Obree is; ready to strike Atlanta gold

Ian Stafford meets a Scot who learned life the hard way and emerged to tackle a cycling world that regarded him as an eccentric loner
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Whoever first said that fact is often stranger than fiction could well have been thinking about sport at the time. After all, how many unlikely stories has sport thrown up over the years?

There have been more famous sports people than Graeme Obree with tales to tell, and more popular sporting occasions where unbelievable events have unfolded than cycling but, by my reckoning, nothing gets even close to this particular cyclist's story.

Now he is poised to add yet another amazing chapter to a story that would test the most imaginative mind. Graeme Obree is the hot favourite to win the 4,000 metres pursuit gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics and, when one considers his circumstances, nobody is more deserving.

Life as a boy at an Ayrshire comprehensive school was tough. His colleagues picked on young Graeme because his father happened to be the local police constable. Ironically, when you consider what was to come, his two worst subjects at school were sport and metalwork.

"I always received a higher tackle on the football pitch," Obree recalls. "But it was even worse in metalwork. In four years I managed to make a trowel and a plate-holder. The rest of the time, I was picked on. Once a boy grabbed me from behind and pulled my coat over my head, while another lifted his knee into my face. It broke my nose, but it also turned me into a fighter. It toughened me up and made me determined never to give up.'' This would prove to be a valuable asset.

At 15, Obree sought an escape route. He found it in cycling. "I used to ride for days on end with a friend of mine, sometimes travelling as far as 100 miles away during the school holidays. I just wanted to get over the hills and far away from everything."

He soon discovered, much to the amazement of a boy with low self-esteem, that he was a talented cyclist. Local and Scottish honours would later follow, but although he promised much, and even broke the British one- hour record in 1989, he was not taken particularly seriously by the cycling profession, who saw him as an eccentric loner.

This view was confirmed when Obree, still a little-known amateur cyclist, suddenly announced in 1993 that he was going to break the world one-hour record, held since 1984 by Italy's Francesco Moser. "In cycling that record is seen as the pinnacle," the father of two boys explains. "When I decided to go for the record it was do or die time, not just in my sport, but in my life."

In September 1992, Obree was on the verge of quitting. His amateur winnings barely covered his bus fares home, let alone feed his family, his bike shop failed and his sponsor had vanished, leaving the cyclist with heavy debts. Yet, spurred on after seeing Chris Boardman, a man he had beaten on many occasions, win the 4,000 metres pursuit gold at the Barcelona Olympics, Obree decided to take one final shot at securing relative fame and fortune.

He had no backers, no money, no equipment and, according to many, no brains. Typically, Obree set out to prove everybody wrong. While the world's top cyclists were using state-of-the-art technology, Obree was raiding a friend's shop to assemble his contraption.

"I fashioned a crank arm from a bit of scrap iron, built the handlebar from some rusted BMX aero-tubing, and made the bottom bracket bearings out of an old washing-machine." Yes, you did read this correctly - a washing machine. "Well, it was just sitting out there in the back yard, so I took it apart and built the bike," he explains.

As if this was not enough, he had already invented a totally unique riding style. It looked uncomfortable and not for the faint-hearted - head pitched over the front wheel, arms tucked under his chest - but it became known as the "Obree position", on the basis that nobody else could see the sense of it.

In July 1993, Obree arrived at a velodrome in Hamar, in Norway. Mike Burrows, the engineer who invented Boardman's Olympic "superbike", had helped to create an improved version of Obree's bike and persuaded the Scot that he should be riding it. The result was failure, by some distance. By rights, this should have been the end of the story. Obree should have quit cycling and returned home to Irvine and an uncertain future.

Instead, he decided to go for the record again the following morning, which is the equivalent of running two long-distance races in successive days. "I told the officials that it wasn't over until it was over," he tells you, before explaining how desperate his position had become. "I really had no choice. I had to break the world record or else we were bust. The bailiffs were coming to take my furniture away."

This time, reverting to the home-made contraption his wife, Anne, calls "Old Faithful", he rode like a man possessed to smash the old record. While Obree celebrated, the rest of the cycling world gritted their teeth. "He annoyed a lot of people," says Boardman, who had hoped to beat Moser's record himself, but had to be content with breaking Obree's distance a week after the Scotsman had set his mark. "Someone with a multi-million pound team doesn't like hearing about people who eat marmalade sandwiches before races and build bikes out of washing machines."

Obree followed his incredible achievement up, six weeks later, by becoming the world 4,000 metres pursuit champion, beating a certain Mr Boardman in the semi-final. A year later, actually during the 1994 World Championships, Obree was informed by cycling's world governing body that his style had been outlawed. "They said it gave me an unfair advantage, but anyone could have adopted the same position,'' Obree argues.

Worse, much worse was to follow. Having taken back the world record of Boardman, he lost it again, this time to Spain's Tour de France champion, Miguel Indurain. Then he was unceremoniously kicked out of a professional French cycling team on his first day because an illness prevented him from joining up with his new colleagues. The cruellest blow also happened late in 1994, when his elder brother, Gordon, was killed in a car crash.

"It was a pretty bad time," Obree admits, understating the case. "But I was determined not to let the cycling world beat me. I wasn't finished yet."

Obree therefore invented a different, and equally exclusive, riding position for himself, with both arms fully extended over the front wheel. This "Superman" position has proved to be just as successful. Last September, Obree took back the world title he had been prevented from defending the year before. "I think I've forced the cycling world to accept me now," is his verdict. "They now know that I'm not going to disappear."

Far from it. As a result of his world success, and subsequent results since, Obree is confident that he will return from Atlanta with the 4,000 metres pursuit gold medal. Timetables dictate that he may well become the first British Olympian to take gold at the Games, assuring him of wide recognition. He later competes in the time trials, an event where he feels he could be in with a shout of a medal against opposition including Boardman, but it is the sprint that made Boardman's name four years ago that promises now to give Obree the same treatment.

"I'm more than prepared to say that I should win the gold," Obree says. "I'm the favourite to do so and I know that, although it won't be easy, I am the fastest in the world. If I do, I don't think anyone will have any problems over me. People know I do things my own way, and it is a different approach to others, but they also recognise my talent." And will Obree still be using bikes made partly out of washing machines? "A company in Hampshire now makes them for me, but they are based on my original design."

As he runs through this seemingly far-fetched sequence of unlikely highs and lows, it appears as if this kind of story happens to everyone every other week. You remind him of the facts, and re-iterate the unlikeliest one of all, about the washing machine.

"Well, I wouldn't advise people to make their own bikes, not if they are hoping to break any world records. And I definitely wouldn't advise them to make them out of washing machines. But I didn't really have much choice, did I? It all seemed to work out in the end, though, didn't it?"

It certainly did. It would be an incredible end to an incredible story if Obree actually wins the Olympic gold medal, but with his track record, would you bet against a man whose two worst subjects at school were sport and metalwork?