Interview: Edward Pickering

Edward Pickering and The Race Against Time - Getty

In the 1990s two riders from Great Britain breathed fresh life into the Hour record and - by and by - helped pave the way for Team GB at the Olympics and Team Sky at the Tour de France. Edward Pickering's The Race Against Time profiles the two men and considers their contribution to Britain's current status as one of the top cycling nations. Pickering popped into the Café for a quick chat.

Podium Café: Back in the 1990s, when all this was happening in real time, where were you at when Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman were breathing life back into the Hour?

Edward Pickering: I was in Exeter, Leeds, then Japan through the 1990s, following the sport as a fan. I'd started following the Tour de France on Channel Four in 1985, after catching a glimpse of it in 1984, and it combined two things that I really liked - sport and France. I was hooked on the Tour from then. I also entertained brief notions that might be quite good at cycling and be a professional, but that got filed away with "becoming a concert pianist," and "becoming a doctor" once I realised that I wasn't so good after all.

I started buying Cycling Weekly and Winning in 1988, and this enabled me to start following the sport in far more detail - until then it had been an annual thing, during July. Boardman was starting to really come to prominence in Britain that year, and I started following time trialling as well, but not really with anything like as much enthusiasm as international road racing. There was a lot of time trialling in Cycling Weekly, however, so I absorbed a lot by osmosis.

The Race Against TimePdC: Of the two, when you came to sitting down and writing The Race Against Time, which did you think you were more sympathetic to?

EP: I think you can probably tell from the opening chapters that at the time, I was more a fan of Obree than of Boardman. I've always been a sucker for an underdog, but there's more to it than that. I found Obree far more emotionally engaging than Boardman, and emotional engagement is my primary reason for being interested in sport. I supported Steve Ovett, not Sebastian Coe, and Jimmy White, not Steve Davis or Stephen Hendry. I get why the French loved Raymond Poulidor instead of Jacques Anquetil - defeat is often more compelling than victory.

One of the most striking sporting memories I have from my teenage years was watching Barry McGuigan getting beaten by Steve Cruz in Las Vegas for the world featherweight title. In the later rounds, McGuigan looked so fragile, and there was desperation in his eyes - I felt visceral pity for him and felt that I was seeing uncomfortably deep into his soul. I think that fight was the source of my addiction to getting that brief glimpse into athletes' psyches when their minds are forcing their bodies into traumatic circumstances. I recognised that same look on the faces of professional cyclists.

My perception of Boardman was that he was unemotional, and that there weren't really any surprises in his sporting life. He'd erected a barrier, while Obree seemed more human and accessible. Of course, by the time I started work on this project, both riders were over a decade retired - normal life has smoothed off some of the rough edges. Plus, Obree's autobiography somewhat changed people's perceptions of him.

I should add that I'm probably more like Boardman than Obree myself, however. Do as I say, not as I do.

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PdC: And coming out of all the research and the writing, did that change any?

EP: Stereotypes are by their nature unfair and lazy, although we all rely on them from time to time. They're also rooted in truth, however. Boardman was certainly an unemotional individual with an incredibly pragmatic approach to the sport, and Obree was unpredictable, wacky and flaky. Even talking to both riders for this book, they both lived up to the stereotype to an extent, and the story, at the time, was a compelling one: the scientist versus the artist, the robot versus the free spirit, the ego versus the id. But it was the observations of others that made me realise there was more to them than the stereotype.

Peter Keen was fascinating on Boardman. He explained that contrary to public perception, Boardman's career and life were on the edge of chaos. This was a man who started having children very early in life (and lots of them), and who suffered from low self-esteem. There were hints from Keen, contemporary reports, and Boardman himself, that his marriage went through a rocky patch in the later 1990s. Much as Boardman and Keen looked like they'd turned cycling into a lab experiment, the reality was that real life was leaking in.

On the other hand, Adam Glasser, a cycling journalist and film-maker, who was involved in making a documentary on Boardman and Obree, The Battle of the Bikes (which is excellent), had the impression that Obree was a lot more savvy than he let on. Phil O'Connor, the photographer who documented both riders' careers, thought the same. Both told me they occasionally got the impression that Obree played up to his stereotype, and was more calculating about his public image than people might have thought.

