The Flying Scotsman is certainly a fitting title for Scots cyclist Graeme Obree today. His life achievements extend beyond professional cycling into engineering, something few professional cyclists really engage in. Professional cyclists opt for a team of sports science specialists and the latest technologies that come out of the big bicycle manufacturers. Obree’s style is unconventional in comparison: he builds his own custom bikes out of whatever he can find and runs not on performance enhancing drugs but on jam sandwiches. All this certainly hasn’t put him behind other professionals in the field, breaking the world hour record twice and gaining the individual pursuit title twice.
His first attempt at the hour record was a phenomenal test of strength and belief in scientific rigor. Failing the hour record on his first attempt in Norway, he decided to attempt it again the very next morning. To stop his body seizing up he drank pints of water beforehand, resulting in several lavatory visits during the night. He would stretch his muscles on getting up and would go back to sleep. To everyone’s surprise, this worked and he took the hour record that morning, merely half an hour after waking up. His time as a record holder was short lived, however, as Chris Boardman beat it less than a week later on a rest day whilst cycling in the Tour De France. Obree reclaimed the record from Boardman, but this was also short lived when he was beaten by Miguel Indurain later that year.
His short record holdings are not a detraction from his ability as a cyclist. At the time of the world hour records, he was racing on his own custom built bike that he nicknamed ‘Old Faithful’. Old Faithful revolutionised the traditional cycling position again, placing the arms under the chest for a more compact and aerodynamic riding position. Other, smaller changes to the bike allowed for a more accommodating ride: smaller cranks so that the feet were closer together; only one front fork and no top tube to stop the knees from hitting the frame. Most famously though, the bike used bearings from a washing machine to allow the cranks to spin faster and smoother. Unfortunately the riding position was so significantly different that the International Cycling Union banned the use of it.
Obree came back with a different cycling position, nicknamed the ‘Superman’. This time the arms were outstretched in front. Obree won the world champion pursuit in Italy with it and it was adapted by various other riders that year, including Chris Boardman, before being banned by the ICU.
Despite the two bans, Obree continues to innovate and engineering amazing bikes. After a long hiatus, Obree is set to break the human powered land speed record on his new steed. The bike this time is a custom built prone bike – one where the rider is lying flat with the head at the front and pedals at the rear. As per Obree’s style, its components aren’t necessarily bike parts – the shoulder rests are bits of a saucepan. Obree must go faster than 82mph to beat the record. It is still to be decided when he will attempt it.