Graeme Obree: Bike Geek

Graeme Obree and the World Hour Record.

Obree Photo
Former World Hour Record holder, Graeme Obree.

Most Americans’ knowledge of cycling begins and ends with Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France. But in Europe—where fan interest is high and press coverage extensive—cyclists are household names. And while the Tour de France is the sport's most famous and lucrative race, the World Hour Record (WHR) might be its most coveted record. The prestige of the WHR comes as a surprise to many. After all, it’s a simple race-against-the-clock event: Get on a bike; ride it around a velodrome (a circular, banked bicycle track) for sixty minutes; then count the laps and the fractions thereof. 

But simple is not the same as easy, especially in cycling, which is primarily a “pain” sport. In 1972, Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx set the WHR in Mexico City, covering 49.431 kilometers (or 30.53 miles, for those of you not living in a metric world). A five-time Tour de France winner, Merckx said it was the hardest thing he had ever done, and many believe he was never the same afterward. Since Merckx is generally considered the greatest cyclist who ever lived, that ride sealed the Hour Record’s reputation. 

The list of WHR holders reads like a pantheon of the sport and includes Francesco Moser, Miguel Indurain and the aforementioned Merckx. But there is one rider on the list who stands apart, an unlikely and ungainly champion, who, despite breaking the Hour Record multiple times, never achieved the fame and notoriety of his contemporaries. Ultimately, he was defeated by men with tape measures, and by his own obscurity. This is the story of Graeme Obree.

Ride The Wind

When Merckx set his record he utilized state-of-the-art technology and took advantage of favorable local conditions. To begin with, Mexico City’s high altitude and correspondingly thinner air reduced air resistance. As for his bike, Merckx had the best, as in lightest, bicycle available. Titanium (at the time a truly exotic material) figured prominently in its construction. Many parts were milled and drilled to remove excess grams. The final product weighted just over twelve-and-a-half pounds.

Some 12 years later, an Italian named Francesco Moser took things a step further and, as a result, smashed Merckx's record, covering 51.151 kilometers (over a mile further). First, Moser used scientific training methods to optimize his metabolism for the energy demands of the Hour Record. (Merckx had a simpler training method: “Ride lots”). More importantly, Moser considered aerodynamics, riding a "funny” bike with reduced frontal area and solid disk wheels. They were heavy, but unlike regular spoked wheels, they slipped through air, rather than churning through it like an eggbeater. 

Merckx, by then retired, was not pleased. When asked what he though about Moser's new record, he sneered that it was “a triumph of technology.” 

Government Regulation 

Merckx was not alone in his ambivalence toward technology. Although hardware plays an important role in cycling, its application is closely regulated by the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). Each year the UCI issues strict regulations on what constitutes a competition-legal bicycle. In turn, bicycle designers rack their brains to find ways around the rules. Moser’s bike serves as a good example. The UCI bans all fairings and other “non-structural” pieces designed to increase a bicycle's aerodynamics. The disk wheels were designed to exploit a loophole in the rule. The flat, aerodynamically slippery sides were structural members of the wheels; tensioned sheets of carbon fiber substituted for spokes. Therefore, the wheels followed the letter of the regulations (if not the spirit), and opened a new era of aerodynamics in bicycle racing.

Great Scot 

WHR holders generally have certain things in common: They come from cycling strongholds like Italy or Switzerland; They win major road races; Their ability to do so makes them famous and wealthy (by European standards, if not those of the NBA or NFL). 

By contrast, Obree was poor and hailed from Scotland, hardly a cycling hotbed. He never won a major road race. Being unknown, he didn’t have sponsors furnishing him with exotic bikes. In fact, he built his first record-setting bike in his garage, from among other things, a piece of a washing machine he found lying alongside the road. The total cost of Obree's bike—which he dubbed “Old Faithful”—was just £70, which gives you some idea of his net worth. 

Tuck and Roll

While Obree was not an untalented cyclist, his real gift was a willingness to experiment. Obree found a way to be more aerodynamic, and therefore more efficient than his better-known contemporaries. 

Moser's mid-’80s “funny bike” was the first generation of aerodynamic advances. A second wave of innovation hit in the late ’80s, when cyclists came to realize that a rider’s aerodynamics made a bigger difference than a bicycle's, on the order of nine to one. Greg LeMond won the Tour de France using special aero handlebars for certain portions of the event. LeMond positioned his arms close together in front of the body, much like a skier’s tuck. His victory, not to mention the handlebars, made a huge splash in the cycling press. 