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PdC: You open the book with the story of the Clash of the Champions, Obree and Boardman going head-to-head in a twenty-five mile time trial in Northern Ireland. Even despite having lived in the UK for a while I never really got a taste for time trialling, particularly the competitive side of it. Which, in the UK, is a little bit confusing, particularly when it comes to the different "national" titles. The Clash of the Champions is a way of resolving all this confusion, yes, unofficially crown a champion of the United Kingdom?

EP: The Clash of Champions was a 25-mile TT held in Northern Ireland. It wasn't an official British championship, but it was marketed as a decider between the British and Scottish champions. A cycling equivalent of the Community Shield.

The confusion is in the definitions. The "British" championships were, more realistically, the "English and Welsh" championships. They were held on the same day as the Scottish championships, which meant that you'd get two champions. I learned early on with time trialling, don't fight the bureaucracy.

PdC: One of the difficulties in talking about Obree is that he's done such a wonderful job telling his own story in The Flying Scotsman. Boardman on the other hand, well I know he's been interviewed and profiled and his story told hundreds of times, but he's still something of an unknown, I think. Perversely then, Obree's tale strikes me as the harder to tell - if you don't want to simply repeat his autobiography - while Boardman's seems easier, offers more freedom. Was that your own way of looking at the two?

EP: To a certain extent, yes. Obree's already told his story, far better than I could hope to. On the other hand, he hasn't told the full story - Flying Scotsman is a great book, really visceral and painful to read, but it's still an autobiography, told from a certain viewpoint. I felt there was a lot of value in adding to the story by talking to the people who knew him - people like Vic Haines (his ex-manager), Doug Dailey and Kelvin Trott (his sponsor for the Hour). The interesting thing about Flying Scotsman is that there's not much about Boardman in it, even though he played such a huge part in Obree's career, so by exploring both riders' careers in the context of their rivalry, I wanted to tell the story from a different perspective, and, importantly, not repeat too much of what was already out there in Obree's book.

Boardman was given a lot more coverage at the time than Obree, so I had plenty of contemporary interviews to work through, but after interviewing him early in the process of researching this book, I realised that the most interesting stories for The Race Against Time were going to come from anybody except Chris Boardman. He told me a couple of very interesting things, but he was a consummate gentleman, playing down the rivalry, when I knew very well that it drove both of them. Again, the most interesting observations came from the people around him, like Roger Legeay, Pete Woodworth, Peter Keen and Mike Burrows. Boardman more or less withdrew his co-operation for the book after that first interview - he had a busy Olympics and had some personal issues at home subsequently. He's also working on his own autobiography, and no doubt wanted to save the best stories for that.

PdC: Something that struck me reading the book was the UCI rule requiring riders tackling the Hour to have two bikes. Obree, he had Old Faithful and the Mike Burrows-built carbon ‘replica' which was actually a subtly different bike, with a marginally wider bottom bracket. All the hassle the UCI went through trying to rewrite history after the fact, they could have saved themselves some time if the commissaires in Hamar had simply done their job and examined both bikes, no?

EP: Both bikes were fine according to UCI rules at the time. Vic Haines didn't want them to see Old Faithful for the inspection because it was starting to show signs of wear and tear, not because it was illegal. It wasn't until after the world pursuit championships in 1993, which Obree won, that the UCI started making noises about the bike being more important than the athlete. Even then, at the same time, they were telling Obree how wonderful he was.

The really interesting thing was that Obree had insisted on the Burrows replica being built with a bigger gear and slightly lower handlebars. It was a beautiful piece of engineering - Vic Haines showed it to me when I went to interview him, and it really is a stunningly beautiful, elegant bike. But the position and gearing were wrong. Imagine turning up to an Hour record with a position you'd never ridden, and a gear you hadn't trained for. No wonder he failed in the first attempt.

PdC: All that rule-changing to preserve the sacred status of the diamond frame and ban Obree and Boardman's bikes: you're British, so you're supposed to say "Boo! Hiss!" at all that but, really, do you think maybe they were right, even if at the time they went about it totally the wrong way?

