He set the pace in the 52-kilometre time trial, but Miguel Indurain and Abraham Olano responded to take the gold and silver medals for Spain.
For a time, Boardman was faster than Indurain, but that was a red rag to the Spanish bull, who eventually beat him by 31sec, and Boardman's response was to the point. "Indurain makes me sick, really. He's a nice bloke and it's hard to get mad at him. There's no hate, no anger, but ..."
Boardman had felt the weight of Olympic gold after the 1992 track pursuit. So bronze felt like failure. "It's hard to accept the difference between the best and the also-rans ... I can't be happy, but I have to accept it.
"I had to start fast because I have been finding it difficult to produce my full power in time trials. That was a mistake," said Boardman, who overshot one bend in his haste. "On the last lap I went flat out. I just could not go any faster."
Boardman went into battle armed with the best. He spent pounds 4,500 on carbon- fibre handlebars alone. "It is an investment," said the man who is weighing up another attempt on the world one-hour record he held in 1993.
"An historic achievement," was how Indurain described his victory. But the world time-trial champion admitted that he would be ready to swap Olympic gold for a sixth Tour de France victory.
Boardman said he had heard that Indurain was retiring at the end of the year. Wishful thinking? The quiet giant of Navarre would speak only of riding his next race. Then he would decide whether to defend his world title in Switzerland in October.
Max Sciandri's bronze in the road race also gave British cycling a lift and the road coach, Dave Smith, said: "We have to thank the Italian system for bringing up Sciandri."