Graeme Obree is trying to tell you how he feels now that his exploits in the Nevada desert are over, now that his obsessional bid to become the fastest self-propelled man on earth with the help of a bike he called Beastie made from tat in his kitchen is months in the past.
He’s asking questions in an attempt to provide answers.
“You know when you’re on a 50-mile cycle and you get caught in a blizzard and you’re miles from anywhere and you’re getting frost-bite on your fingers?”
Not really, Graeme. No.
“You’re up in the hills in the darkness and you’re cold and miserable and you’re thinking you’re going to die, but you get through it. Somehow, you find your way home. You know?”
“And then about two months later you’re sitting with your pal and you say ‘What about that bike ride, eh? How mental was that!’ And you start to joke about it and the memory of how God-awful it was fades and you start to feel really proud that you got through it. That’s where I’m at with Nevada. The passage of time and all that.”
So when you think about Nevada and the mental and physical pressure you put yourself under, the claustrophobia you felt when you thought you might let people down, it down doesn’t eat you up anymore?
“No, it did, but it doesn’t. Listen, I went to Nevada thinking I could break the ultimate self-propelled record, but I knew very quickly when I got there that what I thought was aerodynamic wasn’t aerodynamic at all. There were proper aerodynamisists over there. I was 1970s and they were 2013. I was like a guy turning up at a fancy dress party in his street clothes. But there was another record I could go for. The prone record. Stood for 30 years. And I broke that record. Last day, last run. Jesus, the pressure. You’re in a sealed unit in the bike and you’re trying not to have a panic attack. You’re gasping for your next breath. Pressure as well because I’ve not been the most reliable person for the last ten years. Well, I’ve been in mental institutions, haven’t I? I was determined at all costs to nail it. There are people who crumple under the pressure but my best rides are done under that pressure. It’s not good for me, because it’s so much psychological stress, but I got through it and now I can smile about it.”
And Beastie? She’s in his living room at home in Kilmarnock. He says he should put a flat top on her and sell her on eBay as the world’s fastest coffee table. The thought of it makes him laugh and makes him think. Bloody hell, maybe there’s an opportunity there. The world’s fastest coffee table? Somebody might be mad enough to pay proper money for something like that.
We’re here at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, the new mecca for sporting Scotland in the east end of Glasgow, but we’re not really talking about sport at all. We’re talking about Obree’s new life, a life after competitive bike riding, a life that will never again see him holed up in his kitchen creating a machine and dreaming of an expedition.
Since he announced his retirement from competition in the wake of Nevada, so many tributes went his way. He was hailed for his creativity, his talent, his steel, his bravery. He was not only a world champion but a champion who raced clean in a time when he knew that some rivals were doping. He had a professional road racing contract and he left it behind once his team told him he had to play the game and take performance-enhancing drugs. “Isnae gonna happen,” he told them – and left.
So the plaudits came and they were deserved. “Graeme is a genius in the true sense of the word,” said Hoy. “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?!”
And Obree could actually enjoy the praise, which he couldn’t before when he was at the height of his fame and when fortune seemed just around the corner.
“I tell you this, see if you told me those nice things about myself in 1993 I couldn’t have handled it. That was against the image I had of myself as a worthless human being and that was what propagated my meltdown [with depression]. No, not a meltdown. My journey of becoming somebody who feels self-worth. I was using success and obsessional behaviour to try and feel better about myself. When you reach the top of the ladder and there isn’t a rung left, that’s dangerous. Once I became world champion I thought ‘Oh God, I’m at the top, what do I do now?’
“I disappeared within myself at a very young age because I was famous. I never wanted fame. Fame is awful. I still hate it, but you cannae send it back. You can’t say ‘Pretend you don’t know me’. No, it doesn’t work like that. My psychologist said to me that when I first presented myself to her that I had a psychological and emotional age of an 11 or 12 year old. You can imagine the journey I’ve been on. When I was world champion I couldn’t go to a party without alcohol and then I’d hide behind my glass and try to avoid having a panic attack for all the people staring at me. A husk of a human being.”