EP: Philosophically, it's a tricky one. Every Hour record-holder in history has tweaked their bike to gain an advantage. Francesco Moser had a strip of track lacquered to reduce rolling resistance, and I heard a story about ball bearings in radial tubes in his wheels, which made for a flywheel effect. Boardman had access to testing data and power output that nobody before him did. The question is, where do you draw the line? There's also the issue of performance in the 1990s - Rominger riding 55 kilometres in 1994 was a good laugh.

Were the UCI right to shelve the "Ultimate Hour" with Boardman's 56 kilometres and start again from scratch? Nobody's ever going to ride 56 kilometres again, that's certain. On the other hand, as Michael Hutchinson documented in his book, The Hour, the regulations concerning the "Athletes' Hour" are ridiculous, even by UCI standards. Everybody rides tri-bars, so forcing riders to use racing bike handlebars for the Hour is ridiculous. Tri-bars are OK, and I think the UCI were wrong to ban them from Hour attempts. But the Superman position is just the logical conclusion of the tri-bar position, and it's not OK. To be fair to the UCI, they were forced into a compromise which was as unsatisfactory as the sight of people riding 56kph for an Hour.

One conclusion is inescapable, however. The Hour Record is either dead, or very dormant. I'd love to see Wiggins or Cancellara go for it (I think Wiggins would have the advantage there, too), but the ordeal of training for and riding the Hour in a normal road position means they'd have to take a significant time away from their day jobs. Allow tri-bars again, and I think you'd get some takers.

PdC: Overall, what's your view of the Hour record - is it too tainted by all the UCI's tinkering and by the status of some of the men who've set it, or is it the record that truly deserves to be called cycling's Blue Riband?

EP: I love the idea of the Hour Record, because it's a comparison of cyclists across the ages. While somebody wins the yellow jersey every year, there is only one Hour Record holder, who must be, by definition, the best of all time. Merckx never had to beat Coppi or Anquetil to win the Tour de France, but to set the Hour record, he did.

However, the record may have come to its logical conclusion, unfortunately. Because of what I said before, that doing it in a normal road position is unfeasible, it's slowly becoming a museum piece.

PdC: Moving on to that normal road position. When it came to racing on the track Obree and Boardman were in a league of their own. On the road - they both had some strange mishaps in road-based events, mishaps which make for great story-telling. Obree developed a tendency to sabotage himself. Boardman, his biggest mishap was that crash in St Brieuc, in the rain of the Tour's prologue. Roger Legeay told you that, after that, Boardman learned fear. Do you agree with Legeay on that?

EP: Yes. Boardman's 1994 Prologue was one of the most incredible Tour rides I've ever seen. It was beautiful - a pure time triallist in full cry, and I didn't see anybody as smooth on a TT bike again at the Tour until Wiggins. Boardman trounced everybody in Lille, including Indurain. Of course, it's also true that Boardman was made to look good - he trained specifically for that one effort, and was always going to pull out of the Tour after a week or ten days. Indurain would have sacrificed the explosive speed of a Prologue in training himself to ride a three-week race, so Boardman had a real advantage, but he still made the most of it, practicing the corners the day before, and working out that he could just get round them all without touching the brakes.

The next year, he succumbed to the pressure of needing a result. He took huge gambles to stay in contention in pouring rain, and had the worst of the prologue course out of the way. He was going to win, but we know what happened instead. That was 1995 ruined, but the effect was that when it rained again in the 1996 prologue, he was too cautious and lost by one or two seconds. Legeay was adamant that without the mistake of 1995 weighing on his mind, he'd have won, and looking at the difference in the way he rode, I'd agree. He just looked more tense on his bike.

But the 1995 prologue story is an interesting one. If you believe the stereotype, Boardman's a conservative, cautious, calculating individual. But he rode that prologue more recklessly and adventurously than any one of the other 197 riders in the race, in a tempest, and he almost got away with it. If he'd not hit that slippery patch of Tarmac, we'd be celebrating the finest prologue ride in the Tour's history.

