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The Flying Scotsman, by Graeme Obree

Graeme Obree - The Flying ScotsmanTitle: The Flying Scotsman
Author: Graeme Obree
Publisher: Birlinn
Pages: 292
Year: 2003 (reissued 2010 with a foreword by Chris Hoy)
Order: Birlinn
What it is: The autobiography of Graeme Obree, twice Individual Pursuit World Champion and twice the setter of the Hour record.
Strengths: Brutally honest.
Weaknesses: Relentlessly bleak.

The Flying Scotsman is a bleak book and you're never more than a few pages from a new trough of despair in the life of a champion cyclist who was suffering from bipolar disorder. It's a book that starts with a rough childhood and ends with two suicide attempts. The bits in between aren't much of a barrel of fun either.

That said, it has it's wonderful images sitting in between all the bleakness. Take one paragraph, from Obree's time down in Colombia in 1995 for the World Championships. He's out on a training riding one day, with Yvonne McGregor. Two Scots who had each held an Hour record, he the men's version, she the women's. Regardless of how important the Hour really is, I do actually like the notion that two Scots held the men's and women's records. This isn't a Celts-together thing from me - it's the love for the underdog. Obree and McGregor did what they did in the nineties, before the man from the Lotto pointed his finger at Britain's cyclists and boomed 'It could be you!' at them.

But that's not really what's so cool about that little scene down in Colombia. Obree and McGregor have stopped for a Coke and, before they get going, two cyclists pass them. They decide to catch up and join them. The other two riders? Jeannie Longo and her husband. Obree himself describes Longo as "probably the greatest cyclist ever" and while I realise she probably cast too long a shadow over women's cycling, there's no denying her achievements. And among them was the Hour. In the eighties, Longo had three times set new Hour records, taking the distance from 43.083km to 46.352km. Not long after that Colombian meeting, she'd take back the record from McGregor, pushing it from 47.411km to 48.159km.

Grame Obree - L'EquipeWouldn't you have loved to have been on that road, with three Hour record riders? Maybe not. Since the UCI pressed the reset button on the Hour, I guess it's not really captured the public imagination. But it used to matter. When Obree broke the record in '93, it mattered that he had broken the record. It didn't matter that, a week after setting a new record, Chris Boardman had stuffed another 640m onto it. Obree was still a hero. And heroes are in demand. Setting the Hour allowed Obree to set up a series of track engagements across Europe. One of these was in Italy, at Crema.

"As we approached the track that evening by car, we thought there must be a big football match on because of the droves of people marching down the streets. When we got to the gates of the stadium, all became clear, as huge posters of me were plastered on the gates and walls. [...] The crowd just kept coming and coming, and those who somehow made it to the track centre formed a blockade around the perimeter of our enclosure. All that most of them wanted was a glimpse, a photograph or a signature."

Italians love their cycling and Italians love their cycling heroes. And Obree was a hero. He was an Hour man. That night in Crema he was joined by two other Italian heroes, Ercole Baldini and Francesco Moser. Both of them also Hour men. Baldini had taken the Hour record from Jacques Anquetil, back in 1956, pushing the record out to 46.393km. Moser, as you know by now, was the first to beat Merck's record. And it was Moser's record that Obree had beaten.

Moser was one of Obree's cycling heroes. Moser's setting the record in '84 - which, at the time, received a lot of publicity - caught Obree's imagination. Maybe he saw something of himself in the Italian. Moser was, in his own way, unconventional. Take the timing of his Hour ride in 1984. Most other attempts happened at the fag-end of the season, after a rider's road commitments had been met. Moser is the only man who set the record in January, before the new cycling season had even warmed up.

Then there was the bike itself: low-profile, disc wheels and a dinner-plate sized front-ring. This was the beginning of the revolution in bike design that swept the eighties. When Merck set his record back in 1972, the conventional wisdom was that weight mattered. There was a craze for drilled-out components, grams shaved off the weight here and there. Moser's bike though tossed conventional wisdom in the bin and was a good five kilos heavier than Merck's.