Obree took the idea one step further. Positioning the arms in front of the torso redirected airflow around the body. But did that truly minimize frontal area? What if the arms were folded into the body, like in the down position of a push-up? 

The position had some disadvantages. Bike handling was abominable. Even on a smooth track, riding in a straight line was difficult. Not surprisingly, it was also uncomfortable. To make matters worse, it looked awkward in a sport where poor aesthetics can win races, but never admiration.

Nevertheless, Obree's “tuck” was fast, a fact that became undeniably apparent on July 17, 1993, when Obree-who at this point was completely unknown-ventured to Hamar, Norway, and set a new Hour Record of 51.596 kilometers. The cycling world was stunned. He eclipsed Moser’s record—which had stood for nearly a decade—by just over a quarter mile. Even more impressive was that he did it at sea level (which cost him a kilometer per hour in speed).

A Rival Emerges 

Chris Boardman, like Obree, was a race-against-the-clock specialist from the British Isles. That was where the similarities ended and the enmity began. Boardman was an Olympic champion, a respected member of the Continental road-racing elite who looked and acted the part. He was everything Obree was not.

Independently of Obree’s off-the-radar preparations, Boardman was also training for an assault on the Hour Record. On July 23, 1993 (using a “conventional” aero position), he pushed the Hour Record to 52.27 kilometers, outdistancing Obree by nearly a half mile. 

Obree took this affront personally; his record had been surpassed in less than a week. His first measure of revenge was to win the pursuit event (a four-kilometer chase) at the World Track Championships that fall, easily putting away Boardman in the semi-final. 

However, snatching back the record took nine months of preparations. In April, 1994 Obree went to Bordeaux-the same track Boardman used to set his record- and raised the bar another quarter mile, finishing at 52.713 kilometers. 

Broken Record

By this time, the fans and European sporting press were going crazy. Not surprisingly, the hoopla attracted the attention of other riders, the crème de la crème. 

To them, Obree was a nobody. As for Boardman, he was cycling’s version of a special teams player. His job was to win the short time trial that was always the first stage of the Tour de France. Boardman was never considered a contender to actually win the Tour (it lasts three weeks), but the free publicity it gave his sponsors more than justified his salary. 

The men who were contenders decided that the WHR was theirs for the taking. Miguel Indurain was the first of the marquee riders to succeed. Indurain was a freak of nature, with abnormally large lungs and heart. His outsized vital organs helped him to five consecutive Tour de France victories, largely because of his talents against the clock. On the track at Bordeaux, Indurain upped the Hour Record to just over 53 kilometers.

Next up was Tony Rominger. A perennial Tour de France favorite, he never managed to capture the big prize. However, the Tour is about strategy and being a complete bike rider; the Hour Record is about concentration and raw power. Rominger had enough of those qualities to best Indurain's mark in October 1994. Two weeks after that Rominger elevated his own record, finishing at an incredible 55.291 kilometers.

Attack of the Killer Officials

At this point, Rominger expected that his record was safe. After all, he had racked up the biggest leap forward (2.25 kilometers) since Merckx in 1972. He also had a bit of good fortune: Obree was out of the picture, thanks to the UCI commissaires. 

The harassment began at the 1994 World Track championships. When Obree came to defend his pursuit title, the officials said his bicycle was illegal on account of the seat. Obree borrowed a legal one and was allowed to start. After his qualifying run, the judges decided that it was his position on the bike that was illegal, and sent him home.

Meanwhile, sports scientists examined Rominger’s conventional position and his speed, and estimated that he generated over 700 watts for the course of his record-setting ride. Rightfully, this was considered phenomenal. (For reference: your local hotshot cyclist would be hard-pressed to sustain 300 watts). With aerodynamics held constant, it seemed unlikely that someone would be able to match, let alone beat Rominger’s performance.

Feeling Like A Superhero 

But Obree was persistent. The new rules prohibited riding with one's arms up against the chest. Why not then stick the arms straight forward, like a superhero in flight? 

Like Obree’s tuck, the “Superman” position did not make for good bike handling. If anything, it was even more uncomfortable, and it looked worse than it felt. Superman bikes had long handlebar extensions on the front, as spindly and gawky as Obree himself. But Superman lived up to the other Obree tradition; it was fast. In fact, it was even faster than the tuck position. Obree proved it himself, wresting back his World Pursuit title in 1995. 