PdC: There's parts of the 1990s story I've forgotten at this stage and one of those parts was Greg LeMond's final exit, in 1994. He got a little bit miffed at Boardman's status in GAN, thought that Legeay no longer cared about him. Having survived almost being overshadowed by Laurent Fignon (at Renault) and Bernard Hinault (at La Vie Claire) you can almost understand where LeMond was coming from, but on the other hand ... well was LeMond being silly or had Legeay fallen too hard for Boardman?

EP: There's truth in both statements, although the situation with Boardman wasn't analogous to that which LeMond had experienced with Fignon and Hinault. By 1994, LeMond was finished, and it was sad to see. His form had dropped off by then, through ill health and/or age, plus EPO was raising a lot of other riders' levels, and making him look even worse. Whether Boardman had been in the team or not, Legeay would have had to make the decision to lose LeMond.

But that's sport, and that's life. When Boardman was coming into his peak, LeMond's powers were weakening. Six years later, Boardman was on the slide, Legeay left him out of the Tour team and O'Grady and Julich were the apples of his eye. It's probably hard to deal with when you are a professional athlete and your self-esteem and earning power are based on your physical prowess, but cycling careers follow a bell curve. The dwindling of strength happens to every rider, whether they're in denial about it or not. To paraphrase Gordon Brown, there are two types of professional cyclist: those whose careers slide, and those who get out in time.

PdC: Obree's own road career: his time at Le Groupement was about as short-lived as Bradley Wiggins's time with the Linda McCartney squad. It's actually hard to imagine him in a team environment, so how did the deal with Le Groupement come about?

EP: Frank Quinn, Sean Kelly's agent, sorted that one out. I don't know the negotiating details, but it's not hard to imagine the way it came about. Having seen Chris Boardman win the Olympic pursuit championships and break the Hour record, then win the Tour Prologue, the cycling world would have realised that hiring a pursuiter could be a short cut to wearing leaders' jerseys, at least early in races. Obree ticked the same boxes - world pursuit champion, Hour record holder.

The trouble was, he was much less capable as a road rider than Boardman - he couldn't ride in a bunch, according to many accounts. Nor was he brilliant in a team context - Doug Dailey said that while he was popular on a personal level with some of the GB riders he went to various world championships with, the others couldn't and wouldn't ride with him. He'd wiped out a few riders in TTT training a couple of years before.

The move to Le Groupement also coincided with one of Obree's periodic spells of depression. Finally, there was the alleged drugs conversation, when another rider at Le Groupement informed Obree that he would be paying 2,000 euros into the drugs fund, while the team would take care of the rest. These two things were catalysts for the breakup, but Obree would never have fitted in with a professional cycling team.

PdC: The Race Against Time is primarily a book about the past but all books about the past are also about the present. The links between now and then, well Doug Dailey and Peter Keen are part of the transition between the BCF and British Cycling, between a poorly funded, somewhat directionless governing body and the wealthy, focused one that exists today. Keen's role is reasonably well known. Is Dailey's role over-looked by some, lost in the shadow of Keen?

EP: Doug Dailey's the unsung hero of British cycling, and I can't find a single person to say a bad word about him. His greatest strength was that he allowed other people to work to their greatest strengths. He managed to work effectively, and over a long period, with Graeme Obree, which nobody else managed, and he encouraged Boardman and Keen to work together.

You could say that if Dailey hadn't been the BCF coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Keen might not have found his way into the organisation. Keen had worked with Tony Doyle and Colin Sturgess, but he didn't click professionally with either (there's an excellent account of the Doyle relationship in Richard Moore's Heroes, Villains and Velodromes). It was only after Keen had started with Boardman that the foundations were laid for his revolutionising of BC, and that was partly thanks to Dailey.

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PdC: I've noted before that I have a curious respect for the Hour despite knowing that a lot of people who've set Hour records are also known to have doped (and that some of those we don't yet know for sure we've more than good reason to doubt). Personally, despite my scepticism when it comes to a lot of things in cycling, I've tended to buy the perception of a cleaner-than-clean Boardman. But not only do I not question his credentials, I've never even wondered how he managed to add so much distance to a record set by Toni Rominger, a guy closely linked to Michele Ferrari. You, on the other hand, ask that question in The Race Against Time. You don't make any accusations and you don't point any fingers, but I imagine even asking the question is enough to upset some?

