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Graeme Obree: 'Do it because you love it.'

Joseph Delves
18 Mar 2016

The film 'Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree's Story' is in cinemas nationwide now. We spoke to the man himself about his remarkable story.

Imagine the fastest cyclist in the world, the world champion, the holder of the Hour record. Where do they come from, how did they become what they are, what did they have to sacrifice, what do they look like? The person you’re imagining is not Graeme Obree.  

Born in 1965 in Warwickshire, to Scottish parents, Obree moved north of the border as a child and has always considered himself Scottish. The son of a police officer, it wasn’t easy growing up in a small town, and his early life was marked by bullying, debilitating depression and social anxiety. From a young age, riding bikes with his brother offered an escape from his troubles, and after entering his first 10-mile race he soon established himself as a successful amateur time-triallist. Throughout the early 90s, he rivalled the English champion Chris Boardman. However, unlike the better-funded Boardman, he struggled to make ends meet through racing alone and in 1992, when the bicycle shop he owned went bust, he found himself in debt, on the dole and needing to support a young child. 

With the employment office trying to push him into a career in computing or secretarial work, he decided to throw everything at claiming one of the greatest feats in cycling: the Hour record, held by the Italian Francesco Moser since 1984. With the support of his wife Anne, he came up with a plan. He would design a bike and attempt the record within eight months, just before his rival Boardman was due to take a shot. The gangly steel bike he built from odds and ends, including high-speed bearings from a washing machine, was revolutionary. Its radical ‘tucked’ position greatly reduced drag, allowing Obree to slip through the air at incredible speed. 

Although confident in the bike and his abilities, unknown to the outside world, Obree continued to suffer from severe depression. As such his motivation to claim the Hour came from a far darker place than the usual sources of athletic inspiration. ‘It progressed from a position of discontentment,’ Obree reveals. ‘I needed more and more fulfilment from the outside. Having performed at a British level, I wanted to go further. I wanted to be at the highest level possible and you have to convince yourself that you will make yourself that good. I wasn’t content not to. Beating Moser’s record seemed the only way I could find a degree of contentment, or so I thought at the time. That record meant so much to me, my entire sense of self-worth became tied up with it.’

Becoming a world-beater

With no indoor tracks in the UK, the attempt would take place at the Vikingskipet velodrome in Norway on 16th July 1993. With the keen eyes of the press watching, Obree started strongly but as the laps rolled round it became clear he was struggling. He was unable to bridge the gap, and when the 60 minutes were up, he was nearly a kilometre short. 

‘As I walked off that track, the weight of the failure I felt was staggering,’ says Obree. ‘It was such a superhuman effort and I’d fallen a few hundred metres short. I couldn’t get that back. As I walked towards the cameras, people were congratulating me and trying to hand me flowers. But I didn’t want them. I felt this leaden mass of failure, worse than any pain you can imagine. Basically, emotionally to survive as a human being… I just thought no, I’ve got to go again.’ 

With the timekeepers from the UCI booked on flights home the next day, it was agreed that Obree could go a second time provided he began by 9am. The effort required to attempt the hour is immense. Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the greatest cyclist in history, said he couldn’t walk for four days after he tried. Obree would have less than 24 hours to recover before his next shot. 

‘That walk from the track, feeling that way, that’s the point I became a proper world-beating athlete,’ Obree says. ‘I felt as if I was accessing this life-saving energy, because I had to break this record. To fail felt life-threatening. Emotionally, attempting the Hour and falling just short was like trying to jump the Grand Canyon and coming up a metre short. That last metre really matters, and that’s how much that half-lap mattered to me. I was either going to beat the record or die. I wasn’t going to give up. I’d pedal at the necessary rate come hell or high water. What changed at the deepest level was the will in me.’ 

Waking throughout the night to stretch his depleted muscles, Obree arrived at the velodrome five minutes before the scheduled start time. He barely made eye contact with anyone. He set off at 9am exactly. One hour and 51.596 kilometres later, he’d broken Moser’s nine-year-old record. 

‘I felt as if I broke the Hour by running into a burning building a lap at a time,’ he reveals. Celebrations broke out in the velodrome. However, while initially relieved, Obree experienced little catharsis from his achievement. Instead, in its place was the feeling that he’d survived a near catastrophe.

‘I was so emotionally drained when I finished, I just felt, thank goodness that’s done. I had my back against the wall. I was like a kitten that had fought off a pack of foxes. I could only think, I’ve survived. It very quickly became a case of, well, that kept me going for so long but what now?’

Within a week Boardman would take the title from Obree on a carbon-fibre bike designed by sports car manufacturer Lotus that had cost several hundreds of thousands of pounds to develop.   

The Flying Scotsman

While short-lived, Obree’s brief custody of the record left him solvent, and with serious offers of sponsorship for the first time. The next few years would be a whirlwind of achievement. In September 1993, he saw off Boardman in the individual pursuit to win gold at the World Track Championship, setting a new world record in the process. The following year, he regained his Hour title before once again winning at the World Championships in 1995. However, despite these achievements, success didn’t bring him unqualified happiness. The stress of public scrutiny and run-ins with the UCI over his innovative bicycle designs led to bouts of drinking and depression, even while he was riding at a world-beating level. The death of his brother in a car crash in 1994 only exacerbated his depression. 

