Chris Boardman's secret squirrels burrowing for gold
Owen Slot, Chief Sports Reporter
You need a security pass, first of all, to move around inside the Manchester
Velodrome. A code is then required to get into the main equipment store and,
within that, you need the key to get into the cupboard of the Secret
Squirrel club. This is where the product of four years' brain-crunching is
stored, where bike parts refined and perfected by the best technicians have
been hidden from the world and kept under lock and key until their unveiling
at the Beijing Olympics in August. There, the theory goes, £500,000 worth of
research will deliver a mine of gold.
If you wondered whether Britain's nine gold medals from 18 at the World Track
Championships in March was a success rate that could possibly be matched in
Beijing, much of the answer is in here. When Great Britain won all those
golds in Manchester, it was without the use of the contents of this
cupboard. In here, one almighty trump card is being held back.
Which explains the security and why there are only three people on the planet
who know the whole secret. Knowledge on this scale is too valuable a
commodity to share. The riders themselves do not know exactly how and why
their equipment has been assembled; even Dave Brailsford, the performance
director of British Cycling, has been kept out of the SS (Secret Squirrel
club) because, as he says himself, he cannot help “blabbing”.
All will finally be revealed at the Olympics, though you would have to be the
most bearded of boffins to appreciate it. “I'm hoping there will be no
'Wow!',” Chris Boardman, head of the SS, said, “more a collective scratching
of heads.” Because there will be no stand-out, never-seen-before technical
innovation in Beijing, more a case of some 250 components that make up the
bike, the suit and the helmet all making incremental gains and,
collectively, delivering world-beating speed.
Of those 250 components, only the pedals, shoes, sprockets and chains have
remained unaltered and that was because the SS did not believe that it could
improve on them. Everything else is new and better than ever before. “I’m
pretty damn confident that no other team will have an advantage on us,”
Boardman said. “We’re ahead of the game. We’re taking every tiny detail very
seriously and the others are lagging behind.”
The story of how Great Britain got ahead begins in a meeting room in Sheffield
not long after the 2004 Olympics, in Athens. Britain’s cyclists had just won
two golds, a silver and a bronze and, thanks to lottery support, could
afford to spend big to win even more.
Boardman, a gold medal-winner from the 1992 Olympics, had found a way,
meanwhile, to serve the sport again. Since retiring from the saddle, he had
become a keen scuba diver and had also found himself responsible for a
six-child family. His passion for technical innovation was channelled into
the job title of British Cycling’s director of research and development and,
in that room in Sheffield, he gathered experts from a broad field - Formula
One, sailing and wind-tunnel specialists, as well as cycling. The mission:
to challenge contemporary thinking to produce a faster bike. “It was real
blue-sky thinking,” Boardman said. “No agendas.” For Boardman, it was
essential to widen the field of knowledge.
“We’ve gone outside cycling and learnt in a completely different arena,” he
said. “Once you know all about the sport yourself, you’re knackered, because
you know what you can and what you can’t do. You are self-restraining. Our
German competitors, for instance, don’t talk to anyone outside their team,
their own Secret Squirrel club, so they’ve limited their thinking. They’ve
done some really good stuff, but it’s hindered because of no outside
influence and they also didn’t consult the athletes. They produced this bike
last year, which was state of the art, but their riders hated it."
From Formula One, for instance, Boardman learnt to save on wind tunnel time
and to do aerodynamic research - computational fluid dynamics - by computer.
When this research was ready for proper testing, he would take their “tunnel
rats” - Jason Queally or Rob Hayles - to the Southampton University wind
tunnel to try out their prototype equipment.
When he realised that Queally and Hayles would struggle to work all day in the
tunnel, Boardman decided to create Queally's double - a mannequin the same
size, shape and weight as Queally, and now known as “Jason's Brother” - who
could work all day and night. The only problem with Jason's Brother was the
funny looks that he received when he was covered in bubble-wrap and hauled
downstairs to the storeroom.
And when Boardman needed confirmation of the areas of high wind resistance, he
would spray Jason's Brother with fast-drying paint and put him in the wind
tunnel to get, literally, a picture of where the paint had run off (where
resistance was low) and where it had dried.
For a couple of years, Boardman, Jason's Brother and the team were in the wind
tunnel three days a month, at a cost of £10,000 per day, testing more than
1,000 different materials.Throughout this time, the original group from
Sheffield slowly evolved, with experts specialising in different areas -
suit, helmet, frame, wheels - joining them, and only three people -
Boardman, Dimitris Katsanis, the head engineer, and Scott Drawer, research
head at UK Sport - have been party to it all. Unofficially, these three
became the Secret Squirrel club.
And what they have come up with, Boardman said, “makes us one of the few teams
that are actually totally within the rules”. It is here that the name of
Graeme Obree comes into the story. In July 1993, when Boardman first broke
cycling's one-hour record, it was from Obree, the “Flying Scotsman” that he
took it. Obree, famous for his innovative bike designs and his battles with
depression, would take the record back a year later, but he was fighting
another war, with the world cycling federation, the UCI, which habitually
threw up new regulations in order to ban his bikes.
More than a decade later, it seems that the UCI is as whimsical as ever. “It
is bizarre,” Boardman said. “There are good solid rules on bikes but then
they cover it with: 'the bike must be within the spirit of the rules', 'the
commissar's word is final' and 'there is no right of appeal'. Basically,
because Graeme had more imagination than they did, they needed to legislate
for people who were cleverer than them.”
This means that if any team appear in Beijing with a bike that the officials
take a dislike to, they risk disqualification.
For this reason, almost every single one of Boardman's 250 components will
have been used, sparingly, before. Throughout the past two years, they have
been utilised on bikes in different competitions, fed quietly into the
system so that if the UCI kicks up a fuss in Beijing, Boardman will be able
to reply: “But you didn't mind before.”
Boardman is confident that Britain's rivals failed to spot this drip, drip of
technology. The Olympics will be the first time that all the separate parts
have been pulled together in competition. The full kit has been tested on
the track only once, and that, Boardman said with understatement, “was a
“We keep constantly monitoring what everyone is doing,” he said, “and you can
see when people have done their homework. The Dutch played around with
different suit materials. The Germans' sprint bars are pretty sexy. You
often find people have done bits of the puzzle, but not the whole thing. But
we haven't seen anything worth pursuing. We see the Germans as the next
best. But they haven't got the athlete part of it.”
The parts that Boardman does not have yet are also pretty significant. For all
the security, the Secret Squirrel cupboard is at present pretty bare. Of
those 250 component parts, he has taken delivery of about 30 and the rest
are coming from many different production lines: the metal parts from
Sheffield, the carbon fibres from Derbyshire, the helmets are supposed to
have arrived from Italy but were delayed by last week's Italian holiday.
“I'm sweating,” Boardman said, “but it'll all get done.”
Indeed, then he will move on to planning the research and innovation for the
next Olympics. “The more imagination the better,” he said, which explains
why he is thinking of approaching one of the best innovators of all. Obree
is on his list to bring back in from the cold once Beijing is done. That
should keep the UCI on its toes. It may keep the rest of the world in Great
Britain's slipstream, too.