If you’ve read his book, The Flying Scotsman, or seen the eponymous film based on it and starring Jonny Lee Miller, you’ll be familiar with the chief elements of Graeme Obree’s life story.
Twice holder of the Hour record on a bike he built himself that famously included parts of an old washing machine, a history of depression saw Obree twice attempt suicide during what he himself describes as his “lost decade.”
Following his revelation earlier this year that he is gay, a disclosure that made headlines in the national media, the 45-year-old Obree is working hard on new projects including writing books, organising his own sportive, and helping others struggling with depression as well as dependency on drugs and alcohol, and finally seems at peace with himself, as he reveals to road.cc in the first instalment of a two-part interview.
“I think there was a philosopher who said, ‘the truth will set you free’”– the phrase is actually from the Gospel of St John – “and that’s exactly what I’ve found,” explains Obree of his coming out.
Going public regarding his sexuality was met with a wave of good wishes from a British cycling public that has always held the maverick from Ayrshire in a high degree of affection.
It was a reaction that surprised Obree, and one that he appreciates. “I do need to thank all those people who sent me positive messages because that means a lot to me and I didn’t expect that,” he explains. “I’d been living in fear of a backlash but that wasn’t the reality that happened.”
Next month sees the first edition of Obree’s own sportive, and he’s also been busy putting the finishing touches to his eagerly anticipated coaching manual which should be published in the coming weeks. “There’s more work involved in getting a book out on the market than you realise,” he confesses.
“You think ‘I’ve nailed the writing and that’s it,’ but there’s the artwork and the proofreading and everything else that goes with it.” He says that the book is “old school” in its approach. “It’s not looking at promoting any product or training method, instead it promotes the human mind as the most important computer there is to use,” which he terms the ‘feel factor.’
“For example, I tell people not to have a training schedule because you can’t tell how the body is going to react to each training session. So I’m promoting the feel factor and seat-of-the-pants training, sensible diets and things like that, instead of laying down a whole training schedule where you’ve got your massage and you’ve got to eat certain things at certain times.
“It’s aimed at people who’ve got jobs and families and social circles, who want to keep those and who have limited time to use, and it will show them how to use that time more effectively, as opposed to lots of training manuals that assume you’ve the same time and resources as though you’re a professional. This manual is aimed at people who have other commitments to deal with.”
Meanwhile the inaugural edition of the Graeme Obree Classic Sportive will be held on 31 July in Ayrshire where the cyclist, born in Warwickshire, grew up and where he still lives today. The sportive also sees a women’s ride led by Yvonne McGregor, former world champion and holder of the women’s Hour record.
Obree turns out to be a passionate advocate of women’s cycling and regrets the fact that while the battle between him and Chris Boardman still captures the public imagination almost two decades on, McGregor’s achievements, which received little enough attention at the time, are now all but forgotten.
“Cycle sport is very male dominated and that’s why I’ve asked Yvonne to do a women only ride as well, which seems to have gone down well with the ladies that I’ve spoken to. We do need to bring more women into what is a male dominated sport and make them feel more welcome, and that’s one of the remits for the sportive.
“Obviously it’s a family day too and we’re trying to promote cycling as well for health and fitness and the general benefit to the community as well. The women’s side of it is something I feel passionately about because when people talk about the Hour record they say, of Chris Boardman, Graeme Obree but you don’t think about Yvonne McGregor do you?
“She’s the third person from Britain who broke the Hour record back then but she’s not talked about because she’s a woman, so the sportive is about focusing the mind and saying we need to do more to incorporate women into the centre of the sport of cycling.”
That Obree’s battle in the early 1990s with Boardman to set a new benchmark for the men's Hour continues to fascinate fans, including those too young to have followed events first-hand, is largely down to the 2007 film based on his autobiography, The Flying Scotsman.
“There is a whole new generation who seem to understand the whole story of it,” agrees Obree. “It’s a very fortunate situation to be in, it really shouldn’t happen that 18 years after the fact, because a lot of people you’d expect just to be forgotten about. Down the years you tend to diminish in terms of being talked about but there’s been a bit of a resurgence in terms of people talking about this story, so that’s very fortunate.
“Ultimately it’s not a documentary, it’s a story that’s based on true events. People do say it’s a good yarn and it’s a bit of a chick flick as well, women seem to love this film. A lot of cyclists dragged their wives and girlfriends along to see it, and they’d end up saying, “Oh, I loved that film” more than the guys themselves. It’s not really a cycling film at all, it’s a human story film, “ he adds.
