How the Flying Scotsman changed cycling despite the old guard

July 17 is the 20th anniversary of Scottish cyclist and national treasure Graeme Obree’s epoch-making capture of the world Hour Record at the Hamar velodrome, Norway. To celebrate the occasion, Obree will be talking about the record ride at a special event in Glasgow.

Up Close and Personal with Graeme Obree will be hosted by broadcaster, musician and cyclist Dougie Vipond who will help Obree unlock the memories of that ground-breaking ride.

Obree famously used a the bike he made himself costing less than £100, complete with parts salvaged from an old washing machine. Old Faithful and washing machines were to become synonymous with Obree.

A maverick with his own ideas about training and technology, Obree didn’t fit in the cycling world of the time, though that makes him a fascinating speaker. His ‘preying mantis’ riding position was outlawed by the UCI, as was the ‘Superman’ position he came up with next. He eventually walked away from professional cycling when his team, Le Groupement, sacked him for refusing to take part in the team’s drug program

More recently, Obree has turned his attention to the human-powered vehicle speed record, which currently stands at 82.819mph, set by Sam Whittingham at Battle Mountain, Nevada, USA in 2009.

Obree recently tested his idiosyncratic faired recumbent, the Beastie, at Prestwick Airport and clocked 50 mph, demonstrating to sceptics that the bike could at least be ridden quickly in a straight line. Check out the video at The Guardian.

Beastie is unusual in that Obree pilots it in a face-down, head-forward position, very different from the feet-first position of most recumbents.

Obree now plans to take the Beastie to Nevada in September for the annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge. He is not making big predictions; that’s never been his style. “All I can do is go and give it a good punt,” he said.

Obree & the Hour

Twenty years later it’s hard to remember just how astonishing Obree’s taking the record really was. For decades, the Hour Record had been the preserve of cycling’s greats. In the two decades before Obree, only two men, Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser, had held the record.

Over the following three-and-a-bit years, the record would fall six times, first to Chris Boardman, then back to Obree before the old guard reasserted itself and Miguel Indurain ad Ton Rominger had successful cracks at the record. Finally, in 1996, Boardman set a mark of 56.375km that has never been surpassed.

Meanwhile, the UCI was watching with ill-disguised horror as the record bikes became increasingly removed from the classic drop-handlebar track bike used by Merckx in 1972. They conveniently forgot that Moser had used then-illegal disk wheels in 1984, and banned first Obree’s ‘preying mantis’ position, then his and Boardman’s ‘Superman’ position, before finally losing patience with the whole affair and mandating that the Hour Record would only be valid if ridden on a bike like Merckx’s.

With 49.441km, Boardman managed to just edge ahead of Merckx’ record in 2000, adding an agonising 10 metres on the Manchester Velodrome, a doubly remarkable ride for being conducted at sea level compared to Merckx’s effort at over 7000 feet in Mexico City.

Five years later little-known Czech pro Ondřej Sosenka set a mark of 49.7km. Three years later Sosenka tested positive for methamphetamine and between the technological tedium of the UCI’s rules and the perception that a record held by a convicted doper was tainted, everyone more or less lost interest.

Well, with one honourable exception. The high point in the recent history of the Hour Record is Michael Hutchinson’s The Hour: Sporting Immortality the Hard Way, a superb, funny account of his own unsuccessful pursuit of the record.

Tickets to Up Close and Personal with Graeme Obree are £20 through Obree’s website. The event will also be streamed live on line.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.