Graeme Obree 2007
July 23 2006.
Discovery Channel directeur sportif Sean Yates is at Paris’s Gare du Nord on his way home to England after completing the Tour de France. From the ticket queue he sees a man sitting on the ground, who looks vaguely familiar. Yates goes over and recognises Graeme Obree, Scotland’s double hour record holder and double world pursuit champion. He is wearing a floppy hat and a dishevelled look.
“Graeme, what are you doing here?”
“I’ve been on a stag do. I was standing on my wallet and passport so that I wouldn’t lose them, but then I walked away and I’m not sure where they are now.”
Yates gives Obree some money, and, by an exquisite irony, a copy of the book he has been reading during the Tour: a newly published history of the hour record by the Irish cyclist Michael Hutchinson, in which the Scottish maverick features prominently. Obree’s subsequent course is uncertain, but clearly he made it home.
August 14 2006.
The film “Flying Scotsman” receives its premiere by opening the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Obree’s rags to riches story – from unemployed cycle mechanic to world champion – stars Jonny Lee Miller, has taken 12 years from the drawing board to first screening and has survived severe cash flow problems (like Obree himself) staggering through continual uncertainty to make it to make it to the big screen. It is another new beginning in the Obree story, the umpteenth and probably not the last.
The Obree story is a blend of these two extremes: the gutter and the glamour. Obree, the quiet maverick from south-west Scotland, spawned one of the greatest rivalries British cycling has ever seen – his time trial battles with Chris Boardman during the 1990s that spilled out onto the world stage. His two hour records prompted the UCI to a complete rethink of their equipment policy that effectively killed off any large-scale interest in one of cycling’s most glamourous achievements. His autobiography, also entitled Flying Scotsman and published in 2003, is a searing account of the mental health problems that led him to attempt to take his own life on several occasions.
There are two strands to the Obree story; the image that was superimposed onto him by the media, that of the lovable eccentric in the traditional British mold who scaled the sporting heights and the far darker, hidden story of his struggle to live with mental illness.
The second strand remained largely hidden, even from those who, like me, met him from time to time. When I first met Obree, he fitted perfectly into the box marked “amiable eccentric”. During an interview for a mountain bike magazine he told me how, in the course of one ride with his clubmates, he rode his bike off a pier and into Loch Lomond. Back then, in 1989, he was a bike mechanic with a shed full of spare bicycle parts, and he could ride a bike fast. We met in the centre of his home town, late at night; he was on his mountain bike and he led me to his house, travelling at a steady 25mph and barely taking a breath. At our last meeting in autumn 2003, he explained how riding his bike into the lake had been just another way of attention seeking, an attempt to fit in with the crowd to counter the alienation he felt. Then, I couldn’t help wishing I had had a little more imagination when we first met.
Before fame and fortune struck, Obree was just another British time triallist with slightly strange ideas, the same, ironically, as Boardman was throughout his career. He had a string of failed projects behind him – including a criminal conviction for insurance fraud – and a radical set of aerodynamic bars, conceived at Christmas 1985 while sitting in his bike shop, staring into space. Why not try to ride in the “tuck” position used by downhill skiers, he thought? Initially, he would use a pair of drop handlebars, turned upside down; later, a cut-down set of mountain bike bars with bar-ends. His arms were tucked under his body, hands at the level of his chin; in essence he had removed the arms from the aerodynamic equation.
At this point, one thing has to be put in context: Obree and Boardman’s shared background in British time trialling. This is a branch of the sport that bears no relation to the European concept of “la contre la montre”. “Testing” as the British call it, was dreamt up at the turn of the century as a reaction to the “foreign practice of road racing: it remains discreet, held on courses referred to by a code number, and the emphasis is on pure speed. Over the years, time trialling has bred a number of British greats, including Tommy Simpson and Sean Yates; there is a natural cross-over to the track pursuit, which is why Britain has produced one great pursuiter after another. More pertinently for the Obree story, it is a solitary sport, with space for those who want to experiment with aerodynamics. Anywhere outside Britain, Obree would not have stood a chance.