His short lived pro career with French outfit Le Groupement started badly when the Gallic riders gave him the cold shoulder, and came to an end when he made it clear that he wouldn’t co-operate with the team’s programme of ‘medical backup’. Despite retaining prodigious form over the following years, a lack of support and ongoing mental health problems, including suicide attempts and spells in institutions, led to Obree disappearing from the world stage.  

Thirteen years of therapy followed, resulting in an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In 2003, Obree released his unflinching autobiography Flying Scotsman, which later became the basis for a film starring Jonny Lee Miller. Despite a lower profile throughout this period, cycling remained a constant in Obree’s life. While the film was well received, it didn’t make enough at the box office to significantly alter his financial situation and he struggled with the attention it brought. Coming out as gay after years of denial then led to a period of self-enforced seclusion. When he went public in 2011, the news made the front page of The Scottish Sun. 

Living reclusively in a council flat in Saltcoats on Scotland’s wild western coast, it was towards the end of this process of intense introspection that he finally allowed himself to reflect positively upon his own achievements for the first time.

‘It wasn’t until 2008 that I came to appreciate what I’d done,’ Obree tells BikesEtc. ‘I was watching Nicole Cooke at the Olympics, and I know her and know she’d never dope. When she won, I felt so happy. I had tears in my eyes. Years ago, people would come up and congratulate me on having broken the Hour record but I never got that feeling. But at that moment I thought, is that how people felt about me? That was the start of me appreciating that yes, I did an amazing thing.’

Around this time Obree also began a new stage in his career, working as a public speaker, giving motivational talks to young adults. 

‘I’d been speaking in schools, and the kids were really enthused by this mad story about a man who built a bike out of bits of washing machine,’ laughs Obree. ‘But these kids weren’t even born in 1993 when I broke the record. I wanted to have something current. I wanted to show them that there’s still space for individuality.’

Well aware of his tendency towards obsessive and destructive behaviour, Obree nevertheless believed himself to be in a good enough place to attempt a fresh challenge. The human-powered vehicle (HPV) land-speed record is a niche pursuit by any standard – men and women building Heath Robinson-style contraptions in order to propel themselves forward as fast as possible under their own steam. But for Obree’s keen, problem-solving mind, the challenge was a perfect match. 

‘It’s one of the rawest forms of human endeavour,’ says Obree. ‘There are no limiting factors. It’s a pure test of ability. There are no stuffed blazers from the UCI involved, no one telling you what you can and can’t do. I thought, here’s the thing for me.’

In typical Obree fashion, the attempt would be undertaken with a minimum of funding. 

‘I wanted it to be a real one-man endeavour, to show that you can still do something on your own. You don’t need to wait for a corporation to come along, or to ask, “Please can I be part of this?” You don’t need to be a tiny cog in a huge machine.’

Using a prone position, with the rider’s head foremost for the smallest frontal area, Obree aimed to break 100mph. The machine he created, nicknamed The Beastie by his friend Sir Chris Hoy, was shipped out to Battle Mountain in Nevada, USA, along with a film crew to document the attempt. Obree turned himself inside out while training, and needed emergency vascular surgery. While this seeming return to compulsive behaviour worried his friends, Obree was more pragmatic. 

‘Not getting the human-powered vehicle record wasn’t going to be so bad because it wasn’t a case of my whole self-worth being tied up in getting it, as it had been for the Hour,’ he explains.

Living without fear

Although The Beastie did establish a new record for prone vehicles, problems with the narrow machine’s handling meant it fell well short of 100mph. In contrast to his younger self, Obree was philosophical about having to revise his expectations downwards.

‘If you fall short, which I did, as long as you’ve had a proper, doing-your-best, honest go, it’s alright. There’s no need to be impeded by fear of failure.’

Graeme Obree 7

Obree is adamant that his days chasing records are behind him. Instead he’s working on a book about his experiences with depression called Enough. While no longer hungering after the validation he found in pushing himself to physical extremes, cycling remains central to his life. Most days he’s still to be found out riding in the hills around his home. 

‘Cycling is escapism. Now I can just go out and ride a bike. I still like to go hard, I still like to feel my lungs burning, but that’s just because of how I feel right now, not because of some potential future achievement. There’s no element of “futurism”. When I’m cycling now, I’m in the present. I’m not doing it to perform later on but because it’s where I want to be right now. I’m not going after any more records. Now if I’m seeking external gratification, it means there’s something wrong with the here and now.’

Having spent his life pushing himself beyond the limits of human endurance, motivated by forces he has at time struggled to comprehend, Obree finally seems to have found a degree of contentment. His achievements are incredible enough viewed in isolation, even without knowledge of the adversity he faced in accomplishing them. When asked what motivates him to continue pushing onwards, he replies that there are only three reasons to do anything: ‘Because you need to, because you want to, or because you feel you ought to. Never do something just because you ought to. Whether it’s going out on the bike, entering a race or attending a funeral, do it because you want to. Do it because you love it!’

Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree’s Story is in cinemas now. More info at gobattlemountain.com

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