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ACT ONE.

The world champion individual time trialist obsessed with breaking the velodrome hour record.

 

ACT TWO.

A relentless, bordering on unhealthy, pursuit of the human-powered land speed record.

 

  

Parallel to both festered a self-confessed need to ‘justify my self worth as a human being’.

The backdrop to the Obree story is colourful, peppered with tragedy, misfortune and genuine resilience.

 

The two-time world champion and son of a policeman, has attempted to take his own life, been diagnosed as bi-polar, seen his ambitions of joining the professional cycling world thwarted by his refusal to take performance enhancing drugs, come out as gay in his 40s, and for a period saw his famed bike banned by the UCI.

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ACT ONE.

Graeme Obree never won the Olympics. In fact, in his sole appearance he disappeared after the preliminary rounds at Atlanta in 1996. Instead his track career was defined by incredible feats of the unexpected, a gripping rivalry with fellow British rider Chris Boardman and a lasting label as an eccentric who built his own bikes out of spare washing machine parts.

Boardman is an instrumental character in the transformation of British cycling. His gold at Barcelona in 1992 to coin a slogan overused by certain multisport organisers literally ‘inspired a generation’. He was one of the first embracers of marginal gains, ‘lab coat’ cycling and a more scientific approach to the sport. Obree was no Boardman. Any science was more garden shed in philosophy and execution. For Boardman’s famed Lotus, Obree built his Old Faithful, a homemade bike constructed out of random assembled parts. Total cost a hundred British pounds.

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In 1993, Boardman and Obree were united with the same ambition. Defeating Francesco Moser’s nine-year standing velodrome hour record. It stood at 51.151 kilometres. Cycling stripped back to its purest form. Man against clock. “The thing about an hour record is that the pressure does not come off the pedals for an hour,” explains Boardman. “You don’t get to freewheel, there are no corners, no descents, nowhere to recover if you overcook it.” Obree, to Boardman’s annoyance, got in first.

The Scotsman, riding his Old Faithful – free of a top tube, with straight handlebars placed close to his saddle and under his chest, and a narrow bottom bracket – attempted the record in Norway on 16 July 1993. He failed by a kilometre. The Boardman camp – purveyors of carbon and aerodynamics – breathed a huge sigh of relief. Their own attempt was a still week away. They could continue to concentrate on attacking Moser’s record and not readjust their meticulously calculated mathematics. Only, Obree wasn’t finished. Far from it. The very next day, stung by his internal obsession, he returned to a deserted venue early in the morning. Man against the clock. He broke the record by 445 metres.

“At the time I was being beaten by a guy who was claiming to build bikes out of washing machines, eating marmalade sandwiches and getting up and do the hour record. It was quite irritating to say the least,” - Boardman.

 

A week later Boardman added 674 metres to Obree’s record and the rivalry intensified. Obree would later set a new record and defeat Boardman in becoming world pursuit champion. The two men, so different and distinct in styles and approaches, defined a generation. Obree had broken records as an amateur. His professional career never developed. He puts it down to his refusal to take performance enhancing drugs when given the chance to ride in the Grand Tours. Even in a ‘cleaner’ era, it may have been hard to imagine a genuine individual like Obree in the constraints of a team environment. Depression set in.

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ACT TWO.

Now well into his 40s, his marriage over, track career a distant memory and after a period of self-realisation in which he admits to having dealt with profound emotional immaturity, he embarked on a new bike career. The target – attack the world land speed record for a human powered vehicle.

The film Battle Mountain portrays the pursuit beautifully. It is poignant, funny and endearing. Worth watching alone for the scene in which Obree, after taking an antidepressant, is taken into surgery as he has ‘a stiffy that won’t go away’.

“He’s an engineering genius and a genius on bike too”, - Sir Chris Hoy’s tribute to Obree.

Obree, sawing frying pans in his sparse kitchen, constructing a contraption which resembles something between a time machine and a coffin, cuts a driven, energised figure. Compared to the other contenders vying to break the record, many relying on the latest space age technology, his effort resembles a college physics project. Battle Mountain in Nevada, where the challenge took place, looks baking hot and thirst-inducing. No place to be trapped in a human powered coffin. Obree fell well short of the land speed record, but set a new benchmark for the fastest speed achieved in a prone position. Given everything he sacrificed and gave to be there, you walk away feeling relieved he made it.

 

A maverick yes, eccentric too, unorthodox definitely. But this is no nutty professor.

 

Graeme Obree, Black Sheep Cycling salutes you.

 

THE OLYMPIC TRACK CYCLING CAMPAIGN, DEVOID OF HOMEMADE BIKES, BEGINS ON 11 AUGUST.