Critically, the solo effort was a means of expression and fulfilment for Obree, a way of finding self-respect for a man who, although he did not know it, was suffering from bi-polar personality disorder, or manic depression. His alternations from euphoria to black depression had their origins in an unhappy childhood, when he was bullied and sexually assaulted by older boys, the object of ridicule because his father was a policeman. The bike, initially, was a way of escaping, of getting home quickly so the bad guys could not attack him; later it was a way of affirming his worth, in a life which, at times, he felt had no value. Already, he had survived one suicide attempt. “I observed the world, but wasn’t really part of it. I was dislocated from it. I never grew up.”
By 1993, when the idea of attacking Moser’s hour record entered Obree’s mind, there was actually a certain logic to the idea. He had smashed the British record at the distance, and proved he was at least the equal of Boardman, by then the Olympic pursuit champion. As well as his tucked in bars, he also had a truly inventive approach to aerodynamics, using straight forks, twin tubes and – truly proving he was 10 years ahead of his time – wheels with only 14 or 16 spokes. He had a radical disrespect for cycling’s received ideas, most notably refusing to shave his legs on the grounds that the hair assisted perspiration.
When I mentioned to one of Italy’s leading cycling journalists that Obree was bidding for Moser’s record, my friend laughed, and said that if the Scot could beat Moser, he would return to his mother’s house in the country and never work in journalism again. A few months later, he would be among the many writers beating a path to Obree’s door.
Moser’s hour record was viewed as unassailable. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond had turned down the chance to attack it. Miguel Indurain, the finest time triallist in the world, had no intention of going for it. Moser had, after all, taken the record from Eddy Merckx, whose distance was also regarded as unassailable. But Obree’s ability to think outside the box of convention meant he looked at his figures and extrapolated: why not? “As far as I was concerned I had two arms and two legs and that put me on a par with Moser and any shortfall would be made up by my ability to push myself harder than any other human being who had lived.”
By the time Obree attacked the record, he was in dire straits financially after the collapse of yet another venture, a frame-building business. He had no telephone, and to contact him it was necessary to phone a certain phone box in his home town of Irvine, South-west Scotland. Then you had to,wait for someone to walk past and answer, and request that they knock on Obree’s door. He and his wife Anne were living partly off food parcels supplied by his parents. At one stage he recalls scraping around the house, looking down the back of the sofa to find enough small change to buy a loaf of bread costing 19p.
My Italian friend’s cynicism was unfounded. In a trial on the track at Hamar in Norway, Obree had managed 51.5km, a comfortable beating of the “unbeatable” record. In spring 1993 he had broken the British 10-mile and 50-mile records in successive days. Yet the only media to follow his record attempt in Norway on July 16, 1993, were the British magazine Cycling Weekly, and the French newspaper l’Equipe – after I had persuaded them it was worth going. They would put him on their front page as “The incredible Mister Obree” – in the middle of the Tour de France.
Obree’s approach was the opposite of Moser’s. Where Moser had banks of scientists, Obree had his own gut feelings. As for nutrition, Obree relied on cornflakes and white bread and jam (he has his own way of making the perfect jam sandwich, but that is another story). And his bike, finally, was what truly caught the imagination: the design – “surrealist metallic art” Obree called it – had been laid out on a concrete floor and marked with string; one crank was machined from a piece of metal picked up off the road; most famously, the bottom bracket was made of a washing machine bearing – not to save money, but to achieve the narrowest possible profile for the bike. For the British, it touched a chord. We have a long tradition of amateurs taking on the professionals and beating them against the odds; Obree was the cycling equivalent of a British cartoon character known as the Tuff of the Track, a barefoot, impoverished runner who came down from the hills to beat the boys from the big city.
