Graeme Obree

Ayrshire’s Cycling World Champion

by David Milloy

With the UCI Cycling World Championships coming to Scotland later this year, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the considerable achievements of a cyclist brought up in Ayrshire.

Born in Warwickshire to Scottish parents, Graeme was brought up in Ayrshire from an early age. Sadly, as the son of a policeman, Graeme was bullied at school, causing him to become increasingly withdrawn during his childhood.

Cycling was, however, a shining light in his life. He was already a keen cyclist when, aged 15, a classmate invited him to come to a meeting of Wallacehill Cycling Club in Kilmarnock. The result was that Graeme immersed himself in cycling. So much so that by the early 1990s he had become one of the UK’s top time-trialists.

Then as now, it took money as well as talent to dine at cycling’s top table, and Graeme had little of the former. Having seen his rival, Chris Boardman, win the 1992 Olympic Individual Pursuit gold medal on a £250,000 bike made by Lotus, Graeme decided to build his own bike. Made largely using carefully adapted spare parts and, famously, bearings from a washing machine, it cost rather less than the Lotus bike. About £249,900 less.

Armed with his new bike and a using a riding posture – a crouched position in which his arms were tucked in – that helped him to cleave the air more easily, he went for it. He came close to breaking the one-hour world record, set at altitude and regarded as the toughest of nuts to crack, on his first attempt at London. He then went to Oslo, where his first effort at breaking the record went poorly. To the amazement of all, he was back on the track the following morning. This time he succeeded, beating the previous record by 445 metres. Next up was an assault on the 1993 World Individual Pursuit Championship. He beat Chris Boardman in the semi-finals and went on to win the gold medal, having broken the world record in both the semi-final and final.

He again broke the one-hour world record in 1994 but his effort to defend his World Individual Pursuit Championship ended in somewhat controversial circumstances. Firstly, he was obliged to change the style of saddle fitted to his bicycle. Then, about an hour before his qualifying run, he was told that he would have to change his cycling position due to a rule so new that it hadn’t even been committed to writing, and about which he had received no warning. When he understandably chose to ignore the new rule, he was disqualified.

Graeme’s answer was to develop a new cycling style which soon became known as the ‘Superman’ position. He returned to the World Championships in 1995 and once more took gold in the Individual Pursuit.

It’s the stuff of Hollywood films, and indeed his story made it to the silver screen in 2007. The film, ‘The Flying Scotsman’, is based on Graeme’s searingly frank autobiography of the same name, although it’s somewhat lighter in tone. Filmed partly in Ayrshire, it features an excellent cast that includes Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Boyd, Laura Fraser, and Brian Cox. Although it didn’t find the audience it deserved, it’s a wonderfully uplifting film about a remarkable man’s battle against personal and sporting challenges.

And lest you think that his success was purely down to his innovations, tests carried out in an F1 team’s wind tunnel in 2018 showed that whilst the crouch position did give him an aerodynamic advantage (countered by the muscular effort needed to maintain the position), the aerodynamic advantage given by his later ‘Superman’ position riding posture was negligible. They proved what many knew all along – he’s not only a very clever engineer but also one heck of an athlete.