The Chris Boardman Interview: Ending the culture war around cycling
Three decades on from winning Olympic gold, cyclist Chris Boardman has a new national challenge – getting us out of our cars and onto our bikes.
Chris Boardman is frustrated that what has been described as a “culture war” around cycling shows no sign of abating. “I’m trying to stop it being a culture war,” the Olympic champion turned government tsar tells The House.
“It’s packaged as a war but it’s two per cent of people against 98 per cent of road users. It’s not really much of a war, is it?”
Boardman has spent much of his life obsessing about bicycles. After a famous win at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a career in professional cycling saw three stage wins at the Tour de France and world hour records. He then launched his own bike brand and has become a high-profile advocate for two-wheeled transport.
Now, 30 years since winning Olympic gold, he is again hoping to make an impact on the national stage. Last month, the 53-year-old was confirmed as the government’s first national active travel commissioner, after initially doing the role on an interim basis. His job involves heading up a new agency, Active Travel England (ATE), which is operating within the Department for Transport but is based in York. ATE’s remit is to deliver a new “golden age of walking and cycling”.
Boardman was the obvious choice for the job. For the four years prior to his appointment, the Cheshire-born father-of-six was fulfilling a similar role as Labour Mayor Andy Burnham’s cycling and walking commissioner in Greater Manchester. But Boardman spotted an opportunity to have a wider impact.
Was it not a wrench to leave the Manchester role? “It’s only about 10 per cent done [in Manchester], but this is me finishing off the job,” he says.
“I’m taking that experience and scaling it up. It’s in Westminster that legislation actually gets changed.”
Another factor that persuaded him to take the leap was the ambition shown by the government. A strategy paper published in 2020 entitled Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking left an impression. “It was one of the main reasons I agreed to do the role,” he says. “That document is incredibly robust.”
The 52-page document, published amid the first wave of the pandemic, talked of making cycling a “mass form of transit”. A renowned cycling fan himself, Boris Johnson’s foreword stated: “I want bicycles to be part of an effusion of green transport, of electric cars, buses and trains, because clean air will be to the 21st century what clean water was to the 19th.”
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