Graeme Obree Interview Part 2 - doping, the Olympics, UCI regulations and future projects
Second part of our in-depth interview with the Flying Scotsman
In Part 1 of our Graeme Obree interview, published on Saturday, the former Hour record holder and world individual pursuit champion spoke to road.cc about that record, his new training manual, and how his personal struggle with depression had led to him seeking to help others afflicted by that conditon as well as dependency on drugs and alcohol.
Here, in Part II, the Flying Scotsman outlines his thoughts about doping, including his own experience when he says his anti-drugs stance robbed him of a pro career, his views on the sabotage attempts made against the Etape Caledonia, and the various projects he has on the boil at the moment.
First, Obree, who shot to fame as a result of his creative approach to bike-building that saw him push UCI regulations to the limit, often putting him in conflict with the giverning body and ultimately causing it to rewrite the rule book, highlights why he backs its efforts to create a truly global, accessible sport as well as maintaining cycling's place in the Olympics.
“There is a bigger picture here which a lot of people don’t think about,” he insists, “which is that the highest level at which cycling gets promoted besides the Tour de France is the Olympics.
Although the equestrian sports dressage, show jumping and eventing will be included in the London 2012 Olympic programme, their long-term future in the Games is far from guaranteed, which Obree says sounds a warning for cycling, explaining, “If a sport isn’t done on every continent then it can be taken out of the Olympics.
“Now if cycling becomes a sport where you can spend ten or twenty grand and you can win races because you’ve spent that money, and get an advantage over someone say from Africa,” he continues, “then it becomes a sport that isn’t a universal sport which then becomes in danger of not being an Olympic sport any more.
“So it needs regulation in order for people in poorer countries to compete on an equal level.
“I can see the UCI’s point,” he states. “But there also needs to be perhaps a separate series of races – maybe non-Olympic standard – where innovation can take place, but Olympic standard is tightly controlled so that African and South American countries can use equipment that is easier to get hold of. There needs to be an opening for development as well for the industry.
“There’s a depth in difference in terms of equipment between what developed countries and less developed ones have.
“Let’s say you buy a bike off the shelf and you have £2,000 to spend, you can buy a road bike that’s maybe 16 or 17 pounds in weight. Now the legal limit is 15 pounds, so no-one can get more than a two pounds advantage over someone in Africa who has two grand to spend.
“But if those regulations weren’t in place, someone could spend say 30 grand and get some kind of bike made of ‘unobtainium’ which weighs maybe eight pounds so you could have an eight-pound advantage over someone who doesn’t have that money to spend. So there is in place a regulation to limit the disadvantage to poorer people.
UCI rules mean that bikes used in competition must be on sale to the public, but Obree believes the regulations are easy to circumvent. “The British Cycling bikes, they are available to buy but there’s a huge waiting list, so technically they’re available but nobody’s got one, so there are ways around the rules,” he says.
“I don’t think it needs to be like that,” he adds. “Because the regulations define what a frame can be, what you find is there’s a lot of homogeneity, everyone’s gone to the end point what the possibility is, there’s a converging of evolution taking place in bike design and everyone’s converging on the same possibility of the maximum of the regulation, basically.
“Or, you could just not change the regulations that often and everybody will gravitate towards the end point. Then that end point maximum possibility bike will get cheaper and cheaper and then there will be developmental non-UCI bikes that go beyond the point of limitation and they might end up being four kilos, more aerodynamic, things like that, but you just can’t use them in Olympic races.”
Obree welcomes the changes that have been made to the Olympic programme that has seen an equal number of events introduced for men and women at London 2012, and perhaps surprisingly for someone who was twice world individual pursuit champion, has no regrets about that event disappearing from the schedule.
“You do have to give up some events to let women in to promote equality as well and if that’s what it comes down to then it’s a price worth paying,” he says.
“I think the pressure of television and the televised aspect of the Olympics is guiding it because with the individual pursuit, although it’s a purist event, it isn’t perhaps as viewer friendly as the team sprint or a more dynamic race – the keirin is another one that’s great to watch.”
Of the track cycling programme in general, he says “I think it’s a very exciting thing for television so as long as it’s ten events. The danger is that they decide to whittle cycling down to almost nothing at all the same as they’ve done with the horse events, thinking it’s not international enough.
“So they withdraw it for the sake of beach volleyball and other sports that are coming along which always create pressure on cycling when these new sports come along – we’ve got to be very vigilant here.”
Breaking the Hour record and winning the rainbow jersey on the track were responsible, as Obree puts it, for “parachuting me right into the middle of the professional world.”
Once there, however, he believes that his firm anti-doping stance and reputation for speaking his mind robbed him of the chance to build a career, with riders assuming that he’d doped to break the record.
“This one Italian guy in particular asked, quite casually, ‘What did you use for the Hour record?’ and when I said ‘Nothing,’ he literally waved his hand up and down as the Italians do, said ‘amatore’ and turned away in disgust,” reveals Obree.
“I wasn’t taking drugs so I wasn’t taking my sport seriously, and that’s a genuine attitude I met with – you’re not taking your job seriously because you’re not willing to take substances to make you go as fast as you humanly can.”
