HE CAN laugh about it now. Well, maybe laugh is not the right word. How about smile? Yeah, smile is good.
Smiling is better than how it used to be, better than anger and resentment, better than the bitterness that ate him up and maybe – just maybe – was a factor in his depression and a whole lot of other things that went wrong in his life. Smiling sadly, perhaps, but smiling at the memory of the shortest professional road cycling career in history. Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman and newly acquired rider for the new Le Groupement team. Contract begins on 1 January, 1995. Contracts ends on 1 January, 1995. “The phone call came. You’re off the team. Goodbye. Sacked for unprofessional conduct, they said. Twelve hours I lasted. Didn’t achieve much.”
Unprofessional conduct. That was code for something else. Everything was in code back then. Obree wouldn’t dope so in the twisted morality of road racing he was being unprofessional, letting the side down. He was told that everybody was doping, all he was doing was levelling the playing field, racing on the same terms as everybody else. He said no. Actually he said: “That’s no’ happenin’’’ and though his bosses didn’t always get the vernacular, his message wasn’t lost in translation. Obree wasn’t for doping, so Obree had to go.
Another victim. One of many. A few months back, it was announced that Paul Kimmage, the former Irish professional, was being sued by cycling’s governing body, the UCI, for some of his journalism about the cancer in his sport. Last week, Kimmage decided to counter-sue the UCI’s great untouchables, its president Pat McQuaid and its honorary vice-president, Hein Verbruggen, for “slander/defamation, denigration and strong suspicions of fraud”. He was doing it, he said, not for himself but on behalf of the whistle-blowers, seven named riders, one of whom was Obree, and “every other cyclist who stood up for truth and the sport they loved and were branded ‘cowards’ and ‘scumbags’ by Verbruggen and McQuaid”.
Somebody told Obree about what Kimmage was doing. He was happy. He thought it nice of Kimmage to mention him. And then it all came back to him, not that it has ever gone away. The years as an amateur; on the dual-carriageway at 6am and loving it. The journey into fame on Old Faithful, the machine he broke the world hour record on in 1993. The bravado. “I was Butch Cassidy in terms of swagger,” he once said of his younger self going for that record on a bike he built at home. “I didn’t want any negativity. This was blitzkrieg. I’m going in there. Let me do it. I’m not going to be the timorous guy from Scotland. That’s what the difference was. Purely mental state. The day before, I had been a mouse. Now I was a lion.”
Soon he’d be a professional road racer, for 12 hours. “I was like a fireball. I break the hour record and next thing the phone is ringing and there’s television crews at the door and I’ve arrived. First time I go to meet the Groupement team, I’m in Belgium and a fellow rider is saying ‘Hey, what [drugs] did you use for the hour record?’ And I’m like, ‘Nothing’. And he’s looking me up and down. The guy had no respect for me. It was an Italian guy. ‘What did you use’, he says again. ‘Nothing’. And he goes ‘Amatore’. Amateur. I’ll never forget that. He turned on his heels and walked away in disgust. I think these people truly believed that I was being unprofessional by refusing to sign up to the drugs programme. They thought it was proper to take drugs otherwise you weren’t taking the sport seriously. Because I wasn’t taking the drugs, to them, I was an amateur.”
He’s talking now while surrounded by bits and pieces of his new dream, a machine that Sir Chris Hoy has christened “Beastie”, built in the kitchen from “old tat”. Obree says it’s like a “scrapheap challenge” with the aim of going to Nevada sometime next year for an assault on the world human-powered land speed record. The Flying Scotsman is back.
“My biggest fear is not crashing this bike at 85mph and losing my skin – it’s sitting in a chair at 90 and thinking ‘I wish I’d done more’.” His new obsession is part sport, part artistic impression, part not knowing how the hell it’s going to end and being thrilled by the mystery. It’s simple and it’s pure and it’s a world away from what we’re now talking about – the state of road cycling.
