Chris Boardman interview: Bikes, Halfords, Pat McQuaid & changing the world
"I couldn't care less if someone wants to ride a racer, I’d just like to see people riding bikes."
What makes Chris Boardman tick? In a word: bikes. Not just as a means to go fast in races and on the open road, but as a “simple machine” that can help solve problems of health, pollution and congestion. He’s refreshingly honest and unevasive as he talks about the government’s attitude to cycling and whether he’d take the job of UK ‘cycling champion’, UCI equipment certification, sticking up for sportives, and Brian Cookson’s election as UCI president. And he doesn’t duck discussing the poor reputation for customer service of retail partner Halfords, and what they’re doing about it.
We won’t need all our allocated 15 minutes, Chris Boardman says as we sit down to chat, as he’s only going to give one-word answers.
Chris Boardman at the London launch of the 2014 Boardman Performance range (©Steve Behr/Halfords)
He’s kidding, of course. Such is Chris Boardman’s quiet but deep enthusiasm for all things cycling that we doubt he could restrict himself to one-word answers even with a gun to his head.
We’re in a quiet meeting room tucked away in the bowels of Kings Place, a swanky London food, music and conference ‘hub’ that seems to have mislaid its apostrophe. It’s close to King’s Cross, which hasn’t.
Christopher Miles Boardman, MBE needs little introduction. The first British cyclist in decades to win an Olympic medal when he took gold in the individual pursuit in Barcelona, Boardman went on to win three Tour de France prologue time trials, and the time trial world championship. He broke the Hour Record three times, one of them after the UCI imposed stringent equipment rules mandating use of 1970s bike technology.
Since then he has been a technical adviser to the British road and track cycling team, harnessing the meticulous attention to detail that earned him the nickname ‘The Professor’ during his racing career. He’s recently stepped aside from that role to spend more time with the rest of his life.
He’s also been a passionate advocate for ‘everyday’ cycling as British Cycling’s policy advisor, even joining one of the recent London protest rides in favour of the Get Britain Cycling report and Space 4 Cycling campaign.
And of course, he has this little bike brand.
Boardman the man is here to launch the 2014 line of Boardman Performance Series bikes, the machines that started it all for Boardman the bike brand in 2007, and that are still exclusively available through Halfords. An upscale range, the Boardman Elite Series, is available through specialist bike shops and has 26 UK dealers.
Boardman and Halfords have also announced a renewal of their partnership, extending for another ten years Halfords’ status as exclusive retailer of the performance range.
On his new range:
The cross bike is my personal favourite.
We kick off by talking about the new bikes.
Chris Boardman: The range has been literally two years in the making. We’ve stuck to a two-year life cycle from the word go. I think that's worked really well for us and other brands have now started to adopt the same thing. If you go for a one-year cycle, the people you’re selling the bikes to have to got to discount and they’re constantly trying to turn it over. You can't do anything meaningful really, or you are forced to keep doing constant changes, on the hoof, all the time.
It just works for us that we can do some meaningful changes. Take the whole mountain bike wheel size changeover. To do that - we consider it to be correctly - you’ve to go give some time to building the prototypes, riding them, seeing if you think there's a real difference, deciding what's the trade off in 29-inch versus 650B and making decisions. I think they’re good decisions but that’s because you've had time to do it. I also watch trends of what people want to ride as well.
So it's just being able to incorporate it all and everything is developed as you’ve seen. We’re really happy that when you unveil something it isn’t just a colour change. You can see it in the cross bike which is one of my faves, my personal favourite really.
On disc brakes:
You could clearly see that that was an advantage, that’s going to catch on. It was the proverbial no-brainer.
Road.cc: The cross bike category is a really interesting one because that's the versatile bike that's really emerged in the last three or four years.
Chris Boardman: We went straight to disc brakes because you could clearly see that that was an advantage, that’s going to catch on. There’s an element of risk involved, but that was the proverbial no-brainer.
And sure enough those have done really well. I do a couple of thousand miles a year on the Team Aluminium the predecessor of that one; I've just ridden it into the ground. I’m desperate to get a new one. That's my favourite bike in the range and I think for the same reasons I like it other people will as well.
You can stitch together paths and tracks and change your standard journeys. It gives you that little bit more versatility but it's still fine on the road. I rode it at the start of the year in sportives and it's absolutely fine though it's quite dangerous when you change back to a road bike and you've got no brakes!
I think that's the emerging bike actually, that's the one that's going to take over from mountain bikes largely. Having said that trail bike riding has become more and more popular for people going to trail centres. I think because they’re managed then its not scary for people who are not out and out cyclists to start with. It’s all done for you and there's a cafe at the start and finish and you just have to turn up.
