First published Scotsman 28 February 1998
Graeme Obree circles Manchester’s velodrome with the easy precision of a watch movement. Around and around the huge, empty bowl of pine boards he spins - a vision of mechanical efficiency in his metallic skinsuit - his speed apparently diminished by the vastness of the track. So regular and effortless is the motion that he might easily be a clock’s second hand awaiting installation of its slower partners.
Riding his first trials for a fresh attempt on the world hour record in Manchester this week might have made the going look easy. But all is not as it seems.
‘Cycling at that intensity for an hour is like being on a rack, and winding the screw to tighten it up yourself,’ he says. ‘There are people who can tolerate agony, but very few who can inflict it on themselves over a sustained period.’
Warming to the theme, he says that pulling your own teeth out would be easy by comparison. ‘After about twenty minutes the pain becomes intense and there is no respite. It seems like another three or four hours before you stop. To keep going, I tell myself that the each lap is the last, and visualise my wife and family in tears because I have failed.’
How the forthcoming feature film of the Ayrshire cyclist’s rollercoaster career will deal with the terrible suffering to which he is willing to subject his body remains to be seen. As does its potrayal of the fiery independence that has exasperated so many of the people who have tried to help him along the way.
His single-minded unwillingness to be anything other than his own man is legendary. According to one of cycling’s professional officials, the sport’s ruling bodies would love to help him. ‘All we ask is that he occasionally puts in a competitive performance to demonstrate that he is still riding at international level. But he won’t co-operate and insists on doing everything in private. He would only have to give a little and by doing so, a very substantial pot of money would become available to him, but he makes it impossible for us.’
Graeme Obree first started pedalling around Scotland’s roads as a teenager. He made numerous friends at schoolboy cycle races and on hosteling weekends, but many considered him to be wild. Even, slightly weird. He seemed to be on the edge; willing to sanction in himself physical, mental and mechanical extremes that few others would contemplate. And he has a stubbornness about getting what he wants which, while it is the bedrock of his success, has also lost him plenty of friends along the way.
The signs of his eccentricity are legion. Even now, at 32, he still has plans to conquer the world on ‘Old Faithful’ the original bike he built from scrap parts and fitted with the bearings of an old washing machine. The only professional cycling team to have signed him, sacked him within days. And in the last few months he has turned down lottery funding available to him as an elite athlete, preferring his independence even if it means poverty.
In person, he is engaging, enthusiastic and likeable. He talks ten to the dozen on any subject, and is naturally friendly. But the intensity of his inner belief in his ability to push his body would be considered madness were it not for what he has achieved - and says he can achieve again.
In May or June of this year, Obree will once more try to ride further in one hour than any cyclist has before. He can’t promise to beat the record again - the current holder Chris Boardman has taken it into the ‘twilight zone’ of human capabilities, the Scot concedes. But, says Obree, the conditions for his two successful bids for the record were far from perfect.
‘I am stronger now than I ever have been,’ he says. ‘I can produce more power and I am now taking more account of nutrition, which will give me a few more meters. I won’t be able ride in a position quite so aerodynamic as Chris used because of new rule changes, but I am sure that I can at least get up to his distance.’
Even sympathetic commentators consider his chances slim. But Obree has succeeded against all expectations so many times before that no one will completely discount what he says.
To put his put his accomplishments to date in context, a brief detour into European cycling is necessary. On the continent, cycling is a major professional sport. It is as extensively televised as football and, attracts the cream of athletic talent who if successful can earn millions of pounds each season. Wealthy teams invest lavishly in the minutely monitored training of their stables: some have even built substantial research institutions dedicated to perfecting their riders’ bodies and equipment.
When Graeme Obree achieved international fame, all he knew of this world had been gleaned from television and magazines. Aged 27, he was a highly-rated British amateur. This put him in a group of 20 or 30 people who would thrash it out each weekend for meagre prize money. He and his competitors were as far from international success as Sunday-league footballers are from sudden elevation to the Permiership.
Unemployed after his bike shop had folded, Obree was all for giving up. The training time necessary to compete as a cyclist made it difficult to provide for his young family. But he still had a towering ambition - or perhaps more a crazy dream.
‘Francesco Moser’s hour record in 1984 had always inspired me,’ says Obree. ‘I liked the purity and daringness of one man going out alone with no hiding place against the clock. It seemed like cycling’s glittering prize and Moser’s aerodynamic style and radical bike brought an Italian glamour and panache to his ride. And he broke a record widely considered to be unbeatable.’
It is a record that cyclists have been contesting since 1876 when FD Doods managed to cover 25.508 kilometres in an hour on a track in Cambridge. In subsequent years, many world-class champions have added their names to those who have pushed the record further. Fausto Coppi - arguably the most gifted rider of this century - covered 45.848 kilometres in 1942; five times Tour winner Jacques Anquetil managed 47.493 kilometres in 1967 and the Belgian Eddy Merckx, who notched up more professional cycling wins than any rider before or since, stunned the world in 1972 with a ride of 49.432 kilometres.
Like most others who have tried for the hour record, Merckx completed his successful assault with a vow never to try again - such was the mental and physical stress of the effort.
Obree came to the specialist discipline of track cycling relativly late. Once he did, however, he decided that it was here that he could make his mark.
