I remember seeing the pictures. It was way back in 1993, when cycling coverage was still in the pre-digital age, so all I saw were pictures and a story in Velonews. Graeme Obree had broken the hour record. I was relatively new to cycling at that time, but even I knew of the hour record. It seemed to hold a place somewhat akin to the home run record in baseball. Franceso Moser had broken Merckx’s record, but then the record languished in obscurity for so long that I didn’t think they even let people attempt it anymore.
Then along came Graeme Obree. To call Obree an original doesn’t seem to do him or even the term justice. In 1993 he burst onto the world cycling scene when he broke Francisco Moser’s world hour record. He used a revolutionary “tuck” position on an unusual bike of his own design. A bike put together with an odd assortment of parts, infamously employing bearings from a washing machine to make his bottom bracket. Obree was a cycling Roy Hobbs striding up to the home plate of the velodrome with his own “Wonderboy” bike in hand. I recall looking at the photos of his tuck position and thinking he looked like he was hunched over the table at the doctor’s office preparing for a very unpleasant examination. I could’ve described his position as: strange, awkward or restricting, there were many ways to describe it, the one way I wouldn’t have describe his position was fast.
But the position was indeed, very fast. And in July 1993, Obree took his first swing at the hour record – and missed. But he had booked the velodrome and officials for 24 hours, so he wanted to try again immediately. The next morning he took another shot at the record that even the legendary Eddy Merckx said took years off of his life. He succeeded. The new record ruffled a few feathers, especially those of Hein Verbruggen, the head of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). It seemed somehow Obree’s unorthodox position on the bike was threatening to the UCI and the cycling powers that be. And even though his bike conformed to UCI regulations, Verbruggen and the UCI began conspiring to outlaw the tuck position that Obree employed.
Obree’s hour record lasted for less than a week, broken by his long time rival and fellow Briton, Chris Boardman, riding a bike made by the British firm, Lotus, which specialized in building sports and racing cars. Obree and Boardman’s battles would bring about an unprecedented interest in the hour record.
In April 1994, Obree took the record back from Boardman using his tuck position once again. Shortly after, the UCI changed the rules for bike layout – effectively banning his tuck position. The UCI didn’t inform him of the changes until an hour before he was to begin the pursuit race at the World Championships in Italy. In response, Obree developed the “superman
” position, which extended his arms straight out in front of his as he rode. He won the 1995 World pursuit championship on his original frame - called “Old Faithful” - using the new superman position. And doing a great broken record impersonation, once again the UCI banned his new riding position, stating that “human effort and skill are more significant than technological advance.”
Obree’s brief professional life in professional cycling with the French team Le Groupement ended very hastily in early 1995. And in 1997, Obree stopped competing professionally.
After retiring Obree was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and in December 2001, he attempted suicide. As he recovered in the hospital, he wrote his autobiography, The Flying Scotsman, which became the subject for a movie of the same name. I was able to talk to Graeme recently at his home in Scotland. The story of his mental illness has been told very capably by many writers, including Graeme himself, so I called to find out more about Obree, the athlete who was able to turn the cycling world upside down on a bike and position he fashioned himself.
schmalz I saw the movie and enjoyed it very much, How much were you were involved in the technical details of the movie. How much riding did you do for the movie?
Obree Actually quite a bit, and - first of all - I built the bikes.
schmalz You built a replica?
Obree I built two replicas. One for Jonny (actor Jonny Lee Miller plays Obree in the movie) and myself, two of everything for the film. When you see someone far away – that’s me. When you see someone facially, that’s Jonny.
schmalz I like the cycling scenes in the movie , in most cycling movies the action comes off a bit wrong…
Obree A bike race is very difficult thing to fake up.
schmalz I think you did a good job, what were the technical aspects involved in filming on a velodrome? Did you film from a motorcycle?
Obree I’ll tell you who did that. The director who’s credited as a cycle cam operator is in fact, me.
schmalz Were you operating the camera? What kind of apparatus did you use? Were you riding?
