Chris Boardman on retaining his love of cycling
The former racing cyclist and co-founder of Boardman Bikes talks about finding new ways to enjoy life on two wheels
As a professional cyclist, I was fascinated and obsessed with being a better bike rider. I was always trying to go faster, whether through equipment, physically or technically. And I really enjoyed it. But when I stopped racing, I just needed a break. I said: “Right, I’m never carrying another measuring device again”.
But adventure or gravel riding has completely revitalised cycling for me. I am enjoying using my bicycle to do something completely different. I’m a sort of ‘anti-competitive’ cyclist now because I just want to ride my gravel bike in beautiful places. And I have fallen back in love with cycling.
A bike can mean different things to different people at different times in their life. At first, it was my bit of childhood independence. Then it was my sport. Then it became my job. Then I used it post-retirement as a way to just stop being fat. But now I use it as a way to explore. I’ve realised that my bike is now just a way to go and take pictures in beautiful places.
Adventure bikes fit my new approach perfectly. When we started making them at Boardman Bikes, I thought they were great. I am a 50mm tyre type of person now. I’m not bothered about my top speed. Mountain bikes are too heavy for getting around town, but they do off-road really well. Road bikes are fast, but only on the road. Tracks and paths and the roads stitching them together are where I want to be now, so a gravel bike just fits that niche beautifully.
More like this
This kind of riding really helps me to explore. I live in a nice part of the Wirral, but because it’s a peninsula I’ve done those roads to death. The tracks and paths are where I now go for fun. I ride the Wirral Way – an old Beeching railway line. It cuts through any lumpy bits, so it is quite sedate and quiet. Finding tracks that I didn’t know about in the ’90s because I was too busy trying to go quick is a nice way for me to rediscover my own area. I also really enjoy riding to a cafe or a pub, but only at the end of the ride: I don’t like stopping then starting again when you’re cold.
But I’ve found this kind of adventure cycling most joyous in Scotland. I think I’m going to end up living there. I love riding in the Cairngorms and the Western Isles as well. Traffic is almost non-existent there. You see a car and everybody stops and says hello because it’s another human being. It’s a wonderful place to ride.
I now take a lot of pictures on my rides. Photography is a primary passion of mine. I know it sounds very cheesy, but it encourages you to be where you are and to enjoy it. A certain place might make you feel something, or you might see a cow in the Highlands or the symmetry in the scene, and you go: I want to capture that. And while I’m doing that, I’m not thinking about other stuff. It’s just a way to take a mental break on the bike.
I admit that I still do a bit of looking at the numbers. I’m a very geeky person, so I can very quickly become obsessive about it. And I’m wary of that. But the main point for me is not competitiveness any more. I just ride because it’s fun.
I still enjoy doing some sportives for fun too, so long as I keep my ego in check. As soon as somebody says ‘go’, there is just an automatic instinct to start battering down the road. I have ridden Etape Caledonia in Pitlochry, Perthshire, a few times and that was great. I have done Birmingham and London sportives too. But the beautiful thing about sportives is that there’s always somebody else who is happy to sit on the front instead.
In the future, I’d love to do some big adventures like Land’s End to John o’ Groats, but off-road. It would take about 20 days, so that might have to wait until my retirement, if that ever happens. I’ve also done a nice charity ride from the Masons Arms in the Lake District, which takes in Wrynose Pass and other places like that. A ride which starts and ends at a pub is as good as it gets.
The beautiful thing about cycling is that it can give you whatever you need at any time in your life. The bicycle is just an enabling tool: you can use it however or wherever you want. Riding purely for fun can help you to remember that.
Chris Boardman is currently the National Active Travel Commissioner for Active Travel England gov.uk/government/organisations/active-travel-england
Illustration: Daniel Seex
This article appeared in issue 400 of Cycling Plus, out now. To buy the magazine or subscribe for regular copies, head here.
Get 13 issues of Cycling Plus for just £42.99 - that's just £3.30 an issue!