Chris Boardman says Team GB’s track cyclists may struggle to match the highs of Beijing and London at the Rio Olympics next year, and that Team Sky may need to focus on new goals on the road to keep riders motivated.
A world and Olympic champion on the track before embarking on a road career that saw him lead three separate editions of the Tour de France, Boardman shared his thoughts on what 2016 holds in store for Britain’s cyclists with the Independent’s Alasdair Fotheringham.
At Beijing in 2008, Team GB won seven of the 10 gold medals on offer in the velodrome, just as they did under a revised track programme at the home Olympics in London three years ago.
Boardman was a key member of the backroom team behind both those successes, in charge of the so-called ‘Secret Squirrel Club’ that focused on technical innovation.
“The best you can hope for is the same,” he said about the country’s prospects in Rio. “The thing is, though, you can only live on the front line of cycling or anything for a limited time, because it’s so tense, it’s a very tough place to be.
“That’s something that, ironically, Dave Brailsford [Team GB’s performance director at Beijing and London, now fully focused on his role as team principal at Team Sky] once said to me, a long time ago.”
Boardman highlighted that domination in sport tends to be cyclical, saying, “There’s always a wave form to these things, because after success you lose your hunger, and there’s all sorts of distractions.
“When you’ve won seven out of 10 golds, I would kind of hope you did never see that again,” he went on, explaining that it spurs other countries to redouble their efforts. “To do it twice, then everybody else is thinking, ‘Well how do I get more financial backing when we’re that far away?’”
France and Germany in the sprint events and Australia in the endurance events are likely to provide some of the stiffest opposition to Great Britain’s men and women in Brazil next summer, following a UCI Track World Championships in London in March.
That event will provide a barometer of where the respective nations lie ahead of Rio, and Boardman believes that Sir Bradley Wiggins, who is aiming to ride the team pursuit as he seeks his fifth Olympic gold medal, will have a talismanic role to play for the rest of the squad.
“Brad’s challenge for the last three or four years has maybe been because he got everything he wanted. Everything was about becoming the first Brit to win the Tour – did that. Olympics – did that. But he’s still not content,” he said.
Turning to Team Sky, which took its third Tour de France overall victory in four years last July, Boardman underlined the importance of seeking new challenges.
“When you get to the top and there’s nowhere else left to climb, it’s very difficult to stay motivated, because at that point everything other than total success is classified as failure.”
He believes that the team is likely to focus more on the Spring Classics in the coming season. “But,” he cautioned, “they’d need their sponsor’s backing on that, because their fantastic cross to bear is they’ve won the biggest bike race in the world and the sponsors won’t want you to do anything to jeopardise that. You’d have to run two campaigns.”
Over the cobbles, however, they will be without Geraint Thomas, now focusing on his longer-term Grand Tour ambitions following a strong performance at the Tour de France in support of Chris Froome that left the Welshman in contention for a podium place himself until the final days of the race.
“He [Thomas] generally has a bad day in the Tour, but this year it wasn’t catastrophically so, which is probably what’s started to make him believe more that it’s a bridgeable gap. It’d be lovely to see him do well, he’s spent his whole career sacrificed to racing for others. He’s got time.”
Back on the subject of the Rio OIympics, Boardman is optimistic for Team GB’s chances, with world champion Lizzie Armitstead likely to be favourite for the women’s road race, while Thomas and Froome are targeting the men’s event, with the latter also looking set to spearhead Team GB’s challenge in the time trial.
He believes the timing of Rio, coming shortly after the Tour de France, will help Froome and Thomas, saying: “It’s like when the World Championships used to be held in August, coming so close to the Tour, the best riders are, hopefully, in the best shape and they will capitalise on it.
“So in Rio you’ll be looking at the same contenders that went well in the Tour, like Bradley [winner of the time trial at London, when Froome took bronze] did in 2012,” Boardman added.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.