At 40, Chris Boardman is perhaps not old enough, or grey enough, to be described as the eminence grise of British cycling, and yet the man who won an individual pursuit gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, who broke the world hour record three times, and who also wore the yellow jersey in the Tour de France three times, looms large over this unprecedented era of success. And with Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins going great guns in the current Tour and an astonishing medal haul in last year's Olympics, unprecedented it plainly is.
We meet at his Hoylake home, which must be just about the westernmost house on the Wirral peninsula, with fantastic views across the Dee estuary to north Wales. It also overlooks the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where Tiger Woods won the Open Championship three summers ago. There is a touch of irony about this, because Boardman is not remotely interested in the "pastime" of golf. That is a subject we will come to, as is the so-called Secret Squirrel Club, the organisation he runs which so brilliantly – and secretively – plotted British Cycling's assault on the Beijing Olympics, and is now focused on London 2012.
But first, the Tour de France. And in particular, Cavendish, the remarkable Manxman who, with the Tour less than a week old, has already won two stages. "Barring bad luck or injury there are seven potential stages for him," says Boardman. "He is probably as fast as anybody there ever was. If he was up against a Robbie McEwen or an Erik Zabel, he would still have beaten them. But at the moment there's a lull [in really great sprinters] so he's not just ahead of everybody else, he's head and shoulders ahead. And he doesn't see the world in the same way as everyone else. In a sprint, with bodies everywhere all going at 70mph, I'd see the bodies, but he sees the gaps between the bodies. That's the difference."
For weeks Cavendish has been telling anyone who will listen that much as he craves the green jersey, awarded at the end to the rider with most sprint points, his overriding objective this year is to make the finishing line. During the race, the green jersey is worn by whoever is leading the points tally. Boardman wore it himself, briefly, in 1996. He rode in the Tour de France eight times but only completed it twice, so he knows how difficult it is to reach the Champs-Elysées, and yet he dismisses Cavendish's proclaimed ambition.
"Everybody else has got grander ambitions on his behalf. Just getting to Paris isn't enough. The green jersey is well within his grasp, even though it is usually won by somebody who can sprint but also chases minor places to build up their points tally. I don't think anyone has ever done it just by winning stages, because they can't win enough. But I think he might just be the first person to do that."
Boardman is an eloquent man, but can he articulate what the Tour de France is actually like, for a competitor? "It's a curious event, just as much mental as physical, in that virtually everybody goes from elation to despair at some point over the three weeks. There are about 170 starters but only 90 make it. These are the most dedicated individuals in the sport but it still sees half the number taken out. It took me a long time to work out why I didn't finish; I just didn't have enough testosterone." He grins. "Which is odd, because I've got six kids."
They range from 20 years old down to four, the Boardman offspring, so just as the eldest was acquiring some independence, the youngest needed potty-training. If ever there was a couple up for a challenge, it is Sally and Chris Boardman. But what of those most gruelling physical challenges, the relentless climbing stages of the Tour de France? How did he cope with those, and how are the 2009 riders coping now?
"You chunk it up. You don't think 'there are seven more hours and I'm suffering now', you break it up into manageable mental chunks. And when you're going well in the mountains, which on rare occasions I did, it was great, because it's very physical but not tactical. After a few days you're more or less always with the same people. The Tour de France finds your level, so there is tremendous camaraderie, talking to the others around you about kids or whatever. Then someone launches an attack and you switch back into race mode. But you have to switch off, too. You'd burn out in a few days if you stayed utterly intense."
He saves his intensity, these days, for the Secret Squirrel Club, given that name slightly testily by a colleague, who was referring to the cabal, led by Boardman, which works tirelessly to find the advances in technique or equipment or psychology to keep British cyclists ahead of the pack.
"It's actually great fun," he says. "It's all about problem-solving, and for 15 years I was the problem: how could I get more out of this body? But as soon as I thought I'd turned over every stone I lost interest in my own career. Our philosophy is that in any business, the big steps forward never come from within, but from some outside influence. So when we wanted to know about dealing with heat stress, for example, we turned to the military. Fighting in the desert they've got to survive in 50 degrees of heat. So what do they do? We kept asking questions, but the sad thing about the Secret Squirrel Club is that we've all become experts. We brought in an aerodynamicist from Formula One four years ago, and because he knew nothing about cycling, he asked fantastic questions. Now he knows an awful lot about cycling. So now where do we get those questions from?"
