Interview: Chris Boardman MBE

He's won Olympic gold, held world records, worn the yellow jersey at the Tour de France and launched a successful bike brand, but these days Chris Boardman is making headlines for his cycling activism work. He speaks to London Cyclist editor, John Kitchiner

Chris Boardman at the London launch of his Performance Bikes range. © Steve Behr

LC: I first rode Boardman bikes in about 2007/8 when mtbs were the mainstay of your range. Since then it's expanded to include models for all cycling disciplines – was that always part of the plan? Which models are your best-sellers these days?

CB: As well as road, mtb and hybrids, the range now encompasses track, highly specialised TT (time trial) bikes and my personal favourite, the CX (cyclocross) bikes. I reckon I spend a good 60-70 percent of my time riding these now. We have two distinct platforms – the Performance Series (exclusive to Halfords), aimed at everyone from the entry-level rider through to serious enthusiast and the Elite Series (via selected independent bike dealers) for the serious enthusiast through to elite world class riders.

Sales wise, we have a very even spread across all platforms which says we must be getting something right; independent reviews seem to back this up which is very satisfying. The Performance Series are, of course, the core bikes so were always part of the plan, however every year we have new ideas and new technology comes along that allows more scope for creative thinking – with high-tech R&D filtering down from the Elite Series to the Performance Series.

The Boardman bikes we've tested (mtb/road/CX/hybrid) have not only rated highly for ride performance, but also value for money. How do you manage to squeeze such high specs at given price points?

Quality is more important to me than price so that always has to come first, but we work very hard to give people the absolute most for their money too. I think we've found a good balance, which is possible due to several factors. Everyone in the chain from design through to the shopfloor would rather put money into maximising design and spec than maximising profit, ultimately it's better business too as good reviews help generate sales volume and good quality, customer loyalty. Our design team is small and efficient. Our route to market – from the factory straight to the shop (ie Halfords for the Performance Series) – means there is no importer/distributor in the middle, it's very efficient and creates savings that can be fed back into design and spec. Lastly, of course, the 'shop' I mentioned is very big, so when we know what we want to make, we make a lot of it and scale gives you the best rates for everything; these savings are again passed onto the customer via higher spec and quality.

Which bike in the Boardman range do you think makes the best city bike?

For me I'd go for the CX bike as it's a fast commuter, but capable of taking on tracks and paths too, so it's versatile if I want to have fun on the way home or at the weekend. The larger tyres smooth out a lot of the rough roads, disc brakes are always better and brake levers on the tops is always nice if you are in a tight space. Swap the tyres over and you've got a fast road bike.

You have a handful of women's-specific bikes in the range, but as the percentage of women riders is growing significantly, will you be offering more models? Or do you consider many of your 'men's' models to be'unisex' (I have several female riding partners who have Boardman road bikes)?

Yes to both of those questions. Where there is demand, we'd love to make them and we are, expanding as each range comes out. It's also right though that it's often not necessary to differentiate men and women, it's really more a case of different size. Smaller riders, whatever their gender, will logically be better off with a smaller frame, shorter cranks and narrower bars. Yes, we fit FI (Female Informed) saddles, but saddles, like pedals, are a personal thing anyway.

On the mtb side you've abandoned 26in wheels, concentrating on 29in and the new 650b wheel size. 29ers never gained in popularity here like they did in the States [Gary Fisher introduced them in the early 2000s], though they were being touted as 'the future for trail riding' here just two years ago. Now 650b is seen as the future, but the perceived 'advantages' over 26in are very small [read this article] and wouldn't necessarily be noticed by the majority of riders [pro downhillers and many Enduro riders still prefer 26in wheels]. Is this the end for 26in and 29in wheels? Or is it all marketing?

I can recall the first time I rode a 29er prototype and I thought 'wow, that is ugly', because it looked so different. I rode if for maybe 10 minutes (I was out with some of the Team GB mtb lads at the Llandegla trail centre) and thought 'oh no, we've got to make them' as the ride was so much better, it was undeniable. It's definitely not marketing as I think 26in bikes look better but the larger wheel ride is so superior, it has to become mainstream, so we have invested in bigger wheels.

We have a mix of 29er and 650b, as like with the women's bikes wheels should probably scale with size in my opinion. For now we are doing both so people can have the choice. We've also used 650b for our FS (full suspension) bikes as the slightly smaller wheel size is a better compromise (in my view) for FS-type riding (clearances, suspension range, geometry, etc). To reiterate though, it's definitely better performance, not a fashion choice.

