Cycling: Obree's freewheeling world: Simon O'Hagan tracks down a rare talent who is putting fitness into perspective

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The Independent Online
GRAEME OBREE is writing a book. It is strewn across the table in his Leicester hotel room, page after page of A4 covered with handwriting in blue ball- point. 'It's about fitness,' he explains. Haven't we had quite a lot of those? 'This one's different. This one is about how you don't need to do anything like the amount of training you thought you did.'

Coming from one of the world's best cyclists, this is fairly startling. If sporting success is about anything, it is surely about putting in the hours, worshipping at the feet of the great god Practice. Obree, though, is a non-conformist in almost everything he does. And, like others before him, up against people who are trying to bring him into line.

Obree's training philosophy comes down to this: you don't train for hours on end, building up the miles. You have your event - in Obree's case the 4,000 metres pursuit - and you train for it by doing it, so that when the real thing happens, you know what it will be like.

This is how Obree won his world pursuit title last year, with the old trick of visualisation. 'I built myself up psychologically,' he remembers. 'That's the edge once you've reached a certain level. Once I'd done half a lap I knew the level I had to pedal at. I was programmed to do that. Everything went as my mind had seen it, over and over again.'

Simple, eh? Well, not quite. 'It was only afterwards I realised I'd done myself some physical damage. I'd taken myself past my limits. I was actually hyperventilating for the last two and a half minutes. I was coughing all night. Eventually I went to the doctor. He told me, 'You've got to stop for 10 days or you'll end up scarring your lungs.' ' So there's a catch to this, after all.

Obree is the lesser-known half of the cycling success story of the 1990s. Until two years ago, the book of British cycling heroes was as slim as a saddle. It started with Reg Harris and ended with Tommy Simpson. Then Chris Boardman jumped on his Lotus bike and won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics before, in 1993, Obree got in on the act, setting the world hour record and winning the world pursuit title.

His achievements put him on collision course with Boardman, who within five days of Obree's hour record had set a new one himself. Now it is back with Obree, and the rivalry is growing. The two of them will be in opposition again in the world championship in Sicily in a fortnight.

In one sense, Boardman has already moved ahead of Obree, by graduating from track to road-racing and wearing the yellow jersey in this year's Tour de France. If you really want to get noticed, that is the way to do it. As a result, Obree has remained a somewhat mysterious figure.

Obree is 28 and from Ayrshire. The son of a policeman who had no interest in the sport, he did not join a cycling club until he was 15. At school, he says, his worst subjects were metalwork and PE. Yet he went on to become a world champion, on a bike he had built himself out of washing-machine parts. No wonder the man is hard to pin down.

Obree had his big breakthrough last year. The hour record does not mean much in Britain, but on the Continent it has an almost magical resonance. To hold it is to be a legend in the eyes of European cycling fans, and that's what Obree became when the clock stopped after 52.270km of relentless riding round a track in Hamar in Norway, 1km 119m further than Francesco Moser managed when setting the old record in 1984.

But it was not just the speed Obree rode at that got him noticed - it was his unique position on the bike, with his arms tucked up into his chest, his hands gripping specially adapted handlebars. Unfortunately for Obree, the UCI, the sport's world governing body, did not like what they saw.

They did nothing about it at the time, but in May this year announced that the Obree position was banned, on the grounds that the bike was becoming more important than the rider and that while technical and stylistic progress was inevitable, this was one turn of the wheel too many. Then they suspended the ruling; then reinstated it.

'They've been chopping and changing,' Obree says. 'If they'd announced this in December, then I could have done something about it. But it could mean I'll be going slower.' Doug Dailey, the British Cycling Federation's national coach, believes there is something 'very wrong' about the UCI allowing Graeme to ride in a certain way and then telling him he can't do so any longer. 'He's taken the sport on only a tiny bit since drop handlebars and woolly jerseys,' Dailey says. 'I'm not happy. It's most unfair.' The UCI are quite happy for Obree's records to stand.

Obree is still hopeful that both bike and posture might get past the authorities when he turns up in Sicily. If they don't, then his chances of retaining his pursuit title will surely be damaged. As it is, he may well have to get past Boardman, as he did on the way to last year's victory.

'I wouldn't describe us as mates,' Obree says. 'We're both going through the same sort of thing, so that means we've got a lot in common. But we're still rivals.' Dailey finds many similarities: 'They're both very pernickety about their bikes, and they both have this in-built timing mechanism which you must have on the track. Pace judgement is the key.'

Unlike Boardman, whose future is in road-racing, Obree is destined to remain a track cyclist. He doesn't have Boardman's range, says Dailey, although he has entered the world championship time-trial as well as the pursuit. In Leicester last week he retained his pursuit title at the National Track Championships, but did little else in a series of events he was using mainly for practice.

But as a one-off, Obree has few peers. 'This guy's done more for cycling than all the UCI marketing men,' Dailey says. You can see it in Obree's sharp, alert, questioning features - in the smile that has an oddness you can't quite explain until he says he lost one of his front teeth when he came off his bike at the age of nine. The remaining teeth have neatly rearranged themselves so there are even gaps between them.

Obree has had one other bad accident, breaking his leg when he was 18. When he was in hospital he discovered that he could exercise his unbroken leg by pumping the bed up and down with it. 'So I kept one leg fit anyway,' he says. Put an obstacle in Graeme Obree's way and it becomes just another challenge.

(Photograph omitted)