Road.cc: And you don't have to get out your ordnance survey maps and compass and figure out where the bridleway is
Chris Boardman: I like that in Scotland because if you can see it you can ride it but if you do that in England you can't, you may find that you are not allowed.
Chris Boardman shortly before the unveiling of the 2014 Boardman Performance range (©Steve Behr/Halfords)
Road.cc: I was quite surprised a couple of years ago when you really came out swinging in favour of everyday cycling and pointing out that in the UK growth in cycling was only going to happen if we made it easier for normal people to ride around the streets.
On everyday cycling:
Cycling is the answer to so many problems. Health, transport, pollution, all solved with this simple machine.
Chris Boardman: People don't know but at the back end of my pro career I used to sit on the national cycling strategy board which is about as interesting as it sounds. I resigned when it got to the point that I realised government action was to set up an advisory board and that was it. That was the action! It wasn't given any teeth and the advice wasn't listened to. That precedes having a bike brand by nearly a decade.
It's just infuriatingly the answer to so many problems isn’t it? Health, transport, pollution, all of those issues are solved with this simple machine.
It's maddening that 400 miles from here in Holland and Denmark they get it. And they made a conscious change in the 70s. I think people just assume that in Holland there is a bike culture that has always been there but it wasn't. They were going exactly the same route as we were in the 70s.
On Dutch cycling:
They changed the laws, they said we are going to make cycling and walking our preferred mode of transport
It was planning a big motorway through Amsterdam in the 70s that made them go ‘woah hang on is this what we want the place we live to look like?’
It happened at the top. They changed the laws, they fundamentally said we are going to make cycling and walking our preferred mode of transport and then the policy was to reflect that decision.
In the UK we spend £15 billion on roads and £160 million for cycling, with no dedicated funding stream that would allow for authorities to plan longer than 2 years. They've made some good statements. They have said we're going to put cycling at the heart of our transport policy. Brilliant!
You've had cycling debated on the floor of the house so you've seen that you have gone forward by small amounts and you’ve seen the protest rides in the city - just amazing! We joined in one the other day. We’d been in Parliament and when we came out they were all there so we grabbed some Boris bikes and joined in.
The momentum is there but it could be lost quite easily. We’re at a fulcrum now. It could go either way because it's become fashionable but fashions change. If cycling isn't made the easiest possible option for people then they will choose the easiest option because that's what they do so. It's interesting times.
What a brilliant phenomenon.
The government refused to set targets after the Get Britain Cycling report. They say targets don’t work. Well I can tell you not having recognised, tangible targets to aim for doesn't work.
Another term for setting targets is being accountable for your performance, it enables you to measure progress against a meaningful yard stick. In my time at British Cycling, the only athletes who avoided setting themselves targets and measuring their progress failed.
I'd settle for a single sentence: “ALL future road design (other than motorways) and upgrades must accommodate cyclists." This would make everything else fall into place and funding be allocated correctly.
66% of UK journeys are under 5 miles, and in 2009 congestion cost us £10 billion in urban areas alone. That’s likely likely to rise to £22 billion in the next 10 years. Would the government like to see more of these journeys made by bike? What conditions would make a minister want to travel by bike? Are the measures proposed going to make this happen?
We have 35,000 deaths a year from obesity-related illness, Over £4 billion cost to the NHS. Every extra regular cyclist saves £590 per year.
A mountain of evidence screaming this is the logical choice by any measure you want to use, health, economic or social, it isn't a choice for cyclists, it's just the logical choice.
I couldn't care less if someone wants to ride a racer, I’d just like to see people riding bikes.
Then there’s sportives, what a brilliant phenomenon that is! You don't have to be in a club; you don't have to have a license; you can stop at every pub with your mates or treat it as a race or anything in between. It’s not scary.
That's growing at 20% year. There are 800 now. They’re an amazing tool to help people go out and ride their bikes more.
On not going for President of British Cycling:
The role needs absolute full life commitment and I've done my 20 years.
Britain’s chief cycling officer?
Road.cc: If the government created a post of ‘cycling champion’ or ‘cycling czar’ would you put your hand up for it?
Chris Boardman: I have said before, ‘yes’ as long as it was given a proper mandate and reported to the minister himself then, yes it would be a meaningful worthwhile thing to do. But at the moment I see no desire to do that, which seems to be wrapped up in the ‘make nice noises but no real provision’ stance at the moment.
Road.cc: One actual job that’s vacant is president of British Cycling. Do you fancy that?
No chance! That’s because of respect for the role. It needs absolute full life commitment and I've done my 20 years in various roles; I’m out. That's why I've just got out of British Cycling. It was 80% of my life.
