Obree's big stake in state of art

Andrew Baker talks to an Olympic cyclist about his new flying machine
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The Independent Online
The night of 23 October last year is one that the cyclist Graeme Obree would like to forget. He was beaten in Paris by his arch-rival Chris Boardman, but that was not the worst of it. "My best bike broke," he recalled.

He is understating the incident. His "best bike", the home-built special on which he had made his name, fell to bits as he attempted to accelerate into the race, and the Scot was left sitting on the floor of the Bercy track surrounded by pieces of crank and pedal. At that moment, he decided that he had had enough of home-made bikes: it was time to commission a specialist manufacturer to build a machine to his own specifications. Today, at the British Track Championships at the Manchester Velodrome, he gets to race on the result for the first time. "I just can't wait to get on it," Obree said.

The bike has been built by the Devon-based Hotta company, who produce technologically advanced machines for time-trials and triathlon riders, most of which are exported to the United States. Obree's commission is something special. "There is nothing standard about this design," according to Chris Field, the man who is building it. "It is, in every respect, state of the art, with no compromise in any area. Not one single element on the bike is standard."

The head-set, for example - what the average cyclist calls the handlebars - is a titanium pivot which Field has machined in the company's Totnes factory. "It has been a tricky process," he admitted, but the importance of this particular component makes the care worthwhile. The elongated handlebars are the key to Obree's celebrated "Superman" semi-prone riding position, which is now being imitated by other track cyclists from all over the world.

"I find cycling with my arms out in front of me like that very comfortable," Obree said. "And if these other riders are now copying the style, then it must be comfortable for them too." The positioning of the three areas where man meets machine - head-set, saddle and pedals - is the most important element in the design, and Obree took great care over it. "I drew the dimensions out for them," he explain- ed. They should be exactly the same as on my last bike. There will be some minor adjustments to make this weekend, but that's largely a matter of getting a feeling for the thing."

If the carbon-fibre creation proves satisfactory, Obree will have four made in time for the Olympics: two for the track, and two for time-trials. "The track bike is the ultimate basic bicycle," Obree said. "No brakes, no gears; just pedals and wheels." The time-trial machine is slightly more sophisticated, with the addition of gears and brakes.

"I've been waiting all season to get my hands on them," Obree said. "It has taken them a wee bit longer to build the bikes than we expected, but I would rather have it that way than rush things and not do the job properly."

Chris Field reckoned that the design-and-build process would eventually cost more than pounds 100,000. "I'd hate the bike to get stolen," he said, "and that does happen every now and then. I just hope that Graeme locks it up securely in the bike shed."

Assuming the new bike has not been nicked, Obree will today use the it to defend his national indoor pursuit championship in Manchester. He will not be short of opposition, including Britain's entire six-man team pursuit squad, but he is an overwhelming favourite to take his fourth consecutive title.

"It is a chance to ride with some meaning," he said, fending off the attentions of his sons, Euan, 4, and Jamie, 2, who will be watching today. "You can only do so much in training, and somehow it is different with an audience."

Defending his title undoubtedly means a lot to Obree, but in an Olympic year the national event is no more than a staging post on the way to Atlanta. "Manchester is pretty important," he said. "If the new bike goes well there, it will be a great morale-booster." He needs it. The wheels have fallen off once too often for Graeme Obree.