WORLD class track cycling comes to Glasgow for the first time today, with an exhibition event, evocatively named ‘Thunderdrome’, featuring at least two global superstars, both home-grown.
The headline act is Sir Chris Hoy, who will compete for the first time since the London Olympics and in the velodrome named after him. The other star is the man credited by Hoy as a hero and inspiration, Graeme Obree.
The incomparable Obree had been due to take to the new pine boards of the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome on the bike that is almost as famous as he is: Old Faithful. It was on this homemade machine that he set the world hour record in 1993, and rode to the world pursuit title in the same year, but his request to the National Museum of Scotland, where the original is on display, was refused.
Fortunately the Museum of Transport and Travel in Glasgow proved more sympathetic, loaning him a replica that featured in the film of his life, The Flying Scotsman. And so Obree will treat the crowd of 2,500 to a demonstration of riding that will be quite unlike anything else in a programme that incorporates the Scottish championships and includes a team sprint between Scotland, England, Europe and a trio representing the Braveheart Cycling Fund, captained by Hoy. Such is Obree’s status as a cult hero, though, that he is almost as big a draw as Britain’s greatest ever Olympian. He said yesterday, as he looked forward to his appearance, that he also intends to give his latest machine, which he has been building for an attempt at the world land speed record, a first public outing.
Naturally, this contraption is even more radical than Old Faithful, though it has one thing in common: it has been hand-built by Obree at home, which is now in Saltcoats, this time not with parts from an old washing machine, but with old pots and pans from his kitchen. The position is extreme: he will lie stomach-down and head-first as he attempts to be the first man to reach 100mph.
A planned attempt in Nevada had to be cancelled last month, partly because the bike wasn’t ready, partly because of visa problems, but Obree is waiting for “a weather window” to open for a rehearsal “in a secret location” in an airfield in Scotland, possibly as early as next week. The plan is to go to the USA next September for a full tilt at the record.
“I’ve ridden it along the coast,” said Obree, “between Saltcoats and Largs, as well as on a static trainer. I’ve got it up to 40mph, but it doesn’t have the outer skin it will have. The Glasgow School of Art designed a skin, which we’ll then melt plastic over, so I’ll be like a man in a bubble.”
The new bike – which he has called “Beastie,” a name coined by Hoy in a text message to Obree – feels secure, he said. “But you can never know what it’s going to be like at 80mph.”
Obree’s latest project is yet another demonstration of his originality, and a reminder that he is almost as gifted an innovator and engineer as he is a cyclist. Now 47, he is approaching this record attempt without the all-or-nothing approach he adopted in the mid-1990s, which might have forced him to squeeze everything from his body, but also came at a cost to his mental health.
He was always an outsider, whose single-handed re-invention of the riding position – so that it resembled a downhill skier’s tuck – so angered cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, that its then-president, Hein Verbruggen, seemed to be on a personal mission to stop him.
On one infamous occasion, at the 1994 world championships, Verbruggen even stepped on to the track to try and prevent Obree racing. In his autobiography, Obree recalls the incident: “At this point I had had a gutful of ‘fascist dictatorship’ as I saw it, and I aimed right at Mr Verbruggen, who jumped aside in time to avoid a collision, and at that moment I would not have swerved a millimetre to avoid a 35mph man-to-man impact.”
When, two years later, Obree claimed that drug-taking was rampant in European professional racing, Verbruggen dismissed his and others’ comments as the “outspoken statements of frustrated people”.
“What goes around comes around,” says Obree now of the fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal, which has laid bare the kind of organised, systematic doping programme that Obree alleged was in place at the French team that sacked him in 1995 when he refused to sign up. The Armstrong scandal has implicated Verbruggen, now honorary president of the UCI, and the world governing body, who ignored the warnings of those such as Obree, and now stand accused of, among other things, conspiring with Armstrong to cover up suspicious test results.
“It’s good that the truth is coming out now,” says Obree. “But it doesn’t get me my contract back; it doesn’t get me my opportunity back.”