Graeme Obree interview: “My relationship to cycling is like Pluto’s relationship to Earth”

The Flying Scotsman on his latest - and eleventh - world record

Graeme Obree has a new record attempt in mind: “The longevity record.”

Obree, a complex character to put it mildly, is in a happy place. And why not? At 50, he is finally reaping the respect his achievements deserve.

Affection might be a better description of his rewards. At a small, independent cinema in Poole, Obree holds the audience enraptured after a screening of Battle Mountain.

The film documents his attempt at the human powered vehicle record, held on a baking, arrow-straight highway passing the Nevada town from which the film takes its name.

Obree missed the ultimate target, but by clocking a top speed of 56.62mph, left the Nevada desert with a new world record for cycling in the prone position.

His achievement in doing so cannot be overstated, enclosed in an extraordinary, homemade machine, dubbed The Beastie by Sir Chris Hoy: asphyxiating and terrifyingly unstable.

“Have you seen the price of coffins these days?” Obree continues, riffing on his theme of a longevity record, and proposing the Beastie’s fibreglass shell as a casket.

“The lid will be the headstone, and in this space it’s going to say, ‘world hour record holder, poet, first man on Mars…,’ whatever it is.”

On the outside

Obree’s latest world record is his eleventh. He has already held the hour record, of course: twice, in fact, setting a mark of 51.596km in 1993, and 52.713km in 1994.

His homemade machines, and battles with the UCI over the radical riding positions demanded by each, added a fascinating subtext to an extraordinary period for one of cycling’s blue riband events. And then there was his rivalry with Boardman.

Were Obree’s achievements greater? Boardman was funded, and coached scientifically; his bikes made for him. Obree operated as glorious amateur: inventor and coach, as well as athlete.

But while Boardman – rightly – has become one of British cycle sport’s most celebrated figures, Obree remains on the periphery.

Graeme Obree built The Beastie for his latest record attempt

“My relationship to cycling is like Pluto’s relationship to Earth. I don’t get invited to World Championships. I have no place in that world at all, of any kind; not with Scotland or Ayrshire or anything.”

Obree is factual, not bitter. He renounced external gratification the day he chose to face life. He is at peace with himself.

“I’ve been twice world champion,” Obree, who won the individual pursuit title on the track in 1993 and 1995, says. “The human powered vehicle record [for prone cycling] is world record number eleven. I’ve achieved a lot.

“I was content with it at the time, and I should be content. If I seek something tomorrow for contentment, there’s something very wrong with the day.”

Graeme Obree
Graeme Obree

The battleground

Battle Mountain is by turns nostalgic (footage of Obree training on sunlit Scottish byways) and visceral (at home, naked to the waist, pedaling to a standstill on a turbo trainer in his kitchen).

“What I didn’t want to do was to reach down into myself as an athlete,” he says of riding to the brink of asphyxiation at Battle Mountain. “But that’s what I had to do.”

He pauses for a beat. “Hey-ho.”

The film leads us deeper into Obree’s psyche and the scale of his sporting endeavours. He talks of racing for worth and purpose and even “emotional survival”, the last in context of the hour record.

Obree is a man who has known periods of suffering and heartbreak since a boy, when he was bullied for being a policeman’s son, and who found in the bicycle a means of escape.

But despite the death of his brother, suicide attempts, a naïve marriage and the belated discovery of his homosexuality, Obree is now clearly happy.

Obree’s latest record attempt took him to Battle Mountain in Nevada

His parents and children make cameos in Battle Mountain, and he has found contentment by living in the moment and by a code of simplicity.

“The only decision I’ll make is the next one. My only interaction with the world is the next one. The only life I’ll ever live is this one,” he says.

“My biggest moment was when I said I’d done hiding: face life, straight down the line. I can’t worry about pleasing people, as long as I’m at one with my code of living.”

If all this makes an evening with Obree sound unremittingly serious, it is a misrepresentation.

His sense of humour is desert dry; self-deprecation his preferred mode of engagement. His wordplay is rapier sharp, a description that would be grist to his comedic mill.

“Don’t hide the cutlery,” he says, making light of the darkest periods in his life. “I’m fine.”

Obree rode for Great Britain in the 1990s but has long since left the cycling establishment behind

Out of hiding

Cycling neglect of one of its most charismatic champions is scandalous, but strangely inevitable: cycling is an outsider’s sport and Obree is the outsider’s outsider.

His accomplishments warrant some kind of lifetime achievement award, but the accolades of industry, sporting federations or media would fail to do him justice.

Mawkishness abounds in modern Britain and Obree is a no bullshit character, a man who has been on a journey of self-discovery.

The Q&A session in Poole is hosted by Andy Storey of local clothing specialist Prendas Ciclismo. Storey tells the audience that ‘legend’ is a phrase devalued, but entirely apt for Obree.

He is right. Obree is a key figure in the history of the hour record, and those who research his life beyond those 60-minute triumphs in Hamar and Bordeaux find a still richer tale.

“I hid away like Gerry Rafferty for two years in a flat in Saltcoats,” Obree quips. His decision to come out of hiding is one for which we should all be grateful.

Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree’s Story is on tour at UK cinemas until July. Visit the Battle Mountain website for more information.

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