Nearly 300 years after they were written, Jonathan Swift’s words could perfectly describe Graeme Obree’s treatment at the hands of professional cycling’s governing body. A man castigated for triumphing through innovation. In the early 1990’s, the Flying Scotsman broke the World Hour record twice and won the World Championships on two occasions, combining single-minded obsession with a unique investigative engineering nous that propelled him ahead of his much-better funded rivals.
Obree’s aim was simple – to question every element of received wisdom concerning what both his own body and his bike were capable of. From innovative new riding positions to forward thinking design, such as his homemade “Old Faithful” bike, which famously included the bearings from a washing machine, the trailblazer was a cycling pioneer who obsessively studied the physics of bicycle aerodynamics and the biology of oxygen intake. But with every revolutionary step forward he made, the International Cycling Union seemed determined not to see him triumph as they introduced new regulations to thwart the Scotsman’s unique approach to their reactionary sport.
Well documented struggles with depression and mental health issues mean that the road from limelight to now has been anything but smooth. But late last year, a revitalised Graeme announced that he was pitting mind and body against the human-powered land speed record, specifically with an attempt at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge at Battle Mountain, Nevada in September this year.
The nature of the challenge alone is enough to warrant a visit to see him in Saltcoats, Scotland, 45 minutes outside Glasgow where he lives. But the truth is that Graeme Obree is in many ways an embodiment of everything we believe in at Humans Invent. Human ingenuity, dedication to a craft, restless inquisitiveness in search of new ways of tackling old problems; the art of a true craftsman for whom design and innovation are as natural as breathing.
So, let us celebrate this madcap maverick and his marvellous ingenuity. Sitting at his kitchen table, the 46-year-old Scotsman is in his element. He has already begun building his design and every where you look there are sketches, nuts, bolts, and bike frames, that will all be hand-crafted into “Exhibit B” – the name he has given to the vehicle for his record attempt.
No labs, engineers, scientists or testing facilities – simply one man and his accumulated wealth of experience.
So, time to meet an eccentric genius. Inviting us into his flat, he immediately puts the kettle on and exclaims, “if I was Prime Minister I would make it the law that everyone had to play with Meccano for at least one hour of the day; are you listening Mr Cameron?” We hope so. Step inside the mind of Graeme Obree.
Graeme, pleasure to meet you. You have broken World Records before, what excited you about the human powered land speed record?
Well the thing about the human powered land-speed record is that there are no rules. Well, there are, it is just one though – it must be human powered. I have been banned before for trying to bring innovation into sport, so the land-speed record was calling out to me, Graeme, knock yourself out. Go and innovate. It is simple. Go and innovate and build the best bike you can, and then fire up that road as fast as a human being can possibly go. That is the sport. Pure innovation, engineering and athleticism.
I understand this is 15 years in the making for you. When did the light bulb spark with the idea of challenging for another World Record?
To be honest I had a bit of gap decade in my life. There was something burning away at me. Well not a complete gap, I wrote a film and a book. But apart from that I only won a few bike races. It actually came about when I wanted to come back and test for the Hour record again. But my arms would ache after about two minutes, and I thought, I didn’t get into cycling for a test in arm strength. So I thought this new format for the hour record isn’t for me, plus it was too expensive.
So I thought to myself, what was my passion before? What were my strengths? I thought bike design, bike building, and pumping out a lot of energy from my legs. I thought the human powered land speed record is the perfect solution to all those three things. It is actually the complete embodiment of what I am as a human being. No rules and regulations, and it is about pure speed and how fast a human can go – it doesn’t get more exciting than that for me. Flying up a road at 85 MPH! I thought, oh yeah, I am going for that.
Well, I am building my bike in my kitchen. That is the first difference. The reason being, despite people offering me advice and help, I do things my way. I enjoy the thought process. I like to think, ‘I want that like this’, and then to challenge myself and say, but is that right? Should it actually be like this? I enjoy using my logic.
And also for me, all the pleasure would be taken away if it was manufactured and cut and dried. For me this is a form of artistic expression. It isn’t just about the human land speed record.
The main thing is about designing the bike yourself and using the components yourself, and then testing yourself as an engineer. I knew roughly what I wanted in terms of the gears and the step up, but building this bike and then riding it is for me the purest form of artistic expression. It is like singing and writing your own songs, no hold on… it is like choreographing your own dance moves to your own music.
So in this case, what is the song and what are your dance moves?
