I was lucky enough to get hold of Graeme Obree back in 2013 for a chat, and it was that good, I’m re-posting…
After helping to get the word out about the new film about Graeme Obree’s attempt at the world land speed record that is [was] currently in post-production – The Outsider: Graeme Obree’s Story – I decided to chance my arm at wrangling an interview with the legend himself in the hope of further pimping the film.
Well, I say that, but the ulterior motive was, if I’m honest, simply to be able to chat to a man I have admired and respected from afar through the years, since I first became aware of him and his cycling around 1990.
I usually prefer to take excerpts from interviews and to mould them into an article, but such was the enthusiasm barreling down the phone line from Graeme – and indeed, such was the fun I was having – that I’ve decided to simply transcribe the entire interview.
It’s long. but you know what, I do believe that you have the attention span to get through this…
And so, here you have it: Mr. Graeme Obree, in his own inimitable words.
cp: Hello! It’s Lee Rodgers, I’m calling for the interview.
GO: Ah yes hello! Listen, this line isn’t so good, would you mind calling my land line?
cp: I tried that but it didn’t work.
GO: What number did you try?
GO: That’s not right. Try this one. +44XXX-XX-XXXX.
cp: OK will do.
GO: Ok then cheerio.
[A minute ticks by as I am, I have to admit, quite nervous and keep putting in the wrong number, but I get there and finally get through to Graeme again.]
cp: Yes it’s me!
cp: How are you?
GO: I’m actually OK, I’m post-Beastie project if you know… [Beastie is the name of the bike Graeme attempted the record on]
cp: Yep, saw that, I did indeed.
GO: And now I’m wintering it out in Scotland. I’m crouched down here in the midst of the Scottish winter waiting for the spring to arrive.
cp: I’m living in Taiwan where it’s still 20 degrees now in the daytime, we don’t really get a winter! I don’t miss that.
GO: Actually it’s 11 degrees here, light winds and a good riding day.
cp: Well if ever you fancy some winter training, Taiwan is the place to be, I tell ya.
GO: Is it not dead busy roads there? I imagine industry and smoke and over-population and pollution…
cp: It’s funny, before I moved here I thought it would be the same, but most of the population lives on the north and west coasts on the plains, then there’s just these huge mountains and great roads, and it’s very quiet on the east.
GO: Is that right?
cp: Two hours away from me we have a 70km mountain.
GO: Ah fantastic! Oh, I might just- do you need a visa to get out there?
cp: Nope. You can just fly straight out.
GO: Oh great! [Graeme turns to his son who apparently is nearby on the computer] Hey, check out the flights to Taiwan.
cp: [I’m laughing here because I think, naturally, that Graeme’s joking. Turns out, and this is the brilliant part, that he isn’t.]
GO: How much is the accommodation there?
cp: It’s cheap, it’s not like Thailand but it’s certainly cheaper than the UK.
GO: Oh fantastic, well I tell you what, I might just head out there later next week.
cp: Well, I tell you what, you’re more than welcome if you do. And in November, every year, we have the Taiwan KOM Challenge, I’m the Foreign Rider Rep for that. It goes through this beautiful gorge up to 3275 meters, up and up for 105km. If you want, you can come and do that too.
GO: Oh fantastic! I love climbing mountains, that sounds amazing…
cp: Graeme, if you fancy that then yeah, come do it.
GO: That sounds very, very tempting.
cp: I tell you what, give me your email and I’ll send on the info and some links to this year’s race.
GO: Right, have you got a pen?
GO: Hey my son says it’s just 400 quid to go to Taiwan from here.
cp: Cheap as chips.
GO: So, you just get out of the airport and just find some accommodation, is that how it works?
cp: Well if you do come, come to Taichung where I live and I’ll help you sort out a hotel, no worries.
GO: I’ve been looking for somewhere to just get away, because my major project right now – to be honest, I procrastinate too much – but it is, to finish writing down my Survivor’s Guide to Depression. I’ve been promising to get that finished but there’s been distraction after distraction and I’ve been after somewhere to go so, well, Taiwan sounds like a plan.
cp: Why not?!
GO: Then I can get this book done. No telly, no distractions…
cp: My Chinese isn’t that good so the nice thing about the telly here is that I can’t watch it because I don’t understand it…
GO: See here it’s too distracting, doctor shows and all that. When you’re self-employed people think ‘oh he can just float along’ but it’s not like that. I need the whole day to get on with something and if I don’t get that then I get nothing done.
cp: [i understand this only too well, also being self-employed and something of a professional dosser…] I’m the same. I find distractions very, very easy to come by. I’m useless.
GO: Well that all sounds like a right proper adventure…
cp: OK, I’ll send over some details.
GO: Great. Anyway I’m using your phone time to talk about Taiwan! You’re supposed to be interviewing me!
cp: Hahaha, it’s ok, I do feel like the travel board though! Right, shall we get on with this interview? I don’t want to keep you here all day.
GO: Sure, fire away.
cp: Can I just say, before we start, I was a bit nervous about calling you cos I used to watch the battles between you and Chris Boardman [with whom Graeme battled famously for the World Hour Record on his home-made machine] and yeah, it was just great to watch.
