Life from an outsider's perspective…

Graeme Obree, “The Flying Scotsman”.

Graeme Obree, “The Flying Scotsman”. Cycling to triumph through my darkest hours.

On 17th July 1993, the scottish cyclist Graeme Obree stunned the international cycling world when he emerged form obscurity to smash Francesco Moser’s World Hour Record, which had stood for nearly a decade. His new record, 51.596km in one hour, achieved at the Hamar velodrome in Norway, was celebrated as a triumph for the ordinary rider, for the outsider over the establishment. He had eclipsed Moser’s record by 445m. Even more impressive was that he did it at sea level (which cost him a kilometer per hour in speed).

Graeme Obree’s  first attempt at the one hour record was unsuccessful, missing Moser’s record by nearly 1 km.  Normally, weeks of recovery are needed after such a demanding effort, but Graeme Obree wanted to try again immediately following the failed attempt! Although that idea was not permitted, Obree was determined to try again the very next day. Most journalists had left and Obree had to beg the officials to let him have another go. This time he was successful.

Obree’s achievements were seen as remarkable since his riding had been largely at amateur events, and he did not have major sponsorship and development support. Instead, he developed a unique riding position (the “crouch”, or “tuck” position) and constructed a unique bike frame to use.

Obree created his bicycle “Old Faithful” with the aim of reducing wind resistance and instability, while increasing pedalling power. He reduced air resistance from the legs by designing a very narrow bottom bracket and dispensing with a top tube to prevent his knees from hitting the frame. The bike also had chainstays at 45 degrees rather than horizontal to allow for the cranks to pass with such a narrow bottom bracket. He placed the handlebars so that his shoulders were almost touching them, with his arms folded by his side as he cycled: this reduced air resistance on his head and torso. The seat was placed so that his legs exerted maximum force on the pedals. Later a single-bladed front fork was added, designed by Mike Burrows to be as narrow as possible. The main bearing was taken from a washing machine, a fact that Obree later regretted revealing to journalists as they thenceforward always referred to this before any other of his innovations and achievements, reducing the likelihood of team sponsorship deals. Although he made his first (failed) hour record attempt on a similar carbon fibre frame, Obree used “Old Faithful” to break the hour record.

“To take the record I’m going to have to grit my teeth and then grit them some more and spit blood to make the difference. And, after doing all that, I’ll either just break the record or just miss it. I might only add 10 meters to it, because I think the record is now at the edge of human ability.” – Graeme Obree (Cycling Weekly)

On the way to breaking the World hour record, he created major controversy in the professional cycling world over his unique riding style and his pioneering construction techniques. He famously had to use washing machine parts to complete the building of his ‘Old Faithful’ machine. Graeme’s story starts with his tough upbringing in the Ayrshire valleys, where he found his escape by taking to the roads. From there he tells an inspiring story of what it takes to become a world record breaker, of his thrilling head-to-head duels with Chris Boardman and how he became a major international star on the European circuit. The story ends with Graeme’s searingly honest account of his battle against manic depression which drove him to attempt suicide.

A comprehensive List of One Hour Records set

Chris Boardman, like Obree, was a race-against-the-clock specialist from the British Isles. That was where the similarities ended and the enmity began. Boardman was an Olympic champion, a respected member of the Continental road-racing elite who looked and acted the part. He was everything Obree was not. Independently of Obree’s off-the-radar preparations, Boardman was also training for an assault on the Hour Record. On July 23, 1993 (using a “conventional” aero position), he pushed the Hour Record to 52.270 kilometers, outdistancing Obree by 674m.

Obree took this affront personally; his record had been surpassed in less than a week. His first measure of revenge was to win the pursuit event (a four-kilometer chase) at the World Track Championships that fall, easily putting away Boardman in the semi-final. However, snatching back the 1 hour record took nine months of preparations. In April, 1994 Obree went to Bordeaux-the same track Boardman used to set his record- and raised the bar another quarter mile, finishing at 52.713 kilometers.