Moser beat the record twice in one weekend, adding 1,720 metres to Merckx's ride and pushing the record out to 51.151km. Even with the medical team he had behind him - Francesco Conconi, aided by two strange bed-fellows, Michele Ferrari and Aldo Sassi - there's still something about Moser's ride that impresses. The simple fact is that, in 1984, blood doping was not banned and Moser was a cold realist. "Pure cycling is just an illusion," he claimed. "There comes a stage when a rider must be told the effects of a medicine. Then if he wants to, let him take it." I disagree with him. But somehow at the same time I respect him for his uncompromising stance.

So there Obree was in Crema for that track meet. His face plastering the walls on the approach to the vélodrome. Crowds thronging for his autograph. And his hero stood in front of him. So he asked Moser if he fancied throwing his leg over Old Faithful - Obree's homemade bric-a-brac bike, on which he'd ridden into the record books - and taking it for a spin. And Moser - showman that he was - bent down, rolled up his trouser leg, and set off for a lap on the bike Graeme Obree built and broke his Hour record with. The tifosi loved it.

After that Crema track meet, Obree moved on to Forli. There the organisers put him up against a team of juniors in a pursuit race. It's a clever idea, the senior World Champion alone against a team of juniors. The winner or loser didn't really matter - the juniors beat him, narrowly, but insisted he join them on the top step of the podium - and this was something Obree spent some time thinking about after the race:

"Before, where I thought that a lot of people were just fanatical about the sport, now I could see that they were passionate about it, and I realised that it was the passion that had touched me so much in Crema that other evening, as opposed to fanaticism. I also realised that I could totally empathise with that philosophy, as I would find it difficult to be fanatical about anything because I was too much of a realist, but being passionate about cycling was a sentiment I could totally relate to."

That's one of just a few high points in Obree's story, a moment when trouble and strife - in one format or another - weren't staring down on him. Some of that trouble was personal, some of it was caused by cycling. If you know anything about Obree, you'll know that the UCI was pretty put out by what he did to the purity of their record - an unknown on a homemade bike with a revolutionary riding position - and they set about finding ways to stop him. But before talking about that, a quick digression.

Tom Simpson, who'd failed in an attempt on the amateur Hour in 1958 (only by a couple or three hundred metres), tried to put together an attempt on the grown-up record in 1964, using a bike with small wheels, made by Moulton, the makers of the city-gents' favourite folding bike. In the end, that came to nought in an argument over money. But wouldn't you have loved to have seen it happen? Wouldn't you have loved the conniptions the UCI would have had at a Moulton being used to beat the Hour?

Greame Obree - (c) Getty ImagesAnyway, the UCI was offended by Obree's bike. Part of that offence you can understand. Go back to Moser and Obree at Crema, and Moser going for a spin on Obree's bike. Around this time, Conconi and Moser were setting up a new challenge: a tenth anniversary rerun of Moser's 1984 record ride. A lot had changed in the intervening decade and Conconi wanted to prove something. Obree's innovations replaced the bull-bars of old. EPO replaced blood doping. And Moser did ride 689m further than he had in 1984, though without coming close to the then record.

Part of what Moser had done was to take Obree's riding position and add a chest support - you only had to look at the new bike to see it was beginning to look more like a new version of a recumbent than a traditional bike. The UCI had no choice but to act. And, as far as Obree was concerned, the UCI was correct, and had communicated the change in regulations early enough.

But at the World Championships that year - 1994 -the UCI began making up new rules on the night, rules which seemed designed specifically to get rid of Obree. (This is not just a British interpretation of what happened - even Gazzetta dello Sport supported the Scot and lambasted the UCI over their actions.) One upshot of this was that Obree was pulled from the 1994 World Championships, with Hein Verbruggen himself stepping onto the track to flag down the flying Scot:

"At this point I had had a gutful of 'fascist dictatorship' as I saw it, and I aimed right at Mr Verbruggen, who jumped aside in time to avoid collision, and at that moment I would not have swerved a millimetre to avoid a 35mph man-to-man impact."

