The least painful route

Former champion Chris Boardman says the boost lockdown gave to cycling must be sustained – but admits his own relationship with the two-wheeled pursuit wasn’t always straightforward

Hero image

Planet Earth’s prospects looked pretty bleak from where Chris Boardman was sitting at the end of last year.

“Winning and my self-worth became wrapped up in each other, which is really not healthy.”

The man with a mission to convert motorists into cyclists was convinced the country’s one big chance to knock a dent in its CO2 emissions had been lost. Not any more though.

In his role as Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Greater Manchester, the former Olympic champion was overseeing a 1,800-mile cycling and walking-friendly network that eventually will connect every neighbourhood and community in the metropolitan county.

It looked like the party was starting without him. As the pandemic forced us into lockdown, cars disappeared from the roads, their place taken, along with the deer and the goat, by an unprecedented volume of cyclists. A 200 per cent increase in cycling at weekends was recorded. Shares in bike seller Halfords rose 23 per cent.

The lockdown effect had presented the perfect moment for a transport revolution. But that would only happen with the support of politicians, and while Boardman’s £1.5 billion plan to allow cycling and walking to flourish continued, he saw little sign of action elsewhere.

There was even a backlash against low-traffic neighbourhoods, with certain newspapers saying they increased pollution – something Boardman calls “Trumpism”. And a snag right at the heart of his patch. While Boardman was helping put in place nearly 125 miles of temporary cycle lanes across the county, making it easier for citizens to avoid public transport in the pandemic, Manchester City Council declined to be involved – leaving a five-mile hole in the middle of the pop-up network.

“I thought last year was the moment when ‘this is it – if you’re not going to change the way you use your road space now, you’re never going to,” says Boardman.

“I actually thought it was going to slip away from us, this chance to – it does sound melodramatic but I’m afraid it is dramatic – to save the species, to save the way we live.”

Such is life for a man long used to negotiating bumps in the road. Is it the will to win (to gold at the 1992 Olympics, add three Tour de France yellow jerseys, a clutch of world championship titles and a world record) that drives him on?

Actually, no. The need to succeed is what got the teenage Boardman into bother. A pursuit so beneficial to people’s mental health took the young competitor down a psychological cul-de-sac.

He recalls being bullied at school in Wirral. “It wasn’t fun. I didn’t fit in and riding bikes and competing – against myself, against the watch – gave me something that was mine.

“When I went quicker than someone else, I could do something other people couldn’t. I’d never had that so it was really important to me and became over-important. Winning and my self-worth became wrapped up in each other, which is really not healthy.”

His attitude altered when he was “lucky to bump into some people who gave me a fascination with the journey rather than just the destination”.

He says: “It put me back in control  because striving for better is wholly positive whereas ‘the best’ is a destination – it might just mean you’re less shit than everybody else.

“You can apply it to anything. Anybody can. You might not get councillors to agree to a series of crossings and you think, right, my job is not the decision they make, my job is to give them the best information I can. Did I do that? Yes, and I can’t do any more. You stop holding yourself responsible for things that are not within your control.”

He is not complacent though.“There isn’t the end, happy ever after. You slip back and need it reinforced. I’ve been married over 30 years and self-pity is not currency we use in this house. It’s quickly met with: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ So you need somebody to help you stay on that path.”

Boardman retired from competitive cycling more than 20 years ago, but the pastime he inherited from his parents, lifelong enthusiasts and bike club members (“my dad, who’s 82, rides his bike more than me”) is still built into his days. His commute to the office  (“I’ve given up my car”) involves a 30-minute bike ride in both directions.

“I broke my ankle years ago in six places in the Tour and it’s finally died now, but one thing I can still do is ride a bike because it’s non-weight bearing and a nice controlled motion.”

Safety is paramount to Boardman, who says people turned to cycling in lockdown for many reasons – bored kids, closed gyms, restricted train services –  “but they only did it because it felt safe. That sense of unease had gone because we’d removed the danger.”

It’s also personal. Boardman’s mother died in 2016, when she was run over after falling off her bike in North Wales. “Ultimately what people want is safe space. That’s what it boils down to.”

In Greater Manchester, cycle safety is taking a leap forward, he insists. “Right now, we’re really starting to dig up roads, change neighbourhoods.”

By the end of the year, around another 55 miles of routes will be in place, along with 12 more low-traffic neighbourhoods and eight Cyclops (cycle optimised) junctions, “which mean if you’re going to school you can turn right at a major junction without ever coming into contact with cars”.

Boardman believes that local and regional politicians are now trying to find a way to promote cycling and walking, and end the dominance of the car on our streets – a change from ducking the problem to asking the right questions about how to tackle it. Considering there has been a 44 per cent increase in traffic over 10 years in Greater Manchester, the stakes are high.

He says: “I took the job to create a regional example on such a scale that it is unignorable nationally. I think over the next two years, we will be creating examples around the country that people like and want. But it’s a whole-system approach and I think we’re just about starting that journey.”

Cycling should be an easy sell. It’s popular (five months before the first lockdown, Sport England noted a 100,000 annual increase in cycling), good for body and mind (87 per cent of people said the pursuit benefited their mental health in lockdown), and good for the planet (even at its present rate, a year of cycling in the EU saves the equivalent of Croatia’s annual CO2 emissions).

“We’ve found something that we actually like that could positively impact all of those things. What if we don’t? When you look at pollution, congestion, health, numbers killed and injured, wrap it all together and the cost of travelling as we are now is £3.7 billion a year.

“We’re not stopping climate change anymore – we’re managing the worst effects. And whether you like people riding bikes, love it or hate it, this is the least painful route to get the thing done that you need done.

“I was going to get a t-shirt with this on: ‘Cycling is your least shit option.’”

Photo: Fabio De Paola/PA

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to The least painful route

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.