The Flying Scotsman: An Interview With Graeme Obree

<strong>Obree displays the Superman position during a qualifying heat of the individual pursuit at the 1995 world championship in Bogota, Colombia.</strong><br><br>Photo: Pascal Pavani/AFP/ Getty Images

Scotland's Graeme Obree, the subject of the film The Flying Scotsman, is best known for breaking the world hour record in 1993 as an amateur cyclist on a homemade bicycle he named "Old Faithful." Failing in his first attempt, Obree eclipsed Francesco Moser's nine-year old record by riding 51.596 kilometers during a second try less than 24 hours after the first. Britain's Chris Boardman broke Obree's record six days later. In April 1994, Obree took back the mark from Boardman.

Obree won gold at the world championships in the 4,000-meter pursuit in 1993 and again in 1995. As a time-trialist, he broke the British 10-mile individual record and won the British Road Time Trials Council 50-mile championship in 1993. In 1996, he won the U.K. 25-mile championship, as well.

Obree is also know for his battles with the UCI, cycling's governing body that sought to outlaw both the innovative technology of his bike and the unique riding positions he pioneered. On Old Faithful, a bike missing a top tube and having a very narrow bottom backet, Obree crouched low above short handlebars, tucking his hands under his chest, increasing his aerodynamics and pedaling power. Later, utilizing aero bars similar to triathletes, he raced with arms outstretched in what would be dubbed the "Superman" position.

Active: Early in the film we see you winning a local race, so we know you're fast. How much of an amateur rider were you? Were you entering any bigger races?

Graeme Obree: British cycling on the amateur level; the vast majority of races are actually time-trials--like your 10-, 25- and 50-mile time trials. Now I was actually shown at my best at an early stage. I was Scottish Junior Champion. At the time, when all the baby boomers were about, it was like you could get two fields of junior races in those days. And I was actually winning open races sometimes as a junior. That's on drop-handlebars and a pre-war Cinelli.

So the move to the track was kind of a logical shift...

Oh, that was much later. I just rode time trials up and down straight roads, basically.

Your commitment to breaking the one-hour record seemed pretty strong. Was it always about this one mark, or were there other records or goals you wanted to achieve?

The thing is, if you haven't made a mark into professional road racing by the age of 20, or some sort of inroads into some sort of reasonable level of amateur racing, then you're not going to get a break in there. So I was kind of at that stage where I'd done well at time trials and I'd kind of gone head-to-head quite a few times with Chris Boardman. He'd gone off and won the Olympics and I'd got myself kind of a dodgy sponsor, not really doing a good job. I thought to myself, "That's it. That's the bottom line. I'm going to break Moser's one-hour record."

The one-hour record always stood out as the ultimate time trial. Now you got to remember: I come from a time trial background. And that whole image of Moser and the new modern age with the disc wheels, an aero helmet and skin suit--it was still just one man and the track. It totally appealed to me as the absolute time trial. That was always the absolute goal: the hour record. I was captivated by that, while I wasn't captivated by the Tour de France or road racing.

So the idea of just racing day after day after day wasn't that appealing?

Yeah, and also it's not just that. I always just liked the sprint in road racing. But I'd always get down the road with some wheel-sucker or people are going against you...You'd end up not winning races because people are going it against you and there's tactics and I thought, "you ride the time trial and you're going to beat them." So it was easier for me to win time trials consistently day after day unless I got a puncture. I go into a time trial and know that I'm going to win it unless something goes wrong.

[In road racing] some would just wait for me to make a breakaway with five miles to go or so and they're all just lining up to get on my wheel! I kind of lost my way with road racing. It was easier to go to a time trial and just lay it out and know you're going to win it and then come home. The time the hour record came around, I'd missed the bus of getting into any professional thing at all. The way I was going to make money as a professional in the world of cycling was if I could astound the world by breaking Moser's hour record.

And it was astounding. Even my friends thought, "Ah geez, Graeme's lost it now." But as far as I was concerned, I had broken that record. I just had to physically do it. It wasn't like I'm just going to crack out and try. The word "try" implies failure. I was like, "As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to break that record. It's mine."

Is that the mindset you had going into your second attempt at the hour-record after you missed it the first time?

Absolutely. In the first attempt I was waylaid by negativity and "Oh no, this is the big one." Even the starter--the guy that holds you up on the line--he was the final nail in the coffin. He was like, [Graeme lowers his voice and slows his speech] "Now, just take a big breath. Just think, this is a big event. Moser's hour-record. This is the big one. Just think about that. Take a deep breath and, just...good luck." So I'm like, [Graeme speaks softly with a hint of nervousness] "Oh, all right. Got to go fast. This is the world record."

The next day I came out and I was strident. I had to be. I was like, "Right, let me at it."

In the film it looks like you take two warmup laps and then...

