Chris Boardman has revealed that he is to quit his role as Head of Research & Development at British Cycling after this summer’s Olympic Games in London. Best known these days as a BBC commentator and for his range of bikes, Boardman’s role in the emergence of Great Britain as a power in world cycling has been low-key, but crucial.
The 43-year-old revealed that he was stepping down from the post, which he has occupied for nine years, in a blog piece written for BBC Sport that provides a fascinating insight into his role in Great Britain’s success in recent years, including a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how it ensures that bikes an other equipment meet UCI regulations.
By his own admission, Boardman, winner of Olympic gold in the individual pursuit at Barcelona in 1992, world time trial champion two years later and three times a wearer of the maillot jaune in the Tour de France, was a hands-on, some might say obsessive, rider when it came to the specification and set-up of his own bikes and the equipment he used.
“I've always been fascinated with understanding and making things, going back to my first job as a cabinet maker,” he acknowledged. “From the first bikes I owned, I can remember filing gear levers to make them lighter and messing in the shed. As a pro cyclist I would commission my own equipment.”
Back when Boardman won what turned out to be Great Britain’s sole cycling medal at Barcelona, the thought that 16 years later in Beijing any country, let alone Great Britain, would win 14 cycling medals, eight of those gold, was far-fetched to say the least.
Boardman, who had struggled with osteoporosis, retired from racing at the end of the 2000 season when he was aged 30. It was his own keen attention to detail and making sure that everything was ‘just so’ that led to his being brought into British Cycling’s backroom team, although that didn’t happen immediately.
“After the Athens Olympics, I had a conversation with British Cycling's performance director, Dave Brailsford,” he explained. “Over coffee, the concept of ‘marginal gains’ came up. I was charged with looking at everything which wasn't coaching, physical or tactical, to see which areas we could improve. We gave UK Sport the plan, UK Sport gave us funding.
“In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics we gained a huge understanding. We didn't just try to make a big improvement in one area; we looked at a thousand things, and how each could be improved by just one per cent. Aggregate all of that and it becomes a meaningful number.”
Boardman says that Great Britain’s principal achievement ahead of the Beijing Games was helping riders understand the importance of aerodynamics, something that he says other countries, and Australia and Germany in particular, have since replicated.
“But we don't pay attention to what they are doing,” he maintained. “Nor do we even look within our own sport. By now, we have learnt that game-changing ideas do not come from experts, they come from people who haven't got a clue and ask stupid questions,” citing the example, “Why are you using 42cm bars?” “ Because we always have.” “Wouldn't it make sense to use narrower bars?"
“And now you see us using narrower bars,” he continued. “Those questions make you stop and think where you didn't before. The difficulty for us is that every advance we make is copied. Yes, we use narrower bars, but look around you. All the top sprinters are doing it.”
Of course, whatever technical advances you may make, they are useless if they fall foul of UCI regulations regarding equipment, whether that be frames, other bike components, clothing or helmets, among others.
According to Boardman, since Beijing British Cycling has sought to involve the governing body at a much earlier stage of the process than happened previously, and he also revealed that some new kit will be on show at London 2012.
“Much of what the British cyclists will use at London 2012 is not on show yet - it is still being manufactured,” he outlined. “The only people who have seen it all are at cycling's world governing body, the UCI. The most important point to make is how we have changed our relationship with the UCI in the last four years.
“We are really open with them,” Boardman added. “I have been to see them to discuss everything we're doing, show them prototypes, and show them the finished articles. In two weeks' time I will show them the final garments of clothing, for example. We want them to be totally happy going into London 2012.
“The relationship wasn't like that up to Beijing but we didn't really have anything to worry about. However, because we performed so well, people looked for reasons to pin that on and the technological side of things became ridiculously overblown. Some of the figures given for the cost of GB bikes were ludicrous, but they have been taken as fact.
“The last three years have been spent calming that talk down and making sure there is a proper dialogue with the UCI. Inflammatory language makes for better copy, but journalists speaking to me here at the World Championships in Melbourne have used words like 'war' when it comes to our work.
“When the UCI doesn't know what you're doing - all they see is what's in the press, then other nations are reading the same thing and getting on the phone to them - they get understandably quite emotional about words like that. This time, when they read those articles, they will know what's hyperbole and what's accurate,” he insisted.
Nothing would be worse for Great Britain come the Olympics, of course, than to have equipment ruled illegal by UCI scrutineers ahead of racing, and at the Velodrome this August you’re unlikely to see someone take a saw to an offending piece of kit as Boardman’s former rival Graeme Obree famously once did.
To ensure that there is no chance of Britain’s current crop of cyclists even being put in a similar situation to begin with, Boardman disclosed that where there is uncertainty over whether a particular component or other item complies with the rules, he seeks clarification in person.
“There are still grey areas in the rules "at the discretion" of the world governing body, and that's when I go and book a meeting with Julien Carron, the UCI's technical coordinator,” he said.
“I don't just need to understand the rules; I need to understand his interpretation of them, and what rule changes might be coming next.”
While British Cycling has sought to involve the UCI at an earlier stage of the process, Boardman pointed out that a change in attitude at the governing body has also led to a more consistent approach regarding which items comply and which don’t.
“In the past, they got around these grey areas in a lazy fashion by using phrases like "at their discretion" and "in the spirit of the rules" with their word being final and no right of appeal.
“That gave them carte blanche to say whatever they liked. Julien Carron has made a real effort to make the regulations black-and-white and adhere to them rigidly, which is how it should always have been.
“I hope that means, if designs which break those rules reach the London Olympic track, they are thrown out, even on the day of racing,” Boardman went on. “It will not happen to us: all of our bike frames have UCI stamps on them, even though the rules say they don't need them because the designs are pre-2012.
“My job has been to ensure there is a zero per cent chance of our equipment being withdrawn. I want to go into the BBC commentary box, watch the racing, and have no worries at all.”
His role with British Cycling over the past nine years has been a demanding one, and Boardman said he feels ready to move on after this summer’s Olympics.
“This line of work has not stopped for me, from meetings straight off the plane to Skype conferences with people back home crammed into all hours of the day. That's what it takes, but after London 2012 they deserve somebody who will give it their heart and soul because I don't feel I will be able to do it justice.
“Dave Brailsford said to me, years ago, that you can't live your whole life on the front line and that's where I have been for many years now in this sport,” he added. “It's time to step away.
“That decision is tinged with sadness because it's a big chunk of my life, but I'm convinced this is the right time. It's been great, but it is somebody else's turn now," Boardman concluded.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.