Obree The film cameras that we were using were quite large, quite heavy 35 millimeter reel to reel cameras, worth about $40,000. [correction - camera actually worth $400,000. ed.]
schmalz Not something you’d want to knock around…
Obree No. What we did is we mounted the camera on the front of a motorbike, but it was so unsteady that the motor bike couldn’t swerve, and it had to get up to 44 k per hour before it was stable. So if you were lead man you were riding at 44 k per hour, and if you fall off or something goes wrong, the motorbike can’t swerve. That’s not good way to handle a leading man. So we said, “Hmmm, this is dodgy.” So we mounted the camera to a regular track bike. That was me on a regular track bike with the $40,000 camera and Johnny out front.
schmalz And you were hoping you wouldn’t fall down.
Obree Yes, don’t forget this movie was kind of made on a shoestring. The fact was that we couldn’t afford this crane thing to spin around the track and so we had to improvise. And that improvisation made better footage, because if you put the camera on a bike you can use the actual sound from the bike as well. So you actually get the sound of the wheels rattling over the wood – did you notice that?
schmalz Yes I did. And you’re no stranger to improvisation with mechanical stuff I suppose…
Obree Absolutely. And when you have equipment that expensive on board, you make sure you don’t fall off.
schmalz How long did it take Johnny to get used to the riding position to do the movie?
Obree Actually Johnny was a natural. He took to it really quickly. He went to the track for a couple of lessons and took to it right away.
schmalz You don’t want him falling off.
Obree Well, there were actors playing cyclists and actually cyclists playing cyclists who fell off. But luckily they fell off on the track and the holes on the skinsuits tend to be on the right hand side. So they could be shot from the left. But we were getting down to our last skinsuits as we filmed some of our shots in fact.
schmalz I have to congratulate the stunt man who did the crash - which actually didn’t happen in real life – the crash looked really tough!
Obree I don’t even think he got paid for it! And that’s the worst track in the world to fall off on.
schmalz I heard he was full of splinters.
Obree He was. It was the Cologne track. A beautiful track to ride, you could ride around it with your hands off the handlebars. Beautiful and smooth perfect finish; but it’s unfinished wood, African hardwood.
schmalz It seems like when most people talk about your story, they get bogged down in the details about your bike and the position and everything else, and they seem to forget about your athletic accomplishments, which are pretty huge. It’s no the bike that broke the hour record…
Obree Absolutely. People had their suspicions that the position was such an advantage, but you know other people tried it. Moser went back to ride that position at altitude (Obree didn’t break Moser’s record at altitude – ed), and he didn’t break the record. So, what does that tell you?
schmalz It seems that once Boardman won his gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, that motivated you, because you had competed against him and had beat him before – did that make you try for the hour record?
Obree Well I was also a bad sponsor who had left us with debts. And at the age of 27, you don’t break into the world of earning money from cycling unless you do some really big thing. I was always captivated by the hour record because it was the ultimate time trial. And don’t forget I came from a time trial background. Most of the races at entry level in Britain are time trials.
schmalz Isn’t that because of the laws about road closures in Britain?
Obree Historically Britain has been anti mass start racing, you had to meet in secret and pretend you weren’t racing at all. Even time trials had to be at the crack of dawn with dark suits on and with ankles covered. They really restricted the sport, so time trialing became the big aspect of the sport. From about the mid-eighties on, I could go to a time trial knowing, unless something went wrong, I would win it. And I could get some money and go home. That’s what I was involved in, and I saw the hour as the ultimate time trial.
schmalz What was your training for the hour record like?
Obree I started in earnest on the 1st of January of 1993. And at that stage, my mindset was “I’m not good enough.” And then I had a complete mindset change and I said, “I will make myself good enough to break this record. That record is mine” My mindset was “Moser had two arms and two legs, and I have the same ability to break the record.”
schmalz What were your training rides like in preparation for the record attempt? Were they long rides, did you do just hour efforts?
Obree I would do the occasional two hour ride, and then I would spend most of my time riding for an hour on the computrainer.
schmalz And those were all out efforts?
Obree To the point of exhaustion.
schmalz How many times a week would you do you one hour effort?
Obree I would do that about twice, depending on how my body felt. If my body felt tired I would leave it, or I would do a time trial if there was time trial race to ride. Or I would go and do strength work - strength endurance work in really huge gears over hills to really stress the muscles.
schmalz How many hours a week would you say you were riding?
Obree Well, actual training was probably 4 hours a week. But recovery riding was every day. I spent more time recovery riding in really small gears. And also a lot of time stretching. So if you include stretching and recovery riding it was probably 20 hours a week.
schmalz But just only 4 hours a week training?