In this case, they are the design and the build. Your mind at work coupled with the sheer physical effort. You can spend hours fine tuning, and then eventually it comes down to the grr….grunting your way down the road and pushing yourself to limits you could never dream of with the aim of breaking a world record. This is seat of your pants cycling. You know me, I have never bothered with heart rate monitors, or all those gadgets because at some point it comes down to purely a human want – I will win this! It feels right.
My dream was ‘why not have seat of your pants design, seat of your pants build, and seat of your pants cycling – all-in-one!’ Basically hobble this thing together. Actually hobble sounds bad, no really, yes, hobble this thing together with your bare hands and make it work. This is part of the reason I am making everything with steel. Firstly I love steel, I love building bikes from this medium. The other thing is it is a malleable material which means if it is going to break there will be some warning. So if it is going to go wrong and you need to strengthen the steel, you go, ‘I will cut that out and I can alter it’ – just use a little bit of silver solder. There are so many easy and flexible ways to alter steel – it isfascinating. For me it is nothing but steel.
And what about your competitors? Will they be using steel? Or will the majority be using carbon-fibre?
There will be more carbon-fibre than steel, in fact, the majority will be carbon-fibre. Most of these attempts are recumbent now. That is most certainly the so called buzz word. A lot of riders just want to do the same as each other. They settle on the one design and they all focus on how to make the best ‘supine’ recumbent bike (i.e laying on your back). So I have stepped back and said to myself ‘what are my maximum possibilities?’ I have ridden about on a ‘prone’ recumbent bike (i.e lying on your stomach) in the 90s. In fact I specifically targeted it, because it really simply feels more powerful because you are pedaling behind you, and you have the width of your shoulders in front of you, and you staring straight on – forget science – it feels stronger.
What do you think your competitors expect of you?
I think they think I will say, ‘Oh, hold on, I am a bit behind schedule here, can I come back next year?’ Or maybe even not turn up at all. I think most people expect me to turn up and not be conventional. And to be honest the sport is all about not being conventional and instead being innovative – and pushing your creative and mechanical mind. I won’t be turning up in the same recumbent as them, or in similar form to the favourite – I will do it my way. So, I don’t want to disappoint them do I?
This organisation has nothing to do with the cycling fraternity, so I don’t need to make another bike, and from what I know I cannot get penalised for using my mind. The rules are human powered!
I did have a thought process behind it. We have a certain paradigm of thinking, us cyclists. Like, wheels move, but gears change. But I thought, if an alien came down what would he do? Right, I have a flat road and I need to go as fast as I can. If they have no knowledge of cogs, wires or components. What would they use from the universe? I had that thought process. That had me thinking, if I use recumbent technology, and find out how it is humanly possible to trap the heat from your body, and remember, heat is a form of light, so you could trap that energy and try and drive the vehicle forward with a motor that is essentially powered by you.
But that is so complicated and difficult, and we have probably not developed enough in terms of science and other technologies. And I don’t think I could do that in my kitchen. But that was my initial thought process, if you had physical movement and heat, then how much more energy could you use. But I don’t think anybody has tried it.
But ultimately it boils down to what materials I can afford to get in the timescale. And the technology that exists and my own limitations. And that is the design that I am going forward with – I am maximising my possibilities within the constraints that I have.
So you must be fairly confident that if you reach a certain power output you will break the record?
To be honest in theory I can break the world record. But I won’t know if my design stands up until we get there and I am in the middle of the road giving it my best shot. And that is part of the pleasure of it. I have climbed on top of the world’s top driving board and I am saying, come on, watch me. But like anything, until you do it you just don’t know. It is the same with the build, there is an element of trial and error; it is all to do with obsessional behavior. But you can work out at the start what the most important factors are.
Firstly, it is the position of your body. That is the number 1 limiting factor. The width of your shoulders, hips, and feet. Essentially how much you deviate from the air stream to get the energy you want (i.e the most efficient your body can be aero-dynamically). Everything else is you have to roll across the ground and convert the movement you make into energy in an efficient manner. That is what it boils down to. Then the bike has to conform to the shape of the human body.
In a way, what you really want is no bike. No mass at all. If it was possible to convert movement of the body into movement in a flat line with something that has no width and no mass, then ultimately that is the furthest point of what is humanly possible.
If you take it the other way with the human body completely covered over, then if you do maths on the movement for it to deviate from a straight line like a sky diver it is possible to reach 100 mph taking into account atmospheric pressure. So, it not being possible is what the machine takes away from that perfection, in terms of resistance, extra frontal error and aero dynamic resistance. The less machine there is the better.
