An evening with Graeme Obree
9th October, Carlisle
It has become the convention to describe Graeme Obree as unconventional. It probably irritates him no end. After an informal evening in his company with 200 other cyclists, I can add that he is charming, funny, and down to earth. He’s just like any other cyclist in your club. Except that he once broke world records, and then tried to take his own life. He’s a rider with a story to tell.
For many people, the name Obree conjures up images of funny handlebars and home-made bikes. Many others will recall his recent suicide attempt. These things obscure the fact that he was genuinely a world-class rider. And Obree’s cycling credentials are incredible. The highlights are World Pursuit championships, and twice breaking the World Hour record. You can add numerous national titles and records to his palmares. To the French press he was “L’Incroyable Mister Obree”; but to the British he was the weird bloke from Scotland that made a strange bike out of bits of old washing machine.
These days we’re accustomed to our cyclists regularly winning medals on the track, and it’s easy to overlook Obree’s achievements. But just remember, when Graeme was beating the world there was no Lottery funding; no World Class Performance Plan; no Velodrome. At the 1995 world track championships in Japan, Graeme Obree was the British team.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that Obree, and his great rival Chris Boardman, were two amateur time triallists from the UK when they rewrote the world record books. Comparisons have been made time and again with Coe and Ovett. Like them, both Obree and Boardman recognise that their rivalry drove them on to ever-higher levels. As Graeme remarked “..without Chris it could have got a bit boring – at the national champs the third placed rider would be two or three minutes behind us”.
But he doesn’t boast about his achievements; in fact he almost seems to regard his talent as unremarkable. But one or two comments on Saturday evening gave the game away, and made us realise just how good a rider he still is. For instance, he admitted that he was “a bit overgeared” when riding on 57×12 (fixed) in a hilly 25 near Carlisle this summer, drawing gasps and chuckles from those of us who raced on that blustery day (I had to use the 42 ring coming back). More chuckles when he said, “54×12 would have been more appropriate.”
Graeme is keen to share his ideas on training and nutrition with other cyclists. In fact he’s writing a book about it which he started last February and has written a couple of pages, so don’t hold your breath. We did get a sneak preview of the stretching exercises he’s likely to recommend though – when he removed his jacket and microphone and started to tie himself in knots on the stage.
His training ideas will rock the boat. Not for him any fancy electronic gubbins on your bike, sports drinks, cross training, or power bars. Water, and jam sandwiches are all you need when riding, and you should just listen to your body rather than a computer. That’s the Obree way. He advocates ‘specificity’ in training, and reckons that interval training makes you good at…..intervals. In his words “I haven’t done a time trial yet where I ride flat out for 2 minutes and rest for the next 3”. Neither have I. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Obree’s ideas about training and racing are more than just unconventional. They’re iconoclastic (look it up in the dictionary). His way is to question everything, and look for ways to improve it. Bikes, handlebars, training – Obree has analysed and modified them all to suit his needs. His advice for turbo training? Get a good magnetic turbo and cut off the resistance control. You don’t need it. When the ‘Obree’ bars were banned by the UCI and he had to use tri-bars, he first copied Chris Boardman’s position (“…after all Chris is an intelligent guy…”), found it didn’t suit him and then took it to an extreme – which gave birth to the famous ‘Superman’ position. He was a one-man revolution in the world of cycling.
And what’s it like to beat the world hour record? Well it hurts. A lot. “It’s like the last two minutes of a ’10’ when you’re pushing really, really hard. Except that it starts feeling like that after 15 minutes and there’s 45 still to go”. His resolution to break the record was incredible, and he was prepared to die trying “….I read somewhere that horses can run themselves to death. So I thought, if a horse can do it, so can I”.
It’s hard to summarise the whole evening of 2½ hours of questions and answers. Except to say that Graeme Obree is a remarkable man, and his book “Flying Scotsman” is a fascinating and humbling read.
As I left Carlisle clutching my signed copy of the book he was still signing them for others, passing on tips, laughing and joking with club riders. The following day he was off on a club ride from Carlisle – on his ancient 34lb mountain bike, so that he’d get a good work out. Did I mention that he’s a bit unconventional?