Initially, Obree had been reluctant to see his mental health issues laid bare on the screen, but he now says that he’s glad that those were addressed in the film, with that aspect of his story striking a chord among people struggling to cope with similar issues.
“Most people write to me not because of what I’ve done in the sport – 90% of people who write to me talk about how depressed they are and how they hold me up as a symbol of hope.”
That response has led Obree to embark upon another writing project, a survivor’s guide to depression, which he has been inspired to write “because I went through 10 years of therapy and in the end found my own way of dealing with life and staying positive, which I need to pass on to people.”
Obree admits that until last year he tried to hide himself away, but he’s now also getting involved with a local organisation in Ayrshire looking to help young people break free from families in which drug and alcohol abuse is endemic, which he likens to “a spiral, almost like a revolving door.”
He describes the Three Towns – Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston – area he lives in as “technically the most deprived in Britain, apparently” which he says means its “a great place to cut your teeth doing community projects.
There isn’t a better opportunity than this.” The initiative, he explains, is “very hands-on, it’s a bunch of people trying to get community centres opened up and drop-in centres to get people to talk about their personal issues, on the ground, ordinary folk trying to do something for their community, and I’m right behind that.
“I’d also like to get involved in homelessness issues,” he adds, “because I’ve seen that side of society through mental wards and my whole life experience during the last 10 years or so, and I’d be very interested in trying to help deal with that kind of social issue.
A couple of years ago, there was talk of Obree having another crack at the Hour record, the format of which was changed by the UCI after Obree’s DIY approach and Boardman’s scientific application with the help of bike designer Mike Burrows pushed the boundaries of bike design to its limits.
In July 1993, Obree beat the record set nine years earlier by Moser, but his new benchmark would last just one week as Boardman, on his Burrows-designed Lotus bike, set a new world best distance.
Obree would claim the record back the following year, but first Miguel Indurain, then Tony Rominger and finally Boardman himself would all beat it over the following two years.
Subsequent rule changes introduced by the UCI sought to do away with innovations pioneered by Obree including his distinctive riding position and the use of tri-bars and disc wheels to reflect the type of equipment that Eddy Merckx had used when setting his own hour record in 1972.
Boardman would break that ‘traditional’ record in 2000, and the current holder is the Czech cyclist Ondřej Sosenka, who set his record of 49.7km in Moscow in 2005.
Obree revealed that his own thoughts of attempting to beat that record arose from racing with the late Jason MacIntyre, who was killed near Fort William while on a training ride in January 2008.
“He won a couple and I won a couple , and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m still going quite quick.,’” Obree explains. “Then just after Jason’s death I was sitting on the beach as you do reading about gas exchange and lung function and I formulated a new breathing pattern to be more efficient than the way people have always breathed, in and out.
“So I tested that and got a couple of other people to test it and we found it was more powerful, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to use this’ – this is in the training manual, obviously – and I felt obliged to go and use it.
“But when I actually got down to it on the 250 metre track, the pressure of doing that, I thought ‘Hold on this isn’t going to go, I’ve given it my best shot but this is as far as I can go with it, just let it go.’
So I got it out of my system, and now I’m just moving on to doing sportives, and not hiding away any more. Obree feels that the UCI’s rule changes have made it more difficult to break the Hour record now.
“I think it’s harder to break now in terms of technicalities. I don’t think it was their intention, but in technical terms it was easier for someone to come in from left field without a huge team of experts behind them and break it with technology, aerodynamics, tri-bars, disc wheels because that was the end limit of what’s available.
“The arms weren’t as relevant in terms of strength, whereas with the new hour record set-up, the biggest impediment to me was, can I actually hold my bodyweight up with my arms?
“My arms were burning after three minutes, and the whole bike was set up to try and keep me off my arms because they weren’t strong enough on the banking of the British track,” he adds.
“It wasn’t about legs, it was about arms – the hour record now is all about arms and how big a track can you use, everyone’s got to go to Moscow now because the banking is more sweeping, so I think they’ve actually made the hour record less open and fair than it was before.”
Despite that, and the fact that he previously pushed UCI regulations to the limit, including famously sawing off handlebar extensions in front of UCI officials who insisted that they broke the rules, Obree is perhaps surprisingly in favour of steps taken by the governing body to ensure through regulations that the sport remains accessible, something that ties in with its aim of creating a truly global sport.
Read the second part of our interview with Graeme Obree on Monday to get his thoughts on how and why the UCI regs can be a good thing, how he believes his views on doping cost him the chance of a pro career and his opinion on those who would sabotage the Etape Caledonia and much more.