The Superman position also had one quality that the tuck never did, a feature that no doubt alarmed the rule-makers at the UCI: It was becoming popular. Superman wasn’t just an upstart Scot thumbing his nose at the blue-blazered commissaires. The Italians and even the French were using Superman. In 1996, timed events on the velodrome were dominated by riders with extended handlebars. Before long even Chris Boardman was putting the Superman position to effective use.

The Rival's Finest Hour

Boardman was a proud man, but not a blind one. He got on the Superman bandwagon and scheduled a WHR attempt in Manchester, England. The big question was could he hold so uncomfortable a position for an hour? It put great stress on the shoulders and what Monty Python used to call “the naughty bits.” Twice during his ride Boardman had to break his rhythm to relieve the pressure, but he succeeded. With one minute to go, he had already eclipsed Rominger’s record, and when the final buzzer sounded, he had covered 56.375 kilometers. 

Boardman circled the track to the thunderous cheers of his countrymen. On the infield, he was embraced by Merckx (now a bike manufacturer), whose decals graced Boardman’s bike. There was no such embrace from Obree. 

Ixnay On The Obree 

At this point, Obree’s greatest rival had taken the Hour using his idea, a fact that vexed the introverted and eccentric Scot. He began preparing to reclaim his crown and his brainchild. He had every reason to feel confident. After all, he had beaten Boardman at the World Pursuit Championships in 1993 and ’95, and likely would have done so in ’94 if the UCI hadn't banned his bike at the event. 

But Obree never got the opportunity to prove whose Superman was superior. Shortly after Boardman’s record ride, the UCI banned the Superman position. It was a simple matter of forbidding any bicycle whose handlebars extended too far in front. Even more galling, they forbade future use of the position, assuring that Boardman’s record would stand. 

In September 2000, the UCI retired the WHR and Boardman's ride was dubbed the “Best Hour Performance.” A new set of rules was established for the WHR: One had to use a bike virtually identical to Merckx’s, right down to the frame construction and the number of spokes in the wheels. To inaugurate the new rules, they invited a cyclist to go after Merckx’s old record. The rider was Boardman, who made it his final ride before retiring “on top.” Boardman eclipsed Merckx by ten meters and more than 25 years of history were wiped from the books.

Conform Or Be Cast Out

Ironically, Obree did have one opportunity to become respectable, when, in the wake of setting his initial record in 1993, he was offered a position on a Continental road team. It went badly, and he returned home in a few months, to do things his way. Either Obree didn’t understand or didn’t care about the consequences of this decision.

By abandoning the cycling establishment Obree broke the rules of who is permitted to be a champion. Not only was Obree unwilling to pay his dues he didn’t look or act like a world class cyclist; he didn’t have what bike fans call panache. “He got publicity for being so different and he wouldn't conform,” said Boardman last month in an interview with the Edinburgh Evening News.

Although Obree earned the respect of many who initially laughed at him, these weren’t the people making the decisions about who would compete or how. The UCI didn't think Obree deserved to be a champion, and they saw to it that he didn’t remain one. They also prevented his type from sullying the record books again.

Postscript 

On December 17, 2001, Obree—who three years ago was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression—was found unconscious, hanging from the rafters of a barn near his home in rural Scotland. At last word, he was back from the hospital and recovering at home with his wife and two children. In an article in The Scotsman, his wife Anne attributed the suicide attempt to his illness and holiday depression. “Christmas is always an emotional time for Graeme because his brother died in a car crash and isn’t around,” said Mrs. Obree. 

It appears that professional setbacks may have also contributed to Obree’s depression. An announced Hour Record attempt in December of 2000 was scrapped, ostensibly because of a viral infection. And this past August he crashed into a concrete barricade during a training ride, suffering a broken breast bone and career threatening knee injury. 

At the moment, Obree’s comeback is on the back burner as his injuries heal and he adjusts to new anti-depressant medication. However, Mrs. Obree is confident that Graeme can get through these trying times with the support of his family. “We just have to get on with our lives as we have in the past when we have suffered setbacks,” she said. 

Meanwhile, even his longtime rival is having trouble coming to grips with Obree’s suicide attempt. “I can’t comprehend it,” said Boardman. “He’s always been a great bike rider, better than he knew, in fact. I just hope he recovers now.” 

John Stesney is a longtime cyclist and bike geek. He expects hate mail from both Obree and Boardman fans. His work has appeared in Cycle California! and Bike magazine.

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