An evening with Graeme Obree
Last night I went to Henley-on-Thames to see and listen to Graeme speak, to mark the Opening of Athlete Service. I was invited by one of my newest friends, David W. Thanks David! And thanks also to Clarry for putting me up and putting up with me.
Immediately we entered the shop I spotted the man himself, chatting. I couldn’t have been more star struck if Eric Cantona was in the room. As anyone who has known me for years can vouch, that is the highest praise.
One of the greatest moments of my life came in February 1994 when, at an away game at QPR, I actually touched the Frenchman’s head. 21 years later I can still remember the granite cranium, covered with a shortly cropped, but thick shock of hair. The main man, in the best team I ever saw. They were men, too, unlike the collection of prima donnas, divers and cheats currently doing great injustice to the shirt (and all the other shirts). But this is a cycling blog, not football.
A few months before my brief meeting with Le Roi, Graeme Obree broke the hour record for the first time. I couldn’t have been less aware of that if I’d been on the moon. I was totally disinterested in cycling until the late noughties. It’s to my lasting regret, but I can’t do anything about that now, can I?
Much of Graeme’s talk centred around the first hour record, the fact that he failed initially to break it, only to try again successfully the next day. That, as he eloquently put, is one of the things that will be left rattling around in his colander, when all the other stuff has drained away. I find it difficult to comprehend this true story, having recently watched a number of the contemporary “hours”, including the aftermath of Dame Sarah Storey’s attempt, where she was collapsed on the floor receiving oxygen through a mask. How can you go through that, fail and then almost immediately resolve to have another go tomorrow? His reasoning is that he needed the hour record like a human needs air. He didn’t want it, like I want to break 20 minutes for 10 miles. He needed it. Second time around, he was going to get the record, or he was going to die. That sounds dramatic and far fetched, but you need to see his eyes when he explains that.
Of course I don’t know what it takes to compete like that I don’t mean in terms of talent – I genuinely have no clue about that – I mean desire. I try as hard as I can in my 10 and 25 mile races, and yes afterwards I think “phew, that was jolly hard”. I’m aware of sore and tired legs afterwards, but y’know after a little while I get on with my day as if nothing has happened. These guys aren’t doing that. They’re digging a lot deeper than I am. It occurred to me that when my achievements are sifted, we’ll need a sieve, not a colander to catch them. Maybe even a filter paper. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t bug me. I still have time to turn the fine powder into slightly coarser grains!
So it was fascinating to hear Graeme’s explanation of how that first record came to pass. I didn’t learn anything new, his story is out there already in books, films, website articles and YouTube videos. I have read and watched most, if not all of it. Once I decided cycling was for me, I set about learning as much as I could. This story was one of the first I encountered, and by far the most enduring. Graeme became the closest thing to a sporting hero that a man in his forties like me should decently have.
That I knew the story did not matter a jot. It’s like live music. Bands I like, I will gladly see them live many times. There is something about a live performance that elevates it above any recording. I might be able to predict every note, but there and then they are being played just for me. So it is with events like this. I was quite happy for him to go off on any tangent, it’s all good stuff.
One thing I couldn’t fail to notice is that in the flesh he absolutely crackles with intensity. If I might draw a very poor analogy, its a little like when Emperor Palpatine is trying to kill Luke Skywalker at the end of The Return of the Jedi. Except in Graeme’s case, there’s no evil, and there’s no actual lightning delivered from his hands, but boy, is there energy in the room. For this reason alone, even if you too know his story, it’s still well worth making the effort to go and hear it first hand if you get the opportunity.
David wrote about it on his blog, too. Check it out, if you haven’t already.