Thursday, August 5, 2021
HomeOtherBook Reviews"The Flying Scotsman" by Graeme Obree-Putting the Record Straight

“The Flying Scotsman” by Graeme Obree-Putting the Record Straight


Let me first say this is firstly a review of the Graeme Obree autobiography, the book – not the film – “The Flying Scotsman”, and also my version of the events at the world cycling championships in Sicily in 1994.

Have you seen this man?
Have you seen this man?

I was the Great Britain team mechanic for those championships, but Mr. Obree didn’t remember to mention this fact in his book. You could call this the bitter out-pouring of a man scorned, but rather it’s just my memory of what happened.

The book is very interesting; it gives the reader an insight into the thoughts of a top class athlete, a bit of a wacky one, but defiantly an individual, a one-off.

Like all geniuses, Graeme doubts himself, thinks he’s a failure to the point of trying to commit suicide on three occasions.

His story is a compelling read in the same way Lance Armstrong’s “It’s not about the bike”.

The difference is that Armstrong battles against his illness (cancer) to win out in the end, Graeme has his illness (bipolar affective disorder) with him all the time and possibly it will win.

The stories of his early years of cycling in Scotland brought back a lot of memories for me, I am older and did my cycling from Glasgow, 30 miles north of Ayrshire where Obree started, but the experiences would be the same for a lot of people. I don’t know if cyclists in other countries have a thing called a “drum-up” (a fire lit to heat up cups of tea) or not, but I’m sure suffering cold, exhaustion and hunger is a universal thing with all cyclists.

Proof that Graeme has shaved his legs at least once in his career.
Proof that Graeme has shaved his legs at least once in his career.

Obree’s descriptions of how he built his own frame and components are as fantastic as they are innovative. A sad story of a bright flame that burnt very quickly. One of his escapes from reality on a touring holiday to Spain, he visited a bullfight, from his description of the fight and of how the bull was killed, he didn’t understand it, but at least he visited one which is more than most tourist would do. This is a very good book and a must to read, except for one omission – me!

In the book his recounting of the Worlds Championships of 1994 on the Italian island of Sicily, Graeme said the manager was also the mechanic – this is not correct as I was the mechanic for the track, time trial and the road events which at that time were all held in the same place, unlike now, as the track and road are in different venues.

All the team flew down except me and the masseur, Gordon Johnston; we had a 3 day drive from England through France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland and to drive the full length of Italy to the island of Sicily’s capital Palermo, a bit tiring but a great 3 days that we managed to do in a day and a half on the return journey.

Sicily is a beautiful place scarred with flower wreaths on all the roads, not from accidents but from mafia killings, which was a bit worrying. A judge had his house at the back of the team hotel, he had armed soldier guards on sentry duty and when he came home for lunch it was like a military operation with three cars and 20 armed guards in tow. When some fireworks went off one night during dinner, tourists stood up to look out the window while locals hid under the tables.

Like all good riders, Graeme doesn't stand when he can sit, or sit when he can lie down. Or stay awake when he can sleep, for that matter.
Like all good riders, Graeme doesn’t stand when he can sit, or sit when he can lie down. Or stay awake when he can sleep, for that matter.

The team was in Sicily a week before the championships to get used to the track and everything, but no-one could get used to the heat, even the Italians from Milan and Rome referred to Sicily as ‘Africa’. Most days were in the 40’s :ºC with humidity over 80%, all training and racing was to be done either in the morning or evening, but the main problems were the UCI and the way they just did not want Graeme Obree to ride.

We had three commissaries examining Graeme’s “Old Faithful” every day to see if it conformed to the rules. First the saddle was “too far forward”, and then it wasn’t “commercially available”, as we had bent it a little, I suggested turning the saddle round, pointing the other direction, that didn’t go down well!

Then after I had asked one of the workers from the track to bring his child’s saddle from home they just made up a new rule on the spot to stop him.

During this time I also had to build up Chris Boardman’s gold medal wining Lotus bike. I had to saw the carbon frame’s built-in seat pin to the correct length and drill 2 holes for the clamp; it has to be right first time as there is no adjustment. I was sweating a lot, and it had nothing to do with the temperature.

Graeme had unveiled his new bars, which became his superman position a year later. At the time he didn’t like them, and they ended up in a Sicilian dustbin!

Boardman went on to take the gold medal and Graeme was disqualified after a farce of a qualifying ride where he was 4th. Fastest through an obstacle course of judges and commissaries.

Graeme in his soon-to-be-banned-AGAIN position, this time: Superman.
Graeme in his soon-to-be-banned-AGAIN position, this time: Superman.

The other rider I was looking after was Paul Curran, who was riding the last ever Motor-paced world champs. His pacer was the famous Joop Zijlaard – a real character, and in the qualifying ride all was going well, Paul was sitting in fourth position and ready to pass the Austrian pairing to go through to the final.

Every time they tried to pass, the Austrian moved up the track to close the door on them. This happened three times; on the fourth occasion Joop reached across and shook the handlebars of the Austrian pacer, all at over 50 mph: frightening!

After the race some journalists came to talk to Paul about his ride, and one of them asked him how much his bike was worth. Under the circumstances (that that was the last ever motor-paced world champs), I said “f**k all now!”. I don’t think that’s what got printed.

Not much else of any excitement happened at the track except on the last night the local kids stole most of the car wheels from the car park, then it was off to Catania for the time trial.

We were going to be faced with the same problems for Graeme as he was going to use “Old Faithful” again.

Chris Boardman had lent him his Look tri-bar and stem set up so all should be legal, so we set off on a trial ride on the course. Half way along a dual carriageway Graeme stopped for some adjustments on his bike, gave me the bike and got into the car: he had stopped right next to a decomposing dog that he and the others had spotted earlier. Phew! That dog stunk!

Work had to be done to Graeme’s training bike as the saddle kept slipping down, so a handy drink (I think it was Aquarius) can was soon cut for a shim to fit down the seat tube and then Graeme could go training up the smoking Mount Etna.

Graeme and Al enjoy the moment.

The time trial started with us in the team car and all the press cars and TV motorbikes behind us. You couldn’t see for vehicles and the noise was unbelievable.

As the ride went on Graeme went slower and one by one the cars and bikes disappeared until it was only us and a commissar.

Chris Boardman won his second gold medal and we had to move on Agrigento for the pro road champs and another cycling Scotsman, Robert Millar – but that’s another story…

Pick something else from: the Bookshelf.

Al Hamilton
Al began racing on the Scottish roads as "wee nipper" of 17 years. This led him to England where he continued racing and began working in a bike shop. A friendly connection through Paul Sherwin landed Alastair a mechanic's job for Raleigh-Banana team, which raced in Holland, Spain, France, Belgium & Britain, and subsequent postings with several teams including BCF, PCA and the F.S.Maestro team; and races including the World Champs, Kellogs Tour, Milk Race, Cuircuit de la Sarthe, Nissan Classic, G.P. Formies, Isgebergs, Wincanton Classic, lots of Belgian semi-classics and kermesses, and many other races he "can't remember"!

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