The harassment began at the 1994 World Track championships, and once again, Graeme was victim to an unfortunate experience. Obree was the defending champion and had modified his bike to bring him into line with the new rules. However on the evening of the Championships the UCI bought in a new law effectively banning his unique tuck position. The rule was so new that it hadn’t even been written down. When Obree came to defend his pursuit title, the officials said his bicycle was illegal on account of the seat. Obree borrowed a legal one and was allowed to start. Despite the fact that Obree had no chance to get used to a new setup, after his qualifying run, the judges decided that it was his position on the bike that was illegal, and sent him home.

But Obree was persistent. The new rules prohibited riding with one’s arms up against the chest. Why not then stick the arms straight forward, like a superhero in flight?

Like Obree’s tuck, the “Superman” position did not make for good bike handling. If anything, it was even more uncomfortable, and it looked worse than it felt. Superman bikes had long handlebar extensions on the front, as spindly and gawky as Obree himself. But Superman lived up to the other Obree tradition; it was fast. In fact, it was even faster than the tuck position. Obree proved it himself, wresting back his World Pursuit title in 1995.

The Superman position also had one quality that the tuck never did, a feature that no doubt alarmed the rule-makers at the UCI: It was becoming popular. Superman wasn’t just an upstart Scot thumbing his nose at the blue-blazered commissaires. The Italians and even the French were using Superman. In 1996, timed events on the velodrome were dominated by riders with extended handlebars. Before long even Chris Boardman was putting the Superman position to effective use.

Boardman was a proud man, but not a blind one. He got on the Superman bandwagon and scheduled a WHR attempt in Manchester, England. The big question was could he hold so uncomfortable a position for an hour? It put great stress on the shoulders and what Monty Python used to call “the naughty bits.” Twice during his ride Boardman had to break his rhythm to relieve the pressure, but he succeeded. With one minute to go, he had already eclipsed Rominger’s record, and when the final buzzer sounded, he had covered 56.375 kilometers.

At this point, Obree’s greatest rival had taken the Hour using his idea, a fact that vexed the introverted and eccentric Scot. He began preparing to reclaim his crown and his brainchild. He had every reason to feel confident. After all, he had beaten Boardman at the World Pursuit Championships in 1993 and ’95, and likely would have done so in ’94 if the UCI hadn’t banned his bike at the event.

But Obree never got the opportunity to prove whose Superman was superior. Shortly after Boardman’s record ride, the UCI banned the Superman position. It was a simple matter of forbidding any bicycle whose handlebars extended too far in front. Even more galling, they forbade future use of the position, assuring that Boardman’s record would stand.

In September 2000, the UCI retired the WHR and Boardman’s ride was dubbed the “Best Hour Performance.” A new set of rules was established for the WHR: One had to use a bike virtually identical to Merckx’s 1972 bike, right down to the frame construction and the number of spokes in the wheels. To inaugurate the new rules, they invited a cyclist to go after Merckx’s old record. The rider was Boardman, who made it his final ride before retiring “on top.” Boardman eclipsed Merckx by just ten meters and more than 25 years of history were wiped from the books.

Obree briefly signed a contract with a French based professional team. However unfortunately this didn’t work out. Obree said he never felt comfortable in the set up and was also unwilling to pay the “supplementary medicine” costs (this was in the Pre Festina) days. It was after this time that Obree began to increasingly suffer from depression.

By abandoning the cycling establishment Obree broke the rules of who is permitted to be a champion. Not only was Obree unwilling to pay his dues he didn’t look or act like a world class cyclist; he didn’t have what bike fans call panache. “He got publicity for being so different and he wouldn’t conform,” said Boardman last month in an interview with the Edinburgh Evening News.

“He’s always been a great bike rider, better than he knew, in fact. I just hope he recovers now.” – Chris Boardman

Although Obree earned the respect of many who initially laughed at him, these weren’t the people making the decisions about who would compete or how. The UCI didn’t think Obree deserved to be a champion, and they saw to it that he didn’t remain one. They also prevented his type from sullying the record books again.

In conclusion, he was ostracised by the UCI for being a Maverick and was also a strong opponent of doping in the sport of cycling. He’s one of my childhood heros… to this very day. I’m definitely not a fan of autobiographies, but surely one day I’ll get around to reading about this man’s life. Source

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