Graeme Obree targets the world speed record on a bicycle powered by eccentricity
Flying Scotsman heads to Nevada with a home-made bike and refreshing philosophy
Monday 09 September 2013
The notion is gloriously, wonderfully mad. Build a bike on the kitchen table, using recycled saucepans and roller skates. Encase it in Kevlar, christen it The Beastie, and set out to break the world human-powered speed record on Battle Mountain, the self-proclaimed “armpit of America”.
If Graeme Obree didn’t exist, as an antidote to the crass commercialism, slavish orthodoxy and manufactured moral outrage which taints much of modern sport, those with a romantic disposition would have to invent him.
The Scottish cyclist, a former world champion who held the world one-hour record two decades ago, is an explosion of colour in a monochromatic world, an athlete who uses Jonathan Swift to rail against his sport’s “confederacy of dunces” and quotes Albert Einstein to justify his “curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance”.
A life defined by defiant eccentricity, sporadic achievement and darkest depression reaches another milestone this week on Highway 309, an eerily smooth piece of tarmac, 4,500 ft above sea level in the Nevada desert. Obree will be timed over 200 metres, after a four-mile run-up.
His initial target is to break the British record of 63mph, which is held by former Olympic champion Jason Queally. His aim, shared by 21 other entrants in the annual World Speed Challenge, is the current world record of 82.8mph, set by Canadian rider Sam Whittingham on a computer-modelled machine.
The Beastie is neither wee, nor timorous. It looks like a sarcophagus, and has only a single gear. It was designed on the dining room floor of his home in Saltcoats, on the Ayrshire coast, constructed and developed in the kitchen over 15 months.
Obree has devised a unique racing style, which involves lying face-down, with his stomach only inches from the ground. His legs, elevated and extended, are used as pistons, pushing and pulling levers instead of the usual rotational pedalling motion. He views the road through a tiny visor at the front, and breathes through a snorkel, attached to the external frame.
His soundbites are suitably surreal. Obree told the website Humans Invent: “The first thing I asked myself when designing it was ‘what would an alien do?’ I’m serious. If I was Prime Minister I would make it the law that everyone had to play with Meccano for at least one hour of the day; are you listening Mr Cameron?
“Building this bike and then riding it is for me the purest form of artistic expression. It is like singing and writing your own songs, no hold on… it is like choreographing your own dance moves to your own music. If something is possible it impassions me.
“I am slightly dispassionate about mainstream bikes now. Not in a bad way. I watched the Tour de France and all the events and it is great entertainment with fantastic racing. But I am slightly disappointed with the bike angle of it. Basically everyone is riding about on glorified safety bicycles. It is the same bike that was put in a museum in 1892. Plus it is all regulated. You cannot go below a certain weight, or width, and that doesn’t inspire me to take cycling any further. Where is the innovation?”
Now 47, Obree has retained the pioneering spirit and passion which distinguished his emergence as the so-called Flying Scotsman in the early Nineties. Chris Hoy describes him as “a genius” but his titles and records punctuated a running battle with cycling’s authorities, who resented his consistent challenge of conventional wisdom.
He broke the world one-hour record in 1993 on Old Faithful, forerunner of The Beastie. The home-made bike infamously included the bearings from a discarded washing machine, and the UCI, cycling’s global governing body, chose to ban his tucked riding style.
Undeterred, Obree won another world title using a self-styled “Superman” stance.
It was sporting success, in the spirit of Steptoe & Son, but the novelty value tended to overshadow Obree’s adherence to scientific principle. He studied the biology of breathing, and had the moral courage to resist cycling’s drug culture. His faith in aerodynamic purity is reflected by a determination to model his current riding style on that of a sky diver.
Obree’s obsessive nature hints at the darker side of his character. He fought depression and bipolar disorder and attempted suicide several times. He came out as gay in 2011, and is sufficiently at peace to speak candidly about his mental health issues.
Though his approach and personality may be unsuited to the minutely measured performance culture which has produced the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, he is still revered within the sport as a rebel with an important cause.
Here, in his own words, is the reason: “I have been banned before for trying to bring innovation into sport, so the land-speed record was calling out to me: ‘Graeme, knock yourself out. Go and innovate.’ It is simple. Build the best bike you can, and then fire up that road as fast as a human being can possibly go. That is the sport. Pure innovation, engineering and athleticism.
“What is going to define how fast I can go is simply the laws of nature. The harsh blood and guts reality of life is the constraint, and won’t change over time. In one hundred years, the laws of cycling will have changed, with new rules and regulations. It is the control which doesn’t inspire me.
“The whole test is therefore arbitrary, where with what I am doing with the land-speed record, it is pure. It is not even about battling the other competitors. It is about battling the laws of physics. End of.
“The process is important to me. I am using old stuff. This is like Scrapheap Challenge. I refuse to own a car because we are turning the planet into a landfill site. So part of this is going green. The other part is about going on an adventure, to have a laugh and do the best that you can.
“In a lot of ways my message would be more powerful if I didn’t get this record. Part of the remit is to go and enthuse people to have a go. Don’t sit about, because you are going to die.
“People ask me what my biggest fear is, and it isn’t crashing this bike at 85 mph and losing skin – it is being 90 and thinking I should have done more. That is the bottom line.
“There is a theoretical mountain waiting for me to fly up. For me, I want to excite people and give it my best – but ultimately doing it my way.”
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