The Obree hour record was to be the stuff of legend. Merckx, let us not forget, had got down off his bike after completing his hour and muttered that he would never try again; indeed there are those who argue that he was never the same rider after beating the hour. Obree failed on his first attempt, on a new bike made along the lines of his prototype “Old Faithful”. He immediately said he would go again the next morning, less than 24 hours later.
Why? Because for Obree the record was about more than money or prestige. It was a matter of personal validation. Without taking it, he would be worth nothing in his own eyes. Such is the world of the manic depressive. As he writes in “Flying Scotsman”: “I knew I had to break the record, no matter what the physical cost, otherwise I would never be able to live with my shameful failure and self-hatred… It was a case of success and survival or failure and emotional death and self-destruction.”
How Obree recovered during the night between his two attempts is also legendary. To avoid his legs seizing up he set what he calls “the bladder alarm”, drinking litres of water so that after an hour or two of sleep, he would wake up, eat a bowl of cornflakes, perform five or 10 minutes of deep stretching exercises, then drink again. Next day, he rode 51.596km. He returned home to find 64 messages on his answerphone.
Now, the rivalry with Boardman entered its most acute phase. The pair had spent the last four years sparring on British roads in one time trial or another. Boardman – a dyslexic whose approach to his sport was conditioned by his need to map out his world so he would not lose his way – had been planning his own hour attempt for all of 1993, and was not best pleased when Obree pre-empted him. He attacked Obree’s record two weeks later, and set a new distance, before Obree got the better of him in the world pursuit championship, gaining the upper hand in a head-to-head semi-final. They were a contrasting pair; the clinical, cold Boardman, with his meticulous planning and backing from Kodak versus the unpredictable, impoverished inventor driven by his inner demons. In April 1994, Obree won his hour record back.
That world title and second hour should have been the happy ending; the start of a career which brought lucrative racing contracts and comfortable retirement. But Obree became a victim of the UCI’s desire to restrain aerodynamic developments within the sport. His tuck position was banned, almost overnight, during the world track championships at Palermo in 1994, with the UCI seemingly rewriting the rules as they went along. It may not have been done deliberately to prevent him racing, but it looked that way when the UCI president Hein Verbruggen stood in the track as Obree was qualifying and waved at him to stop, because his bars were ruled to be illegal. But Obree was told of the change to the rules one hour before qualifying.
There was an abortive attempt to start a career as a professional on the road with the Le Groupement team, which ended after a few days when a senior professional explained that he would have to give money to the fund used to buy drugs. And Obree made one final attempt to overcome the men in blazers; the Superman position, in which he rode stretched out forwards with his arms virtually in a line with his body. It was unstable, but like the “tuck” it eliminated the arms from the aerodynamic equation, and it worked, winning the Scot the world pursuit title in Colombia in 1995. In the final, against Andrea Colinelli of Italy, Obree was inspired by thoughts of his recently deceased brother Gordon – with whom he had started cycling, with whom he had tried to cope with the bullying at school – and he felt, he said “like a little cat trapped in a corner by a bunch of snarling dogs with no choice but to fight to the death.”
As with his hour, Obree overcame because he had no other choice. “I needed to win because of the fear of failure. All I could think was ‘I can’t lose the final. I’d rather die.”
Retirement was never going to be straightforward for Obree. Cycling had been his emotional support, his way of validating his own existence, and being deprived of racing at the highest level left him vulnerable. Before he finally quit cycling he had been on the point of another suicide attempt, the night before the individual pursuit qualifying at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. There had been occasional trips inside a bottle to find escape in drink during his career when it had all got too much for him. He had been deeply affected by the death of his brother Gordon, and that of his brother-in-law Matthew, to whom he was also close.
Obree had spells in mental hospitals, and made two more attempts to take his own life; just before Christmas 2001 he attempted to hang himself in a lonely barn in the Ayrshire hills and was saved from death only by the decision of the 15-year old girl who kept her horse there to check up on the animal. Obree was a minute from dying when he was cut down, kept alive by the lungs that had taken him to rainbow jerseys and world records and the fortunate fact that the man who cut him down knew about resuscitation.
