Year of the comeback:Cometh the hour record...: Cycling

Graeme Obree: The full cycle
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The Independent Online
It remains to be seen whether or not Graeme Obree's finest hour is behind him. The flying, pedal-pushing Scotsman happens to think he has yet to speed through it. "If I didn't believe it," he said, "I wouldn't be training for it." Having torn up his premature retirement plans, Obree is preparing to emerge from hibernation on the Ayrshire coast for another attempt to beat the long-hand of the clock.

Almost four years have passed now since he last succeeded in doing so. It was in April 1994 that the man from Irvine broke the hour record for the second time in 10 months. He covered 52.713km, not far short of 33 miles. The time may have stood permanently still for cycling's blue riband world record, but not the distance. It has since been pushed forward four times: once by Miguel Indurain, twice by Tony Rominger and once by Chris Boardman. The 56.375km Obree's long-time British adversary burned up on the boards of the Manchester Velodrome in 1996, a staggering 35 miles, is the target the Scot has set himself to beat this year.

"Of course it's possible to break it," Obree said. "It was set by a human being. I would say it's barely attainable, though. Very few people could have a crack at it. And to break it everything would have to be perfect: the preparation and everything on the day. There was a little room for improvement then. The margin has narrowed right down since but my conditioning has improved too. I rode a Christmas 10 miler in 19 minutes and that would have been unthinkable two years ago. I feel I'm stronger and I have more staying power."

Obree attributes his improvement - witnessed by the 19min 46sec he clocked in the Fullarton Wheelers' 10-mile race in Irvine two weeks ago - to the influence of Beer. Joe Beer, a duathlete and sports science graduate from Bath, has become his coaching guru this winter. "He competes himself," Obree said, "so he knows the feel factor. That's very important to me. I've always been someone who has worked on the feel factor in my training and my racing. But with Joe it's working hand in hand with science. It's an ideal partnership."

If it proves to be as beneficial a partnership as that forged between Boardman and his physiologist, Peter Keen, the British Cycling Federation's performance director, Obree may yet return to prominence. The world pursuit champion of 1993 and 1995 last competed at global level two years ago. He was knocked out in the qualifying stages of the pursuit at the Atlanta Olympics. He was almost lost to the sport for good last May when he announced his retirement because of insufficient funding. "I was so disenchanted," he said. "Following on from the Olympics - I was ill, I didn't ride well - I was yesterday's man before they started working out lottery grants. I was put down in the non-elite category. I did eventually get the offer of a grant but it was for an insulting amount. I didn't want to whittle away my own investments to carry on but that's what I've had to do. At this moment I'm self-supporting."

Such a state of affairs would be unthinkable in the cycling heartland of continental Europe, where the man who shattered Francesco Moser's long- standing hour record five years ago is feted as a hero. "I still get it when I go to Italy or France," he said. "Everywhere I go I'm asked for my autograph. But you can't change the country you were born in."

In Britain, Obree is regarded as the odd-ball likely lad who has had his day. Everyone wanted to know about the Scot who rode into the record books on a bike made with scrap metal and washing machine parts, the man who put a spoke in cycling's wheels with his revolutionary style - arms tucked in like a downhill skier, handlebars buried in chest. But that was then. Now, at 32, he is getting ready to take on the world again, to take on his greatest foe: the long-hand of the clock.