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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 June 2007, 06:21 GMT 07:21 UK
Flying Scotsman
By Tom Fordyce

Professional cyclists tend to be strange people - loners, masochists, obsessives. It's the nature of the sport - the pain of the training, the hours spent out on the roads alone, the agony of racing.

Graeme Obree and Jonny Lee Miller
Obree and Jonny Lee Miller on the set of The Flying Scotsman

But even by those standards, Graeme Obree is a man apart.

Obree was the amateur time-trialler from rural Scotland who shocked the sporting world by smashing the legendary one-hour record - twice.

He did it on a bike he'd made himself, with parts taken from his washing-machine, riding in a bizarre tuck position that no-one had ever attempted before.

He was also a manic-depressive who tried to kill himself on at least three different occasions, a maverick who saw his radical bikes and riding positions banned by cycling authorities and an outsider ostracised by pro cycling for his refusal to take drugs.

Now, after a 10-year period during which, by the man's own admission, "no-one was interested in anything I was doing," Obree's tumultuous life is the subject of a new film, The Flying Scotsman, with Jonny Lee Miller playing the lead role.

Obree had already tried to commit suicide - inhaling acetylene gas in his dad's garage - when, in 1993, he decided to break the hour record, the event that was to catapult him into the sporting spotlight.

Cycling had always been a form of escape - a way of fleeing the "black mist" - for Obree, who suffered from terrible bullying as a youngster because of his father's job as a policeman.

Broke world hour record 1993
Broke same record again, 1994
Individual pursuit world champion, 1993 and 1995
Broke British 10-mile time-trial record, 1993
RTCC 50-mile champion, 1993
RTCC 25-mile champion, 1996

"The whole thing was that I wanted to get over the horizon," he says. "As soon as I got on a bike, I thought - wow - I've broken out of my tiny zone."

Obree threw himself into the sport with the frenzied passion that would define his life.

Francesco Moser's record had stood unbeaten for nine years before he took it on, riding a home-made bike called Old Faithful, his handlebars positioned under his chest and his torso horizontal to the ground.

"From the very start I said to myself, right - I've got two arms and two legs, Moser's got two arms and two legs, and I can try harder than he did, and I will try harder than he did and train harder than he did. And therefore I'm going to break the record.

"People would talk about me 'attempting' the world record, and I would say, hold on - I'm going to break the world record. The words 'attempt' or 'try' were negative, and I would not countenance those words.

"In my mind it was mine. I just had to go and collect it. People were saying, 'Ah Jeez, Graeme's lost it - he's on some huge ego trip or he's had a bad mushroom on his pizza or something.'"

But break it Obree did, pushing himself so hard at the Hamar Velodrome in Norway that he lost all feeling in his scalp, feet and hands.

Jonny Lee Miller as Graeme Obree
Miller trained intensively for the part of Obree

"It was like pulling teeth with pliers," he says.

"But what you've got to realise is that pain is negative. There never was any pain - only supreme effort. You can add a few expletives if you want, but it was effort. And that's positive."

Obree's feat - and the way he went on to extend the record after his rival Chris Boardman broke it a week later - should have been the catalyst for a lucrative pro career.

He was feted in the European media as the latest in a long line of brilliant Scottish eccentrics, a phenomenon of the track who eschewed coaches, heart-rate monitors and scientific supplements in favour of marmalade sandwiches and brutal long rides in the hills around his Ayrshire home.

Instead, Obree found his riding position and bike banned by the UCI, cycling's governing body, and his offers of contracts with pro teams withdrawn when he refused to take banned substances. When his brother died in a car crash in 1994, he slipped into a deep depression that would almost end his life.

"I thought that if I broke the record, everything in my life would suddenly be perfect overnight," he says.


"But the pros were so glib. It wasn't like, how was your flight, or what did you have for breakfast - it was what did you use for the hour record?

"I was like, what? And they would say, who was your doctor? I'd say, oh, a GP in Irvine. And they'd say, no no - who's your doctor? Who's your trainer?

"I'd say, I don't have a trainer. They'd say, what did you use? I'd say - nothing. And I could see their impression of me going down and down. They're thinking - 'amateur'.

"That opened my eyes. You'd heard all the stories about drugs, but you'd dismissed them. And here it was, almost openly being done.

