Stop and think for a moment: What is your favorite cycling film ever? Is it “A Sunday in Hell?” Or perhaps “American Flyers?” Lord knows it’s not “Pee-wee's Big Adventure” or “Quicksilver.” There’s a new contender for the title. Chances are you haven’t seen “The Flying Scotsman,” the dramatization of the life of Graeme Obree. The script takes as its starting point Obree’s confessional “Flying Scotsman: Cycling to Triumph Through My Darkest Hours.” It covers his hour record, World Championship and later suicide attempt. In broad strokes it contains all the dramatic elements of a varied life.
The film documents one of the greatest David and Goliath matches ever, and it took place on the bike. Obree is David. Goliath is played, alternately, by the UCI, Chris Boardman and Obree’s own demons.
The cast is first rate. Johnny Lee Miller (“Trainspotting”) plays Obree, Billy Boyd (“Lord of the Rings”) plays his manager and Brian Cox (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “Deadwood,” and “Troy,” among others). In addition to an excellent cast, the cinematography is great and the sound very clear—the actors even toned down their accents for the sake of the audience. The soundtrack is inspiring enough that it might find its way into the odd iPod.
From the first mention of mental illness (Obree is bipolar), Obree says most folks dismissed him as a “nutter.” He much prefers discussing his cycling exploits. Revealing the full extent of his depression and mental illness in the book wasn’t easy. “I wasn’t keen to have all that from a personal point of view. It’s the last thing you want to share with anybody.” Many stories in the press painted him as a comical character; as a result, he’s been wary of mainstream press, and yet, he says, “Most of the letters were from people who said, “Your story helped me.’”
Obree is quick to point out that the film is a dramatization and that many events are as he puts them, “amalgamations.” In Hollywood speak, they are called “conflations” and these reductions of events are a source of irritation to those who prefer the actual facts but utterly necessary to the director trying to shoot a simple-to-follow story.
“We [he and his wife Anne] didn’t have a lot of involvement in the script.” He was, however, involved in the shooting on an almost daily basis. “We were around most of the time. I was a technical director.” In addition to doing the velodrome riding, Obree piloted the point-of-view camera bike. “A fantastic insight into the world of filmmaking. That was excellent fun that was.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the frustration of the UCI’s rules-to-suit-the-minute approach. Obree is more sanguine about it these days. “If he [the UCI’s Hein Verbruggen] hadn’t behaved so badly I wouldn’t be so well known. I think he is hung up on homogeneity; he is a traditionalist. He wants bikes not to get talked about.”
Naturally, Obree’s view is a little different is different from Verbruggen’s. “The set up is part of the sport. It’s a big deal in motorsports. How they set up the motorcycles varies from rider to rider. They [the UCI] need to find something to do. It justifies their existence. Shows they have a job to do and are justifying their paychecks. It wasn’t personal. It was the wrong position at the wrong time. In retrospect I realize I’d sunk into a comfort zone. The UCI forced me to continue to find a better position.”
And so it is that Graeme Obree, the athlete who was the very bane of the UCI’s existence, credits the man who made it his mission in life to keep Obree from racing to his full potential with innovating another new—and faster—position. The Superman position was adopted by other riders almost immediately after Obree debuted it in competition. “Emulation is the greatest form of compliment. But there is no greater compliment than to be banned. It was fast enough to get banned.”
Asked what he thinks the film’s greatest achievement is, be it the portrayal of addressing his depression, the hour record, the world championships (and world record), Obree points to the change in his psychology overnight between his first attempt on the hour record and his second the next morning. Of the first attempt he says, “I was thinking, Jeez this is it, Moser’s record. I was kind of pensive.” The film’s great statement is about self belief. “It’s about overcoming adversity. That’s a different person out there the next day. (I said) I’m going to get up tomorrow and break that record.”
Obree still rides a fair amount and is competitive when time allows. He volunteers that he twice beat the current British time trial champ early this season, before publicity for the film siphoned off much of his free time. And that balance is the source of his real drive these days. Obree fully appreciates how difficult balancing a job, a marriage and parenting along with the drive to be a competitive cyclist is. In addition to refurbishing a house and building some bedroom furniture, he has undertaken to write a training manual. Only this book will be different he says. “It’s meant for the cyclist who has a full life, is a father, has a job and still wants to compete. It’s about how to be fast and fit it all in.”
“The Flying Scotsman” is now available on DVD. For those who wish to get the full scoop on his hour records, World Championships and journey back to light, pick up his autobiography (available from VeloPress).