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Champion cyclist turned campaigner believes northern metropolis can provide example for other cities to follow

Chris Boardman has said that making a success of Greater Manchester’s Bee Network of cycling and walking routes is “the biggest race I’ve ever had” and believes that the northern metropolis can provide an example for other cities in the UK to follow.

The former world and Olympic champion cyclist, who also wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, was appointed the region’s cycling and walking champion by Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham in July 2017 and by the end of the year produced a report calling for £1.5t billion to develop a network of safe routes for people on foot and on bike.

In June last year he unveiled the proposed Beelines network – now renamed the Bee Network due to copyright issues – covering 1,000 miles across Greater Manchester and including 75 miles of segregated paths.

> Manchester's Beelines renamed the Bee Network after copyright issue with London firm

“This, this is the biggest race I’ve ever had,” Boardman told the Guardian. “If we can change something as big as a city region and prove that it works, you have to believe the rest of the country will follow.”

He admitted that it is a task that keeps him awake at night. “It’s the only thing in 20 years to do that because it’s important,” he explained. “People say do you enjoy it? No! I just feel this massive burden not to screw it up.”

In the past, Boardman has made the point that the planned network isn’t aimed at people who cycle already – it’s intended to encourage people to replace the car with a bike for short trips who might currently find the roads intimidating to ride on, and is also brings health benefits including reducing air pollution.

“I enjoy talking about this because it has absolutely nothing to do with cyclists,” he told the Guardian. “They might benefit but this is for people who drive because they’re the ones who are going to want to change if it’s going to work.”

Boardman’s move into campaigning was a gradual one that saw him switch the focus of his work at British Cycling from that of technical advisor – he led the team whose technical innovations led to Team GB’s dominance of track events at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and in London four years later – to becoming its policy advisor.

Giving evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s Get Britain Cycling inquiry in 2013, it became clear that he was an articulate advocate for everyday cycling who understood the barriers to getting more people on bikes, and the solutions to help overcome them.

He said: “I realised the bike is a simple, cheap solution to so many of the problems we face, so why the hell aren’t we doing it? Three hundred miles away from here 50 per cent of kids ride to school every day, 30 per cent of all journeys are by bike – in the Netherlands, in parts of Germany, in Denmark. Take anyone from here and stand them there and they’ll say: ‘I prefer this.’ So it is such a sturdy soap box to stand on.

“People think the Netherlands have always been about bikes but they haven’t,” he continued. “In the 1970s, because of child deaths on the streets and a looming oil crisis, they said: stop. They decided to change the way they used streets and put people first.

“Their spend went into public transport. They’ve got a higher tax rate than we have but it is wonderfully civilised. We invested in private transport. We’re not unusual, we just do the easy thing – and the car has always been easy until there’s so many of them that it’s not, and the consequences are becoming more and more apparent.”

While he remains involved in the Boardman Bikes business he founded in 2007 and sold to Halfords five years ago, he has continued to scale back other activities to focus on his task at British Cycling, and revealed last summer that he would no longer be covering the Tour de France as co-commentator for ITV.

In 2016, the need for safer roads for Britain’s cyclists was brought home starkly to Boardman when his mother, Carol, was killed while riding in north Wales when she was struck by pick-up truck driver Liam Rosney, who last month pleaded guilty to causing her death by careless driving.

“It’s just horrifically ironic,” Boardman admitted. “I can’t think about it because it would just destroy me. It’s not just taking away someone’s life.

“It’s everything that’s left behind. And we don’t treat it as a crime. We say: ‘Oh, what a shame’,” he added.

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.