Graeme Obree: 'I was driven by fear'

Graeme Obree is a cycling hero - a world record breaker whose story has now been turned into a movie. He also suffers from alcoholism and depression. So when former spin doctor Alastair Campbell met him, they found they had more than just a love of bikes in common

Thursday 22 September 2011 06:56

If Graeme Obree was American, French, German, Dutch, Spanish - almost anything but British - the chances are he would have a fat bank account and live in a big house with a high fence to protect him from passers-by curious to see in, or hoping to get a look as he sets out on his bicycle.

But he's British, Scottish to be precise, and has none of those things. He lives in a very modest home in Ayrshire, and comes and goes pretty much unimpeded, certainly not as celebrated as he ought to be, and would be were he from a country that had cycling up there as one of the great national sports.

It is not just his choice of sport though, that prevents Obree from fitting into the conventional sports-star mould. It is also his character, which, he would be the first to admit, is challenging, difficult, odd. Of course, lots of successful people, in sport as in other walks of life, are driven, demented souls, and when they succeed, their focus and their demons are often celebrated alongside the success. But Obree's character and personality problems transcend even that, taking him to a level that your average sports fan may not feel comfortable with. The internal torture is perhaps too obvious. He can be an upsetting character, yet there is something very likeable about him, and something so admirable about how he has conquered - or used - the demons within to make a success of his life.

To describe him as a success risks receiving one of the quirky little looks he flashes when you say something that doesn't quite fit his worldview. Yet he was a world-champion cyclist, from a country that has not produced that many, and achieved this often using bikes made largely by himself. Even more important than that, in the eyes of cycling purists at least, is an event which took place at the Winter Olympics stadium at Hamar, Norway, in 1993. There he set a new world record of 51.596km for the distance covered in a single hour, cycling's blue-riband challenge and the two-wheeled equivalent of the fastest mile in athletics. That is notable enough. Even more impressive is how he did it - the day after the official attempt - when his obsessive fear of failure compelled him to have another go straight away, even as disappointed cycling fans were boarding their trains and planes to get back home.

"It didn't happen for me on the scheduled day, just didn't work out," he says. "But the moment I finished, I decided I was going to have another go the next day. I was feeling absolutely wretched and knew I had to get back on the bike and try again in the morning. Second time around, just about everyone had gone, just a few family and friends and a couple of journalists from France were left behind. I went for it, and I did it." He stops, laughs, then adds, "I'm the only person in the world to have broken a cycling speed record in a Winter Olympics stadium, on the wrong day, in front of nine people." (omega)

When you ask him how it felt, he says it was a "death or glory" feeling. "I had to do it," he continues. "The thing had become a complete obsession. When I was going around the track, I noticed nothing but the track in front of me, nothing but the black line I had to cross. I just went for broke."

It was a fantastic achievement, prompting the French sports daily L'Equipe to give him front-page billing as "L'Incroyable Graeme Obree". Nobody found it more "incroyable" than Obree - because that driving, obsessive fear of failure was largely born in the belief he has never been worthy of anything but failure. "Worthy." His word, not mine. In almost every discussion about important periods in his life, his struggle to be deemed "worthy" comes to the fore. "Even when I was out training, I was driven by fear. Every day, I would really psyche myself up, then ride as though my life depended on it. It was all about fear. If I didn't train well, I wouldn't race well. If I didn't race well, I would never win anything. If I never won anything, nobody would think I was worthy."

It was a similar modesty, or self-doubt, that led to our first meeting. While on holiday a few years ago, I read Obree's autobiography, The Flying Scotsman, and was so impressed that I wrote somewhere that it was one of the best books by a sportsman I had ever read, because of the passion with which he described his sporting endeavours, and the palpable, searing honesty of the accounts of his troubled mental history. I got a message from his publisher - would I like to call him? I did, and he poured forth about how much it meant to him that someone who had achieved things in a different way, in a different walk of life, had bothered to read his book, and described it in the way I did. "Wow," he said, "I can't tell you what that meant to me." All his life, a loose word or a casual put-down could cast him into deep gloom, he said, so now he was learning to enjoy praise too.

On the phone, his words charged out in great torrents, but then there would be periods of silence, and often his train of thought would not quite be followed through. But he was interesting, and we arranged to meet when I was up north visiting relatives in Ayrshire. I interviewed him, met his wife Anne and their two sons, went cycling with him, swapped notes about depression and drink problems and mental breakdowns. Any time we have spoken since, the conversation has always been as much about his mental health as his sport.

Amateur psychologists, let alone the professional psychiatrists who have treated him, and still do, are not surprised to hear of a firm and distant father, a policeman, and a home to which the young Graeme never took a friend from school. He speaks of his childhood with a look of real sadness in his eyes, and has no doubt it was his loneliness and feelings of inadequacy as a child that created the mental health problems he has endured all his adult life. He was badly bullied, never felt he belonged, either in school or out of it. As matter of factly as others say they take two sugars in their tea, he says "I liked trees more than people. Cycling made me feel better, winning made me feel better. Apart from that, I only really had alcohol."