Actually, in real life it was three. I rode out there and I wasn't going to catch anybody's eye. Nobody was going to say a word to me. I was Butch Cassidy. I was on that track for about eight minutes before I started. I grabbed the bike, gloves, helmet and didn't catch anyone's eye. Just strode out like Butch Cassidy.

Got on the track, three laps, then pulled up to Mr. Holder-upper, the start guy, and I saw his chest raising with inhalation and preparation to say probably the exact same line again. And I said, "Are you ready?" and I looked at him and the timekeepers and he nodded. The keepers just nodded and I didn't even wait for the countdown, I just went, boot to the metal! I wasn't taking a hint of negativity. Once I started and it was up on the schedule, there was no going back. It was my destiny.

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After you broke the record, what was it like riding between the gun (signifying the record was broken) and the closing bell?

That was where my whole body was aching but knowing what happened at that stage...as soon as that shot went off life's never going to be the same again. I could drop down dead of a heart attack or something but I'm still a record man. It doesn't matter if you've held the record for six days, the fact was you were a record man and there weren't that many alive on the planet.

The fact that you tried to break the record twice within 24 hours is, in itself, a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

Actually, it was more within 18 hours. People ask me, "How's that physically possible?" If I'd done it two days later, it wouldn't have been possible. You ever have that thing when you go to the gym and the next day you feel not so bad, but the day after that--the second day--you're like, "Oh man, I'm really stiff and sore." Well, I was in the zone and I still felt OK.

I knew that if I slept for hours I would wake up with no way that I could break the record the next day. It was exactly like in the movie, drinking the water like that and stretching. I wanted to quietly wake up, do my stretching, have more corn flakes and more water and also flush my system out. Try and recover and not stiffen up.

Pro cyclists today are rigorous when it comes to counting calories and watching what they take in. Were you big into nutrition? Or did you mainly just go by how your body felt?

Well, I realized that you don't eat stuff like chocolate or big piles of sugar like people do now. I think people's nutrition has actually gone backwards. Put it this way, if I was to invite you over for dinner, right? I've got a pile of salt and a pile of sugar on your plate and I mixed it with orange juice, you would say, "I thought I was over here for dinner?" But that's what athletes have...in place of real food! It's all made up of salt and sugar with stuff in it, with some flavoring.

I don't think I've drank an energy drink this century. I think I had one in the mid-'90s and thought, "Yup, I'm not drinking that. No way." If you're going to do that, you're better off having a sandwich. I get slagged off having a marmalade sandwich. Scientifically, a marmalade sandwich involves carbohydrates plus some protein and some fiber. It's probably better than having an energy drink, which is just salt and sugar.

I'm a believer that it's a whole lot of hype. When there's money involved, there's hype.

In the movie, you're presented as a very human champion as opposed to, say, an almost superhuman rider like Lance Armstrong.

Well, I think it's because of the fact that I insisted on doing things my way. Doug Dailey, the national coach, would never say I was wrong; "I might be inappropriate" would be his words. He would try and persuade me to maybe have a go at something different. He would let me do my thing because he knew then that I would come up with the result.

It was the days before there was money. It was the days when I went off to World Cups on my own because they couldn't afford to send a mechanic. I was physically on the plane on my own with a bike bag to represent Great Britain.

It was the days when people could go on a gut feeling. The national coach, he would take an approach to me that he wouldn't take with the other riders. It's like, "With Graeme, he knows what he's doing, it might seem like some strange ways, but he'll come up with the result." Generally what would happen is that I'd actually bomb out or I would do good.

In 1995, when I won that world championship in Colombia like you saw in the film, my first ride in the Superman position, I got lapped on a 400-meter track. Everybody's like, "Ohhhh, dear." Doug was the national coach and he came up to me and I said, "That's so embarrassing, but there's time to get it right." And Doug's like, "Right, do you want to win? Do you want to ride the World Cup in Athens?" And I'm like, "Yes, absolutely. I'll win it." He stuck his neck out. He selected me over the other rider who just lapped me. I'm using the newfangled Superman position that they'd never seen before.

And I went to Athens and I won it. For the fact that Doug had faith in me I said, "OK, I've got one month to get this back on track." But nowadays that wouldn't happen, you see. There's not a leaning now to allow maverick-type people to become good.

Do you think coaches today put too much faith in science and results than in their riders?

It's not so much faith in science. There's less gut feeling. Coaches are bound by rules and regulations of finances and governing bodies, sports councils and performance programs. They all need facts and figures; what actual time did that rider do on that specific ride. On that form that I was on, I wouldn't have got even the B team!

In a way, those days of no money and coaches going on gut feeling suited me, but it might not suit me now. Most riders at the amateur level, they kind of do their own thing. They're not bound by these criteria that you have to ride the right races.


"The Flying Scotsman" is currently out on DVD from MGM Studios.

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