Interview: Graeme Obree switches human powered world record attempt from USA to the UK (+ video)

Flying Scotsman talks about Beastie - the bike he'll use in a record attempt "designed in Britain, made in Britain and broken in Britain"

by Simon_MacMichael   September 7, 2012  

Flying Scotsman Graeme Obree has revealed that his attempt on the human powered world speed record will not now be taking place at Battle Mountain in Nevada during next week’s World Human Powered Speed Challenge as he continues to build and fine-tune his bike – but instead, he plans to set it here in the UK, “designed in Britain, made in Britain and broken in Britain,” as he puts it.

The 46-year-old, who captivated cycling fans with his battle for the Hour record in the mid-1990s then moved out of the public eye as he struggled with mental health issues, emerged from his self-imposed seclusion last year, speaking frankly on that subject and others in an exclusive two-part interview with last year. (Part I and Part II)

In his latest interview and video, republished here with the permission of the website Humans Invent which has been closely following his progress, Obree speaks about the machine he has called ‘Beastie’ which he hopes will take him to a record-breaking ride, as well as his plans for where that may take place now Battle Mountain is no longer an option.

Graeme, thanks for talking to us again. What stage are you at with the bicycle? And, what is the plan for the attempt?

At this stage, sadly, travelling to America to take part in the official meeting at Battle Mountain is off. We are still not happy with the bike to be honest. So, we need to make a few tweaks to the bike. It is nearly there, mechanically we have needed to make some adjustments but the main issue is that we have run into some production issues while crafting the fairing, so there is no point going for this when the bike isn’t perfect.

After doing some initial tests I found I had to move the shoe-plates as well. To be honest there needed to be a whole lot of re-positioning on it. I have also decided to fit an elbow guard. The elbow can drift into parts of the bike that are spinning forward. The idea now is, that I can rest my arms in the elbow guards so I can concentrate on steering and maintaining my position.

I also made the decision to go with a clear skin so people will actually see what is going on, they will see the engine. You normally just get a black inanimate object shooting up the road, but this means you can see the man in it, the engine powering it. It is going to look amazing, and actually when you see the frontal area and the skin surface of what you actually have there, then you can see that it has to be one of the smallest bikes ever created, in terms of frontal area and skin surface that is. And that is crucial. So, I am really happy with its aerodynamics at present.

Where are you looking to attempt the record now that America is off?

Well, we are all dressed up with nowhere to go. To be honest, I am happy it will be a British attempt now. Designed in Britain, made in Britain and broken in Britain. This also means that we can go for the world human-powered land speed record, and also the British human-powered land speed record. Now we are simply looking at venues.

I think our best bet will be an airport somewhere in the United Kingdom, and there are few possibilities that are opening for us. We will start by choosing one and doing some testing – then we will take it from there on which destination we use. What we need is a quick surface with around a two-mile runway. So, in theory, there are plenty of options.

What are the most important factors to consider when picking a venue?

Well, when picking a venue you are always going to make comparisons with Battle Mountain. What made that such a good location for the human-powered speed record attempt was firstly the surface. It’s fast. The next thing is it is 5000 ft above sea level, plus it has something like a six-degree slope in your favour.

In an engineering journal I read, they said that Battle Mountain is worth 156 watts extra in energy, and that is just the slope, then the surface is actually purposefully built for the record attempt, so that has to be worth another fraction in terms of surface resistance.

We have to accept that we aren’t going to get as good as Battle Mountain. But, we can still get close. What we need is a flat surface, with no blemishes or joins in it, ideally the smoothest tarmac surface we can find in the UK. It needs to be 2 miles long so we can get it up to speed, and of course, it needs to be in a straight line. So, it isn’t an impossible task.

It’s not Battle Mountain, instead it will be a purely British attempt. I like that. The one thing is we cannot have this running into the Winter. We have to make the most of the good weather this Autumn. So we will be looking at giving it our best shot within the next month.

