Profile: Climbing to greatness

Chris Boardman, Britain's leading cyclist prepares to reach a new peak of fitness. Simon O'Hagan reports
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The Independent Online
IF Chris Boardman had to point on a map to where the Alps are, his finger would be tempted to land on north-west England, not central Europe. For Boardman, the finest British cyclist of his generation, the next big challenge lies in the mountains - and to that end he has spent his winter re-creating their fierce demands on a treadmill in a gym in the Wirral, Cheshire. The view may not compare, but it is cheaper doing it that way, and more suited to the scientific analysis that is the cornerstone of the modern cyclist's preparation. And few cyclists go about things as scientifically as Boardman, whose fame still rests to a great extent on his gold medal-winning performance at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when his futuristic Lotus bike drew as much attention as the man himself.

If anyone ever doubted that there was a human being under that aerodynamic helmet and not just the detached manipulator of a machine, they have no reason to now. In the two and a half years since the race that changed his life, there has emerged not onlyone of the most personable figures in British sport but one with the potential to become cycling's ultimate achiever - the winner of the Tour de France.

Boardman, not someone given to idle boasts, describes it as a "feasible aim", adding that if it is going to happen it will do so within the next five years. Roger Legeay, manager of the Gan team for whom Boardman rides, sees him as a top 10 finisher in 1995, a remarkable claim considering his rider's inexperience. Boardman's coach, Peter Keen, says they are learning a lot from the lessons of the treadmill. John Syer, Boardman's psychologist, calls him "a genius".

Listening to all this, it is easy to forget that winning the Tour de France involves a more stringent test of body and spirit than any sport offers, and that no Englishman has come close to doing it. There is also the small matter of Miguel Indurain, winner of the past four Tours, in whose giant shadow Boardman must take his place among other, worthier contenders - at least for the moment.

One of those is Tony Rominger of Switzerland - Boardman's opponent in a 4,000 metres pursuit race which will be the showpiece of the "Superdrome" meeting taking place in the National Cycling Centre's new velodrome in Manchester next weekend. It marks a return to the track racing which was the making of the young Boardman but which, at 26 years old, he now sees merely as "a means to an end". Such is the regard in which the road racer is held.

Not that this was ever something Boardman particularly aspired to. But having achieved all he could as an amateur on the track - Olympic gold, world titles, the hour-record that is cycling's blue riband event - there was only one way to steer his bike, into the professional ranks and on to the road.

That was in August 1993, since when Boardman has established himself as a leading member of the Gan team, exceeding Legeay's expectations merely by putting himself in a position where he could be chosen to ride in last year's Tour, and then astounding everybody by wearing the race leader's yellow jersey for the first three days. First-time Tour entrants simply don't do that kind of thing.

It was never going to be possible for Boardman to complete the Tour. But it did his reputation no harm to be part of the first one to visit England for 20 years, even if his efforts to stay in yellow for the stages through his homeland only helped hastenhis departure. As it was, he survived for 11 stages, but with the Pyrenees looming, it was time to step out of the saddle.

Within two months, Boardman was confirming his pre-eminence on the track by winning the 4,000 metres pursuit title in the world championships in Sicily, and then it was back to the gym and the laboratory to work on the one element of his repertoire he had yet to acquire - the ability to climb.

Peter Keen, a lecturer in sports science at the University of Brighton, has worked with Boardman since 1987 when the 17-year-old was one of a number of promising young cyclists the national federation delivered to him in the hope that he could help turn them into champions.

"Chris has always been very open-minded, prepared to take on board whatever might improve his performance," Keen says. "He's dogged, and he can take knocks, which is important. I'd say he had all the characteristics of a great athlete." Between them, they are working on ways to get more out of the Boardman body - not just on the uphill stretches, but over the flat as well. Wasted effort there leaves a rider in a worse condition to tackle the mountains, and riding the Tour is really about making the mostefficient use of energy.

As a result, Boardman's physique is changing. At the Manchester velodrome, where he was training last week, he looked almost dainty, certainly very different from the chunky figure who powered his Lotus bike around the track in Barcelona. The statistics bear this out: from weighing 73kg in 1992, he dropped to 68kg for the Tour last year, and although he weighs 71.5kg at the moment, the battle to improve his power-to-weight ratio means it will go back down again over the next few months.

Then there are Boardman's mental strengths. John Syer has worked with him for 10 years, and points, like Keen, to his willingness to learn as one of the keys to his success. "I always ask the people I work with to take notes, to keep a book about what they are doing," Syer says. "Some of them find that very difficult. But Chris has always been excellent. He is very methodical, and if that makes him sound plodding it's not meant to. Because there's something very special about his talent as well."

But what about when the going gets really tough? When the body is screaming out to stop? "Pain is a focus of attention," Syer says. "But there is a mental skill, and Chris has it, which allows you to shift your focus of attention. The thing with Chris isthat he knows so much about how his own mind and body work." Boardman himself believes that "it is the people who do their homework who get results".

Which is not to say Boardman does not suffer like anyone else. "I came to the conclusion last year that I hated cycling," he says. "Nobody likes killing themselves to win a stage. But the satisfaction you feel afterwards, that's a different matter. To me, cycling is just a medium for being successful. I'm a natural competitor rather than a natural sportsman."

Roger Legeay is sufficiently impressed with Boardman and his back-up team of Keen, Syer and Peter Woodworth, his manager, to be happy to let them get on with it. Unusually among British cyclists who have joined professional teams on the Continent, Boardman has continued to live in England, on the Wirral where he was born and brought up. But he has an excellent relationship with Legeay, who is receptive to Boardman's ideas and whose command of English has decreased the pressure on the Englishman to learnFrench.

"I like France," Boardman says. "The culture's good, the food's good, and the respect that cyclists are held in is much greater. But I really didn't fancy renting an apartment and staring at the walls all day. Home is home." And home is also his wife Sally and their three children, Edward, five, Harriet, three, and George, one.

Boardman remains heavily involved with the North Wirral Velo Club where he started cycling when he was 13, after being introduced by his father, Keith, who was also a successful amateur and still rides today. He has set up an elite group of young riders within the club, providing them with sponsorship and the sort of technical back-up that Boardman himself enjoys.

One of the beneficiaries is Yvonne McGregor, a Commonwealth Games gold medal winner. "Chris's achievements have helped put British cycling on the map," she says. "He's been the leading light in the past few years. For me, it's his ambition that makes himsuch a great example. He's shown that you can achieve what you set out to. And he's still very approachable. He'll help you with anything."

Boardman's legacy to British cycling is already huge. But as long as Alpe d'Huez rises out of the Cheshire countryside, it will surely go on growing.