Nearly two years later he explained to me why he had wanted to die. Obree was still the same then as when we had first met: nervous, talking fast, seeming to look for approval, never afraid to go outside the bounds of normal conversation, alternating between painful honesty and near comedy. Suicide, he explained, comes from “a desperate need to not think, because thinking is so painful you can’t carry on. That’s why substance abuse is so common among depressives because thinking is so painful. You will accept any substance to change your way of thinking, or not think, because [taking substances] cannot be worse.”
As he fought to overcome his mental illness, Obree concluded that his sudden transition from pauper to prince had contributed, which is ironic when you consider that he raced to “feel worthwhile enough to operate, to go about the daily business of life.” Part of the difficulty was that he never found the right back-up team around him: managers came and went in the glory days.
“Cycling was a front, a party trick and I liked it,” he told me, and the reaction from press, public and promoters after he beat Moser’s hour record was “a life shock. It has the same effect as having a good life that turns bad. One week I was on the dole, the next there were television crews from France, Belgium and Holland on the doorstep and people saying ‘come and race in Denmark, we’ll pay you thousands’. I was out of control. I didn’t realise at the time but I was just swept along. Sometimes I could have lain on a knife-edge and slept.”
Obree’s fight against mental illness is detailed relentlessly in his autobiography, written as therapy in an attempt to come to terms with this side of his life and his other great contribution to cycling alongside his aerodynamic theories and his records. Without the mediation of a ghostwriter Flying Scotsman is a raw, honest, unpolished work, all edges, but not without humour; for example an episode when he is lying on a nudist beach and cannot help having an erection. The matter of fact tone remains the same whether he is describing breaking the hour record or trying to commit suicide using acetylene.
The book was an instant hit among British bike fans, but outside his native Scotland it is easy to underestimate Obree’s stature, easy to write him off as the oddball world champion with a funny pair of bars and a good book. Richard Moore, columnist with the Scotsman newspaper and the leading cycling writer in Scotland says that Obree is “up there with Kenny Dalglish, Liz McColgan, Jackie Stewart and Alan Wells, among the handful of names people in the street would know.”
“We don’t have many world-class athletes, so when one comes along, be in in cycling, curling or whatever, we get behind them,” adds Moore. “Anyone with even a casual interest in sport in Scotland knows who Graeme Obree is. He’s one of the greats of Scottish sport.” Moore points out that Obree was Scottish sports personality for 1994, he has a place in the Scottish Sporting Hall of Fame and Old Faithful, the bike on which he broke the hour record, is now in the national museum of Scotland in the capital Edinburgh.
Obree remains more a Scottish star than a British one, a man who in his prime once turned down the chance to ride the England and Wales championship to ride the Scottish title, in spite of his sponsor’s anger. His quirkiness is reminiscent of his country’s other great cycling hero, Robert Millar, another outsider who, post retirement, has simply gone into hiding. Like Millar, Obree is the product of the tight-knit world of Scottish cycling, slightly on a limb in Britain, with its own spirit, epitomised by the “drum-up”, in which cycling clubs ride into the hills and brew their own tea on an open fire.
It is not clear where the film of Obree’s life will go. The movie has premiered, but is still looking for distribution. The future of its subject is no easier to predict than his past. Currently he has returned to university studying outdoor pursuits, with a view to becoming an instructor.
There is, however, no indication that his approach will be any more conventional. Asked recently if he would like to become a coach his answer was that he would, and he would ask two questions of an athlete who came to him looking to become a world champion: “Do you have a plan for what to do if you fail?” and “How often do you masturbate?” He would, he added be looking for two answers: “No” to the first question, because to have the necessary determination to succeed an athlete must not have anywhere else to go. And the second question: any figure, because “no” would denote a liar.
This article appeared in translation in a Dutch magazine in 2007. Since then Obree has attempted a comeback to ride the hour record and worked as a commentator for BBC radio. In February 2011 he announced that he is gay and said it had taken him five years to come to terms with his sexuality.