As you say the bike is nearly there. It looks great. You have spoken before about the method behind your design strategy. Could you talk to me about the unique pull / push pedal action you will be using?

The frontal area is minimal since the feet just miss each other on the way past which means the width at the back is the minimum possible so the vehicle can be tailed of short. Also it means the knees are closer together and partially share the same space at the bottom of the stroke which means that the skin can be tucked in closer, and that means less frontal area.

In order to achieve this a direct drive to the rear wheel is replaced by a drive to a chainwheel which then connects via another chain to a sprocket which turns a bigger chainwheel which in turn connects to the rear wheel. Some of the energy is consumed in this mechanism but the aerodynamic advantage should be much larger than the losage. The push-pull arrangement means that the knees do not dip as far as would be the case with a circular movement, again reducing the frontal area and air resistance.

Humans Invent has also produced a video in which Obree talks about the breathing technique he will be using in his record attempt.

14 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Frogs, a box of, mad as

posted by renko [43 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:11


Clear fairing so you can see the mad scotsman going hell for leather. You've gotta love him, but he's as bonkers as a lemonade sandwich.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice...

posted by notfastenough [3723 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:27


How about breaking the record by racing from one end of the London2012 Olympic Park to the other?
That would be a nice legacy statement now that both Games are winding down!
Victory lap in the velodrome. Big Grin


AndrewRH's picture

posted by AndrewRH [56 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:30


...and invite the Stig and the various Olympians and Paralympians to race beside you Big Grin

AndrewRH's picture

posted by AndrewRH [56 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:30


Sheer undiluted genius Nerd

Gravity - it won't let you down.

bigmel's picture

posted by bigmel [105 posts]
7th September 2012 - 14:38


This is absolutely brilliant... Congratulations on being a dreamer Mr. Obree. We need more people like you in this world!

posted by jackh [118 posts]
7th September 2012 - 15:40


Good luck to him....I should maybe enquire about help with my velomobile winter project. Looks the same idea.

But nuts if he thinks an airport is going to help, unless at the start line an aircraft starts its engines and gives him some thrust boost Devil

Gkam84's picture

posted by Gkam84 [9369 posts]
7th September 2012 - 16:31


No STD's with this model Wink

mingmong's picture

posted by mingmong [242 posts]
7th September 2012 - 17:09


Presumably, one of the "production issues while crafting the fairing" was that Mr Obree appears to be trapped in it! Confused
I hope he succeeds, though, because he may get some of the publicity that cycling appears to now generate and certainly deserves some recognition. There's been a lot written about Boardman and his legacy to British cycling, but anyone around at the time of the Hour Record attempts will know that the rivalry with the mad Scotsman massively increased public interest in Boardman and, hence, his undoubted leagacy.

posted by pwake [368 posts]
7th September 2012 - 18:58


FWIW the max allowed slope is 0.6xxx degrees not 6 !!

posted by zoxed [63 posts]
7th September 2012 - 19:04

1 Like

And if it doesn't work, he can grow tomatoes in it.... Big Grin

Well, I'll be...

posted by Zebra [32 posts]
7th September 2012 - 22:57

1 Like

brilliant stuff ... you go for it graham ... true pioneer!

posted by Karbon Kev [683 posts]
8th September 2012 - 7:23


I wonder if we could persuade a construction company to sponsor Mr. Obree's attempt by relaying part of the runway so that it is super smooth (as Battle Mountain) or perhaps a tech college could do it with their students.


posted by FATBEGGARONABIKE [734 posts]
8th September 2012 - 8:40

1 Like

I for one cannot wait & will cheer him every inch of the way! Made in Britain, Broken in Britain, Measured in Britain.A true genius & inspiration for us all, we just need Chris Boardman to announce that he is going to have a go too & it will be like 20 years ago!!

Currently going slower than I'd like...

posted by stealth [258 posts]
8th September 2012 - 20:01