Graeme Obree: “Cycling is my way out of my struggles”

Cycling maverick Graeme Obree on his mental health struggles, being gay – and how he went from failing PE to becoming a world champion

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time watching the weather forecast because I wanted to go out on my bike. I haven’t changed much. Even then, I thought a lot about what I could do to make the bike better, upgrade it, change it, make it lighter, make it go faster. I’d always liked model making. I loved plasticine for years, up until I was at least 13. I was terrible for that. But bikes were my main vehicle for obsessional behaviour.

People who are fully content with life don’t get up at 6am and ride up and down a dual carriageway

I hated PE. Of the 60 or 70 people who the school put through the exam, I was the only male who failed Physical Education. Maybe the only one ever who went from failing PE to becoming a sporting world champion. I was so exhausted doing my sport I had no energy for PE. I spent my weekends doing about 250 miles up mountains in the Highlands on my bike, so I was slumping over my desk come Monday morning.

Through my childhood I dreamed of being an explorer. I wasn’t content with where I was or who I was. I haven’t been my whole life. I always wanted to be somewhere else, in some other time. Anywhere but here, right now. It was about escapism, and my bike was the vehicle of freedom. I was a bit directionless at school, but I was in total control on a bike. I didn’t feel I had any talent, so when I won a bike race I thought oh wow, amazing. It wasn’t like, take that, ‘get it up ye’. It was more, wow, I’ve achieved this thing.

Graeme Obree with ex-wife Anne and son Ewan in 1993
Graeme Obree with ex-wife Anne and son Ewan in 1993

When I started tampering, taking spokes out of wheels, drilling holes, squashing things, people told me, oh you can’t do that! And I said, well I can. Sometimes things would break and I’d know I’d taken them too far. But I wanted to know the limits of things. A lot of people would focus on the weight of the bike when it came to wondering how fast it could go – I was more focused on taking things out of the airstream, making it more aerodynamic [it was on his own creation, ‘Old Faithful’,  fashioned from scrap metal and washing machine bearings, that he broke the World Hour Record in 1993].

I was generally struggling in my life when I was 16. I remember my last day of school, just walking across the playground, no hope or aspiration for the future. If you think of the end of The Hulk, he just walks off into the distance, a forlorn figure. That was me leaving school, off into the rest of my life. There was no prom or anything like that for me. Remember, this was also a time when we all thought we were going to get blown up by the Russians any day. If there’s anything I’d like to tell my teenage self, it would be – here I am, 40  years later, and it’s fine! We didn’t get blown up!

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I wouldn’t tell my younger self he was gay because then my kids might not be here. ‘Thanks dad, blow us up into thin air!’ I wouldn’t want my younger self to have that explained to him anyway because ignorance was part of my journey. What I could tell myself is, there will be a lot of mental anguish [he struggled for years with severe depression and was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder], you’ll end up being who you are because of how you deal with that. People who are fully content with life don’t get up at 6am and ride up and down a dual carriageway. Being discontent means you always want more. I became world champion and found that my sense of fulfilment faded like the centre of a flower. But now, these days, I’ve finally learned to live in the moment. I haven’t used anti-depressants for four years. Everything I’ve done to get to this place is to do with how I handled adversity.

Graeme Obree

For years and years I was an underachiever. I sat in my comfort zone. I was just thinking, I’m a bit short of money, when’s the next bike race. It was partly to do with finding some worth in myself. I had to win a race. Then I started thinking about the process of a human being on a bicycle and how fast they can get through the atmosphere. I thought, let’s look at this in terms of physics. I always had a bit of a gift for physics, that kind of thinking came naturally. Working out how to use that knowledge to get faster became a bit of an addiction. When I broke the World Hour Record [in 1993] Chris Boardman broke my record right away, but that made me work to go faster and break it again. Even when I became world champion [the Individual Pursuit, 1993] it wasn’t enough. I had to do it again.

Even when I became world champion it wasn’t enough. I had to do it again

I didn’t take it personally when the cycling authorities banned my riding position [The Tuck]. It wasn’t about me – if the wee guy down the street had done the same, he’d have had the same response. But it was annoying. It wasn’t nice. But if you look at the line of destiny it couldn’t have worked out better. Because banning that led to me inventing The Superman [with arms fully extended]. So I have no problem with that.

If I wanted to tell my 16-year-old self about my biggest single achievement, it would be talking to you right now without the need of psychiatric pills. Or wanting to go to the off-licence. I think he’d understand that – I was always looking for inspiration, reading quotes from famous people. Napoleon said you can’t do anything about the past, and you can only change the future by doing something in this moment.

I’m 52 now, and I still cycle everywhere. I refuse to have a car. I rarely use public transport. Unless it’s a blizzard I cycle. I love being out on the open road, and being in the moment. Everyone knows my struggles in life – my cycling is my way out of them. If I have to have a business meeting I check the weather and if it’s going to be nice I tell them I’m going to be tied up that day. I try to arrange meetings for wet days.

If I had my teenage self sitting right in front of me and I told him they’d make a film [The Flying Scotsman in 2006, trailer above] about him one day, he’d laugh his head off and tell me I’d had a bad mushroom. The way I left school? That useless guy? No. I’m too close to have any perspective, but I did like the film. The thing I liked best about it was that the main character survives in the end.

The Obree Way: A Training Manual for Cyclists by Graeme Obree is out now (Bloomsbury Sport, £16.99)