A circus bike, but nobody's laughing: Cycling's officials have done what no competitor could - broken Graeme Obree's heart. Jim White reports

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY morning Graeme Obree was apoplectic. Bellowing down the line to Radio 4's Today programme, he was threatening legal action, reprisals, the European Court of Human Rights. You could see his point. The Scottish cyclist had just been disqualified, unceremoniously, from the World Pursuit Cycling Championships in Palermo and had seen thousands of pounds-worth of sponsorship money disappear with the wave of a red flag.

'He has betrayed the spirit of Rule 49,' Jacques Sabathier, chairman of the world championship judges, said, justifying the official knifing of Obree.

'I knew as soon as I came here that they were out to get me,' said Obree of his trip to Sicily. And he had good reason for his worry.

It was no surprise that Obree broke Rule 49 - hastily reworked in May for this year's championships - which governs how a bike can be constructed and how a rider can sit upon it. So far as he was concered, the regulation seemed to read as follows: 'Anyone called Graeme Obree shall not win the World Pursuit Cycling Championships.'

Rule 49 was being given a healthy workout in Sicily last weekend. First the judges threatened Obree with expulsion from the championships because the cut of his saddle looked suspiciously as if it contravened their new rule. So he borrowed the seat from a 10- year-old's mountain bike and stayed in the field. But then it was made clear that unless he altered the manner in which he sits on his bike (he generally adopts the position of a man visiting the lavatory for the first time in a month), he would be disqualified. Rule 49 again. He did his best, but they didn't explain quite how they wanted him to change and, midway through a race on Monday, he was removed from competition.

Obree's recent history reads like something from a speech by Michael Portillo: the plucky British innovator brought down by Euro bureaucrats as soon as he began beating the Europeans at their own game.

Obree had been riding the same machine - a bike he built himself from odds and ends, including the bearings of a washing machine and pieces of an old padlock - in the same wind-cheating, crouched manner (the 'egg position') since 1987 without troubling the record books. Then, thanks, he says, to a more vigorous training regime, he began pedalling his way to titles all over the place.

Last year in Norway, on his home-made bike, Obree won the world pursuit title and went on to beat the world record for distance covered in an hour, clocking almost 33 miles. In France, home of cycling, the 28-year- old Scotsman became a hero.

And that was when the trouble started. To the sport's authorities, already rattled by another Briton, Chris Boardman, winning the 1992 Olympic title on an oddly shaped new machine, Obree was a mediocre cyclist given unfair advantage by a dodgy bike. They set out to stop him.

The intention was simple and not without merit. Cycling's authorities do not want to see their sport going the way of tennis or Formula One motor-racing. They want cycling to remain a battle between a man and his body, not a dull technological slug-out, a spat about who has the slickest engine or the biggest racket. Obree's bizarre customised contraption was suspected of giving him a dubious technological advantage.

So in came Rule 49, the safeguard against technological one-upmanship. But the authorities had to be careful. The big bike-building corporations that underwrite professional cycling have a commercial need for technological development; they sell more bikes if they can suggest it is the machine, rather than the legs, that make a champion.

Obree, however, represented an easy, unique target. His 'circus bike', as the French paper L'Equipe described it, carries the joshing logo 'designed and built by Graeme Obree'. Constructed in the back room of a bike shop in Fife, it cocked a snook at everyone with its implicit suggestion that white coats and budgets of millions were not needed to produce innovation. Hence Rule 49 was altered to say that any new techno-parts had to be commercially available to the cyclist in the street.

In reality, most professional cyclists have bicycles designed for them; several have special helmets constructed to fit their requirements. Miguel Indurain's machine used in time trials in the Tour de France was fine - you could buy one just like it if you had a million pounds; Graeme Obree's home-made saddle wasn't. So he had to change it.

In the end, they still managed to disqualify him and, more importantly, his bike, for the way he sits on it. Daylight had to be seen between the shoulders and the chest, they insisted. And the only way you can ride the Obree bike is with the arms tucked up into the shoulder. Damn clever that Rule 49.

Next month Indurain, the Tour de France winner and king of the sport, will make a bid to break Obree's hour record. Obree claims that Indurain is training using an 'egg position' bike. Will Rule 49 be invoked against the champion as it was against the lone Scot with the cunning tool kit?

(Photograph omitted)