The linchpin of the club, he adds, is the lead engineer, Dimitris Katzanis. "He eats, sleeps and drinks it, and he listens to everybody. He has stories about his landlady altering his designs. You have to be open to all influences. I was sitting in bed with my wife and while she was reading a magazine she said, 'you know those material tests you're doing, did you test them wet?' We'd done 10,000 tests by then. I said 'no, why?' She said 'well, you were always wet when you got off your bike'. So I fed that back to the team, and instead of going 'look, we know what we're doing', they went 'brilliant!'"
The essential conundrum in cycling, Boardman explains, is how to overcome air resistance. Over 90 per cent of the energy expended on a racing bike is to overcome air resistance, hence the skintight suits unveiled by the Brits in Beijing. By the world championships six months later, other countries had adopted them. "But I'm seeing lots of copying without any development. It's like Lance Armstrong, he won the Tour de France wearing socks half-way up his legs, so the next minute everyone was doing it, without quite knowing why."
As befits a secret club, there are only three people who know all the secrets. Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's acclaimed performance director, is not one of them. "He's the worst of all at keeping secrets because he's such an enthusiast," says Boardman. "So we don't tell him any."
I venture to him that in some countries – the Eastern Bloc pre-1990 springs to mind – initiatives like the Secret Squirrel Club were wholly concerned with producing world-beating athletes by foul means.
"Yeah, and part of the fun of what we do is finding ways to make it legal. There are some horrible rules in cycling – it must be within the spirit of the rules, there must be primacy of man over machine, some really ambiguous stuff." But what I was really referring to, I say, were perfomance-enhancing drugs. Once he has devoted years of his life into making a cyclist go faster by legal means, how stomach-churning must it be when that cyclist loses to a cheat?
"Ah, well this is where we bring in [the team's psychiatrist] Steve Peters. His ethos is simple. Ultimately you can only control yourself, so be as good as you can be. It sounds cheesy but that way you can't ever lose, and it's a subtle but critical way of dealing with all pressure."
Does he think that cycling has been unfairly tarnished as a drug-addled sport. "No, because it was. But what is unfair is that only cycling is properly looking. Nobody has done what we are doing in a really high-profile sport. And I do honestly think that this year's Tour de France is clean because the price of cheating now is way too high. I've been saying for the last five years that you have to make the risk greater than the reward. There used to be some bad publicity, a bit of embarrassment for the team, and that was it. Now they're thrown off the tour. The risk is greater than the reward."
As for the material rewards now coming Boardman's way, one assumes that they must be considerable. His manufacturing company, Boardman Bikes, is officially the fastest-growing bike brand ever. "We can't make them fast enough," he says. "And it's the perfect time. Two years ago if you rode to work, you were a bit of a geek. Today if you ride to work, it's a small boast. We expect to sell over 20,000 this year. Nicole Cooke rode one of our bikes in the Olympic Games, and you can buy the same one in Halfords."
We have been talking about cycling for an hour now, a bit late in the day for Boardman to hit me with the bombshell that it is not, outside his family, his primary passion in life. "Scuba-diving is. I go out every weekend in Liverpool Bay." And what do you find in Liverpool Bay, I ask, possibly with a bit of a snort. Rusty bikes? "You're joking. Liverpool was a wartime port. It was the centre of the slave trade. There are thousands of wrecks out there. And I bring scallops back for tea."
Indefatigable seems as good a word as any to describe the extraordinary Chris Boardman. Which is perhaps why golf has never tempted him; it just doesn't seem active enough. "I struggle to think of it as a sport," he says. "That doesn't mean it's bad or wrong, just that it holds no interest for me." Not even when Woods won, just over his garden fence? "No, I'd rather look the other way, towards the sea. But I can respect the amount of work that goes into being that good. Most of all I'm interested in people. How they do what they do. It's the same in my own sport. It's people that fascinate me."