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Graeme Obree: Homegrown Hero

Graeme Obree

© Gordon Cairns

The career of Scotland's two-time world hour record holder Graeme Obree has become inextricably linked with a certain household appliance, which deflects from his incredible achievements. Only a handful of cyclists have ever broken the hour record but Obree's public image has been reduced to that of an eccentric sportsman rather than as a man who battled against the odds to reach the pinnacle of his sport.

For a talented amateur from a cycling backwater to break the world hour record in 1994 is simply incredible. Eddy Merckx, probably the best cyclist the world has ever seen, broke the record in 1972 and promptly said "Never again", such was the pain he endured. For Obree to break the record on a bike he built himself beggars belief.

Obree himself said: "My biggest regret of my career is mentioning to a journalist that there was a bit from a washing machine in my bike.

"Now forever I will be remembered as the washing machine guy."

Obree admits that the washing machine connection also affected his chances of earning a big sponsorship deal.

He added: "A good sponsor was not going to go with an athlete associated with a bike built from bric-a-brac."

However, with the distance of ten years, Obree's career is being re-assessed. His very candid best- selling autobiography starkly outlined his external battles against authority and his internal battles to reach the top. Now Obree's career has become an inspiration for Scotland's new track cycling stars Craig McLean and Chris Hoy.

Chris Hoy said: "I found Graeme Obree to be an inspirational figure when I was just starting out.

"His life is like a Hollywood film, but one that you would find unbelievable if you watched it in the cinema."

Obree is gratified by the respect he has earned from the Olympic champion.

Obree said: "For someone who has achieved what Chris has, to consider me an inspiration is a real accolade."

Graeme Obree in his controversial racing position

Graeme Obree in his controversial racing position

Ironically, there have been ongoing attempts to make a film about Obree's exploits, which would allow Obree to follow that other unconventional Scottish champion Eric Liddell onto celluloid.

Obree's early career was marked by his rivalry with Englishman Chris Boardman in the mid-1990s. But for Obree to reach that position to challenge the Olympic gold medal winner was a victory of determination over adversity.

It was Boardman's gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 that not only raised Boardman's profile but also made Obree realise that he too was a serious contender on the world cycling stage as he had enjoyed close tussles with the English rider in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"After Chris won the Olympic gold it made me realise we were both cycling at a very high level because we rode against each other many times and sometimes I would beat him."

And while Obree was working out of his garage piecing together parts of bikes to make his customised model, while pursuing dead-end jobs and could not afford a telephone, a team of sports scientists, psychologists and bike builders backed Boardman. But Obree expresses no resentment that the odds of him beating Boardman were stacked against him.

"The thing about Chris was that he was organised. His approach was totally structured which allowed him to build that team about him. He built on his successes and then put himself forward as an ideal employee so that he could compete in the Tour de France.

"On the other hand I just thought about getting the hour record. Once I got that I didn't know what I was going to do. I had no career path at all.

"Chris Boardman was the author of his own destiny, so there has never been any resentment on my part."

Obree's great rival Chris Boardman


And by extension Obree too was the author of his own destiny. He battled against external circumstance to join only a handful of men ever to have broken the world hour record on a bike.

And yet it seems he took little pleasure in his incredible achievements.

Obree admits that his fear of failing, rather than a desire to succeed, was the biggest motivating factor for him when he competed. Since retiring he has been diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder, a condition that affects the sufferer's mental state.

"When I broke the hour record it was my attempt to meet the expectation to feel worthy as a human being. I felt total relief when I heard the gun go off, meaning I had passed Moser's distance.

"It was the sound of a glass ceiling shattering - no matter what happened after this, I would still be the person who broke the hour and no-one could take that from me."

Obree lists his victory in the pursuit at the World Championships in Colombia in 1995 as the one that brought him greatest pleasure in his career, not simply for winning the coveted rainbow jersey in itself but as a settling of scores with the president of the UCI, cycling's governing body, Hein Verbruggen who had unjustly disqualified him in the previous year's competition with a rule change passed the night before Obree rode. Verbruggen was trackside at the race in Bogota.

"My happiest moment was probably winning the world's in Colombia. It was an added incentive to win that Verbruggen was there to present the medals."

Yet more than the frustration of having his riding position banned not once but twice, Obree regrets that he never followed Boardman into the professional peloton and so missed a chance to ride the Tour de France prologue. He was hired by French team Le Groupement in late 1994 but was fired two days later in mysterious circumstances with Obree not having ridden one race for the team.

"The thing that frustrates me most looking back on my career was not being able to ride the Tour de France. I would have loved to have ridden the prologue and I think I would have had a good chance of winning it."

Obree is at present keeping himself busy by writing a training manual and getting himself in condition to play the part of his legs in the close-ups in the film of his remarkable life.

Written by: Gordon Cairns

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