A year later Obree got his revenge on Verbruggen, retaking the world title wrongfully denied him the year before, and the UCI president himself having to present him with his gold medal:

"The victory did not make much impact on me emotionally, except that it gave me a strong feeling of job satisfaction and relief that it was done with. It did give me a great deal of pleasure, though, that Hein Verbruggen - who had disqualified me the year before - had sat and watched me ride to victory and that he would reluctantly have to present me with a gold medal."

Obree's emotional response to that victory I guess brings us around to the Scot's depression. For some people, bike racing is about winning or losing. For Graeme Obree it was about feeling relieved, unburdened and acceptable, or an abject failure.  Winning validated Obree's existence. The pursuit of victory was a sort of displacement activity. The tunnel vision required to ride at the level he rode at allowed him to put off addressing his underlying problems. But the validation of success was only temporary. Here he is after one of his earliest victories, a Scottish senior title:

"I had done the unbelievable, and won the senior race outright, and was grinning from ear to ear, all the way home. It was not long, though, before the buzz and sense of excitement started to fade and my mind started working on where I could get another win."

Obree's depression was what drove him forward. Before his first Hour ride in Norway in 1993, his support staff tried to get him in the mood for what lay ahead:

"I did not have the heart to tell them I would rather slash my wrists than fail. How could they understand? Could they understand in a thousand years? Their psych-up talks were quaint - excellent by sporting standards - and they were nothing but well intended. If I told them the truth, that the hour-record was not about glory, or even sport itself, but justifying my next breath, then I would have confused them, to say the least."

Obree's view of his own self worth drove him to push himself on when his body was telling him to stop. This is one of the strengths of Obree's narrative, his ability to put you there on the track with him, to put you inside his head. But he starts long before the race, when he's visualising the ride. Take this, from before his 1993 World Championship ride:

"I visualised myself from a riding angle, and the exact pace and rate of pedalling I would have to do to be sure of avoiding silver. I rode the race over in my mind from the starting effort, right through to near the finish, and I imagined with it the pain, the hyperventilation and the signals from my body, telling me I could not push any further and how I would over-ride them and continue on my planed groove to oblivion. I never quite reached the end in my visualisations, because at that point, what I visualised was riding on through the harm or death zone, and the real ending could only come from real life."

One of the nice things about Obree is, because he put so much of himself into each ride, he understood how others felt when they lost. The great rivalry in The Flying Scotsman is not between Obree and Chris Boardman, it is between Obree and Philippe Ermanault. Over the years, they were pitted against one and other often in the pursuit, and respected one and other. Here's something Obree says about his French opponent, shortly after having defeated him at the Worlds:

"As I sat trying to compose myself and not heave up my lungs, I saw Philippe Ermanault crying from his very inner being, and that really touched me deeply, and made me think about how the fountain of sport can taste so sweet or so bitter to all of us who drink from it. Much as I felt sad for a moment in empathy with his feelings, which I could totally understand, as well as a fleeting tinge of guilt that my existence had brought about his downfall so close to the altar of glory, I was glad I was World Champion."

I guess if you want a reason to read The Flying Scotsman, those two paragraphs are what I'd point to. They show how hard Obree could be on himself, but they also show the other side of his being, a sensitivity. Obree was a decent skin.

The Flying Scotsman brings Obree's story up to 2003. By then he seemed to accept that racing was part of the problem. In 2009, there was talk of another tilt at the Hour, an attempt to beat Ondřej Sosenka's record of 49.7km. Earlier this year, Obree was back in the headlines, joining that small but growing list of openly gay sportsmen. In a sane world, no one would have to issue a press release or appear on national radio discussing their sexuality. Sadly, our's is not a sane world

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Images: Birlinn; L'Equipe, Getty