EP: The question has to be asked, and anybody upset by that probably needs to be involved in a different sport.

Rominger did indeed work with Ferrari, and he absolutely demolished the record in 1994, which for a non-track rider was surprising. The record had scraped and inched upwards over the decades, apart from the occasional quantum leap, like Moser's 1984 record, which was achieved with vastly superior aerodynamics to Merckx, (and blood doping as well). Rominger rode 55 kilometres, which was not normal. Therefore, Boardman's 56-kilometre ride needs to be scrutinised. And what my scrutiny tells me is that it's somewhere towards the outer limits of possibility.

The numbers are all in The Race Against Time - Keen gave me a rough figure of the number of watts Boardman was producing, I've got some numbers from testing Boardman did in various positions (including Obree's "tuck"), and I've got a good guide to Boardman's weight.

The facts are that Boardman rode 52.270km in Bordeaux in 1993 and 56.375km in Manchester in 1996. To get from one to the other would involve about 25 per cent more power, or 25 per cent less aerodynamic resistance, or a combination of both. There are a lot of complicating factors. Conditions were hot in Bordeaux, while Manchester was cooler, which suited Boardman better. On the other hand, the air pressure was quite low in Manchester that day, which would have slowed him. Boardman was fitter and stronger in 1996, and his bike was much better, so it's not just a question of more watts and better aerodynamics in one record than the other.

Here are the problems: Boardman weighed about 70 kilos, although he was quoted between 68 and 72 at various times. He put out 440 watts for an Hour in Manchester, according to Keen. If he weighed 70 kilos, his watts per kilo were 6.28. At 68 kilos, that would be 6.47w/kg. At 72, that would be 6.1w/kg. Those are all pretty high - higher than anybody's put out for a sustained period in the Tour de France since the blood passport came into force, and I'm pretty confident that Boardman's racing weight at the time was very close to 70 kilos. Then there's the CdA calculation, the drag coefficient, to be taken into account

Keen's explanation is that Boardman got hammered in the 1996 Tour, but then came out of it with a once-in-a-career purple period of bullet-proof form. Both say the 1996 Hour was achieved without the aid of illegal substances or practices, and I don't have anything I can present to the world to contradict that.

If Boardman achieved the Hour honestly, great. If he didn't, given that his and Keen's careers were the foundation of all of Great Britain's cycling success in the last decade, the situation would suddenly become very complex.

PdC: As well as The Race Against Time you also ghosted Robbie McEwen's autobiography, One Way Road, a book I'm a fan of. Care to fill folk in on the role of the ghost in a machine like that?

EP: My job was to take McEwen's story and turn it into a book. A successful autobiography has to replicate the voice of the subject, although it's not a question of turning on the Dictaphone and transcribing it directly onto the page. I spent a period of a few months going back and forth between London and McEwen's house between Brakel and Geraardsbergen, and recording 30 or 40 Hours of interviews. On top of that, I did the factual research, although McEwen's memory is extraordinarily accurate. Once I had the narrative, I went back to McEwen a few times to fill in gaps and check that the story reflected his thoughts and memories.

I quickly realised that McEwen's not the most introspective or analytical of characters - he's very self-sufficient and optimistic, so the book wasn't going to be the second Rough Ride, or anything like David Millar's. On the other hand, McEwen explains cycling and the workings of the peloton very clearly, so we decided that as well as explaining his own motivations and processes, the book would also explain the dynamics of the sport. Anybody who wants to really understand a sprint should read it.

PdC: I'd agree with you on that, point. Is there any prospect of McEwen wanting to come back with a second volume of tales from inside the peloton?

EP: Not that I've heard. He added a chapter of his own for the paperback edition of the book, but I wasn't asked to write it. It was like being dropped from the Tour de France team for a younger, fitter rider.

* * * * *

Edward Pickering is the author of The Race Against Time (Bantam, 2013, 314 pages) and is the ghostwriter of Robbie McEwen's One Way Road (Ebury, 2011, 339 pages).

You'll find reviews of The Race Against Time and One Way Road on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Edward Pickering for taking part in this interview.

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