[link here to a video about the battle between them for the ’93 World pursuit championships]
GO: Thanks very much, yeah, I suppose between us we caused a bit of excitement there.
cp: Yeah, it was amazing. OK, can you tell me a little about the making of the film that Journey Pictures now has the Kickstarter campaign for?
GO: David Street [the director] worked so hard on it, and well, I worked hard on it too, making dust in the night and buffing shells and, jeez, I’m surprised I don’t look 90, but yeah, David’s been at it for about 21 months in all and there’s been delays and complications…
Wait til you see this documentary. And this is the time now to get it completed so donations are needed and welcome, and it will be I think a very interesting film.
cp: It looks fascinating. I read somewhere that you called this whole thing the ‘Scrapheap Challenge’. How much is the actual process of the build important to you, in comparison with the result?
GO: Absolutely pivotal. If you’re working with good quality steel, and if the design is pretty much tied down in terms of the mechanics, and if you have stability when you’re pedaling and if the cogs are all whizzing and working efficiently, then that’s one aspect of it. There’s only so much you can do with that, if the actual bike is working well.
But in terms of how fast I could have gone, that is something that took a whole big chunk of my time, working on the shell. That’s not my specialty.
cp: So your specialty is the mechanics of the bike.
GO: Yes and I’ve never built a shell in my life! So we started off getting the shell made with some help but the material was just useless and the shape was wrong, and the way we mounted it was wrong too. Fundamentally though the material wasn’t strong enough. I fell over and it just cracked.
Now, the safety of the shell is a big thing for the people running these events, and this first shell just wasn’t strong enough.
So it was a bit of an emergency, and I just decided to take it back and start from scratch on my own. I went into the sitting room and I was just making dust.
There was that much dust sometimes from the buffing machine that you couldn’t see the other side of the room! And I just though ‘Oh no!’, and even now I’m still opening CD cases and finding dust in them…
cp: Was it Dusty Springfield by any chance? [I didn’t say this but damn, I wish I had…]
GO: So this isn’t a great scenario, but it was an emergency, so I was on my own and had to get it done.
cp: The drive to create your own machines, where does it come from? From looking at what’s on offer and thinking ‘No that isn’t good enough’, or from a sense of satisfaction of sticking your nose up at the traditional methods?
GO: Actually it’s more like the old saying, ‘If you want something doing, do it yourself.’ Part of that though is driven by my ignorance. I work from first principles, to work out what works best, rather than relying on actual knowledge. If someone’s trying to give me advice beyond first principles and logic, then I don’t have enough knowledge myself to work out who’s bullshitting and who isn’t.
So, I’d rather get no help than risk getting bullshit. Because I don’t have the knowledge to differentiate between good and bad advice.
cp: I guess if you know it works, it works.
GO: Well, that’s just it, I had no idea what worked. I didn’t have the confidence to say to someone ‘Well you know more than me, please help me’. I didn’t have the capacity to work out who to get to help.
cp: Why do you think that the way you do things resonates so strongly with so many people?
GO: Well, I think that everything is so corporatised and everything appears as though the individual can’t do anything anymore. Even if you’re a schoolkid, it seems as though you need to be a part of a bigger machine.
When I was at school, and I hated school, I used to stare out the window and look at the sky and imagine that I was an explorer. I was gonna go explore the Amazon and discover temples or be like Scott of the Antarctic, and at the point you could still dream of exploring.
cp: Mine was always Captain Cook, sailing into Tahiti…
GO: Right ok, but you take kids nowadays and they think ok well there’s nothing left to discover, nothing left to invent, all you do is become a cog in a machine. And I feel sorry for these kids. I go to do school talks and I tell them not to believe it, that there’s still a lot to discover and still things to do.
cp: I think that’s one of the fundamental reasons the bike is so loved by so many. First off, it’s the last toy from childhood that adults are still ‘allowed’ to play with and second, it actually is freedom.
GO: Oh yeah it is, and it means being a big kid and it’s still acceptable. I remember being about 12 and going into a forest on a bike and getting covered in mud and someone said ‘Aren’t you a bit old for that son?’, but now there’s guys of 50 doing it!
cp: I always thought, some adults, they say ‘right I’m off to Hawaii to live in a hut and surf all day’, and people would say ‘Wow, cool’. But if a cyclist said he was off to live at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, they’d say he was mad…
GO: But these days you can do it. It’s changing. It’s become, well, in a way it’s good and bad. It’s good because it’s become very trendy and more people know about cycling, but the downside is that it has become very middle class. Some people feel alienated by that. If you walk into a bike shop and see $4000 wheels a lot of people think, ‘Oh, wrong sport!’
cp: And of course the sport was originally quite working class…
GO: It was, but many people are alienated and think they have to spend a lot of money when actually they don’t.
cp: And that’s another part of your appeal.
GO: I think so, to show that you can do it on your own, on a shoestring.
cp: I was going to ask you if you weren’t a cyclist, what would you be doing? But I guess you’d be up the Amazon!
