From top secret BC projects to launching his own bike brand, Chris Boardman’s pursuit of excellence rolls on into a whole new era for cycling
Words: Simon Smythe
Chris Boardman spent 10 years with British Cycling, heading up the Secret Squirrel club that produced the bikes and equipment that were — and still are — the envy of the track cycling world.
So it follows that when he scampered off to start up his own bike brand he must have squirreled away a few nuts of precious information for future consumption. In a nutshell, no.
“I can’t touch any of that information — it’s absolutely sacrosanct,” says Boardman. “Even still — it’s their information and most of it is still current.”
However, even though the data might be locked in a vault under the Manchester velodrome and guarded 24/7 by two burly track sprinters, Boardman didn’t leave completely empty-handed.
“As far as bikes are concerned I know where I want to go now,” he says. “I know which people I want to work with [he still works with Dimitris Katsanis, the engineer who designed the UK Sports Institute track bike], I know which places I don’t want to look in because they’re a waste of time, I know which CFD [computational fluid dynamics] packages work, which ones tell you the truth.
“So there’s all those [secret] things that you know, and then sometimes you’ll find the same things via your own design and that’s OK. So it is quite tricky and in some ways I’ve hamstrung myself by doing that [BC] programme.”
Boardman describes the frustration of being ahead of the game with BC, and in the commercial world, having to wait for the stragglers to catch up so as not to look as if he was stealing BC’s secret technology. “I’ve stopped doing things that other people are now cottoning on to,” he says, “so I’ve had to wait for somebody else to do it before I can go there.”
Boardman has no regrets, though: “Ultimately it was a phenomenal experience that you would never get anywhere else. Lottery funding to go and research with no need for a commercially viable product at the end of it. So it was a brilliant 10 years but I’m bloody glad it’s over now. It just ate my life.”
To demonstrate how his own post-BC designs are completely original, Boardman describes the evolution of an adjustment system for the armrests of his new time trial bike, the AiR/TTE, that didn’t make the cut. “There was a disc that originally had two slots on it,” he says. “It’s concentric so you can slide the pad in any direction you want. It was a really good idea till we made it, then there was this massive cock-up. It works with one bolt but when you’ve got two it doesn’t. It was getting so complicated — it was an adjustment we didn’t need — that we binned it.”
The TTE’s tri-bar system is still highly adjustable: the armrests can be placed from 29cm apart at their widest down to touching, with fore-aft about 3cm. However, this little story illustrates how developing a new bike is so much about compromises.
You can’t put everything in. Boardman explains that even with a brand-new bike, two years in the making, he can still think of ways it could be improved. “You always can,” he says. “There’s never anything you do where you can’t think of a way to do it better. That’s the time you retire when you can’t. That’s just the way it works. But you’ve got to draw a line and say OK, put it out the door, and we’ll put that into the mix later.”
To design a time trial bike to be efficient in real world conditions requires perhaps the biggest compromise of all. It can’t be the fastest bike at all angles of yaw.
“People go, there’s no compromises, but that’s rubbish,” says Boardman. For the TTE Boardman and his team got measurements from wind stations around the world and concluded that the average wind speed across Europe and North America on a given day is about 9mph. “We realised that we needed to be modelling bikes for much, much higher yaw angles, so that’s what we did.
You’ve just got to choose. You’ve got to design it for a yaw angle. You’ve got to decide what you want it to do. So front on [at zero degrees of yaw] there will be bikes that are at least as good,” Boardman said. “It’s just where you want to put your compromises.”
Boardman freely admits that the two main ways of measuring a bike’s aerodynamic efficiency — CFD and wind tunnels — are compromises in themselves. “CFD tells you the truth 70 per cent of the time if you’re lucky, probably 60 if you’ve got the right package.
So it points you in the right direction but it’s not definitive,” he says. Wind tunnels are increasingly used just to ‘validate’ a shape after CFD design, and that data cannot be relied on 100 per cent either. “It’s finding a way to live with not being able to have all the answers really,” says Boardman.
“You do need to be able to measure to know whether it’s better, worse, better, worse, so wind tunnels and CFD are here to stay for a considerable amount of time. It’s fascinating to watch people exploring real world — when people say: ‘Oh, we’ve got a real world wind tunnel…’ No you haven’t.”
So why did Boardman decide to design a UCI-legal time trial bike and not a tri-only bike, or
even one of each? “Because it would have been very expensive,” he answers. “But we’re at a point now where people are saying, ‘Actually, I’m riding sportives now so I quite like disc brakes and I don’t need to stick to 6.8kg.’
Their bikes are getting better than the pros’ and in the same way the people in the triathlon market or those who service the triathlon market are starting to say for the first time, ‘Actually, I’ll just build something just for them, and they’re testing the water.’ So you’re seeing a cultural change.
“We’ve got tri riders that we work with; Alan Ingarfield, the co-founder, is a triathlete. So if I said, ‘Right, I want to do a tri-only bike,’ that would be an interesting prospect. With the UCI you’ve got quite a small space to work within. Tri is wholly different.”
Could Boardman be hinting at a sea change in direction, a shift away from the territory he himself raced in and up to now has designed bikes for? The original Secret Squirrel wouldn’t give something like that away. We’ll have to wait two years to find out.
New versus old
Have we reached a point where the latest UCI-legal time trial frames are faster than the outlawed monocoque designs such as the Lotus that Chris Boardman won the 1992 Olympic pursuit on? “They [diamond frames] are pretty good but I don’t think tubes is necessarily the way to go if you had a free hand,” Boardman says. “Designing monocoque frames was a good exercise — it made you think.”
This article was first published in the January 16 issue of Cycling Weekly.