Friday, September 7, 2012

Graeme Obree Builds a Bike from Kitchen Pots and Tells you How to Breathe

Here's the bio of my favorite living character in cycling:
"[He] suffers from bipolar disorder.[5][6][7] He attempted suicide in his teens by gassing himself. He was saved by his father, who had returned early from work.[2] In the 1990s he took an overdose of aspirin washed down by water from a puddle.[2][8] He had personality problems,[8][9] sniffed the gas he used to weld bicycles, and was being chased for £492 owed in college fees.[2]
We all have eccentricities, but Graeme Obree, twice world hour-record holder and bike designer nonpareil, is surely a bizarre creature.

Despite his inventiveness, the best he could come up with when it came time to commit suicide was to down a bottle of aspirin and wash it down with puddle water.  It is poignantly moving, to me, that this was (one of the ways) he tried to off himself.

Among the more talked about revelations of the recently published biography of writer David Foster Wallace is Wallace's plan on how to commit suicide.  His plan was to tie off a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car with his signature fashion accessory--his ever-present bandana.  We literary pansies have our trousers (we don't wear pants!) in a bunch over this revelation!  The symbolism!  My God, how tragic!  And the way he chomped on nicotine gum in anguish and hid his excessive perspiration under that very bandana!
David Foster Wallace

Think of how the literary types would react if they knew or cared about Obree's method (downing a bottle of aspirin aided by water scooped out of a hole in the street).  What does that signify, O postmodern bullshit professoral-types?

If you've seen The Flying Scotsman, a biopic of Obree's life and attempts to break the world hour record, you get an idea of the struggles he faced and his outsider status.  This is not a man to ride in the peleton--any peleton.

And that's what makes Obree interesting, because he managed to win in new but orthodox ways.  As bizarre as his bikes were, they still complied with the letter of the law (that is, until the UCI changed its laws).  We have Obree to thank for UCI's strict control of tube size, of geometry, of the limits of our body position on the bike--just as we will probably have Lance Armstrong to thank for better doping control measures on the part of the UCI.

Armstrong, remember, has never denied doping; he denied breaking the rules.  His defense has always been, "I have never failed a test and I'm the most tested man on th planet."  For him, as for Obree, the rules are not only limited by what is implied, but by what is defined.  Lance's edge, and Obree's, was a certain unorthodoxy.  Of course, Lance's was immoral; Obree's was--and remains--inspirational.

I won't re-hash the tale of Obree's two victories over the world hour record, although if you don't know the story, you should definitely read it.

Obree is at it again, this time without the limitations imposed by the UCI, or, in fact, any limitations at all--Obree is going for the HPV land speed record.

Once again, Obree is turning out bizarre new ideas about how to go fast on wheels:


Graeme Obree: Hand-building the fastest bicycle in the world from Humans Invent on Vimeo.

He's also putting out a book called "The Obree Way," and he was kind enough to send me a chapter.  The chapter is called "Pedalling," and is a perfect illustration of Obree bizarro genius.  Here is one of my favorite parts of it:

The first thing you need to know is the basic physics involved in the transfer of energy.  Almost everything in cycling can be explained by physiology and physics and it is important to get a handle on the basic principles.  The governing factor on how fast you can go is not strength or how much force can be brought down on the pedals—it is the energy.  When I tell you later on to pedal with less force it is not necessary that you understand the physics but that you believe it.
 Nonetheless here is the physics of it.
 The pedal is being moved in a circular direction.  The amount of energy transferred to it is simply the amount of force applied to it multiplied by the distance travelled.  It is slightly more complicated than that because it is the force pushing the pedal forward that counts.  What this means is that a smaller force applied to the pedal in the forward motion for a greater distance travelled can produce more energy than a large force for a shorter distance.  In other words a rider with weaker muscles in terms of absolute strength can produce more power and more speed than a stronger rider if he uses more of the pedaling circle more effectively.  By ‘effectively’ I mean applying a force as near to the forward motion as possible.

That is as clear an explanation I've read as to what it means to have an efficient pedal stroke.  In Obree's analysis, it means to take a longer, less violent stroke, to apply less pressure over a longer period than more pressure over a shorter period.

Incidentally, this may explain why Wiggins (and now Taylor Phinney: see photo) opted for asymmetrical chainrings that elongate the length of the downstroke by minimizing the time spent coming over the top and under the bottom of the pedal stroke.

Obree spends an entire chapter on pedalling.  He spends another chapter on breathing.  Clearly, everything is up for examination.  Nothing, not even the seemingly involuntary reflex of inhaling and exhaling, are without scrutiny.

Most people live their lives comfortable scrutinizing very few things:  their bosses, their families, and, if they are extraordinarily circumspect, themselves.  There's some evidence that this may, in fact, go some way toward explaining political convictions:  conservatives tend to be more confident in their beliefs (and they're happier for it), while liberals tend to be more uncertain and questioning.

I'm not always comfortable questioning my own beliefs; it's a hard thing to do.  Maybe that's why I admire Obree so much and his total devotion to neurotic analysis; when a man spends time analyzing breathing and pedalling, when he doesn't even accept the most apparent suppositions as given, it opens the door to both madness and innovation.  The bikes he builds from pots, pans, and washing machines and his suicidal tendencies--these are fruits of the tree of Obree's own nature.  And while I wish him happiness and contentment, and I wish him peace, I accept it as what comes with inspired invention, and I am grateful he is as fucked up as he is.

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