Cycling: Tour de France - Boardman in the endgame

Robin Nicholl finds the agony is almost over for a weary Briton
GREG LEMOND was a hard act to follow, and Chris Boardman arrived in the GAN team as the American was winding down his Tour de France career.

"Roger Legeay [the team manager] needed a new icon for his sponsors, and Boardman was it," Stephen Roche, another Tour winner, observed last week, as Boardman battled with the heat, mountains and his mind to complete the 3,686 kilometre (2,212 mile) race.

With Paris in sight Boardman, 31 next month and a father of four, said: "I may start another Tour, but I just cannot contemplate finishing it. I don't think I could go through this again."

Boardman came to his first professional team with the credentials of an Olympic champion in the 4,000m pursuit and world hour record-breaker in 1993. It was the exit LeMond needed and, after three Tour victories, he took it.

Boardman was not a ready-made team leader. He had achieved wonders on a bike but he was not built, mentally or physically, for winning Tours. He raised hopes with a record-breaking debut when he won the opening time- trial at Lille. More importantly, he had taken the yellow jersey as Tour leader, a sponsor's dream.

Thereafter the Tour became a struggle laced with short-lived triumphs and agonies. A year after the Lille euphoria came a bone-breaking fall on wet Breton roads which ended his Tour in minutes. In 1996 he lost by two seconds in the prologue, the opening time-trial for which he was now considered a favourite, but there was triumph - he went the full distance to Paris.

He followed that by winning the prologues in Rouen (1997) and Dublin (1998), but each time crashes sent him home for another review.

So the 1999 Tour dawned with Boardman determined to ensure one triumph, riding down the Champs-Elysees today. His weariness showed in yesterday's time-trial, normally Boardman's speciality. He was beaten by his Australian teammate Stuart O'Grady who was 37 seconds faster over the 57km (35-mile) course despite a wheel change because of a puncture.

"I was hurting badly," O'Grady said. "But I decided that with a day to go I might as well make it really hurt. Before the puncture I thought I might finish a minute ahead of our time-trial guru."

"When the results are not coming anymore, it becomes a personal challenge to go the distance," Boardman said. There were times when the dream faded into nightmare. "The first day in the Massif Central I suffered, and the next day was even worse. I thought I cannot go through that again.

"Then the first day in the Pyrenees was almost it. I was in real trouble with the heat, and I kept slipping backwards, then I had a puncture. This is it, I thought, but somehow I got back and, although the group was riding slowly, it was a struggle to get over two more climbs."

Boardman has never shirked a challenge and he is looking forward to the next, helping his children put up the tent when they go camping next week.