I watched the flying Scotmans film, so this is worth a re-post here
If you’re a cycling fan above a certain age it’s very likely you’ll feel a certain affection for Graeme Obree. In my mind, he’s one of the more fascinating characters of recent decades in any sport.
To begin with, consider Obree’s astonishing, albeit short-lived, series of cycling feats. Emerging unheralded from more or less complete obscurity Obree achieved global fame in July 1993 when he beat the long-standing world hour record, one of the most infamously gruelling challenges of its type.
If this wasn’t enough he took the record at Norway’s Vikingskipet velodrome on a self-built bike, Old Faithful, featuring a host of unique innovations, most obviously the tucked-up, highly aerodynamic riding position.
Obree’s subsequent career was something of a mixed bag: the following year he re-took the hour record from British rival Chris Boardman, and he was twice individual world pursuit champion. But professional status and a mooted attempt to follow Boardman’s success in the Tour de France prologue never really happened. His sole Olympics, in 1996, saw exit in the preliminary rounds. Unlike Boardman, Obree never achieved the wider fame (and attendant MBE) that come with Olympic gold.
The Scottish rider also endured the relentless scrutiny of cycling’s governing body, the UCI, which banned Old Faithful’s hands-under-chest position. Obree came back with an equally creative alternative – the arms extended “Superman” – only to see that outlawed.
The story is yet more compelling when considered within Obree’s turbulent personal life, marked by relentless self-criticism and a proclivity for extremes of depression, eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. This emerged, with unflinching honesty in The Flying Scotsman, Obree’s memoir, which became a 2006 film starring Jonny Lee Miller.
These days Obree, now 45, pronounces himself happier and more at peace than ever, a state of mind assisted by a public announcement earlier this year that he is gay, an issue he described struggling with for years.
He now combines writing books with public speaking, and ahead of a speaking date in London later this week I had a phone conversation with Obree. An engaging, enthusiastic, open character, he said he had just completed another book, intended as a training manual for newcomers to cycling:
There’s a whole lot of people who’ve come into the sport in, say, the last five, 10 years.
You do a sportive [big group rides] and there’s 1,000 other people there. But the people who’ve just taken it up haven’t done the apprenticeship that we’ve done, like with a cycling club, hand signals, everything like that. They’re new to the sport, they love it, but they don’t know how to train, what to buy, all that.
My book is training for people where cycling faster is their ambition but they’ve also go families and work commitments. Some training manuals are written as if you live on some sort of desert island – you’ve got no friends, no social life and you can spend 18 hours a day doing it. As if all your money, time and resources is spent on cycling. So how do you cope with real life and get the best from the time and resources you’ve actually got – without getting divorced? It’s written for those people in mind.
Obree is now working on yet another title, a cross between a follow up to his memoirs and a guide to coping with depression. It was, he said, prompted by the many people who wrote to him in the wake of The Flying Scotsman:
They say: ‘That was a tower of strength to me. I thought I was the only person who felt like that, I’m was so depressed but the fact that you seem to be OK was a strength to me.’
It’s like a survivors’ guide to depression – the benefits I got from years of therapy and different ways of thinking about life. I’ve got to pass that on. A lot of people write to me to say I’m the first person they’ve contacted to say how depressed they are.
You open the first page and it says: ‘What can you do, right now?’ It’s just to offer a wee bit of advice, or even just a word of hope.
Among all this writing a serious knee injury has prevented much cycling for the past two years, although Obree has now had an operation, allowing him to ride his self-designed eponymous sportive event at the end of July, along the Ayrshire roads he knows so well:
I had my knee operated on about two months ago, and it’s been much better with some rest. But rest isn’t training, is it? I managed to get round the sportive but I want to get in better shape.
His thoughts, Obree said, are also now returning to designing bikes:
I’ve actually not built a bike for two years, but I do fancy getting back at it – just for the sake of creativity. But also, I live in a wee flat and I don’t think the neighbours would like all the filing and that.
One of the curious paradoxes of the parallel careers of Obree and Boardman is that while the Scotsman was the bike-building genius it is his former rival who now runs the successful cycle firm.
Obree conceded he had thought about a similar career move but was hampered in part by his desire to produce innovative, and British built, creations:
I had the possibility of doing the same thing (as Boardman) but I thought – do I want bikes built in China and shipped over here with my name on them? I’m not saying what Boardman has done is a bad thing, it’s just me. I’d want to build bikes which say ‘hand-crafted in Britain’.
There’s a British tubing industry and there’s a lot of skill in this country, there’s a lot of young people looking for employment, so why would you get more money pumped out of the country?
Also, I’ve got designs I’d like to use but they don’t fit in with what you can buy as a groupset, with the components. The components would need to change, everything would be innovative. As soon as you start deviating from the mainstream, what’s on the market as a complete package for a bike, the cost goes up because it’s then a bespoke product.
In the meantime, Obree says, he has another cycling-related project “on the go”. Before his knee injury he had been training for yet another assault on the hour record. He won’t say whether this is back on but offers some tantalising hints: “It depends on my knee. It’s a project that depends on me being pretty fit and able to pump out a good bit of energy for a sustained period of time.”
And on a bike of his own design? “Oh yes. Absolutely.”
One of cycling’s great innovators is still creating, plotting and planning.
• Graeme Obree is among the speakers at the Intelligence Squared Cycling Festival on 8 September.
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