Nicole Cooke is one of Britain's finest-ever woman cyclists and British Cycling has hatched a grand plan leading up to this August's Beijing Olympics in hopes that she will bring home a gold medal.
A major component of the plan has been the creation of a team built specifically around her so that she can concentrate solely on the event - and not worry about any pressure for results in the intervening period. To help finance this new "Pro-Nat" team, Halfords Bikehut was recruited as the title sponsor.
As part of the deal, though, the major UK retailer wanted Cooke to ride a bike that was actually available in their stores to consumers. Halfords Bikehut recently started stocking a new range of bikes designed by ex-World and Olympic pursuit and World time trial champion Chris Boardman. Cooke and the rest of the team are therefore equipped with his current top of the range offering: the Boardman Pro.
The Boardman Pro bike currently retails in Halfords Bikehut stores for just £1399.99 (US$2738.78/€1776.18). Given that surprisingly modest sum, the obvious question is, "What is Great Britain's top hope for Olympic glory on the road doing on a bike that costs around half that of the frames ridden by her rivals?" Can a bike of that price compete with the more expensive machines out there?
Cooke, her team-mates, British Cycling and Halfords Bikehut certainly hope so.
Chris Boardman was certainly enamoured with the benefits of technology during his career yet he was never a fan of pointless fripperies on a frame; for him, any deviation from the norm has to be there for a very good reason. As a result, Cooke's frame may not be very expensive but it's decidedly purposeful.
The frame is triple butted 7005 aluminium
The frame uses a triple-butted 7005 aluminium front triangle with carbon fibre seat- and chain stays to provide a good balance of stiffness and comfort. The down tube is bi-ovalised while the top tube is mostly diamond-profiled through most of its length before turning round at the seat tube. Both sets of stays adopt a familiar inwards arc and the matching full-carbon fork is fitted with a beefy-looking legs for solid handling.
As intended, the general layout, materials and semi-compact geometry of Cooke's frame closely match the off-the-peg offerings in the shops but with one major departure: team edition bikes use 35mm-shorter head tubes to provide a more aggressive position for racing.
Cooke's team bike spec is otherwise fairly similar to production versions including an almost complete Shimano Dura-Ace groupset and Truvativ Rouleur carbon chainset with standard 53/39T chainrings. Minor changes include an Ultegra chain instead of the stock bike's 105 unit and an Ultegra brake calliper in place of the carbon fibre Tektro R750 stoppers, although curiously just at the rear.
The finishing kit is mostly Ritchey
The finishing kit is almost entirely from Ritchey, consisting of a WCS 4Axis stem, oversized Logic WCS anatomic bars and an aluminium WCS seat post topped by a titanium railed Selle Italia SLR saddle - different from the retail-spec, but obviously Nicole's choice. Interestingly, of all the women's bikes seen by this correspondent, none have been fitted with what one would call a "women's" saddle.
The Ritchey WCS badge would normally also be found on the wheels but Cooke's bike was spotted with a pair of older Bontrager Race X Lite Aero deep-section carbon wheels fitted with the ever-popular 22mm-wide Continental Competition tubulars.
Completing the bike is a pair of Boardman's own branded carbon bottle cages and Cooke's pedal of choice for many years: the Speedplay Zero in red CSC livery with titanium spindles. These are popular with a lot of women as they require little force to unclip - often an issue for those with small feet.
Reasonable retail cost notwithstanding, the bike's build is comparable to most other Shimano-equipped bikes in the elite peloton - and the Ultegra is not unusual amongst the women where budgets are much lower than men's teams. The question as to whether it's worthy of a rider such as Nicole Cooke in her bid for glory is a difficult one to answer, though. Certainly as far as value for money is concerned, the Boardman Pro and its lesser stable mates are picking up accolades wherever they go, but at this level that's rarely a consideration.
The question would usually be answered by its performance in the hands of its rider and thus far, the bike seems to be holding its own against its more glamorous and expensive rivals. Cooke finished 20th in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Cittiglio, Italy, just over a minute behind compatriot Emma Pooley, 16th at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen less than two weeks later and once again in the group of big favourites, and eighth at La Flèche Wallonne just over two weeks after that. Her first win of the season came recently in stage one of the Tour de l'Aude in France.
All of these results are far less than Cooke would normally expect, but considering her tapering condition - and that in all of these races she put in late attacks - it's difficult to fault the bike in any of this.
According to Halfords Bikehut team manager Julian Winn, a former British champion himself, there is a full carbon frame on its way into the Boardman range, which Cooke should be riding at the beginning of the summer. Until then, she will be building towards that August 10th rendezvous on this capable machine.