Graeme Obree, the world-record breaking track cyclist who switched to the road only to be frozen out of the sport for refusing to take part in doping, has spoken of his appreciation for Irish journalist Paul Kimmage mentioning him as one of the sport’s whistleblowers when launching his lawsuit last week against the UCI and present and past presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen. Besides reflecting on the situation cycling is in as a result of the US Postal scandal, Obree has also been talking about another form of transport besides the bicycle that he feels passionately about – airships.
Revealing on Twitter that he had filed a lawsuit last week just days after the announcement that their own defamation action against him had been suspended, Kimmage wrote: “I have lodged a criminal complaint against Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid.
"I have initiated these proceedings not for myself - this is not about Paul Kimmage, but on behalf of the whistle blowers - Stephen Swart, Frankie Andreu, Floyd Landis, Christophe Bassons, Nicolas Aubier, Gilles Delion, Graeme Obree and every other cyclist who stood up for truth and the sport they loved and were dismissed as "cowards" and "scumbags" by Verbruggen and McQuaid."According to an article in Scotland on Sunday at the weekend, “Somebody told Obree about what Kimmage was doing. He was happy. He thought it nice of Kimmage to mention him.”
Obree, now aged 47, had come under personal attack from Verbruggen after a L’Equipe interview in 1996 in which the Scot claimed that 99 per cent of pros in the peloton were doping – an era which as subsequent events have proved was characterised by wholesale doping in the peloton.
Obree’s own professional road career with French team Le Groupement had ended pretty much as soon as it began in 1995 due to his refusal to contemplate doping.
“After I did that thing with L’Equipe it was difficult to go to a professional race because of the animosity from other riders,” Obree told Scotland on Sunday.
“I was almost scared to [use] the changing room in case I’d get beaten up. There was real tension. I remember reading Kimmage’s book [Rough Ride, published in 1990] and there was lots of stuff about the problem of drugs in cycling in that book and I thought ‘It can’t be that bad, surely’. But it was. It was a Pandora’s box. If Verbruggen (then the UCI president) opened it, there would have been nothing left in the sport, so he kept it closed.
“Once, a rider actually apologised to me in advance of a race. For him, it was a moral dilemma. Riding a bike was the only thing this guy knew how to do and taking drugs was a requirement. It was a heartfelt sorry because he knew I was clean and he knew he was cheating because he felt he had to because others were doing the same as he was. I don’t want to name this person. I said to him, ‘Listen, I totally understand’. And I did. That was the culture.
“I knew that me pushing myself to the limit of my ability wasn’t going to be enough to beat these guys. Once you realise you’re at a physical disadvantage you can’t really do the sport anymore. So, road racing was over and the UCI had banned my riding positions on the track, so it was like ‘Jings, crivvens, help ma Boab, what do I do now? I know, I’ll go away and be depressed for ten years’,” added Obree, whose suicide attempts and battle with depression were charted in the film Flying Scotsman.
The Scotland on Sunday article briefly recounted some details of Obree’s experience with Le Groupement. Obree had spoken more expansively on that experience, and his wider thoughts on doping, in an exclusive interview with road.cc in June last year.
In that interview, after revealing how, after his exploits on the track had resulted in “parachuting me right into the middle of the professional world,” his plain talking and anti-doping stance meant that his professional road career was over pretty much as soon as it started.
“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’ [amateur] and turned away in disgust,” he explained.
“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.
“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 “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.”
Obree went on to say that he believed cycling needed “a change in attitude,” particularly within the peloton itself as well as those responsible for the riders to bring about a situation where dopers in effect became outcasts.
“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.”
Obree went on to pose the question of whether a “truth commission” might be the way forward – an idea of course that has been aired by many in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal – as well as hitting the economic side of doping, whether that be in terms of the profits suppliers are able to make, or the prize money won through cheating.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Those comments were made of course more than a year before the Lance Armstrong scandal that has consumed the sport, and Obree believes in order to move forward, McQuaid and Verbruggen – who remains the UCI’s honorary president – must go, even putting a case for the creation of a new governing body altogether.
“The problem we have is that it’s not a democratic organisation, it’s autocratic, it’s almost an old boy’s network,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “A chum-ocracy.
“The Rabobank situation is interesting. They’ve been in the sport for 17 years but they’re pulling out. They think professional road cycling doesn’t have the wherewithal to guarantee there won’t be any more scandals. They don’t trust the people at the top. I’m surprised professional teams aren’t going on strike, but then cycling is like an overgrown village where everybody knows everybody else and people aspire to get up the ranks and you [do that] by hanging out with the guys who are at the top. If you start trouble you’re not getting up the ranks with the UCI.
“I’ve had to do a whole load of self-analysis on my life and I came out the other end as a more developed person. What goes around comes around. If you believe in karma then their karma has come around because where can they go in cycling and get respect? It all comes down to respect. I’ve got my honour out of it and respect from other riders. I got over the resentment and anger and thought: ‘OK, karma will deal with these people’. And it is dealing with them. Where’s Verbruggen going to get respect now that people can see the truth? Where’s McQuaid going to get it?”
In recent weeks, a number of national governing bodies have expressed their disquiet with the way the UCI has conducted itself throughout the Armstrong affair, and Obree put forward the view that they, sponsors and riders could provide the impetus for a fresh start for cycling with the UCI constitution redrafted under new leadership.
“Is it possible? I don’t know,” he said. “But cycling can never go back to the way it was. This is the moment it has to change.”
The man whose rivalry with Chris Boardman and Francesco Moser for the Hour record in the 1990s became the stuff of legend is currently working on his latest bike, Beastie, which he hopes will take him to a new human powered vehicle record, with it now looking as if his attempt will be made in Nevada next year.
“My biggest fear is not crashing this bike at 85mph and losing my skin – it’s sitting in a chair at 90 and thinking ‘I wish I’d done more’,” he told Scotland on Sunday.
In his latest video interview with the website Humans Invent which has been following the land speed record attempt, Obree has been talking about his enthusiasm for another very different form of transport – the airship.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.