I had to stop doing the whole R&D and senior management roles, so no thanks.
I know how it is from being a pro. You watch how a professional team operates; team managers are awake more than I am. I finish a race and their priority is to get me on a plane so I can go home and do stuff with the family and then when I'm at home I train for two hours then my time is my own.
When they said, “Will you be a sports director of the team?” I said, “No chance.” It's the same at British Cycling. To do that job properly you have to live it. I watched Dave Brailsford come on board with Peter Keen and I watched him take it on, and I watched him eat, sleep and drink it and that's why it worked.
So no thanks.
On Pat McQuaid:
When it’s going wrong on your watch, someone’s got to go.
Road.cc: How do you feel about Brian Cookson as president of the UCI?
Chris Boardman: Relieved. I am still gobsmacked that it was 18 to 24 not to 2 to 40. I just can't believe it.
People underestimate Brian he because he is quietly spoken and he's not a fantastic orator and he is not powerful, charismatic person but he's got a quiet steel.
When it started to get really messy people thought he wasn't going to stick it. I think it made him a quietly dig in even stronger.
I think he showed that at the very last moment when he said: “Right I think we've all had enough let's have a vote,” and Pat [McQuaid], who didn't even have a mandate, went “Er... okay let’s do that.”
They were voting about whether they could vote about voting!
Regardless of what Pat has or hasn't done, with any company when it's going wrong on your watch, for people to emotionally move on, someone's got to go. That's what CEOs do. They take responsibility for things that happen on their watch.
Brian is a great character. He is as honest as the day is long. I have known him for 30 years from when he organised the tour of Lancashire. It's not going to be easy but I think he's a good person for the job.
UCI technical regulations
Road.cc: Do you think under Cookson we will see changes to things like the UCI technical regulations?
Chris Boardman: From running the R&D team I used to go over with Brian Cookson to see the UCI and now they're going to have to be whiter than white so the British team could find it actually more difficult!
I would hope they would simplify it. There's a lot of regulation that has come in in the last two years. “We are going to put a badge on the frame” and now they want to do it with handlebars and they want to do it with wheels and it's just adding a huge bureaucracy to making bikes.
The industry was already doing it all. The only change is that you put a badge on and you charge some money.
I’m not sure how much revenue it generates for them which I think is the real driver. It's reasonable that if you want extra doping controls and you want all those things then you've got to fund that so there's got to find a way to do it but it was monstrously administration heavy.
Shape trumps size every time and with size comes compromise
Road.cc: Is the time trial bike that you are launching at Kona in a couple of weeks time UCI legal?
Chris Boardman: It will be. You'll have to see what we’re doing. It is legal but then we can do things to it so that it isn't. You’ll have to wait and see.
It’s a bit of a thing that if you make it for triathletes it must be faster but shape trumps size every time and with size comes compromise. That's one of the benefits of being in wind tunnels for up to a week a month for 10 years. I can't use that information but you get to understand that just making it bigger doesn't make it faster.
We've got a good compromise and we've got all the science and data to back it up, and nice pretty pictures to illustrate it. Now we just need Pete [Jacobs, reigning Ironman champion triathlete] to do the business on it as well.
Halfords' "Patchy" service & how it's changing
Road.cc: Something you see an awful lot in forums in criticism of Boardman bikes is people think the bikes are great, but wish they didn’t have to buy them from Halfords. Have you been involved in Halfords’ training of its staff?
Chris Boardman: Part of our team is involved in that all the time and I did get involved when this was looked at a few years ago but they had underlying challenges of staff retention. We spent a lot of time going to speak to the staff, making sure they were trained about all of our bikes but they weren’t retaining staff so that was an issue.
They're not flinching from it. The service has been patchy.
I'm glad you raise this because of [former Pets R Us CEO] Matt Davies coming on board [as Halfords CEO]. He is Mr Service. He has taken some real big decisions about it. He's been to the city and said: “Look, no big dividends for the next three years it's all going into the staff and into service.”
He totally gets it. He rides a bike which is brilliant and that was one of the big clinchers about carrying on with Halfords because they really are getting stuck into it.
They're not flinching from it. The service has been patchy at best but there are genuine measures in place that give me a lot of confidence that they are really working.
We get an awful lot of “great bike but service hasn't been great.” They have some great shops but because they're all called the same thing everyone is tarred with the same brush. That's been largely justified until now but I'm pretty confident that they're making big inroads.
And with that, a very packed fifteen minutes were up. Chris Boardman’s managed to develop a bike brand in just the 20 percent of his life left over by British Cycling, though he’d doubtless credit the Boardman Bikes team with doing the heavy lifting. What’s he going to achieve over the next few years?