and to help pay the bills its central floor will provide facilities for other sports, including basketball and table tennis.

Unsurprisingly, its ambience is modern and antiseptic, far from the ramshackle pastis- and-Gauloises mood of the old continental indoor tracks which host the winter six-day races. Perhaps it will never acquire such an atmosphere - but the organisers could make a start by providing decent catering facilities. A few curling cheese sandwiches, chocolate bars and cans of Coke offered a poor welcome to families who had paid pounds 10 a head for this inaugural gala.

The big attraction at yesterday's meeting was Chris Boardman, Britain's gold medal winner in the 4,000m pursuit at the 1992 Olympics and at this year's world championships in Palermo. In what was billed as a 'revenge match', Boardman faced Francis Moreau, the French rider who took the silver in Sicily. Still recovering from a virus which forced him out of a time trial on Merseyside last Sunday, the Englishman lost more than two seconds to his Gan team-mate over the first quarter of the race, both of them whirring round on the revolutionary carbon-framed Lotus bicycles. But the world champion's strength told, and with two laps to go, the rainbow jersey took the lead, thrusting his black machine past the finishing gun with an advantage of 2.1sec.

Boardman had been swept along by waves of applause from the stands. The velodrome holds 3,500 spectators, and there were perhaps 300 empty seats yesterday, although the president of the BCF had taken the precaution of selling the stadium's specially constructed press seats to the public - a novel form of public relations.

The velodrome is about five miles from the site of the old Fallowfield stadium, once owned by Reg Harris, whose bronze statue, overlooking the track's south curve, was unveiled by his widow midway through the afternoon. Born in nearby Bury, and a hero to rank with Denis Compton, Stanley Matthews and Stirling Moss in the minds of Eagle- reading schoolboys of the 1950s, Harris had been wounded in a tank battle in the Western Desert before becoming the world amateur sprint champion in 1947. The following year he recovered from a broken neck in a car crash to win two silver medals at the London Olympics, after a row with the British team authorities when he quit their Herne Hill training camp to prepare on his own at Fallowfield. Leaving the amateurs behind for good, he won the world professional sprint champion four times between 1949 and 1954.

A man of legendary independence, Harris later made one of the most extraordinary comebacks in British sporting history, winning the national sprint title in 1974, at the age of 54. He died in Macclesfield two summers ago, a few days after his final bike ride.

The statue, by James Butler RA, is a marvellously evocative piece of work, worth a visit in its own right. No doubt the BCF is hoping that the effigy will bestow good fortune upon a fine facility which is going to need all the luck it can get if it is to prosper in what, for all Harris's and Boardman's medals, remains an alien culture.