With just 100 days until the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Cyclingnews starts its recap of some of the greatest moments in Olympic cycling history by taking you back to the Barcelona Olympics of 1992.
In the summer of 1992, Great Britain was a marginal player at best in world cycling - far removed from its standing in the sport today. It can be argued that Chris Boardman's record-breaking performances on his way to Olympic gold in the individual pursuit helped to start the cogs of revolution that bore fruit in eight gold medals at Bejing sixteen years later, and a boom in the sport that shows no sign of slowing down. Cyclingnews caught up with Boardman to reflect on those three golden days in Barcelona that changed British cycling forever.
"Back then the sport in Britain, in terms of funding and manpower, was very different to how it is today," Boardman told Cyclingnews. "We just did it ourselves but we didn’t know any different. British Cycling was organised by Doug Dailey at the time and it was a case of listing what we needed. I funded the coaching support with Peter Keen.
"We didn’t want for anything and I suppose in many ways ours was a very miniature performance plan. Afterwards, when we had been successful, Peter implemented it for British Cycling across the board, and it was just a larger scale version of the same thing. We didn’t suffer – if we needed something we went and found a way to get it."
Boardman's Lotus was christened a "superbike" by the cycling press in the run-up to the Barcelona Olympics and it had helped him smash two world records in the months prior. Given his post-racing career as head of leading British manufacturers Boardman Bikes, did he have much input into the design element back then?
"The technical input I had was absolutely minimal," he said. "The main thing that I had a say over was the shape of the hand grips but it was mainly designed by engineers with limited experience of riding. This is what made it work so well, as those people asked a lot of good questions about what you could and couldn’t do with a bike and then challenged preconceptions of what could be done. The genesis of the bike came from Mike Burrows and then the rest of their team took it on and developed it.
"I did have a say in my riding position though, which was honed in a wind tunnel ahead of the Barcelona Olympics. That use of a wind tunnel was quite revolutionary at the time and it was something I continued to use for the remainder of my career. I was one of the first riders to go into a wind tunnel and experiment and to see the difference in the numbers. It’s amazing really – 90% of cycling is just pushing air out of the way, and up until then we didn’t go into wind tunnels and examine aerodynamics."
Glory at the Games
As the Olympics drew ever closer, Boardman proved his wellbeing by breaking records over 5000m and 4000m. Most observers looked upon the then 23-year-old from Merseyside as the favourite to win gold in the individual pursuit, which was over 4000m. But it wasn't a view that Boardman shared.
"I’d broken the 5000m world record in Leicester at the national championships and I’d broken the 4000m world record in training, so I knew I was in good shape," he remembered.
"But as far as confidence goes, I didn't have much at all. Myself and everyone else watching could see my form and must have thought 'he’s got to be in with a shout'. But at the back of your mind you think 'yeah – but other people on television win stuff like that – British people don’t'. Nobody actually believed it, including me, until the event was over."
He smashed the world record twice on his way to a showdown with Germany's Jens Lehmann in the gold medal race. Less than an hour after smashing his own world record in the semi-final against New Zealand's Gary Anderson, Boardman was back in action for the Great Britain team in the team pursuit. By the time of the final of the individual, his Herculean efforts on the previous two days were surely starting to tell.
“You just get on with it," he said, sounding almost apologetic at the flippancy of the phrase. "It sounds like I’m being rather perfunctory about it but you just focus on what you can control. Are the legs sore? 'Yes'. Is there anything I can do about it? 'No – so stop thinking about it and focus on things that you can do'.
"I struggled mostly with stress and nerves because I just wanted it all to be over. It was so big. This was it: four and a half minutes to change the rest of your life, or not as the case may be. It’s a massive thing to be aware of, as was the fact that there were 62 million people watching the final live.
"We had a slightly different approach to competing, even in those days. We didn’t think about other people, we were only interested in being the best that we could be. We only looked at other people to see if they did anything that we could apply to our own performance. If they didn’t, we looked away. We recognised that rivals can’t really influence you in a time trial discipline and you can’t influence them. It’s all about what you do and your own performance. Our mantra, and it sounds a bit cheesy now, was 'be as good as you can be, and when you cross the line we’ll see how far it’s got you'.
"But one thing I’d learned from our analysis was that Jens Lehmnan always went off really fast. So I knew I needed to remain calm and not be worried about where he was for the first part of the race. We just stuck to our own plan and I caught him in the end to win the gold."
With Britain generally under-performing at the 1992 Games, Boardman's success was a rare highlight for the fans back home. So where does he rank that moment amongst all the other achievements in his astonishing career?
"I get asked that a lot," he says. "The answer is that there were three moments in my career that I look back on as key moments. That one was the one that opened the door and validated all my ideas and ways of doing things. It enabled me to compete on a world scale for the rest of my career. Plus, you can go into the deepest jungles of the world and people know what an Olympic gold medal means. It transcends cycling and sport in general.
"After that, from a career point of view, winning stages at the Tour de France was huge. But physically – performance-wise – the best I have ever been was when I broke the world hour record in 1996. That remains my only performance where I wouldn’t do anything differently. It was as close to perfection as I ever got."
What happened next?
Boardman retired at the age of 32 when he felt he had pushed his body to its limit and that there was no more improvement to make. He can pinpoint the moment back to a team briefing in autumn 1997, a day which started the long journey towards his new career with Boardman Bikes.
"When I entered the sport of cycling the two things that drove me were the passion for doing something new and finding out how much I could get out of my body," he says. "As soon as it got the point when I wasn’t progressing, that passion died. I can remember the team meeting in October 1997 when I lost interest. I realised that after reviewing the previous year we were aiming to just do the same again the following year. No elevation in performance, just consolidation. That was the beginning of the end for me.
"After I retired, eventually the opportunity to design and develop bikes came along. People had been asking me for years to put my name to a bike and those opportunities didn’t interest me as there was no real work involved. But It’s amazing when you have an idea and you see it grow to this kind of scale. We’re in 86 countries now and it’s the fastest-growing British bike brand ever. It’s just great fun. We only started in 2007 and we now have 56 different bikes. It’s as much fun to design a hybrid bike as it is a cutting edge time trial bike. "
And what of Team GB's chances at the forthcoming London Olympics? Boardman was a commentator for the BBC at the recent Track World Championships in Melbourne, where Great Britain topped the medal table in Olympic events. The team's showing there gives their trailblazing predecessor optimism that they can hold off the formidable challenge of main rivals Australia this summer and give the home crowds something reason for cheer.
"I’ve forecast for the last three years that it will be extremely close in the summer," he says. "There is no more domination – it will be close in all the events but I've said that Great Britain will be competing for medals in every single cycling discipline. That remains the case I think.
"If anything, I would be more positive after Melbourne that I was before. There were some really close results and it was more tenacity than physicality that got us there in some cases. Before Melbourne I forecast three golds. I‘d say four plus now."