Tour de France: Climb every mountain

Boardman must conquer fear of heights to succeed in the Tour de France. Andrew Longmore reports
Only a prizefighter would understand the depth of the uncertainty which has gripped Chris Boardman in the build-up to the 84th Tour de France. On the threshold of his severest test, his defences have been stripped bare by the debilitating legacy of a stomach virus and a dose of sheer bad luck.

Last week, having flown across the plains of Catalonia in the white jersey of race leader, all seemed well again until he stopped dead on the climbs, finishing the race a tired and dispirited 13th. The Tour, which begins in Rouen on Saturday, is formidable enough in peak form; without reserves, it is like tackling the heavyweight champion with chin out and arms tied.

"I'm just doing my job," Boardman said with an unusual note of resignation last week. "It's disappointing when you're this close to an objective, but there is nothing I can do other than hope it comes right on the day. I'm fit and healthy now, I'm just lacking the ability to recover on climbs at the moment. Something will have to change before the Tour."

On a rare anti-clockwise route, which takes the race through the Pyrenees before the Alps, Boardman will come face to face with his worst memories. Last year, the 17th stage, from Argeles Gazost to Pamplona, left a scar as permanent as any of the wounds from his crash on the streets of San Brieuc 12 months before. The Champs Elysee was just five days away, but the remnants of the peloton had eyes only for the toughest stage of the Tour, 262km, seven mountains, seven hours in 40 degree heat. What the old-timers call a "grovel". For the Englishman, the truth was much worse.

"I was out at the back after 5km," he recalled. "Somehow I managed to get back on to the peloton, but every time we hit a climb, I'd think: 'I can't do this'. Then we'd hit a downhill stretch and I'd say 'I'm OK now'. I wasn't, but I just couldn't stop, not after 17 days and somehow I managed to get through. I reckon you can only experience a day as bad as that about three times in your life." One down, two to go.

Boardman proved something to himself that day, something that could not be measured by stopwatch or pulse monitor, nor even by the Olympic gold tucked away in his sock drawer. He survived on pride alone, perhaps for the first time since riding round the rickety old track in Kirby, being pelted by rain and stones from the local kids. Pride, and a touch of a perfectionist's curiosity. How far to breaking point? Four days later, he rode into Paris to finish 39th behind Bjarne Riis. "It's why people like the Tour, isn't it? It's so tough."

Boardman was in town recently to promote Eurosport's coverage, nearly 100 hours of televised suffering spread across 22 days, 21 stages and 3,870km. His mind was elsewhere really. His wife, Sally-Anne, and Harriet, the second of his four children, had been dispatched to Covent Garden for the morning. He wanted to be with them; above all, he did not want to be reminded of his appointment with pain.

Boardman has set his sights high, this time realistically so. His whole campaign has been geared towards fulfilling his potential in the Tour. A place in the top 10 overall is well within his compass. The Prologue is still an obvious target, but then he will sit back and wait for the mountains while Fred Moncassin, the team's sprinter, pumps adrenalin down the main streets of northern French towns. As ever with the Tour, there are complications. Gan, the team sponsors, are pulling out at the end of the season, leaving Roger Legeay, the chain-smoking chief, to find a replacement before the contracts of the riders run out on 1 September. The Tour is his best billboard.

At the recent Dauphine Libere, the second biggest stage race in France, Boardman was suffering from a stomach virus and would have pulled out but for the car-load of potential sponsors following behind. If they wanted to see some guts, they got rather more than they bargained for. Boardman was sick four times on the time trial and finished fifth. Though their high-profile leader has already attracted offers from other teams, including, rumour has it, Once, the Manchester United of cycling teams, the need for the rest to advertise their services could compromise team discipline and expose Boardman's tactical inexperience - and Gan's weakness - in the mountains.

The ideal race plan would go something like this: win the Prologue, ride steadily through the opening stages, saving energy and avoiding the wind, the crashes and lunatic sprinters, maybe try to get into a break on one of the undulating stages down the west coast, hang on in for the three stages through the Pyrenees and then attack the 55km time trial in St Etienne on stage 12 before surviving the Alps. A yellow jersey on his first day, retirement on the 11th, a crash after 92 seconds the following, his first full Tour last year. Boardman has packed a lot into his three Tour years, but the main question remains tantalisingly open.

"At the end of the Tour I would like to know what else I could have done better," he said. "It may be nothing. I know I can win world time trials and pursuits, but the Tour is the biggest challenge in my profession and this year should tell me if winning it is still possible."

In the absence of Miguel Indurain, the 198-strong field is peppered with potential winners. With the big Spaniard, everyone knew where they stood. Second, usually. Without him, a host of riders led by Richard Virenque, Alex Zulle, Abraham Olano, Ivan Gotti and Evgeni Berzin will be confident of challenging Riis.

Cynics would suggest that the route, as tough as any in the past decade, has been specially mapped out to bring Virenque, the leader of the Festina team and King of the Mountains in the last three Tours, the first home victory for 12 years. Even the time trial, Virenque's weakest suit, includes a second category climb to puncture the speed merchants.

Five Hors Categorie climbs, including two brutes in the Col du Tourmalet (2,114 metres, stage nine) and L'Alpe d'Huez (1,580, stage 13), and nine first-category climbs will split the contenders from the pretenders. This is territory for born climbers, the bigger men like Riis and Zulle need strong teams to share the load and swift tactical brains to exploit the opportunities.

No longer will tactics be dictated by the relentless grimacing figure of Indurain. Yet, in Olano, Banesto have a successor of frightening similarity. He has the same cool Basque head, the same unchanging visage, the same economy with words and has mastered enough of the overall arts, having developed from a sprinter into an accomplished time trialist and adequate climber, to make comparisons with Big Mig more than just journalistic licence.

"I have no interest in winning anything before the Tour," was an Indurain mantra quoted happily by Olano earlier this season. Olano is 27, the same age as Indurain was in 1991 for the first of his five consecutive victories, and the route this year goes through Val Louron where Indurain set up that first win. Enough coincidences? Far too many for the French if Olano sweeps through Paris in yellow on the last Sunday in July.