Chris Boardman: Olympian, Businessman, Campaigner, Innovator

Chris Boardman appeared at the London Bike Show last week with some exciting news about his new performance centre which will be opening in Evesham, Worcestershire at the end of the year. The facility will include a wind tunnel, activity area and physiology testing suite that will be accessible to all cyclists whether they’re Olympians, Paralympians or club riders.

  A packed crowd listening to Chris Boardman at the London Bike Show

A packed crowd listening to Chris Boardman at the London Bike Show

Boardman explained that this was the realisation of a seven-year project and that, “I don’t really do excited but this is really exciting! I’m really looking forward to it.” The idea had been conceived all those years ago when he sat down for a curry with an aerodynamic scientist and, together, they hatched the plan. By the end of this year, you will be able to hire out the facility by the hour at “a very reasonable price” giving everyday riders the opportunity to benefit from high-end technology normally reserved for elite athletes. “It’s going to be revolutionary,” he said.

With ten years devoted to Research and Development in wind tunnels for British Cycling, Boardman is ideally placed to offer such a service. He said that it will allow riders the opportunity to experiment and try different things. “It’s guaranteed to give you a surprise,” but above all gives people the chance to make an informed choice, explaining that, “sometimes the most aero thing isn’t necessarily best, because of comfort.”

Appearing super-relaxed, he claimed that “I don’t work that hard now,” and that he was looking forward to a weekend in the Cairngorms on his cross bike. He’s able to spend plenty of time riding and doing the gardening apparently. One wonders where he finds the time in between running a bike company, commentating for ITV on the Tour de France, being a spokesman for cycling as a mode of transport and his latest project, the performance centre.

The concept behind the centre appears to be embedded in similar values to his bike company: “offering a quality product at an affordable price.” Boardman Bikes really seems to have moved on in the last couple of years, however. When the company was originally launched its USP was providing affordable, entry level, alloy and carbon fibre bikes. The stall here at the London Bike Show showed that it has developed from that with a titanium model and top of the range road, mountain and time trial bikes as well as a some colourful designs that rival the bold styles normally associated with Italian brands.

  Boardman Bikes now offer a range of stylish colours

Boardman Bikes now offer a range of stylish colours

He also had time to reminisce on some of his many achievements as a competitive cyclist. An unemployed carpenter, he had moments of doubt before his Olympic victory, expecting to have to go back to get a real job. Instead he took on the world and won. With an Olympic gold, Hour record and a Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France he was able to retire with an impressive palmares that encompassed many disciplines.

Writing his book, Triumphs and Turbulence, which came out last year, was a cathartic if horrendously painful experience. “I will never do it again. I have an appalling memory. And Gary Imlach the editor (ITV Tour de France presenter) was harsh. It was like a two and a half year course with the best wordsmith that I’ve ever come across,” and he described being constantly sent back to the drawing board by his wife, Sally, because it was boring. “It was satisfying but not at all pleasant. It’s embarrassing when you look back at some of the stuff you did and you have to apologise for some of your appalling behaviour. I was quite a shit really, an arrogant little shit and not particularly nice when I was in my twenties.”

  Boardman's Hour bike

Boardman's Hour bike

Of course, for many of us, Boardman is best known as a commentator and presenter for ITV’s Tour de France coverage and he had time to talk about “the eclectic group of eccentrics that squabble and fight each other round France every year in a truck.” He says it’s a hugely enjoyable and satisfying undertaking, if not at all glamorous. For now, his Julys will always be busy with making the show.

He devotes much of the rest of the year lobbying government and politicians to invest properly in a decent cycling infrastructure. He spoke of the frustrations of dealing with the people who make the decisions, especially the current crop, who he says are particularly difficult to persuade. “It’s a sturdy soap box to stand on. You have logic, facts, all the evidence…you’ve got examples a few hundred miles from here on the continent where 50% of all kids ride to school. All the imagery and examples to use. It’s hard to lose an argument quite frankly.”

  "I was quite a shit really, an arrogant little shit and not particularly nice when I was in my twenties.”

"I was quite a shit really, an arrogant little shit and not particularly nice when I was in my twenties.”

Despite this he has to strike a balance between shaming those in charge as well as cajoling and persuading. “If you go too far, or too pushy, they just won’t speak to you.” At the heart of his belief is the conviction that the bicycle is “up there with the printing press as a machine,” and that we need to get beyond labelling people as ‘cyclists’ or otherwise. We just need to see it as another form of transport and one “that makes the world a better place. This tool can impact all of our lives for the good. Ask any individual and they’ll say yes.”

It all comes down to providing a decent infrastructure. When the subject of cycling helmets came up he said that, if he has the opportunity to talk about cycling safety for a couple of minutes to the media or politicians, he’d rather use that time to talk about a safe space for cycling rather than protective clothing. Tragically his mother died last year when she was crushed on the road by a vehicle despite wearing high vis clothing and a helmet. The Netherlands has the lowest rate of cycling injuries in Europe and also the lowest proportion of cyclists wearing helmets. Ultimately it’s about how safe the roads are, and not about wearing “a piece of polystyrene on your head.”

With his easy-going no-nonsense demeanour Boardman endeared himself to the audience here, and it was clear that everyone enjoyed hearing him speak. One hopes that the politicians and policy makers will react to him in the same way as he tries to persuade them of the great future our cities can have if we can make our streets safer.