He continues: “I did suffer a terrible resentment in pro cycling, I felt I was robbed of it, because I wasn’t welcome in the pro peloton at all after the whole debacle with Le Groupement” – the French team that sacked him before he’d ridden a race for them – “because obviously they realised, ‘He’s not going to play the game.’
“Let’s face it, I’m the type of guy who just speaks his mind, so I was a very dangerous individual to have on a team. So there were no offers, and I felt I was robbed because if drugs didn’t exist then my career would have been a lot better than it was. So I felt resentment, including towards riders, but what I’ve realised is that riders are partly the victims of pressure from the whole system.”
Nearly two decades on, of course, doping allegations continue to beset cycling, with allegations against multiple Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and the fallout from three-time winner Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol at last year’s race attracting the attention of the mainstream press. So is the battle against doping one that the sport simply cannot win?
“I think what we need is a change in attitude,” insists Obree. “I think David Millar’s done a lot, in terms of putting his hand up and saying, okay I’ve done that, but now he’s an advocate for let’s not do doping, let’s have a clean sport now.
“I think people gravitate towards the negative aspects of the sport but there’s a lot of clean guys out there trying to have a clean sport who are demoralised with the whole situation.
“All we can do is hope that attitude comes through. In the peloton, you generally know who’s taking drugs and who isn’t – so we all knew a whole lot of stuff years before folk got done for drugs there were whispers, we knew.
“So if the attitude changed as a body of people, that we’re not going to accept one single person taking drugs and spoiling the sport, then it would end. It’s not a matter of just testing how much you can get away with, it’s a matter of changing attitudes within the peloton and the people who run it, breaking the chain to young people to show them, that is actually cheating, it’s not acceptable in the moral sense whatsoever.
“Maybe it’s going to take one of those truth commissions where everyone talks about it and then it’s okay, let’s move on from this completely, to the point where it’s okay to grass someone up and say, we’ve heard through the grapevine such and such, so there’s a change in attitude that it’s not acceptable among your peers.
“It’s a profit-making scheme as well, remember, the same as any drug-taking, this is about profit, with the people pushing drugs are making money out of it.
“I think also we need to take the economic benefit out of it,” continues Obree. “Let’s say a rider is getting a whacking wage, you could restrict their wage to a very reasonable living wage, but they don’t get the millions unless they don’t fail a drugs test. The rest wouldgo into doping control and finding new ways of stopping doping. That would put the fear in them of losing that whole entire income.
“Let’s face it, talking about riders like Contador, if he gets banned he’s still got his millions. But if he was going to lose those millions, or if they’re not his until he’s not failed a drugs test at the end of his career, then I think maybe we’ve got a different situation.
“In a lot of ways riders don’t care because if the worst comes to the worst, they’ve got their money and they can just say goodbye. But if you made a real economic pain out of doing that, it would change attitudes, I think. It needs to be brought in line with civil or criminal drug taking where they can actually seize people’s assets completely.”
With his sportive, books and other initiatives such as helping design a watch based on his Hour exploits last year, Obree seems to be adopting a higher public profile now, although he says that “it’s not that I’m doing more promotion work than I would have done, it’s just that when people do take an interest now I’m not just turning them away. I don’t need to any more.”
He admits, however, that concentrating on his various projects has given him little time recently to actually get out on his bike, describing it as “shockingly bad.” He adds, “I’ve actually got a dodgy knee that is getting operated on in the next couple of weeks so I’ve not been out as much as I could have been and it was a shocking winter as well, so in terms of general fitness I’m not in as good a form as I could be. Buy hey ho, form comes and goes, doesn’t it?”
One event he did ride in recently was last month’s Etape Caledonia, which for the second time in three years was targeted by saboteurs spreading tacks on the course, although this time they were spotted early enough to avoid any repetition of the disruption seen in 2009 when hundreds of riders punctured.
That incident, apparently in protest about local roads being closed for the event, led to charges being brought against local solicitor and church elder Alexander Grosset, although they were subsequently dropped.
Obree insists however that opponents of the ride are very much in the minority and that the aftermath of that episode highlights the strength of support from the event among locals.
“The person who was charged and held in custody for the first attack went out of business because the local people refused to have anything to do with him again, that’s how much they held him in disregard for his actions,” claims Obree.
“I’ve spoken to a few people in Perthshire and they think it’s a great thing. Not only does it bring a lot of business in for the Etape, it brings a lot of English people in for the event then they come back on holiday and bring a lot other people up with them and the whole follow-on benefit for the area is amazing. It’s a tiny, tiny minority who think it’s a bad thing, the vast majority of people think that it’s great thing to have happen in their area.
With his own sportive looming, a book to promote and another in the pipeline as well as his voluntary work on mental health issues and drug and alcohol dependency, there would appear to be little time left for Obree to get back to doing what it was that helped launch him to fame in the first place – building bikes.
I’m kind of at a crossroads right now, caught between what the next project might be,” he admits. “When you’re writing a book, you just concentrate on that activity and then once you’ve done it, you think, ‘That project’s done, what’ll I do now?’ rather than trying to think of lots of different things at once.
“But as far as bike-building is concerned, I will get around to maybe not building bikes specifically for people directly as an ongoing business but what I might do is build a couple of bikes and do a ‘how to build your own bike’ type of video.”
Now that would be something to look forward to.