Editor’s Note: This interview is courtesy of The Aftermarket.
Graeme Obree is one of the great enigmas of the cycling world. He has consistently looked to further the design and performance of the bicycle, normally from the humble workshop of his kitchen, and he is an ambassador for all that is great about cycling and craft. From his two hour records in the 1990s to his 2013 attempt at the human powered land speed record (HPVA) in Battle Mountain, Obree is obsessed with pushing the boundaries of a bicycle.
In 2013 at Battle Mountain, Graeme failed to break the overall record, which was taken by Sebastiaan Bowier who recorded a speed of 83.13mph in his Vortex 3. The previous record of 82.819mph was set by Canadian Sam Whittingham in 2009, but Graeme did set a new world speed record for cycling in the prone position, riding 56.62mph through the 200m speed trap to take the record. But having learned a lot from his experience, Graeme is back, this time with more records in his sights and with a new role as builder and coach, with his son Jamie taking center stage as the engine this time around.
We sat down with the maverick maker and racer to chart the beginning of another chapter in the Obree story and find out just how he plans to take on the record in 2015. One thing you always know with Obree: anything is possible.
Nigel Brown: So, Graeme, what are you up to currently?
Graeme Obree: Well, I am just starting this next project with my son Jamie, to break the human powered world land speed record. Jamie was out in America with me and he was quite keen to have a go himself at breaking the record when we were there with the Beastie [the vehicle he used to attempt the record]. Because we thought, if it’s me or him, it doesn’t matter, as long as one of us breaks the record. But it couldn’t happen because of red tape and insurance, however, it got us thinking. While we were out there we learned so much about what it takes to break this record. And importantly, what you need to do.
Firstly, as much as my knowledge from the world of cycling transferred to the attempt, which was a guy in his kitchen building a bike and giving it his best shot, when you are against teams of 12-15 aerodynamicists and the pool of knowledge from years of working on trying to break the record, we realized we had a serious problem: “Why isn’t the Beastie going as quick as it should be?” Now, there is more of a camaraderie among everyone out there, so we managed to talk to a variety of aerodynamicists and ask them that very question, because according to our first principles, the Beastie should have been going faster.
They explained the shape doesn’t always react as per principles or theory. So, we went away and thought if I built it, but Jamie, who is built like a sprinter and can generate a greater power output than me was the engine, we would have a better chance of breaking the record. And so, the project began. We are coming back September 2015.
NB: So, will you be tweaking the Beastie or is this a fresh build?
GO: No, the Beastie has retired. We have started from scratch with a new build, so it will be a completely new bike and design.
NB: So, what is your approach to the Beastie Mark II?
GO: It’s going to be a whole lot simpler. In terms of design it needs to be as simple as it possibly can be. It’s basically going to be two wheels stabilized, one chainring, and one gear. Head first again with an aerodynamic shell, with the knowledge we have learned from the aerodynamicists, making sure we get that perfect this time. It’s interesting though, in terms of an engine, now we have Jamie. He has got a much better power output and therefore, more possibility to break this record than I do. He is a stone heavier [14 pounds] and his bottom half, in particular his legs are a proper sprint build — so he has the potential for a great high-end power output. It’s exactly what is suited to this type of event.
It’s a real family out there in the USA at Battle Mountain, in terms of the community trying to further the bicycle and break this record. Everyone talks and it is really a common goal that is shared, so everyone helps each other out with their bikes. There is a sense of common purpose and how fast we can get people to go on a bike. That is what it’s all about. We were chatting away to an aerodynamicist, and he was saying that the Beastie would have been so much faster if we had looked at the shell in greater detail with an expert’s eyes. To be honest, everything about my last attempt was a little LastMinute.com. The material wasn’t good enough and I didn’t have the facilities to test or tweak materials. Plus I had major surgery just before going and our testing period out there didn’t really go to plan. So, it was a steep learning curve if I’m honest.
NB: So, the build.
GO: It’s three old bikes. Great quality steel. Joining them all together to basically create a dragster. Big wheels at the back, smaller at the front, one big chain ring, and stabilized. Get Jamie in it, push him down the road and then say, ‘Good luck son, I’ll see you at the end of the road!’ It can be his quest. So, there are three bikes with marker pen laying on my kitchen floor. I’ll scavenge for some other parts, get a standard chain set, the rear end is an old racing frame turned upside down so the bottom bracket is in the air. Basically the wheels are between Jamie’s legs, with a BMX wheel at the front. I want to keep it simple. I was thinking last time too much about gears and going up in the gears, but you really only need one gear because of the short length of the course and now with our new engine, Jamie, who has phenomenal strength in his legs — I mean he has broken cranks before! He likes breaking stuff with his power just to impress me. You need that top-end power and I don’t have that. I am more of an endurance athlete, but that is not the same as somebody who is a power merchant.
NB: So, you are up-cycling these bikes, Is the pedaling system similar to the Beastie?
GO: Well, that is the way I like to work. I learned so much in such a short space of time last year. As I mentioned, I started with all these gears and then I took them out. They were a source of unreliability and complications, plus you don’t need them. You just need a top gear, it’s the only one that really matters. When you are approaching the high speed you need to be in top gear anyway. What I found with Beastie was it doesn’t take long to drift up to a pace that you are in top gear, so you only need one gear.
NB: Are you personally training Jamie for the attempt?
GO: Jamie is proper into it. He goes to college which is 17 miles away, so he cycles there and back twice a week. He does other cycling, plus he is in the gym working on his weights. The thing is we have more time now. He can train the muscle groups that I didn’t train. The pull of the force on your legs is so much greater than what I expected it to be. The muscle in front of your shins is actually the most important. We are building for him a special type of boots that mean he can hang upside down. He has a bar across the top of his door and he is learning to pull himself back up, just to improve his pedaling technique.