Chris Boardman was nicknamed The Professor through his road and track career for his meticulous attention to technical detail – now the 43-year-old is the brains behind Boardman Bikes as the company’s director of research and development.
Bikemagic sat down with Boardman to chart the company’s five-year rise from start-up to one of the most popular brands at trail centres and on the road. With half a decade behind Boardman Bikes, we immediately looked to seek clarity on the future. Will Boardman Bikes be supporting the 650b wheel size?
“No, I think it just muddies the water, personally,” said Boardman. “I think that’ll be the fad – 29ers will stick, but 650b is just indecisive, make your mind up.”
While Boardman was clear in his disinterest in 650b, the Olympic track cycling gold medallist, who won the individual pursuit at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, was equally unequivocal in his support for 29ers, while acknowledging 26″ wheels still have an important part to play in the sport’s future, particularly at elite level.
“Whatever people think of 29ers, they’re here, and they’re here to stay,” he said.
“[Professional riders] can go just as fast on 26” wheels with no problem at all, and there are definite issues at the highest end of competition because if you want the lowest weight then the last place you want to put it is around the edge.
“There’s definitely a trade off. For the likes of me, if you want a smoother ride around the trail centre then it’s gorgeous, but whether it’s right for those guys to go and ride the World Cup on a 29er? I don’t know, particularly for [Boardman sponsored rider] Annie Last. When you look at the size of her, the wheels really have to scale with the person – but we don’t, we say it’s the same size for everyone regardless of whether they’re 5’2″ or 6’5” and that just doesn’t work.
“But having said all that, 29ers are here to stay and they’re the future for hardtails.”
Boardman is involved in “every nut and bolt” of the design and develop of the bikes that wear his signature but, with a competitive background solely in road and track racing, he is happy to leave testing duties to Boardman Bikes’ three sponsored riders: Last, Kenta Gallagher and Grant Ferguson.
“We actually say to our athletes ‘right, we’re going to make a mountain bike, tell us what should be in there’ and then they get a prototype, so we say ‘tell us, warts and all, what to do’ – so they’re genuinely involved.
“I can’t tell Kenta, Grant and Annie what’s good for a mountain biker. I can tell them what the best resin and carbon lay-up is, but I can’t tell them what’s best for them, so they’re an important part of the product.”
The Boardman range is split into two collections: elite and performance. The elite range, including the top-of-the-range EM1.7 hardtail ridden by Last, Gallagher and Ferguson, is available through a growing network of independent bike shops, while the performance range is sold exclusively through Halfords; a partnership which Boardman admits has been key to the brand’s success.
“You’ve instantly got access to hundreds of stores,” said Boardman. “I’m lucky in that I’ve had control over the product, literally sketching on pieces of paper at mountain bike centres, going all the way through to having the first sample, making sure it’s alright and then going back with feedback. That combination has worked really well, because we can come in at a really good price and give people what they want at a price they want to pay.”
Design and innovation remain at the forefront of Boardman’s ethos and a two-year life cycle means each product launch sees “meaningful change” to the range.
“It’s not just a case of getting it out the door and changing the colour, we’re actually trying to do something different, getting prototypes and making adjustments,” he said.
“There’s a big commercial pressure on companies to bring something new out, to give the people a reason to buy more, but I think the two-year life cycle means the product holds value well for the customer. So the last launch we had saw fundamental changes because we had time to do it across all the bikes, not just one or two of them.”
Boardman Bikes will launch a new 29er later this year, while Last has been testing a bike currently bearing the B56 (the name of the company’s development department) label on the top tube, which she hopes to ride at the Olympic Games in August.
The bike will be going into Boardman’s 2013 range and wears SRAM and RockShox components, while the frame and tube profiles have been developed specifically with Last’s input. Internal cable routing results in a clean look which also reduces the amount of snag hazards. We spotted the bike, albeit with road wheels in, when we spoke to Last at the Olympic mountain bike course last month.
Boardman’s design flare stems from an early career as a cabinet maker and, when working in a furniture store, customers would come in with a picture from a magazine and ask for it to be made – and the process continued as a professional cyclist. When the UCI said his track bike didn’t meet its regulations, and Boardman couldn’t get his position right as a result, he designed his own carbon fork, commissioned it and had it made. “I’ve always loved making things,” he told Bikemagic.
Boardman has spent the last nine years as head of research and development at British Cycling and is credited with much of the technological innovation which helped Great Britain to a record medal haul on the track at the Beijing Olympic Games.
However, he announced last month he will step back from the role after London 2012, motivated partly by the desire to spend more time working on his own brand.
Boardman’s priorities have changed on two wheels as well, with the Hoylake resident now spending 70 per cent of his riding time on knobbly tyres.
“I live on a peninsula so I’ve ridden the same roads for 25 years, and being able to lump it all together with tracks and paths just refreshes the whole thing for me,” said Boardman.
“Plus, I just much prefer the environment. Being outside in the forest rather than on the road is a no brainer unless you live somewhere like Scotland, where all the roads are quiet as well.
“I love tracks, paths and fast descents, I don’t like stuff which is high skill because I’m just too old now. I just enjoy it but it’s also for the ego because I don’t have any speed reference in my head from 20 years ago which depresses me out on the road bike, so I can go as slow as I like and it’s fine.”