GO: Eh, I’d be doing something, obsessively! Or I would have been, until I would then give up that obsessive behaviour. Actually I’ll be covering that kind of behaviour in my Survivor’s Guide to Depression book.
cp: Sometime I do think that I’m just lucky that my obsession is this, and not say heroin. Different people have different pulls.
GO: Exactly, and you know, most successful people are obsessive. And the cause of obsession also causes a weakness, so these people are strong yet also weak.
cp: You’ve had very well-documented run-ins with Hein Verbruggen and the UCI so I won’t go into that, but what is your take on cycling at the top level now, and how do you feel about it all? [Obree famously walked away from a pro road career after being let go by the Le Groupement team, which he put down to his refusal to take banned drugs].
GO: Well, what is the state of the top level? I’m a little out of it now.
cp: Well, with all the scandals going on and the doping revelations, I personally feel like that isn’t even cycling anymore. I feel that the sport is there on Sundays when people go on club runs for 6 hours and come home battered and happy. It’s not this madness at the top, that’s not the sport.
GO: You took the words right out of my mouth. If there was no professional cycling, would cycling be any worse off? It’s about getting out and doing 110 miles on the weekend and getting back and collapsing into the couch. To me that is still what cycling is about. I still don’t own a car because we’re destroying the planet, and I try to encourage people to take up a lifestyle that can change that.
cp: You walked away from a pro career because of doping, but what would you to say to those people who say ‘Well, why not just let them all dope’?
GO: I was brought up to think that cheating is cheating. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t want to dope and so those that do are cheating him. If everyone was doing it then you’d lose the whole image of the sport. It’s about feeling good, and going out, getting the blood flowing, getting some exercise, and to feel great.
Now, doping doesn’t come into that ‘feel great’ scenario…
cp: It’s winning and money.
GO: What’s the point of winning if you know you’ve cheated?
cp: There’s examples of that everywhere now.
GO: It’s mad.
cp: And they’re getting sick now, the old boys. Gert jan Theunisse, remember him?
GO: Yeah, I do.
cp: He’s had multiple heart attacks in the last year…
GO: Ah you’re joking! That’s mad. Right, what I need to do next year is come ride those mountains in Taiwan and it’d be like, ‘I’m 49, this is what happens when you don’t take drugs!’
cp: Exactly! I’m also thinking of co-organising an ‘Ex-Non-Dopers Grand Fondo’. You’d be more than welcome.
GO: Actually, I am interested in doing that…
cp: I’m tired of the ex-dopers still making money and the non-dopers being forgotten.
GO: Well look at Nicole Cook, she’s almost forgotten now already.
cp: I’ll try to get her to do it too.
GO: And she is a fine individual. I wrote a foreword for her book and I don’t even know if it’s come out. [not yet it seems, cp.] The mountains and the Grand Fondo sound right now like a great idea, lying on the couch, but maybe later I’ll go ‘maybe not!’ [much laughter]
cp: OK. Final questions. Fish and chips or salad?
GO: [pauses] Both. The salad being the guilt assuager. That’s what salad is for, to assuage your guilt. So it’s be fish and chips and then the salad and then the guilt is gone.
cp: Ok next- [I’m trying to crack on but Graeme is getting quite into the details now]
GO: But let’s face it, fish and chips aren’t that bad, and I usually have a side serving of broccoli, throw broccoli on with everything and then – you know what? Fish and chips and broccoli, you’re going to go off and burn off 3000 calories on a ride and then that’s ok.
cp: I always tell people not to feel so guilty, you’ve got to live, and the guilt is probably worse for you than the transgression anyway!
GO: That’s exactly right, and I wrote this in my training manual [The Obree Way] if you’re a cyclist then you’re like one of those big ships with the pistons that burn any old shit. Mostly eat healthy but a fish and chips here and there is no problem, go and have your fish and chips.
cp: So many riders seem to be worried about so much these days, there’s that much information out there that they don’t seem to be able to do what comes intuitively.
GO: Again, I wrote about this in my book. With all the stuff out there, if you’re a beginner you’d be overwhelmed.
cp: Would it be a stretch to say that the way you live – and I don’t mean to get too philosophical here – but that the way you live affects how you ride your bike? I mean, you live once, why not just have a go?
GO: At the end of the day, you’re on your deathbed and you say, ‘Well, what did I do?’ People have to be more flexible because unless you are totally obsessed you have to have friends and a social life, you have to have a life.
cp: Penultimate question. Why should people donate to the Kickstarter fund?
GO: Because they get something back from it. Depending on the amount you put in, you get something different back, like a DVD or a poster or what have you. [click here for more details]
cp: Last question. Why do you ride?
GO: Because I love it. Yeah, that’s it.
cp: Good answer.
GO: Yeah, because I love it.
cp: Well thank you Graham, that was fantastic.
GO: Thank you too, it was quite enlightening.
cp: I’d say exactly the same thing.
GO: I do appreciate the interest.
cp: You know, of all the cyclists I respected and I admired when I was a kid, I think you’re the last man standing.
GO: Well thanks very much, it’s a shocking state of affairs, how it all went down, but never mind, can’t be helped.
cp: Ok Graeme, cheers!
and there ended the most interesting interview I’ve ever done. stay tuned for more info on the film as and when it comes in!