You mentioned this is down to ‘obsessional behavior’. How would you describe yourself then, a ‘problem solver’ or an ‘innovator’?
If something is possible it impassions me. I am slightly dispassionate about mainstream bikes now. Not in a bad way. I watched the Tour de France and all the events and it is great entertainment with fantastic racing. But I am slightly disappointed with the bike angle of it. Basically everyone is riding about on a glorified safety bicycles. It is the same bike that was put in a museum in 1892. Plus it is all regulated. You cannot go below a certain weight, or width, and that doesn’t inspire me to take cycling any further. Where is the innovation?
On the other hand the human-powered land speed record inspires me mechanically. Lets find proper limits of achievability. I set myself within the parameters of what is humanly possible. But that is purely subjective. Someone might say the saddle must be 5cm behind the bracket, but someone might say it should be 15 cm – this is subjective – it isn’t the laws of nature.
What is going to define how fast I can go is simply the laws of nature. That is it. Newton’s laws of physics. The harsh blood and guts reality of life – that is the constraint. It is simple. And that won’t change over time. In a 100 years, the laws of cycling will have changed, with new rules and regulations. It is the control which doesn’t inspire me. The whole test is therefore arbitrary, where with what I am doing with the land speed record, it is pure. It is not even about battling the other competitors, it is about battling the laws of physics. End of.
Considering the level of detail that goes into your approach. Do you have a pain threshold? Do you even believe in a pain threshold?
Oh yes. I do. And I do have one. But there is a thought process first. I think the worst expression that has ever damaged sport is the phrase ‘no pain, no gain.’ I think what it should be is ‘no effort, no gain.’ I am riding now, and I say that is good effort, which is positive. But I don’t say that is really painful. I would say I have an effort threshold. Which is probably argh…I just cannot get anymore out. It is probably slightly lower than it used to be because I am not as driven as I once was in terms of doing it.
I used to say everything about me as a human being depends on this, but I am still driven to go as fast as I can. When I am in Nevada in perfect conditions I am going to say, right, I am going to earn this. Come on Graeme! This is the moment. And I am going to give it a bloody good effort. That is when you realise nothing else matters. Well, apart from my own criticism and shame…ha ha…but that is engine time. Forget training, it is down to design, build, and firing up that road.
Compared with other riders you are a little older at 46. What effect will this have on your attempt?
No it doesn’t matter. And you wouldn’t have noticed, but I was winning bike races three of four years ago. In fact the late Jason Mcintyre, he was current British champion and we swapped a couple of wins. Now that isn’t bad is it? I cannot have regressed too much.
To be honest, I don’t accept the age thing. Look at Jeannie Longo, she almost got a bronze medal a week before her 50th birthday at the Beijing Olympics. It is a little bit of a myth the age thing. Obviously, it is clear I am not going to be in the same shape as when I won the World Championships, but the main difference it comes down to is the quality of the bike in the frontal area. Not even the quality of the gearing.
There are going to be mechanical losses, and you are going to keep either 90% or 95% of your energy, but that difference isn’t that much. The difference is whether your bike will have a drag factor of 0.12 or 0.1. And that is greater than the difference between a well trained athlete and the world’s top athlete. So the quality of the skin and design is going to be worth so much more than squeezing the last bit of energy out of me, the engine. But, don’t get me wrong. That engine will be as finely tuned as best it can be without killing myself. And that is it. I am stepping out with what I have got from my kitchen. And it is either good enough or it is not.
Ultimately we are going to die. It is a strange statement to make in an interview, but hold on, we are all going to die. You cannot spend half your life sat in your kitchen. You have to have a go.
It is also about using stuff, and recycling stuff – the process is important to me. I am using old stuff, this is like scrapheap challenge. I refuse to own a car because we are turning the planet into a landfill site. So part of this is going green. The other part is about going on an adventure, to have a laugh and do the best that you can. In a lot of ways my message would be more powerful if I didn’t get this record. Part of the remit is to go and enthuse people to have a go. Don’t sit about, because you are going to die.
People ask me what my biggest fear is, and it isn’t crashing this bike at 85 mph and losing skin – it is being 90 and thinking I should have done more. That is the bottom line. There is a theoretical mountain waiting for me to fly up. For me, I want to excite people and give it my best – but ultimately – doing it my way.