21st January 2011 Words and photos: Chris Sidwells
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Boardman Bikes is one of the leading brands in the UK; we discover how its founder Chris Boardman’s passion for cycling and deep knowledge of what makes a bike tick drives the company’s development.
Chris Boardman is one of Britain’s best ever bike racers. Olympic gold, world records, world titles and victories in some of the biggest pro races on the planet make up his palmarès (think ‘racing CV’). But that is only half of his story, and it’s only half of what goes into the bikes he produces. Boardman, now 42, is passionate about the role cycling can have in everyday life, and loves to just get out and ride whenever he can.
Inside every pro racer there is a simple love of cycling. That wasn’t always obvious with Boardman when he raced, but it was there and it’s what inspires him today. “There was a soundbite that did the rounds of journalists that I didn’t like cycling. They wrote that I liked training, liked the process of preparing for specific challenges, but the inference they made was that I didn’t like cycling.
“It wasn’t true, and what they did was twist what I said slightly. It’s true that I was fascinated by the process of preparing for targets. I planned out my training, analysed what was needed in every aspect of a specific event and mapped out how I would prepare accordingly. I really enjoyed that, and when I trained it was always with those objectives in mind, but I still loved cycling,” he says.
Joy on two wheels
Nowadays, when you see him riding or get him talking about bikes, his joy at being out in the countryside on two wheels is obvious. However, Boardman also sees cycling fulfilling other roles than pure recreation. “It’s a great sport, a great way of keeping fit and getting outdoors, but I’ve always wished that more people would use bikes as a form of transport. And that’s happening now. It’s not me just looking through rose-tinted spectacles. Cycling ticks so many boxes, and I’m really pleased that politicians have put cycling on their agenda,” he says.
For whatever reason, cycling has become fashionable, something Boardman appreciates, and not just because it helps him sell bikes. “There has been a subtle shift in the last couple of years where cycling has become a good thing to do. Years ago you were the geeky, smelly one if you rode to work, but now it’s trendy, and I really admire the way more and more employers cater for the cycling commuter. I know I have a vested interest now in more people getting on bikes, but I’ve always thought this. Seven years ago, long before Boardman bikes, I even spoke to the House of Commons about what cycling could do for the health of the country and for transport.”
Every nut and bolt
A lot of ex-pros put their names on bikes, but not many have much say in their design. How hands-on is Chris Boardman, and what part does he play in design and development of his bikes? “I’m involved in all of it. I don’t do the whole design — other people know more about that than me — and I get input from a lot of sources. For example I’ve used the Great Britain team mechanics to work out the best way cables should run. But I still sign off every nut and bolt.”
If you knew Boardman when he raced that’s reassuring; he was very particular about the bikes he rode and spent hours refining them to optimise his bike set-up. He worked with bike sponsors to develop new designs. He has a lot of knowledge, and his contact with British Cycling, where he is involved with the technical side of their Olympic effort, is a match of minds because they have his ‘no stone unturned’ approach to bike design.
He also has people at Boardman Bikes who share his passion as well as his dedication to development: “Andy Smallwood is our technical director, and we have all our design meetings on our bikes. We go out and ride and talk bikes, and by the end we’ve made a step forward,” he says. “We are always looking at the future. We’ve just finished the 2011 range, which we are both excited about launching, but we are already talking about 2013.”
Smallwood came to Boardman bikes from Halfords, which is where the whole range, city bikes to mountain bikes and top-end racers, is sold. “We went with them for two reasons. First it gave us access to 250 stores that a lot of feet go through. Second, Halfords has big buying power, which allowed us to pass economies of scale through to the customer. It’s a team effort from design to selling.”
The results of a good design, enthusiasm and great product placing are clear in the bikes, and Boardman is satisfied with progress. “Our reviews have been good, which pleases me. I think that there’s only twice that one of our bikes hasn’t been the top in a review,” he says.
Why I still ride most days
“Like a lot of men my age I used to keep fit by running. It’s convenient when you travel a lot, as I do when I’m doing commentary work, but it’s heavy on your joints. I broke my ankle during the 1995 Tour de France, and it’s totally given up now. I need an op on it. The thing is, though, it’s made me ride more.
“I ride five or six times a week now. Only for an hour or hour and a quarter, and mostly on my mountain bike, but I’m enjoying it much more than running. Plus you can keep fit, but not get battered at the same time.
“The other thing I like about cycling is how much ground you can cover. You can use your bike to explore places. I did that when I was a pro. When you are getting ready for the length of some pro races you have to put in rides of seven or eight hours. I used to turn those into mini-adventures, going to places I’d never ridden in before. I’d sit down with a map and plot which roads to use then book a hotel at the end of the ride, and my wife would meet me there. I’d do the ride, we could have a nice evening together then I’d ride back next day.”
Boardman on bikes: what to look out for
“The first thing is stiffness. You want as much of your energy as possible to go into forward motion, and if a bike isn’t stiff some of your energy goes into flexing the frame. But being stiff doesn’t mean a bike has to be uncomfortable, that’s where good design and use of materials comes in. At the moment I’m designing a frame where the way that the carbon-fibres have been laid is different to see if that is something we can use.
This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of Cycling Active magazine