What does he do next? He writes a book about depression. A survivor’s manual. He takes the lessons of an ongoing 12-year struggle and he scribbles it all down and publishes it himself. He’s up and running already. He has his chapter headings and his roadmap and it’s not going to be full of wishy-washy stuff like “give aromatherapy a try and all that shite. It’s going to be honest and hard-hitting. I have a degree in this stuff. Well, I don’t, but I do. I didn’t study it in university but I’ve been bloody living it for a dozen years.”
That’s when he starts talking about the interesting people you meet in mental institutions. And he’s not talking about the therapists. Friends can go beyond the point that therapists can, he says. Friends sit in the smoking room and talk in a way they might not if they were among others who didn’t know what they were going through.
He learned a lot in those smoking rooms, just by listening. Black humour. “The way that suicide is talked about. I mean, the amount of things I could tell you. There was one guy who was telling us that he decided once that he was going to hang himself. He’d had enough. He couldn’t go on. He was living in a caravan and wanted to hang himself from the skylight but there was something wrong with the fitting and he couldn’t do it. Then he said he’d do it outside and he looked out the window and it was pishing with rain and he said, ‘Aw, fuck, I’m not going out in that. I’ll leave it till tomorrow. It might be sunny’.
“That’s the kind of conversation you have and you have a laugh about it. I mean, dark but surreal and funny. Proper conversations among people who have been there. You don’t know how much you know until you start writing it down.”
He has an analogy that he’ll be using. Imagine you are in a hotel and there are loads of rooms and a huge fire breaks out in one room but the sprinklers go off in every room. That’s the mind of somebody suffering from depression. One bit of fear or anger or resentment or bad memory and the sprinklers come on in the whole mind, but the sprinklers, like the anti-depressants, only put the fire out for so long until there’s another. They don’t find the cause of the fire. “You need to find out what’s causing it and bring it out. I’m not going to bullshit anybody, it’s a long and hard journey. And it gets worse before it gets better.”
His own depression comes and goes, he says. He has good days and bad days. The really debilitating stuff could happen on a weekly basis so that’s why there is no deadline for the book. He doesn’t need the stress. He had enough of it in Nevada sealed into Beastie and going like the clappers in the desert. He’s hoping for a publication date of next spring.
Spring is only around the corner, though. Spring is no time at all. In book-writing terms, a spring deadline might be considered hellish even for an experienced writer. “Och no, that’s loads of time. I wrote my training manual (The Obree Way) in three weeks. Did it long-hand in A4 paper. It’s in you, isn’t it? This one will be harder, for sure. The hardest thing in the world to do is self-analysis. I had to go there. If somebody is experiencing depression I say, ‘You’re going to have to go on a journey here’. And this book is to help people through a journey.
“Whatever your starting point is, you need a survival plan, a way of getting through your day. Part of this book is for other people who might have a depressed friend and don’t know what to say, what to do. Depressed people have to realise that others struggle to know how to deal with them. And there’s a chapter on how this impacts on your friends. You think you’re isolated and not part of the world and ‘Nobody likes me and I’m so alone in the world and what I’m going to do now is pull the duvet over my head and turn my phone off’. That’s the worst possible thing to do. There is an alien who wants to feed on that person. The alien is saying ‘Go on, turn that phone off’. Feeding on you. ‘Get to your bed and shut down’. Depression doesn’t want you to deal with it.
“If you turn your phone off, friends think that Graeme wants space, don’t phone him, but what you need is your friend to come round your place and tell you to get out from under that duvet. You need some space but once you’ve had it for two days then that’s enough. Time for friends to say ‘Right, come on’. Walk. Cycle. Whatever.”
Bad days and good days. Just recently he went on a bike ride round the roads near Kilmarnock. Nice tarmac, great countryside, barely a car to be seen and the only thoughts in his head being book thoughts about chapter headings and anecdotes and how he might make his tome accessible to the suicidally depressed who don’t want to read or can’t read a manual. How does he reach those people? Bullet points, maybe. Key facts on every page. These are the things he thinks about when he goes for a cycle.
Then the rain came. “It pished down.” From an amble to a sprint, he was out of there like the Flying Scotsman of old. He hasn’t lost it. Never will.