"I must have had five or six different invitations to get involved in the process of doping - from teams, doctors, people who knew somebody.

Graeme Obree
Obree in action with his Superman position

"We all knew who was doing what, years before they were getting caught. And we all know people who didn't get caught.

"It was like two worlds - we knew what was going on, but we weren't meant to tell anyone outside our world. But I didn't want to be part of it. I didn't want to be involved."

Obree's life began to disintegrate. On a trip to Geneva for a race, he made another suicide attempt, swallowing 112 aspirin and washing them down with beer and water from a puddle.

After several aborted comebacks, shunned by sponsors and the big teams and struggling to deal with severe depression, he was found hanging from the rafters of a barn.

It was just before Christmas, the period in which he would find it hardest to cope with the death of his brother.

My career was cut short because of other people's drug-taking

Graeme Obree

Today, Obree is able to talk about the moment with characteristic black humour.

He describes watching its depiction in the film as "cringey - like seeing yourself in flares in the 1980s".

What he can't cope with is watching pro cycling. The Tour de France might be coming to Britain next month, but Obree will be having nothing to do with it.

"I saw it last year by accident - I was on a stag-do in Paris," he says.

"Just as the race was about to arrive, I realised that I couldn't stand to watch the guys. It sounds terrible to say it.

"But my career was cut short because of other people's drug-taking. To put it more bluntly, my career was cut short because I wouldn't take them.

"I wasn't accepted; I was considered a risk to have in a team. I was considered a loose cannon, so that was it - wallop. Persona non grata. And I couldn't even say why at the time, because I would have been sued.

"I know that there's still a big pile of it going on, and it's so hypocritical that I can't stand to watch these guys come past. Their ilk in that sport have robbed me of my career.

"During the Festina scandal in 1998, it was like, this is the scandal to end all scandals, it's all going to be cleaned up - but it hasn't been cleaned up."

Jonny Lee Miller as Graeme Obree
Miller spent long hours with Obree, mimicking his movements

Obree is still living in Irvine with wife Anne and sons Ewan and Jamie.

He is writing a book about how ordinary people can keep fit, and plans to go to college to do a course in sports coaching.

Sometimes, when he talks about just riding his bike for fun in the lanes around Ayrshire, he sounds settled, content.

At other times, the anxiety bubbles to the surface. With a horrible irony, he is haunted by the fear that people will assume that he too must have taken drugs, simply because he was a champion in an era of widespread doping.

"I might be tarred with the same brush as the others, and I've got no way of defending myself," he says.

"So I thought - right - I'm going to get that hour record again, no matter what."

The actual hour record again? At the age of 41, from virtual retirement?

"I know I could do it again. I could certainly get very close.

"I'll have my blood sucked out (for dope tests), I want bone marrow taken out, I want hair follicles tested - I even started growing a pony-tail in the last six months, so that would be hair they could test.

"I won five or six races this year, and two were against the current British champion.

"But it all got so heavy. With the film and everything it was so busy that I was exhausted. One morning I woke up after a day in the hills and I felt terrible, worse that you would after any hangover.

"Something just had to give. I was having to go to bed really early, zombied, but it was the kids' holidays, and I thought - why am I doing this to them?"

Obree - who speaks in rapid bursts, sometime stammering, sometimes running away with enthusiasm - is impossible not to like.

When he talks with such uneasy restlessness, you want to put your arm round him and tell him not to worry, to assure him that no-one will doubt his integrity.

"I just want the back-up if and when people accuse me," he says.

"I'll get the bike ready, I'll keep myself in reasonable shape, and if it comes to it I will prove my innocence."

Moser, the Italian legend whose record changed Obree's life all those years ago, provided a neat summation of the man in the foreword to his autobiography.

He wrote: "Mr Obree is unique; an artist of the pedal. A strange animal, a very rare thoroughbred - and for this reason very delicate, just like a crystal.

"I like him, as does everyone else who loves cycling."

  • The Flying Scotsman is out in cinemas from 29 June. Graeme Obree's autobiography of the same name is available from Berlinn.

    Obree abandons record bid
    07 Apr 04 |  Cycling
    Call for probe into cycling film
    14 Aug 06 |  Edinburgh and East
    Cycling champion in suicide attempt
    09 Jan 02 |  Other Sports
    Obree fears career is over
    16 Aug 01 |  Scotland


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