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In praise of Chris Boardman

4 Dec 2020

Champion, record holder, Secret Squirrel, pundit, columnist, businessman, campaigner… Chris Boardman is a man with more jobs than Mr Benn

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Danny Bird

There would be pros and cons to being stuck in a lift with Chris Boardman. A major pro is that he’d probably be able to fix the problem using just a paper clip and a 20 pence piece, a legacy of his time as head of R&D at British Cycling. The downside would be he’d want to reference all the laws of physics and engineering that made it possible.

This is the man who, aged seven, proudly walked up and down his street wearing a set of scuba tanks his dad had made for him for his birthday from some plastic cylinders and copper wire. Yet he wouldn’t actually get to experience breathing underwater until he received a scuba lesson for his 13th birthday. (Thirty years later he would be a regular columnist for Diver magazine and during one assignment to Micronesia would include a review of the carpet in his hotel lift.)

He would go on to garner various national, international and Olympic titles as a bike rider before returning to his other love and becoming the chief ‘Secret Squirrel’ at British Cycling – or ‘Head of Stuff’ as he refers to it in his autobiography.

It is there that he would conduct 10,000 tests – mostly in wind-tunnels involving naked or paint-smeared riders – to produce the bikes, components, helmets and skinsuits that would be used by Team GB at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

At one point he and his fellow Secret Squirrels discussed the aerodynamic gains that could be achieved by breaking rider Ed Clancy’s collarbone and re-setting his shoulders in a more rounded form before the idea was unsurprisingly ‘consigned to the unethical bin’.

There’s an equally telling tale of when the final version of the Olympic skinsuit was delivered – and immediately ripped apart at the seams. His Secret Squirrels instantly began to exchange ideas about what could be done.

‘There was no looking backwards, no deciding who was to blame, they had instinctively assumed it was their problem and moved immediately to look for a solution,’ he writes. ‘I couldn’t have been any prouder of them than I was at that moment.’

By the end of the Beijing Olympics, the Team GB cyclists had won 14 medals – eight of them gold – and broken every Olympic and two World records. Yet in the aftermath, Boardman notes that ‘just two athletes took the time to thank the R&D team personally’.

… and all-round decent chap

Almost 25 years separate my only two meetings with Boardman, yet his demeanour – one of politeness and humility wrestling with world-weariness – remained unchanged.

The first was in the Pyrenean town of Pau after he’d ridden a transition stage of the Tour in the mid-1990s. I was a fan full of naive questions such as what did he think of the scenery? He indulged me, answering in his trademark deadpan style that all he’d seen for the last 10 days was the same few square metres of French road, but that ‘as tarmac went, it was very nice’.

By the time of our second meeting, Boardman had been looking at more tarmac than ever before, this time with a view to converting it into the most ambitious network of cycling and walking paths in the UK.

Becoming Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner in 2017 had meant him giving up his role as pundit-in-chief on ITV’s Tour coverage, but his new-found passion as cycling advocate had helped soften the blow. And though it may sound blasphemy to the drivers of Greater Manchester who make 250 million journeys a year of less than a mile, Boardman has the best interests of everyone at heart.

‘A big chunk of those 250 million journeys is people taking their kids to school, not because they need to but because they don’t see any other option,’ he told me. ‘I have to make getting out of their cars the easiest, most attractive and safest choice for them to make. We want them to look out of their car window [at people cycling] and think, “Oh, I quite fancy that.”’

His appearance on the BBC’s Question Time last November won him a new swathe of fans. He deftly turned a question about the NHS into a compelling argument for why we should be doing more to promote cycling and other alternatives to driving.

‘If we can just change the way people move then we can reduce the burden on the NHS and make people’s lives better and hit climate change,’ he said. ‘We’ve got type 2 diabetes, obesity, all sorts of issues that are related to not moving, and we could be tackling that and ticking all the other boxes at the same time if we just did some joined-up thinking.’

In 2016, Boardman left the ITV team at the Tour suddenly after learning that his 75-year-old mother, Carol, had been killed by a driver while riding her bike. In 2019 the driver was sentenced to 30 weeks in jail after admitting causing death by careless driving.

Boardman refused to turn this personal tragedy into a tool for reform, saying on the eve of the court case, ‘I cannot get involved. I know it would consume me. I’ve just got to focus on what we can do. I don’t want to use it as a bludgeon, but I also don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen.’

We’re lucky to have Chris Boardman. He isn’t just an Olympic champion, Hour Record holder and Tour de France stage winner fighting for the rights of cyclists. He’s a husband, father and son fighting for the right of everyone to be able to enjoy a safer, healthier transport environment.

As such, he should be declared a national treasure.