Some people were surprised by what has happened with Lance Armstrong and the sport as a whole, but Obree wasn’t. Not one bit. He could see it. Hell, he lived it. After his sacking by Le Groupement, he was frozen out. Nobody wanted to know him. The most frustrating thing was that he couldn’t speak out for fear of being sued by his old team, by other teams, by other riders. He knew doping was pervasive but he felt he had to keep his mouth shut. That’s how he felt for a while, but the attitude changed and the whistle-blower emerged. He did an interview with French sports newspaper L’Equipe in 1996 in which he said that 99 per cent of elite road cyclists were taking drugs. Instead of taking his comments seriously, Verbruggen called him a coward.
“After I did that thing with L’Equipe it was difficult to go to a professional race because of the animosity from other riders. I was almost scared to [use] the changing room in case I’d get beaten up. There was real tension. I remember reading Kimmage’s book [Rough Ride, published in 1990] and there was lots of stuff about the problem of drugs in cycling in that book and I thought ‘It can’t be that bad, surely’. But it was. It was a Pandora’s box. If Verbruggen (then the UCI president) opened it, there would have been nothing left in the sport, so he kept it closed.
“Once, a rider actually apologised to me in advance of a race. For him, it was a moral dilemma. Riding a bike was the only thing this guy knew how to do and taking drugs was a requirement. It was a heartfelt sorry because he knew I was clean and he knew he was cheating because he felt he had to because others were doing the same as he was. I don’t want to name this person. I said to him, ‘Listen, I totally understand’. And I did. That was the culture.
“I knew that me pushing myself to the limit of my ability wasn’t going to be enough to beat these guys. Once you realise you’re at a physical disadvantage you can’t really do the sport anymore. So, road racing was over and the UCI had banned my riding positions on the track, so it was like ‘Jings, crivvens, help ma Boab, what do I do now? I know, I’ll go away and be depressed for ten years’.”
He couldn’t watch bike racing for a long time. There’s a whole period in the sport’s history that is a blank for him, the Armstrong years, in effect. From 1998-2006 he watched no more than ten minutes of the Tour de France. In 2006, he attended a friend’s stag do in Paris on the day the Tour ended. “I was on the Champs-Elysees and when the riders were approaching I had to walk away because I still had this burning anger. Floyd Landis won it, then tested positive. My friends were all gutted and I said, ‘Well, there you go…’”
He doesn’t think about the Tour anymore. Doesn’t think much about road racing, full stop. Occasionally, of late, he’s had cause to, though, and wonders where road cycling is going under McQuaid and Verbruggen. He’s sure they’ve got to resign. Either that or a new governing needs to be formed. Somehow.
“The problem we have is that it’s not a democratic organisation, it’s autocratic, it’s almost an old boy’s network. A chum-ocracy.
“The Rabobank situation is interesting. They’ve been in the sport for 17 years but they’re pulling out. They think professional road cycling doesn’t have the wherewithal to guarantee there won’t be any more scandals. They don’t trust the people at the top. I’m surprised professional teams aren’t going on strike, but then cycling is like an overgrown village where everybody knows everybody else and people aspire to get up the ranks and you [do that] by hanging out with the guys who are at the top. If you start trouble you’re not getting up the ranks with the UCI.
“I’ve had to do a whole load of self-analysis on my life and I came out the other end as a more developed person. What goes around comes around. If you believe in karma then their karma has come around because where can they go in cycling and get respect? It all comes down to respect. I’ve got my honour out of it and respect from other riders. I got over the resentment and anger and thought: ‘OK, karma will deal with these people’. And it is dealing with them. Where’s Verbruggen going to get respect now that people can see the truth? Where’s McQuaid going to get it?”
He talks of the need to break the chain with the past. A new start. Maybe even a new organisation if McQuaid and Verbruggen refuse to go. Talk to the sponsors, talk to big international federations. Democracy in cycling. Riders consulted and a new constitution drawn up. Leaders voted in and voted out. Let’s start it off with a big conference, he says. “Is it possible? I don’t know. But cycling can never go back to the way it was. This is the moment it has to change.”
This is the moment, also, that he has to get back to Beastie, the thing that gets him out of bed in the morning. Some day soon he’ll be a “man in a bubble” whizzing down a deserted airport runway trying Beastie for size on British soil before heading for America and a tilt at another world record with a documentary-maker at his side recording each new chapter in a life story of never-ending fascination.