For all the jokes about his home-made bike, and his training methods, it is impossible to discount the achievement of his first successful hour record bid in 1993. True, the bike did contain some components that came from unorthodox sources. But what he devised in the workshop behind his home in Irvine has been more successful than bikes and positions developed at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds in America and Italy.
Both Obree’s successful assaults on the record were made in his own self-devised chest-on-handlebars ‘ski-tuck’ position. By keeping his back flat, he improved his aerodynamics. And by eliminating the bike’s top tube and narrowing the distance between the pedals he was able to imitate the action of a runner, drawing his legs across his body, rather than simply up and down, therby developing greater power.
In the context of world cycling, Obree’s experimentation seems curious. Even among those professional riders with a technical interest in their equipment, none have begun to match his brilliant inventiveness. But then Obree is the product of the peculiar, semi-detached world of British time trialling.
When the modern bicycle emerged, in the 1880s - before cars or planes - it was a sensation whose competitive potential was quickly recognised. The tours of France and Italy started in the early years of this century, as did the other great ‘mass start’ races from city to city that are still the mainstay of professional racing. Similar developments here stalled, however, because, from the 1890s onwards, cyclists caught racing on British roads were prosecuted under a law that prohibits ‘furious cycling’.
Rather than give up, British cyclists turned to clandestinely organised time trials. These were extraordinary events. Secret route guides were mailed to participants along with their start time. At five minute intervals, each competitor would arrive at a deserted lamp post or drain cover. Dressed as inconspicuously as possible, they would belt round the course while a hidden timekeeper recorded their effort. Only when the results sheet arrived in the next day’s post, would competitors know their time and placing.
Not until 1960 was road racing brought within the law and, although much has changed in the sport since then, time trailing continues to be the backbone of British competitive road cycling. The country is criss-crossed with courses that retain coded names and are measured from lamp posts and road signs. And the very nature of these events breeds an obsessive, almost trainspottery, interest in tweaking bikes and employing obscure bits of kit.
That someone from this background could take the hour record shocked the world of cycle racing. Not only was Obree’s bike an oddity, but he eschewed traditional training methods and professed to consume a diet of conflakes and marmalade sandwiches ahead of major events.
As a result, his success rekindled greater interest in the hour record than there had been for years. First Chris Boardman bettered the Scot by 600 meters. Obree extended his record again to 52.713 kilometres in April of 1994, and then the big boys moved in. Miguel Indurain - five times Tour de France winner - put his name in the record books, only to be displaced a few weeks later by the rider ranked world number one, Tony Rominger.
Meanwhile Obree’s extraordinary career continued. He won the world track pursuit title, but was prevented from defending it because his ‘ski tuck’ was banned by cycling’s ruling body. A professional French team offered him a contract, but he was dismissed within the first week when he failed to turn up for training.
Most assumed that his fifteen minutes of fame were over. But, undaunted, he arrived at the 1995 world championships with another new and equally revolutionary cycling style - ‘the superman’. Not only did he storm to victory, but within months, many top professionals had copied the position. Since then, however, a virus wrecked his chance of Olympic glory in Atlanta and shortly afterwards he ‘retired’ because he lacked the money to continue.
Among those who copied ‘the Superman’ was Chris Boardman. After struggling to finish the 1996 Tour de France, the Englishman, who now ranks in the world’s top 20, hit the most blistering form of his career. Before a packed crowd in Manchester he covered 56.375 kilometres - an average speed of more than 35 miles per hour. To beat this mark, Obree must ride more than four kilometres further in the hour than he ever has before.
In pursuit of this he has made some concessions to convention. For the first time since he was a junior, he is working with a professional trainer. He has submitted to a regime similar to those used by other world-class cyclists and is using standard devices like a heart-rate monitor that, until recently, he disdained in place of his own ‘feel factor’.
He even planned to ride a professionally made bike, until another change in the regulations forced him back on Old Faithful. Fortunately, he says, this is still the fastest bike he has ever ridden.
But has Obree has joined the mainstream of cycling? By no means. There will be more novel technical additions and adaptations to his bike. He won’t let anyone see this at the moment - or even enter his workshop - but, among other things, it is possible that he will be using a chain lubricating device adapted from a motorbike.
There will be no public trails until late March. At these, he must demonstrate, for his own purposes, and to impress potential backers of his seriousness, that he can at least mount a credible challenge. Doing this requires him to output between 450 and 470 watts for 20 minutes - as hard as most fit cyclists can manage for two minutes. If he can do this then believes, his training programme will bring him to a peak and by early summer he will be able to sustain the effort for an hour.
But if this happens, it will be nothing to do with gifts from nature, he says. ‘I am insulted when people complement my natural ability. Its not natural - I made myself like this. Most people assume that they have reached their natural limit when really they have reached the level at which they are satisfied. I am never satisfied and play mind games to keep pushing myself to the next level and the next again. The only thing that really makes a difference is what is in your head.’
Nevertheless, Obree says that he will only get close to the record if everything goes exactly as planned. If it does though, he believes he can do it, which at least until now seems to have been enough. And if he is right, his world will once again open up. As holder of the record, he will command decent appearance fees at track meetings around Europe. He has already been pre-selected for Scotland’s Commonwealth Games squad later this year and is even dreaming of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
What failure would mean is impossible to say. For the moment it is an eventuallity he refuses to contemplate - another mind game. All he can focus on is a mental image. The circling stops and Obree climbs off his bike: a new world record under his belt.