Way back when I first interviewed you at Coed-y-Brenin, you were on a do-it-all Dolan 'roughstuffer' and at the Performance Series launch you mentioned the disc-equipped CX bike was your favourite ride – both versatile bikes, is that the appeal?

I suppose the CX bike is a close cousin to that bike of well over a decade ago! So yes, it's versatility, capable of tracks, trails and road that appeals.

Do these bikes signal the end for the mtb?

That's an interesting question. I doubt it as I wouldn't want to do rocky singletrack on it, but for many, many people for whom a hybrid would be appropriate for the journeys they are making, the CX would be ideal. The reason they stick with an mtb is that a hybrid looks and feels just too… sensible. Whereas the CX, despite being practical, still has that rough, tough feel that may encourage people away from the mtb to ride to work. We'll see!

Personally I think it's a great idea, but why does Boardman have a two-year product cycle rather than the more common one year?

A two-year product cycle is essential for us, we did it from the start. It allows a timeframe for meaningful R&D to happen, not just colour changes and tweaks. It also allows people who buy the bikes to have 'the latest' model for longer. Additionally, it gives the shops the confidence to invest in the stock, giving customers a good choice, as they know it won't be stale in less than 12 months.

Where will we see the next big innovation in road bikes? We're seeing integration of components on elite bikes, sportive geometry, disc brakes, etc, but is it being hampered by UCI rules [6.8kg min weight limit]?

Integration is for sure the way forward as it often works better but, just as importantly, it looks better! We are also seeing a culture change in the sport right now which will continue if the UCI does not alter its current conservative course. For example, three years ago everyone who wanted a new road bike would look to see what the pros were riding and be guided by that, but now they think 'Hey, I don't have to be UCI legal, I can use a bike a full kilogram lighter than those guys!' or 'Hey, disc brakes are great in all weather and easy to maintain, why would I want to forgo that for my sportive events just because the pros can't use them?'. The pro peloton is no longer dictating what people want to buy. The same goes for TT bikes. The tri market is really starting to demand lighter more aero bikes, not 'what Cancellara is using' and the industry is responding. So I guess the short answer to your question is integration and client group specialisation.

Is the UCI in safer hands now that Brian Cookson is in charge?

I've known Brian for more than 20 years, he is as straight as they come, an honourable man with a quiet strength. He will do the right thing and he's the right man for the job. I have complete faith.

We were surprised to hear at your launch that 1 in 4 of all bikes sold in the UK are sold by Halfords. And you recently renewed the Boardman distribution deal with Halfords for 10 years too. So how do you go about convincing people to look at Halfords rather than an IBD?

Halfords has been a key factor in our being able to make the quality bikes we have for the best prices for people, we couldn't have done what we've done as quickly without them. 

They acknowledge that they have had service issues in some shops over many years and it's been a frustration for us on occasion too, however their new boss, Matt Davies, is a great guy and totally service focused which we were really excited about – incidentally he's also a cyclist. He's already instigated a huge programme of shop development specifically aimed at the bike sections, creating 100 centres of excellence, some due to start opening this coming month. He's also investing a huge amount in staff training and most importantly (as without this the first two bits wouldn't work) staff retention measures. At his last company (Pets at Home) his staff retention record was fantastic, so all this gave us the confidence to sign up again.

It'll take them a while to build customer confidence and we know our part, the bikes, are good, but I'm convinced it will happen. I think often when people see Halfords as a massive corporate giant they completely forget that each store employs only local people!

Over the last couple of years you've been increasingly vocal (or perhaps more visible) regarding cycling advocacy? Was there a particular spark that prompted you to want to help develop more everyday, 'normalised' cycling?

To be frank, I couldn't care less if no-one rides a bike race, but what I've always been passionate about is seeing this fantastic device used to simply get around. This machine has the capacity to impact on nearly all the issues facing this country: congestion, pollution, obesity, heart disease, the list goes on and on. It's infuriating that politicians aren't desperately trying to clear every possible obstacle out of the way to make this happen, to make cycling the most attractive way of making short journeys. I can't think of anything else I'm more passionate about these days. Now is perhaps our best and only chance to make the change.

Our Love London, Go Dutch campaign has been a great success – with10,000 turning out for last year's Big Ride – and has managed to put Dutch cycling and infrastructure ideas in front of key government decision-makers. What do you think we can learn from the Continental model?

