Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Geoff Waugh and Offside
“I can tell you the exact point my career ended. October twenty-second 1996, around four p.m.”
Not that Britain’s most successful male cyclist – at that point – knocked it on the head there and then. It would be three more seasons before Chris Boardman called a close on what was, by most people’s standards, a glittering career.
During his annual debrief with coach Peter Keen, the Olympic gold medallist and Hour record holder was, for the first time, discussing how to repeat that year’s formula, rather than progressing as usual.
“I think we realised we’d looked under every stone. That was what we were going to get out of this body. That was it. In that one instant I lost interest in the whole thing.”
The man who had once famously admitted he didn’t particularly enjoy riding a bike, much to cycling fans’ dismay, had seen the writing on the wall and was mentally as good as finished. Boardman enjoyed the process, the challenge. What was the point in treading water?
Boardman’s story is, of course, one half of this gripping tale based around the respective Hour Record attempts of the two riders who elevated British cycling in the ‘90s, after decades on the fringes, to front page news, both home and abroad, and sparked the revolution that ultimately led to Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, via the Olympic gold rush of Beijing and London.
Press attention at the time focused more on the contrasting machines used by Boardman and Obree than the men who powered them to world records: the sleek lines of the Mike Burrows-designed Lotus against the kitchen sink manufacturing of Old Faithful, washing machine bearings and all.
If the bikes were poles apart, so was the public’s perception of the contrasting approaches of the two protagonists – number crunching, emotionless Englishman versus shambolic, scatter-brained Scot. According to Keen, who worked with both, we had it the wrong way around.
“The Graeme Obree I saw and spent time with was absolutely a better scientist than most, in terms of asking questions and forming hypotheses, then testing them.
And with Chris we were very organised and structured in a relative sense, but what we were dealing with in terms of his life, was chaotic. He had a growing family from the age of eighteen, and his life was probably not much less chaotic than Graeme’s.”
What both men undoubtedly shared was a lack of income throughout the record breaking years, Boardman’s successful Hour attempt in Bordeaux run on a shoestring budget made just about viable by the loan of a truck from the Rolling Stones.
Obree would cash in on any money-making scheme going after setting his record in Hamar, often to the detriment of his cycling, but a living had to be scraped somehow.
Author Ed Pickering gleans insights from the major players in both riders’ extraordinary careers, including Doug Dailey – whose role in British cycling’s rapid development is often overlooked.
The coach (although Dailey makes it clear there was far more administration involved in the role than hands-on coaching) had identified timed track events as having the best potential for Olympic medals following Seoul in ’88.
And he had identified Boardman as his best prospect for gold, spending long days in the car driving his protégé from the Wirral down to Chichester for lab testing with Peter Keen – another of Dailey’s discoveries.
When Obree phoned the British Cycling coach in April 1995, having seen his radical tucked arms position banned by the UCI the preceding year, with news of further developments, Dailey backed the Scot where others may have scratched their heads. Or – quite reasonably – run a country mile in the opposite direction. The ‘Superman’ position was born…
Obree was duly crowned world pursuit champion for the second time in ’95, but that was the last time we would witness the Flying Scot in full flow. Again, the UCI stepped in and banned his radical riding position.
Boardman never seemed fully comfortable in his role as team leader with Gan and Crédit Agricole, and certainly did not struggle with retirement for one so young. Obree, fighting successive bouts of depression and mental illness, adapted less well, surviving a second suicide attempt in 2001.
Pickering identifies two men seemingly worlds apart yet strikingly similar in their approaches to being the best in the world: embracing short, intensive training sessions when mile-munching was the norm; the ‘marginal gains’, in both equipment and fitness levels, that became the buzzwords of Team GB under Dave Brailsford; and (not immediately obvious) the fear of failure that drove both Obree and Boardman to become record breakers.
For anyone wanting to understand the roots of British cycling’s recent triumphs, The Race Against Time is essential reading, and it is Pickering’s thorough research that makes it so.
The Race Against Time is published by Bantam Press.