Boardman bikes swooped in to sponsor Podium Ambition Pro Cycling in February this year, kitting the riders out with their top end Elite range. The team – headed up by decorated Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey and husband Barney Storey – took on professional status this year and are unique in creating and linking themselves to the sister cycling club ‘Boot Out Breast Cancer (BOBC) CC’. The aim of BOBC is to inspire and support riders of all levels, offering a scholarship programme for talented individuals.
We caught up with the man behind the supporting bike brand, Chris Boardman to discuss the team, women’s cycling and its development, and briefly (just briefly) how Brexit affects life on two wheels.
A very different team vibe
Spending the day with Podium Ambition at a launch event for their new 'Base Camp' HQ at Cafe Ventoux in Leicester, it's clear that the familyesque bond within the organisation has a pronounced effect on the way everyone interacts and behaves around one another.
The Cafe / Bike shop will act as a base for the riders, as well as becoming a hub of activity for Boardman bikes. They do nice coffee, too. Over the few hours that I'm there, I see Dame Sarah take on a multitude of roles: Team Manager, as she ensures all of the sponsors are happy with the event; Director Sportif whilst she and the girls watch the highlights of the National Championships they rode the previous day; Coach, whilst discussing appropriate wattage for a lead out train front rider; and something of a maternal figure waving the peloton across a busy road as we made our way out to the country lanes surrounding Leicester.
"I’ve known Sarah [Storey] for 10 to 15 years, and I admire her tenacity and balance." - Chris Boardman
The positive characters and relationships within the team aren’t just something I’ve noted. Olympic Gold Medallist and the man behind the sponsoring bike brand Chris Boardman was instrumental in the relationship with the team and told me: “You’ve got to admire it really, they [Dame Sarah and Barney] just get stuck in, regardless of the business it’s quite nice to be involved with people who are passionate and just get on with it. They decide they’re going to make it happen, and then they find a way. Barney is always there working quietly in the background, their garage is full of team kit. I’ve known Sarah for 10 to 15 years, and I admire her tenacity and balance. She’s an ambassador for the sport – it might sound a bit cheesy but she is. To do something with her is brilliant."
Discussing Dame Sarah’s ability to keep so many plates spinning simultaneously, he explains: “She’s one of life’s organisers – if she wasn’t doing this, she’d have been a CEO or something. As an athlete you’re trained to be driven, but you’re also trained to be selfish. [Sarah is different] she’s thinking larger, not just thinking ‘this is what I need to eat’, ‘this is what I need to do for training’, she’s thinking about everybody else. And that’s not usual. It’s quite A-typical."
Boardman has moved from the life of a pro cyclist to that of an industry bod, seemingly fairly smoothly. His name ‘The Professor’, gained through his meticulous attention to detail with his own racing gear, has graduated to a desire to make great bikes and whilst we're there he spends a good half hour chatting about handlebar set up with Barney.
Describing the attributes needed to be a pro cyclist, and those required to perform in other careers, he tells me: “You need the drive and courage and the ability to deal with failure. So there’s things you could take from a career [in cycling and apply elsewhere] but there’s lots of things you bring from a career [in cycling] that you need to change – and selfishness is one of them."
Women’s Cycling – where are we now?
Choosing to sponsor a women’s team could be seen as a bit of a risk by some. It’s a major investment in a sport that sees significantly less engagement than its testosterone laced partner. However, Boardman says that Emma Fox - director at Halfords, who stock and part own Boardman bikes - was “all over the idea" which gave him confidence.
Moving on to discuss the growing women’s cycling audience, Boardman pulls up the Tour de Yorkshire, with its huge prize pot for the women’s race as an example of a driving force for success: “Gary Verity [Chief Executive of Welcome to Yorkshire] has done an amazing job championing women’s cycling globally – he’s got the courage and vision to put on this event and say ‘I am going to make it work’ which is what we need on a political level full stop. He says ‘we’re having equal prize money’ and it pushes everyone else over the world to match it – otherwise they really stand out. So what’s happening in the UK could end up changing what’s happening globally. There are a lot of people involved but he seems to be the catalyst that can make the difference."
Another catalyst for change is the introduction of the UCI Women’s World Tour. It’s become an exciting fixture in the calendars of female riders and media outlets globally, but has received criticism from some as being 'too much too soon’. Boardman disagrees, saying: “It’s got to be a good thing having more racing at a high level – but I think the type of racing, and the length of the racing, you have to do it at the right pace. You need to TV coverage to bring in sponsors, to allow athletes to invest their own time and lives into being good. Then you get high performance at high volume and you can change the races [to make them harder and longer]."
Comments have come from both bystanders and those thoroughly involved in women’s cycling that gaps in ability within the peloton mean the racing isn’t yet at an adequate standard to support the WWT. Boardman can see the arguments, but wouldn’t swap the added racing – saying: “You’ve got a transition period – where the aspiration might be running slightly further ahead than the capabilities to deliver. I think it will change shape, and keep changing shape for a couple of years until the capability matches readiness, so the product is right. But having the World Tour as a concept I think is a good thing."
"We’ve got a World Tour series – it’s a series that’s called World – and therefore it’s interesting for TV."
He adds: “You’ve got sponsors, organisers, television companies and the athletes – those 4 things need to grow at the right pace, and they need to be led by TV. We’ve got a World Tour series – it’s something you can attach a TV label too – it’s a Series that’s called World – and therefore it’s interesting for TV."
The UCI have put a fair amount of resource into supporting women’s cycling recently – creating the UCI Women twitter feed and of course the UCI Women’s World Tour itself. However, Boardman feels they’ve taken a step back – saying: “They were investing a lot, and I’d like to see the question asked of them ‘why have you stopped televising?’ – there needs to be exposure – and they’ve decided to do less."
B is for Brexit – and what of it?
So far, Boardman and I have shared in a slight adoration of the Storey’s and their set up, and chewed the fat of women’s cycling. But it’s impossible for me to sit with such a well known cycling advocate at a time of turmoil in Britain and not ask about the B word.
Describing the effect he thinks Brexit will have on cycling and infrastructure in the coming weeks, months and years, Boardman tells me: “It’ll have an effect on everything. What effect that will be no one knows, which is why everybody is upset and uncomfortable at the moment. And it’s a mess. It will take years to clean up. I guess primarily it will affect investment – in times of insecurity people stop spending, they decide to ‘wait and see’. That applies to anything – moving house, whatever it is – people ‘wait and see’ before they make that spend. So it will touch on everybody, in every walk of life. To what degree, I don’t know – no one knows and that’s what’s upsetting everyone."
The bright side....
We’re not keen in finishing on a negative note, so we won't. As our hosts Café Ventoux show us with their ‘My Ride’ wall below – though decreased investment might reduce the growth of cycling in cities it would be hard for a cut in spending to stop us enjoying what's free in life. Fun and cycling are two of those things.
Describing the ethos of the Beat Out Breast Cancer Cycling Club and of Podium Ambition, Sarah Storey told us: "The cycling club is all about bringing more people into the cycling community and providing support, and creating a community to remind the team riders that life's about fun cycling as well as about getting it right in a road race."
We wish them all the best for the ride ahead...