Obree There’s no point in doing a whole pile of training if it’ll be substandard. What you want is to be fresh enough and prepared enough and recovered enough to actually set out in your training ride to replicate your efforts.
schmalz In your training efforts, did you have a heart rate monitor or a cyclometer?
Obree No. What I had was the best cycling body monitoring computer ever invented – the cerebral cortex.
schmalz You have your whole feedback system built in already.
Obree Absolutely. Thousands of feedbacks – in real time!
schmalz How did the efforts in training compare to the effort during the record attempt? What was going through your mind, did you get the time splits? Were you doing calculations in your mind?
Obree I was feeling, “Well, I’ve got to do it; I’m a failure if I don’t.” And you’re just thinking, “I’ve got to get this next lap.” Even half way through, your lap board still says 100 laps, and the laps are so painfully slow. You just can’t take the last twenty minutes, you’re so tired your eyes are kind of bloody. And you feel, “This has to end.” But you have to go on. You begin to sink into a rhythm. It gets to the point where you’re whole body is wrapped in pain, but no individual muscle is so bad that you can’t continue.
schmalz What I never understood is why Hein Vebruggen and the UCI were so upset by your position. I think because they came from such a traditional cycling background, they thought the unusual position you used was mostly responsible for your success.
Obree Some people truly believed that it was 25% more efficient. I think they thought I came out of nowhere. But they didn’t realize that me and Chris Boardman were having head to head rides and that I had broken these records in Britain. They didn’t know any of that. They didn’t take an interest in British time trialing.
schmalz Why do you think they were so adamant about disqualifying your position?
Obree Well, it wasn’t “I don’t like that guy.”, I think it’s what I represented. You have to think of their point of view, they came from the era of diamond shaped frames, steel tubing, spoke wheels, and then in 1984 Moser comes along and changes everything. He’s got disc wheels, he’s got the low profile bike, and an aero helmet and skinsuit. That was the start of it, and then Greg Lemond comes along with the tri bars, and next thing you know there’s this Scottish guy with his tuck position.
schmalz The disqualification seemed like a bad way for the UCI to go about things. Before you came along, there was Merckx’s record from 1972, which didn’t get broken until Moser in 1984, and until you broke the record in 1993 it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. After you broke the record, suddenly you had Boardman, Indurain, and Rominger – all the greats in the sport - showing interest in the record, but then the UCI comes in with their new regulations, and they in essence, kill the record.
Obree They killed it dead! And then the whole drug storm came along and killed it anyway. All those guys taking EPO and everything – which I didn’t.
schmalz When you went to the French team Le Groupment in 1994, did they expect you to take drugs?
Obree I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I was fired on the second of January.
schmalz How long were you with the team?
Obree A day and a half. Probably the shortest professional career in the world.
schmalz Which is too bad as you probably could’ve had a career like Chris Boardman’s and been a prologue specialist.
Obree That was the idea, but they didn’t want a loose cannon. And I’ll tell you, the strange thing was, I was never approached by any other professional team ever after that. It was also a very awkward situation to be around other professionals.
schmalz It was the era before the Festina scandal broke…
Obree I was so naïve before I broke the record, I never came across it (drugs). And after I broke the record in 93, a lot of professionals would come up say, “Oh that’s good, that’s good - what did you use? Just out of curiousity.” Being totally glib about it. And I said, “Sorry?”
schmalz And you said, “A bicycle.”?
Obree Yeah. But that just showed how normal it was. Many people offered to take me to this training camp or this lab there must have been 6 opportunities where people said, “Oh we’ll get you sorted out, we know a good doctor and good gear and all that.” And I thought, “Jesus, this is so endemic.” And then I spoke out in 97, when I realized what was going on at Le Groupment. And then you realized that almost every top team was kind of the same. And there were no offers - I was persona non grata.
schmalz That’s very sad. But I’ve heard your writing a book on training? These days training is all power and wattage – much different from what you described earlier.
Obree My program is for the 90% of people in the sport who have families and jobs and a social life, and who don’t want to end up divorced and broke with no friends. Basically, what can I do right now, or tomorrow morning that’s going to improve me and not affect my quality of life.
schmalz Sounds great.