Saturday, 2 February 2013

An Evening with Graeme Obree

My usual reaction when I meet one of my sporting heroes, is one of being let down or even disappointed that they are not actually a Superhero, they're just like me really, normal people doing a job they train hard for and more often than not there's no depth there, no knowledge or experience of anything else other than the sport they take part in.... but last night I had my belief in real life Superheroes restored - stand up Graeme Obree, champion cyclist, holder of the World 1 hour record in 1993 and 1994, World 4000m Pursuit Champion in 1993 and 1995 and winner of countless other Scottish and British cycling championships.

Lakes College in West Cumbria was the unlikely venue for an evening with Graeme Obree, unlikely in as much as we don't usually get such high profile speakers in this part of the country, but thanks to the efforts of sports tutor, Andrew Beattie, the Wild West of Cumbria welcomed him with open arms in a superb venue.

Unlike many talks by sports personalities, this was not a nostalgic recount of his achievements, neither was it an ego boost for a sportsman wanting to remind himself how popular he once was... far from it... this was a talk from the heart, a talk that put us inside the psyche of Graeme Obree, a talk that made us see the world from the point of view of Graeme Obree, a talk that is obviously part of Graeme Obree's own personal therapy, a way that he can put his demons to rest and get his fears off his chest and a talk that actually got me thinking about my own personality traits and why I sometimes act like I do.... 

For anyone who isn't aware of who Graeme Obree is, I suggest you read his autobiography - The Flying Scotsman - , or even watch the film of the same name. Only then will you start to understand what makes this guy tick, his reason for living and the obstacles he has to overcome every day of his life.

The evening began with a short film montage of Graeme's life and cycling career put together by the organiser, Andrew Beattie, who is obviously an admirer of Obree's achievements. This was followed by Graeme's very entertaining talk, which jumped backwards, forwards and sideways probably just as much as Graeme's own thoughts do. We learnt about his lonely childhood in Scotland, the son of the village policeman,  " I was son of the Pig", "Filth", feeling completely isolated and uninterested". How he left school with no qualifications (apart from an O-level in English just to prove his teacher wrong!) and no ambition. His only escape from everyday life was his bicycle, the bicycle that could take him out of the village and over the horizon... We learnt how he first turned up at the local cycling club on a bike from the junkyard and wearing jeans, a parka and Dr Martens boots. 

The talk covered the many sides to Graeme Obree and he wasn't afraid to tell us about his many complex problems... Bipolar disorder, depression... "like having 20 fire sprinklers going off in my head at once", obsessive compulsive disorder, "At the Olympics we had Ziggy Marley playing a free concert for the competitors but I was in my room reading books on micro-biology"...  two suicide attempts, battles with his sexuality, his fear of failure, how even when he had won he would be ashamed that he hadn't done better, his guilt at beating other athletes because he knew how they felt inside..."apart from the guy who peed in my bed... ", his 10 years of therapy, "never mind a gap year, I've had a gap decade!" and his experiences of living in a mental institute, "there's 48kg of lithium inside this body". We even learnt about his feelings and thoughts towards his rivals and team mates and how he could clear his mind to look at bicycle design without any preconceptions. But then he said "anyway, that was all 20 years ago now, you don't want to hear about that"... The final part of his talk introduced us to his new project. His attempt to break the land speed record on a bicycle he is building in his kitchen - The Beastie. 

Graeme Obree with "The Beastie". 
After his talk, Graeme bravely asked the audience for any questions... "don't be shy, don't hold back, if there's something you really want to know, just ask"... "What do you really think of Chris Boardman?" ... "He's a very good cabinet maker - next question please?".... "Should the UCI stand down?" "Emphatically Yes! Get rid of the lot of them, there's too much cronyism and buddyism at every level. For the benefit of cycling the UCI should be disbanded and the sport should start from scratch again". The subject of drugs in sport raised its head too and Graeme was quite open about his experiences.

"I joined a professional team in the 90s, but it was made very obvious that I would have to take drugs. I was introduced to the French guys and the Italian guys ... "Ahh, Monsier Obree, welcome welcome,,, what drugs do you take?" "Er None!", "Pah - amateur!"... I was quickly sacked by my team. I feel I was robbed by those bastards taking drugs. I was surprised how resentful I felt when I watched the Tour De France end in Paris. I let those thoughts live inside me for years and that's something else I've had to talk to my therapist about."

Hinting at the recent Lance Armstrong scandal, Graeme told us that he never took drugs but a large majority of professional cyclists did, even down the system to junior club level, riders taking drugs was rife. He also promised that if he signed a poster or book after the show he could guarantee that it would not be tarnished later. You know what? I believe him. I don't think Graeme Obree is capable of lying, and if he did his personal demons would mean that he would have to come clean and tell the truth afterwards. 

Sir Chris Hoy has recently described Graeme Obree much better than I ever could, so I'll leave the last word to that other revered Scottish Cycling Champion...

"Graeme Obree is a genius in the true sense of the word. His uncanny ability to tackle problems from an angle that no-one else could have thought of, makes him a one-off. An original. He sees the world in a different way to us mere mortals and comes up with ideas and solutions which make you laugh, shake your head and say 'why didn't I think of that?!'

"Old Faithful"... On display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. 
An individual beyond reproach, an innovator, an incredible athlete with an indestructible determination are just some of the elements of Graeme Obree's character. To understand the rest you really need to hear it from the man himself - Graeme Obree is a brilliant speaker with a truly captivating story. He is due to return to Cumbria again on Thursday 16th May to talk at the Keswick Mountain Festival, my ticket is already booked :) 

For more information 
Return of The Flying Scotsman Landspeed Record Attempt.


  1. Great post. I can vaguely remember items on the news at the time about this Scottish outsider with a weird riding style and his homebuilt bike made with bits of washing machine. Wasn’t his bike banned?

  2. Cheers KTL. He had numerous run-ins with the UCI. His riding style was banned because they couldn't see daylight between his arms and chest! So he designed some new bars, which gave him a superman pose.... banned again. He was and is always an individual with a different look on life in general and the laws of physics... this put him outside the buddy system within the UCI so he was always going to be the "outsider" that the system didn't like.

  3. Unbelievable, outstanding and brilliant. So glad you enjoyed it. Many thanks for the kind words. Andrew Beattie

  4. Credit where credit is due Andrew. I was amazed when I got the invite via facebook from Jaynee, Graham Obree in West Cumbria - no way? I've been a fan of his since the 90s, always rooting for the underdog and I was fascinated by his ingenuity. Then, about 6 years ago I was sat at home, unable to sleep after an operation to remove a tumor, so I settled down to watch The Flying Scotsman on TV... that was the spark for my own revival and renewed determination to pull myself together and get on with life... So thank you for bringing him to College and allowing a mere mortal to shake hands with such an inspirational human being.

  5. I would have loved to have been there. Great write up.


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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.