In his pursuit for the world speed record for human-powered vehicles, ‘Flying Scotsman’ Graeme Obree may finally have found an endeavour that combines his athletic and engineering gifts.
Saltcoats has its best suit on the day The Red Bulletin visits Graeme Obree, but it’s a little threadbare and is clearly hanging on old bones. Glorious morning sunshine adorns the seaside town that was a popular tourist destination for Glaswegians in the 20th century before cheap air travel diverted the holidaymakers elsewhere.
Nowadays, Saltcoats is better known as a recession-hit centre of unemployment and social unrest. It’s against this slightly grim backdrop that Obree, the twice world track pursuit champion and former holder of the blue riband hour record, a man once dubbed “Mad, Brilliant and Human” by l’Equipe newspaper, is planning another world record assault. Except this time, and for the first time in his sporting career, he doesn’t care if he gets the record.
As far as Graeme Obree is concerned, success in his bid for the world land speed record aboard his self-designed and built HPV (human-powered vehicle) in Nevada this September is about enjoying the journey and making sure he retains his carefully nurtured health along the way. “You get to a certain point where you can’t put yourself right, clinically you’re actually depressed. And a lot of people are. But I’m not, at the moment, so I don’t want to lay the groundwork, the path that will allow me to get to that. And one of the pathways to that would be‚ ‘I would rather die than not break that record’. If I said that, I should be instantly stopped from doing it.”
A quick Google search reveals plenty who view Saltcoats as somewhere to escape from, but for Obree, who has lived in various parts of surrounding Ayrshire for most of his life, the town has been a refuge from the torment that has stalked him in the years since he stopped competing.
“In the 1990s, my survival depended on my next result”
“I haven’t exactly been mister reliable in the last 12 years,” he admits at one point, delivering the line with a sheepish grin as if apology was somehow necessary for the hermit-like existence that followed when his glittering track racing career came to an end. The crippling depression which has afflicted him throughout a life punctuated by at least three suicide attempts and countless stultifying lows had only been staved off intermittently by the highs of competition and those two world hour records and double world championship successes of the ’90s.
“At that time, my actual survival as a human being, emotionally, depended on my next result. Seriously depended on it. I was as good as my next result.”
Without the distraction of racing, which had brought with it added pressures to go with occasional, fleeting euphoria, the demons had to be finally faced head on, and a long personal voyage of therapy and examination has only recently resulted in a return to the public eye. Now, at 46, it looks as if Obree has finally found a way to express his twin talents for engineering innovation and world-class athleticism in a package that won’t put undue pressure on his health.
Canadian Sam Whittingham has held the world land speed record for HPVs on and off since 1998 and, after a series of improvements in vehicles designed by Bulgarian-born Georgi Georgiev, left the current mark at 82.819mph over a measured 200yd at Battle Mountain, Nevada in 2009.
Early this year Obree announced that he would pitch for the world record at the IHPVA World Championships in Battle Mountain this September and, perhaps a little impulsively, declared that his design should theoretically be capable of 100mph. For Obree, a man whose developments in riding position and bicycle design pitched him into a series of unwanted battles with UCI officials in the more conventional and hidebound cycling arena back in the 1990s, it’s like coming home.
“I was in this in the ’90s,” he announces in his thick, rapid-fire brogue. “I became a bit cynical about the sport with the drug taking and all that and the rule changes and the restrictions. You couldn’t innovate any more, and it’s all tied down. “I thought about getting into this HPV business, because there are no rules apart from the laws of physics. There’s no real man-made rules apart from, you’ve got to have a flat road and the conditions of it. So, I thought, that is my thing.”
Read the full story in September's issue of The Red Bulletin.