When Chris Boardman emphatically won the individual pursuit at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics on board the revolutionary Lotus Sport bike, it looked to the outsider as though Formula One had come to the rescue and blasted the British cycling team out of the doldrums.
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Before those Games, Great Britain hadn’t won a cycling gold medal for 72 years. By contrast, Britain’s record in Formula One, where Lotus had made its name, was long and distinguished. There hadn’t been a home world champion since James Hunt in 1976, but on the other side of the pit wall most of the top engineers were British, and indeed most of the teams were — and still are — either British or based in Britain.
What everyone close to the sport knew was that Boardman’s sensational victory was vindication for the sophisticated training enforced by coach Peter Keen.
Keen, a softly spoken sports scientist from Chichester, is now recognised as the godfather of the current world-beating track programme, but at the time he was unknown outside of cycling. The same goes for Boardman, a cabinet maker from the Wirral known only to the cycling fraternity for his ever-improving results on the British time trial and track scene.
Radical and revolutionary
Nobody could blame the mainstream media for fixating on the bike. It was like nothing that had ever been seen before.
After the UCI changed the rules in 1990 to permit monocoque frames, Lotus Engineering acquired the mould and the rights to a bike that had originally been created by Mike Burrows, a radical British engineer who had been experimenting with monocoque bicycle frames since the 1980s.
Lotus brought to the table a state-of-the-art wind tunnel, expertise in carbon-fibre moulding and, of course, oodles of cash.
The resulting bike was not just a revolutionary — and mesmerising — shape, but unusually it had a fork with just one blade and a single rear stay, both on the driveside. This ensured that the frame was ultra low-profile, little more than an inch in cross section.
How did Boardman himself feel about the bike taking the credit for his gold medal? “Everybody seemed to think I should mind but me,” Boardman said.
“Obviously they [Lotus] put in their time working on it and I put in my time and effort and it worked out well. I’m amazed people still remember it and consider it such an iconic image, but I benefited from it.”
Words by Simon Smythe. This article first appeared in the February 12 edition of Cycling Weekly