IN SIX weeks’ time, in the harsh heat of the Nevada desert, 40 teams of boffins and elite cyclists will gather to try and break the four-year-old world human-powered land-speed record of 82.8mph.
Thirty-nine of the teams will consist of heavily-funded groups up to ten-strong and featuring space-age carbon-fibre designs developed by aeronautical engineers and aerodynamically tested in wind tunnels.
And then there will be one stick-thin 47-year-old Scot, whose support team will consist of his two sons, his manager and a documentary filmmaker. He will be borrowing “pusher-offers” from the other teams and will be riding The Beastie, a tiny, low-slung steel-framed machine which cost less than £1,000 to make and which was produced in the kitchen of his Saltcoats flat from recycled materials, including the metal from an old saucepan. Ladies and gentlemen, Graeme Obree is back.
In truth, the godfather of track cycling has never really been away. Outside of the sport he is remembered primarily for breaking the mile world record on Old Faithful, a bike made from recycled parts, including the inside of a washing machine, and for battling the authorities over his revolutionary “tuck” and “superman” riding positions. Sadly, the issues in Obree’s personal life – his depression, suicide attempts, alcoholism and decision to come out as gay – often kept the Ayrshireman in the headlines for the wrong reasons, although Obree redressed the balance with a wonderfully candid autobiography which led to The Flying Scotsman, a 2006 biopic.
If there is a wider folk memory of Obree, inside cycling he remains a cult hero, the man credited with almost single-handedly spawning modern track cycling. His brave stand on doping – he was fired after one day by his French team for refusing to dope, bringing an end to his career before it had started – has totally vindicated him and further increased his saintliness. But the crux of his appeal is that no other figure in the sport is so revered for his originality of thought, with his commentary and analysis on BBC radio ensuring that aficionados are sustained by intermittent fixes of his unique approach to life.
His contemporaries and subsequent generations of riders are particularly glowing in their praise, partly because they, more than any armchair fan ever can, appreciate how difficult it is to envision and then effect change in a sport that has always been peculiarly hidebound by convention.
Scottish Olympic and paralympic medallist Craig MacLean says that “Graeme thinks about everything in a very unconventional way. There are some ideas about training he gave me [in the early nineties] which I still use today”, while Sir Chris Hoy is even more glowing. “Graeme is a genius in the true sense of the word,” says the Olympian. “His uncanny ability to tackle problems from an angle that no one else could have thought of makes him a one-off. An original. He sees the world in a different way to us mere mortals and comes up with ideas and solutions which make you laugh, shake your head and say ‘why didn’t I think of that?’.”
The unveiling of The Beastie at Prestwick airport, where it wobbled down the runaway at 30 miles an hour on its first public outing, is part of a flurry of activity from Obree. He has also recently published the paperback version of his remarkably readable book The Obree Way: A Training Manual for Cyclists which has been in gestation since 1993 and which outlines his training methods and philosophy. Using techniques such as his three-phase breathing technique, he says it is possible for elite and club cyclists to increase performance and speed by up to 10 per cent.
The training manual is classic Obree, as is his attempt on the world land-speed record. Both highlight the spirit of innovation and radicalism that once propelled him to fame atop Old Faithful, and none more so than the genesis of The Beastie. Where the current record holder and virtually all of his competitors in Nevada ride feet-first recumbent bikes, Obree’s latest creation sees him lying face-forward with his feet attached to narrow pistons rather than conventional pedals. He came to the Nevada challenge because he was involved in Jason Queally’s well-funded attempt at the same record, when the Englishman rode a bike constructed by a Formula One team, but which Obree believes he can make work far more effectively. So, where does the constant ability to challenge accepted norms come from?
“Mainly it comes from a willingness to apply my thought process, by not accepting the status quo,” he says. “Most of us can be innovative, except we’re subjugated by our original knowledge. You have to go back to first principles and go ‘so what’s actually the best way of achieving my goal?’, and also you have to find out what are the logical limitations of possibility.”
So Obree wanted to be as low to the ground as possible, and for his leg extension to be as long as possible. He also looked at what works best aerodynamically in the natural world, such as when birds of prey go into a dive, and concluded that having the widest point – in this case the shoulders – at the front and as severe a taper as possible at the rear was the design that fitted with “first principles”.
Developing cutting-edge machines such as The Beastie in public can be problematic – when one of his innovations led to his bike falling apart on Eurosport, it was “embarrassing as hell” – but then Obree is happy that this is just part of his lot. So, too, is self-manufacture because “if someone else was doing it then it could take days to get small changes made and they might come back wrong, whereas I can change things in a few minutes at home and know that what I’ve ended up with is what I wanted”.
Obree readily concedes that his design could be five kilos lighter, that the chain system could be more effective and that the body could be 10cms narrower if he had high-tech support, but he seems happy with a trade-off that has allowed him to produce exactly the revolutionary pioneer design he wanted. “I don’t think there’s a bike out there with as small a frontal area as I’ve achieved,” he says. “It looks dead weird. It is actually quite freaky when you see that this thing has got a human squeezed inside it.”
Perhaps most interesting of all is Obree’s attitude to the outcome of the whole project, which feeds into why he is attempting such a feat as he nears his 50th birthday. Where once he was driven by a maniacal fear of failure, and used record attempts as a way of subjugating all of the other issues in his life, his approach is now entirely different: he remains obsessed with how things work, but now he’s just giving it a lash and seeing how the dice fall.
“I’m doing this because it’s kind of the Everest effect, the fact that it’s there – the fact that you’ve thought of it means you’re almost obliged to have a go,” he says. “This is my one last soirée. If you don’t do it you end up when you’re 60 and go ‘actually I should have gone for that when I was 47’.
“But this time I’ve got absolutely nothing to prove and that’s the beauty of it. There’s not that same fear thing as there was in the past; if that was the case then I shouldn’t be doing it. Everybody knows my past in terms of depression and the whole thing of absolutely having to succeed to feel good about myself as a human being, but there’s none of that this time, even if that loss of desperation may cost me an edge in terms of pure absolute ‘must get this’. But I’m out there for all the right reasons; this is basically me going out there and giving it my best punt.”
Obree has already planned out the next chapter of his life, which entails finishing a novel that he’s been writing. “I don’t want to say much about it, you will like it though,” he laughs. “It’s pretty insightful – it’s not like violence or crime, it’s more about a person’s journey.”
And what about his journey, his career as the most maverick of cyclists? Is Nevada the end of a chapter or have we reached the conclusion of his book? “This is definitely the end of my story,” he laughs. “I’m going to give it a punt and then The Beastie will make an interesting coffee table.”