Well obviously loads. They have solutions for all the petty arguments that are thrown in the way, but mostly what they do is prove it can be done and just 400 miles from here! It's got to be hard to keep saying it can't be done with the example that it can right next door. Even New York is doing a better job of it.

Does the government spend enough on cycling? If not, how much and what sort of commitment is needed?

Nope, it's logical and fair that we spend an amount at least proportionate to the amount of people using this mode of transport on the roads, so 2% of the transport budget (that doesn't touch the fact that cycling saves the health service and helps meet emissions targets!) 

Most importantly though, the three things that we need are strong political leadership to show commitment and make the tough choices. Consistent targeted funding, not just a few million here, a few million there, then local authorities can plan and invest. Lastly, we need visible, meaningful and tangible targets to measure progress and create accountability. I've never yet seen a venture succeed, be it sporting or business, without targets and leadership, so it's ludicrous for the government to try and tell us 'we don't need targets' 

You were involved in the Get Britain Cycling report – what do you think is the biggest positive that has/can come out of that? What should be the first things to address?

Visibility was it's biggest success. Mainstream press and politicians were talking about cycling, it was even debated on the floor of the House. It forced government to make at least some commitments and make some statements that we can then try very hard to hold them to.

Is there any specific cycling infrastructure that you've seen in place anywhere in the UK that you think should be rolled out everywhere else?

There is loads of cycling infrastructure now, most of it designed with a philosophy of 'keep the cyclist safe by getting them out of the way of the car', so it's pretty rubbish. However it is there and the next step will be to make it work. Even bad infrastructure can have a positive effect. I think the good stuff is what we are going to see start to emerge next year. The real step forward is when we see some signs that say 'Motorists give way to cyclists'

As you know, the percentage of journeys made by bike (in the UK, not just London) is growing but still tiny compared to the likes of Amsterdam or Copenhagen. We've criticised the government (and Mayor Boris Johnson's) targets as not being ambitious enough – what do you think is an achievable target?

I am not a fan of Boris bashing, as he's the first politician to step up and say I'm going to do something, I'm going to inconvenience people travelling by vehicular traffic in favour of those walking and cycling, I'm going to put real resource behind it (almost £1 billion) and appoint a Cycling Commissioner. I know Andrew Gilligan and I have faith he will do his absolute damnedest to get it done – but, it is a slow process. People are screaming, but work is only just underway and it takes time. Sometimes I think people need to be careful who they level blame and criticism at, they could be throwing stones at the person who is their best shot at actually getting something done.

How do we get more kids cycling when some schools won't engage and parents insist on driving their children even short distances by car?

Good question and I don't know there is a simple answer. It's very much tied up with suitable environment to give parents the confidence to let their kids ride. 20mph zones, if enforced, could go a long way to making the roads look and feel safer, but it is all part of culture change and that is always slow and always painful. 

In light of the tragic cyclist deaths on London's streets recently, what are the most urgent measures that should be implemented to improve cyclist safety?

Everything that has been spoken about above. Fundamentally, I would give the mode of transport I most want to encourage the priority wherever it's not possible to treat all road users equally. That is what the Netherlands did, they made cycling and walking their preferred mode of transport and then acted, with laws and infrastructure, accordingly.

As such a high proportion of cyclist deaths are caused by construction lorries/HGVs, do you support a rush-hour ban on lorries in cities across the country?

As 64% of fatalities have involved HGVs when they make up just 5% of the traffic, I definitely support managing their movements in cities. 60% of European cities have some restrictions on HGV movements so there's plenty of precedence and opportunities to learn. They haven't done it for a laugh. Right now, I believe there are restrictions on lorry movements in London to allow residents to sleep; I'd say it's the lesser of evils to use that quiet time for big vehicles and the busiest times for people.

Finally... the issue of helmet use is never far away and usually ill-informed and devisive – where do you stand on it?

Helmets are an amazingly emotive topic and people are often very misguided about how much safer they make you. I say this again and again and people don't hear it, but I'll repeat it now: I have nothing against them and often wear one, but I'm also aware they are not top of the list of things that best keep cyclists safe so where I have limited air time or column inches, I'm loathed use those slots talking about them.

I'd rather focus on trying to create an environment, such as exists 400 miles away, where cycling is a normal way of moving about and something you do in normal clothes, on roads that are safe. By all means use a helmet, I repeat, I often do, but with 35,000 deaths a year from obesity, anything that gets more people on bikes will probably save more lives, so that's where my energy lies.

This is an expanded and much fuller version of the interview which appeared in the December issue of London Cyclist. Thanks to Halfords for their assistance with the feature.