He took up cycling not with a view to being a sportsman, but as a form of escapism. "I had this idea that one day I would go out for a ride, cycle over the horizon and just disappear. The trouble was that the horizon never came."

In his book, he recounts in detail his descent from loneliness to obsessiveness to depression and alcohol problems, with the occasional high from cycling along the way, and the moments when he tried to end it all. Once, he swallowed several boxes of aspirins, washed down with water from puddles slurped from the road on a wet night in Ayrshire. On another occasion, he tried to hang himself. A girl passed by and ran to get help. Had she not done so, doctors say he would have died within minutes.

So on the one hand the 40-year-old man now walking unnoticed down Irvine High Street is a story of sporting struggle and eventual success, on the other a powerful human story of emotional disturbance. The two are being brought together in a film, also called The Flying Scotsman, which has its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival this week. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon, it has Jonny Lee Miller of Trainspotting fame playing Obree. Clearly he specialises in playing tortured Scottish souls.

It seems to have given Obree a real sense of purpose, almost a new lease of life. He seems chattier, happier, more in control than for some time. In and out of hospital all his life, he has not been in since December. And though he still sees a therapist regularly, he is currently off medication, which given his history is extraordinary. "99.5 per cent of the time, I'm OK," he says. "I get the occasional crash, when everything seems pointless, but I have not been self-harming, which is great."

The film has been a long time in the making, and he has been integrally involved, even performing as Jonny Lee Miller's body double in some of the more technical cycling parts of the film. "But it is not a cycling film," says Obree. "The backdrop is cycling, and there's a bit of Rocky in there, but the cycling is not dominant. A big part of the story is a woman standing by a difficult man, about my relationship with Anne. A lot is about depression and dealing with mental illness, though I'm pleased they've not played up the suicide stuff too much, because you just never know how that kind of thing can affect other people. It is a serious film but it's also very funny." Miller, he adds, is a "sound dude" and he has gained a lot of respect for actors. "I thought actors would just be la-di-da. I've been amazed how hard they work. They are at it 12, 13 hours a day."

When he set the record, he is now sure, he was fairly seriously ill. "In a way, the illness has always been about being obsessive, about needing to win races, needing to have that record, dealing with whatever emotional problems I have by doing that." It was while we were cycling along the country lanes around Irvine two years ago that he confided in me his decision to retire from competitive sport. Again, it was all described as much in mental as in sporting terms. He had recently mounted a fresh world one-hour record attempt. Suddenly, he said, it dawned on him that he used to need to be the world record holder, and now he didn't. "I was 12 minutes into the ride, and the song 'They Shoot Horses Don't They?' came into my head," he recalls. "My reaction was not anger or fear, but the realisation that it wasn't going to happen, and what was really interesting, it didn't matter any more." He pulled over, and stopped.

In the past, he said, a failure like that would have been a "life-threatening experience," something that would have led him to question the point of his existence. But that day, it didn't bother him. "I was so obsessive for so long, and I got a long way on my strength and my commitment," he says. "But you can only get so far on effort. The thing that takes people to the next level is a real passion for what they're doing, and I think that just went, and what was great is that it didn't matter so much. Therapy has been the key to that. I have learned to handle my emotions better, be in touch with what I am and what I feel."

Nowadays, Obree still cycles, not least because he doesn't have a car, occasionally competes, but actually just prefers to go out on the road with some friends, then chew the fat afterwards. He also intends to go to college, to study outdoor pursuits. "You see, in the past it would have had to be maths or astrophysics, to prove that I was something, but now I can actually decide to study what I want to, not something else that I think I should," he says. "I hate being asked what I do for a living at the moment. The truth is it's a bit of this and a bit of that, but that sounds like you're out burgling. It'll be good to be a student."

But though he seems a lot more contented than I can recall him, powerful emotions are never far from the surface. A few days before our latest interview, he was in Paris for this year's Tour de France, because a friend had decided to coincide his stag night with the race's last day. Obree went to the Champs Elysées but found himself almost overcome with a powerful feeling of resentment, and before the cyclists arrived, he went for a walk in the park, unable to face the celebration of today's pro riders.

"I still feel I was robbed of part of my career," he says. "I was signed up to ride in the Prologue of the Tour back in 1995, but it was made very obvious to me I would have to take drugs. I said no, no way, and I was sacked by my team. So there I was, 11 years later, sitting there waiting for the Tour cyclists to come by, and something welled up in me. I just disappeared."

His friends thought it was an overreaction, but then a few days later Tour winner Floyd Landis tested positive for testosterone. "My friend is totally gutted now," says Obree. "He was a huge Floyd Landis fan and now he's tested positive, it feels like a kick in the teeth. I feel I was robbed by a lot of these bastards taking drugs. I also hate the way that people think anyone who has ever achieved anything on a bike must have been taking drugs. I was surprised how resentful I felt when I was in Paris. It had obviously been simmering away in there for years. That's something new I'll have to talk to my therapist about."

'The Flying Scotsman', starring Jonny Lee Miller, opens the Edinburgh International Film Festival tomorrow

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