Board­man shows path to break cy­cle of Manch­ester’s car com­muter hell

The for­mer Olympic cham­pion hopes to win a dif­fer­ent race, all for the pub­lic good, he tells Tanya Al­dred

The Observer - Sport - - Sport / Grandstand -

It is a Sher­lock Holmes evening in south Manch­ester. There is a deep fog on an al­ready black night, per­fect for tail- coated vil­lains to dart be­tween the wheel ie bins. But in a pri­mary school hall the lights are on and a pub­lic meet­ing is tak­ing place about a pro­posed local cy­cle route. There are a cou­ple of coun­cil­lors, en­gi­neers, 180 or so mem­bers of the pub­lic – the irate and the en­thu­si­as­tic – and a world- record break­ing and Olympic win­ning cy­clist: Chris Board­man.

The mi­cro­phone does n ot work, there are tetchy com­plaints about a phone vote and low- level ten­sion plonks down in the cor­ner. Board­man, here in his role as Manch­ester’s cy­cling and walk­ing tsar seems un­fazed. He perches on the ta­ble, sticks a hand in his pocket and starts to speak. He is confi dent, blunt – and hack­les vis­i­bly set­tle.

It is all a long way from Ly­cra- clad time tri­als. Board­man, 50 and who in 1994 be­came only the sec­ond British cy­clist to wear the Tour de France’s yel­low jer­sey, re­tired from cy­cling in 2000 with the aim of do­ing

“sod all”. He and his wife had scaled their life down and Board­man was able to pick and choose jobs – be­fore be­ing sucked back in 2004 when asked to help a cou­ple of coaches with “some prob­lem­atic ath­letes” – in­clud­ing Bradley Wig­gins. He then be­came head of British Cy­cling’s Se­cret Squir­rel Club – in charge of re­search and de­vel­op­ment – for the next two Olympics. He set up his own bike com­pany and did TV com­men­tary.

But it is this new role that has him up at night.

“It’s the only thing in 20 years to do that be­cause it’s im­por­tant,” he says, ear­lier the same day, in a liv­ing room round the cor­ner from the Co- op. “Peo­ple say do you en­joy it? No! I just feel this mas­sive bur­den not to screw it up.”

Manch­ester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, aims to turn the city into one of the green­est in Europe, and a place of mostly hap­haz­ard, some­time pot- holed cy­cle lanes, into the cy­cling cap­i­tal of the coun­try with 1,000 miles of net­work. Board­man has been given 10 years and

£ 1.5b n of ring fenced money.

He is confi dent he can change be­hav­iour in this rainy city, where there are 250 mil­lion car jour­neys of less than 1km ev­ery year, where life ex­pectancy is among the low­est in the coun­try, where air pol­lu­tion is too high, where peo­ple eat, drink and smoke too much and do n ot do enough ex­er­cise. It is also the fi rst place in the world where Mo­bike, the Chi­nese cy­cle- shar­ing op­er­a­tor, with­drew be­cause of anti so­cial be­hav­iour. But Board­man sees only po­ten­tial.

“I en­joy talk­ing about this be­cause it has ab­so­lutely nothing to do with cy­clists. They might benefi t but this is for peo­ple who drive be­cause they’re the ones who are go­ing to want to change if it’s go­ing to work.”

His cri­te­ria for suc­cess: dou­bling and dou­bling again cy­cling in Greater Manch­ester. Walk­ing routes with space enough for a dou­ble buggy, a cy­cle net­work that can be han­dled by com­pe­tent 12 - year- olds and be trusted by their par­ents. His se­cret weapons: democ­racy, let­ting local com­mu­ni­ties plot their own routes, a joined- up net­work in­clud­ing, crit­i­cally, junc­tions and “telling peo­ple if you don’t want to do it, we won’t do it. Then peo­ple say: ‘ Oh, we do’, and you’ve got a proper con­ver­sa­tion on your hands.”

Board­man is no fa­natic. He has two cars and spends lots of time on the M6, jour­ney­ing from the Wir­ral, where he has lived most of his life. Nor was he a mas­sive ad­vo­cate for pub­lic cy­cling in his pro­fes­sional years. “It’s a very self- cen­tred ex­is­tence be­ing an ath­lete . You’re in­cred­i­bly selfi sh and en­cour­aged to be so,” he ad­mits. But he al­ways had a thing for the out­doors – camp­ing, scuba - div­ing – and he likes prob­lem solv­ing and logic. “I re­alised the bike is a sim­ple, cheap so­lu­tion to so many of the prob­lems we face, so why the hell aren’t we do­ing it? Three hun­dred miles away from here 50 % of kids ride to school ev­ery day, 30% of all jour­neys are by bike – in the Nether­lands, in parts of Ger­many, in Den­mark. Take any­one from here and stand them there and they’ll say:

‘ I pre­fer this.’ So it is such a sturdy soap box to stand on.

“Peo­ple think the Nether­lands have al­ways been about bikes but they haven’t. In the 1970s, be­cause of child deaths on the streets and a loom­ing oil cri­sis, they said: stop. They de­cided to change the way they used streets and put peo­ple fi rst. Their spend went into pub­lic trans­port. They’ve got a higher tax rate than we have but it is won­der­fully civili sed. We in­vested in pri­vate trans­port. We’re not un­usual, we just do the easy thing – and the car has al­ways been easy un­til there’s so many of them that it’s not, and the con­se­quences are be­com­ing more and more ap­par­ent.”

Board­man’s mother, Carol, was killed in a cy­cling ac­ci­dent in July 2016. Last month Liam Ros­ney ad­mit­ted caus­ing death by care­less driv­ing. “It’s just hor­rifi cally ironic,” Board­man says. “I can’t think about it be­cause it would just de­stroy me. It’s not just tak­ing away some­one’s life . It’s ev­ery­thing that’s left be­hind. And we don’t treat it as a crime . We say: ‘ Oh, what a shame.’” He sighs.

“This, this is the big­gest race I’ve ever had. If we can change some­thing as big as a city re­gion and prove that it works, you have to be­lieve the rest of the coun­try will fol­low.”

CHRISTO­PHER THOMOND/ OB­SERVER

Chris Board­man lost his mother in a cy­cling ac­ci­dent, af­ter which a man ad­mit­ted caus­ing her death by dan­ger­ous driv­ing: ‘ And we don’t treat it as a crime. We say: “Oh, what a shame”’

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