Graeme Obree was one of the UK’s top cyclists. During an eventful career, he twice broke the prestigious world hour record (1993 and 1994) and became World Champion for the 4Km pursuit in 1993 and 1995. He was also well known for his innovative approach to bike design and aerodynamics. He invented new positions to gain the maximum aerodynamic advantage. His successful cycling career was undertaken against a backdrop of personal turmoil, in which he suffered periods of depression. He wrote a best selling book of his life ‘The Flying Scotsman’– this was later turned into a feature-length film.
Graeme Obree was born on 11 September 1965 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, but lived almost all his life in Scotland and considers himself Scottish. In his autobiography, he recounts having a difficult childhood where he experienced bullying and low self-esteem. Cycling became a way to escape from these pressures. In 2011, Obree came out as being gay, he said repressing this part of his nature was part of the reason for his personal difficulties.
UK Time Trial Records
In the early 1990s, Obree was one of the top time triallists in the UK. He was one of the few riders who could beat Chris Boardman. The media often encouraged a rivalry between the two cyclists. They would later both break the world hour record within one week of each other.
In 1993, Obree set a new competition record for 10 miles – 18-27 on the Q10/30 course in Woolwich
In 1993, he also set a new competition record for 50 miles. He rode 1-39-01 for 50 miles on a fixed gear bike (on a course in Cornwall). His fixed bike didn’t have room for a bottle cage, so Obree just drank a litre of water before the start.
World Hour Record
On 16th July Obree travelled to the track in Hamar, Norway to make an attempt on Francesco Moser’s World Hour Record of 51.151 KM. Moser had set the record in 1984 and had stood for nine years. At the time, Obree was relatively unknown outside the UK, and few gave him any chance of setting a new record.
At the first attempt, Obree failed – missing the mark by over 0.5 KM. However, Obree was determined to try again the next day. Most journalists left and Obree had to beg the officials to let him have another go. To prevent his legs seizing up, he drank many pints of water before sleeping so that he would naturally wake up and give him chance to stretch his muscles. On his second attempt, to many people’s surprise, he was successful in setting a new hour record of 51.596 KM. Obree used a relatively big gear 52*12 (9.25metres) giving a relatively low cadence of 93.0 rpm
World Hour Record Bike
In setting the record, Obree developed his own unique aerodynamic position known as the tuck. He built the bike himself. Famously, he used bearings from a washing machine as he assumed they must be higher quality than a bike’s bearings. Though Obree later regretted the media interest in his minor bike adjustments as this often seemed to overshadow his athletic achievements. Nevertheless, Obree’s record received substantial coverage in the European media who loved the story of a relatively unknown outsider managing to break the world hour record.
This position on the left (tuck position) was later banned by the UCI but Obree went on to develop another position, popularly called the “Superman Position”. (see Obree Bikes)
Obree’s record would later be surpassed by Chris Boardman just one week later.
Second World Hour Record
Obree in the superman position (extra long stem)
In April 1994, Obree made another attempt on the world hour record in Bordeaux, France and was successful in beating Chris Boardman’s record. Obree set 52.270 KM
World Pursuit 4KM Champion 1993
After his first world hour record breaking attempt, Obree went onto become the World Pursuit Champion in 1993. He beat Chris Boardman in the Semi-Final (also setting a new world record) In the final he beat the Frenchman Phillipe Ermanault. To become World Champion was in many ways unexpected for Obree; it enabled him to attract many lucrative offers to travel around Europe racing in prestigious time trials and track meetings.
In the 1994 UCI World Championships, Obree was the defending champion and had modified his bike to bring him into line with the new rules. However on the evening of the Championships, the UCI bought in a new law effectively banning his unique tuck position. The rule was so new that it hadn’t even been written down. Obree had no chance to get used to a new design and was thus disqualified after his first qualifying attempt. The media were sympathetic to Obree’s plight, as it seemed he had been unfairly penalised by UCI bureaucracy.
However, in 1995, he was able to regain his world pursuit title.
Obree briefly signed a contract with a French-based professional team. However, unfortunately, this didn’t work out. Obree said he never felt comfortable in the setup and was also unwilling to pay the “supplementary medicine ” costs (i.e. doping in an era of widespread drug taking in the pro-cycling world. Obree later revealed how resentful he felt that his professional career was made impractical because at the time, 99% of riders were taking EPO to stay competitive. He mentions that he never took performance-enhancing drugs during his career.
“AND by the way, I never took drugs to improve my performance at any time as has been happening in the sport for a long time.”
Obree Way – Review
The Obree Way is a training manual based on Graeme Obree’s own training methods over the past 30 years. I wrote a review of the Obree Way.
Obree’s autobiography is a compelling account of his experiences as a bike rider and his private battle with the problems of depression, bipolar disorder and low self-esteem. The overriding theme in his book is his desire to prove himself by winning. If he lost a race he would feel awful. The book is written with great honesty and is a fascinating insight into the mind of a great athlete. He later revealed on Jan 31st 2011 that he was gay, but had great difficulty in dealing with it.
“I was brought up by a war generation; they grew up when gay people were put in jail. Being homosexual was so unthinkable that you just wouldn’t be gay. I’d no inkling about anything, I just closed down,”
– Graeme Obree (Scottish Sun, 31/01/2011)
Graeme said the difficulty in coming to terms with his sexuality was a factor in contributing to his two suicide attempts. He said though it was difficult coming to terms with his homosexuality has been a relief and led to improved relations with his parents. He has since divorced his wife.
Graeme Obree Major Achievements
- World Hour Record 1993 (51.596km), 1994 (52.713km)
- World Champion (4000m Pursuit) 1993, 1995
Domestic Time Trial Success
- Obree broke the British 10-mile individual time trial record in 1993 (18.27) on course Q10/30 Woolwich
- 1st place RTTC 50-mile championship 1993 (a record 1h 39m 01s). Also competition record. This ride was set on a fixed bike.
- He won the 25-mile championship in 1996.
- BCF 25-mile championship 1997
Since retiring from racing, Obree has promoted a cyclo sportive event in Ayrshire, Scotland.
I recommend this documentary about Obree.
A personal note: I admire Obree because:
- He was a great cyclist.
- The hour record is the ultimate cycling record, very few professionals even dare try to attempt it
- The list of Hour Record Holders reads like a Who’s Who of professional cycling
- Obree was an individual outside the cycling hierarchy (The UCI treated him quite unfairly at one point, banning his position without giving any forewarning)
- He built his own bikes on a limited budget. For a number of years I believe he lived off unemployment benefits.
- He was always a clean rider, at a time when not many professionals were.
Obree Film – The Flying Scotsman
Released In 2007. The flying Scotsman partially tells of the struggles that Obree went through in becoming a successful cyclist. It mainly concentrates on the bike racing and only touches upon the personal aspect.