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News & Features
MGM to release Obree movie in the U.S.
By John Wilcockson
VeloNews Editorial Director
This report filed November 16, 2006

Not since "Breaking Away" (1979) has there been a true bike-racing film to hit the big screen - unless we include the animated "Les Triplettes de Belleville" (2003). The long wait maybe worthwhile because Variety magazine announced Wednesday that MGM has bought worldwide distribution rights to the Graeme Obree biopic "The Flying Scotsman." It will debut at U.S. theatres on December 29.

Miller as Obree

The new movie is based on the autobiography of Obree, the eccentric Scottish amateur cyclist who astounded the cycling world in 1993 by breaking Francesco Moser's world hour record. Obree cooperated fully in the making of the film, and he even acts as a stand-in for himself in some of the racing scenes for lead actor Jonny Lee Miller. Miller, the star of cult movie "Trainspotting" (1996), was married to Angelina Jolie for four years after they both starred in "Hackers" (1995).

"The Flying Scotsman," which is directed by British television director Douglas Mackinnon, had its premiere earlier this year at Scotland's famed Edinburgh Festival, and it was sold to MGM at last week's American Film Market. It was filmed on location in Scotland and Germany. Beside Miller playing the lead, Obree's wife is played by Laura Fraser, the star of 2003's "Coney Island Baby."

Reviewing "The Flying Scotsman," Screen Daily wrote, "[It is a] solidly crafted, carefully balanced biographical heart warmer. The movie was plugged by ContentFilm as "a truly inspiring story about one man's extraordinary triumph over adversity. [It] is ‘Chariots of Fire' meets ‘Rocky' meets ‘Shine' - on wheels!"

Obree and the Hour Record
To understand Graeme Obree you first have to understand why the world of cycling reveres every athlete who breaks the world hour record, one of the sport's supreme athletic achievements. It's not a coincidence that many Tour de France champions - Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Induráin among them - only broke the record at the height of their careers. Even Lance Armstrong did preliminary tests to attack the record, only to drop the idea because he felt it was "too big of a project."

Cycling's world hour record has the cachet of the Kentucky Derby's mile-and-a-quarter course record at Churchill Downs or the world records in track-and-field's most prestigious events, the one mile and the Marathon.

The sport of bicycle racing was in its infancy when Frenchman Henri Desgrange set the first world hour record, in May 1893, when he raced 35 kilometers and 325 meters in 60 minutes on the famed Buffalo track in Paris. By the time Desgrange founded the Tour de France a decade later, three others had bettered his hour record, including an American, Willie Hamilton, who was the first to top the 40-kilometer mark at a Denver, Colorado, track in July 1898.

The omnipotent Merckx pushed the record close to 50 kilometers in October 1972, when he reached 49.431 kilometers. The legendary Belgian cyclist had to be helped off his bike at the end of the 60 minutes, and afterward said that it was hardest thing he had ever done in his life - even tougher than the many Tours de France he won.

So daunting was the new record that Merckx's mark stood for more than a decade until Moser, the great Italian rider, hatched a plan to use disc wheels and a plunging, aerodynamic bicycle to tackle it. In the thin air of Mexico City (less air resistance at an elevation of seven-and-a-half-thousand feet!), Moser not only smashed the 50-kilometer barrier, he elevated the hour record to what was considered an astronomical 51.151 kilometers in January 1984. Moser's career achievements also included victories in the Giro d'Italia, the world road championship, and the single-day classics, Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo.

Given the stature of both Moser and Merckx, one can only imagine the reaction of cycling insiders in 1993 when they heard of Graeme Obree's plan to tackle Moser's hour record. How could an amateur cyclist, albeit one who had won various national titles in time trialing, contemplate racing faster than the sport's all-time great professionals? Obree's quixotic venture appeared even more outrageous when it was learned that he was going to attack the record on a strange-looking bicycle that he was building himself.

Obree and bipolar disorder
And yet the very improbability of the challenge gets to the heart of Obree's psyche. Nobody knew at the time that the Scottish cyclist was suffering from bipolar disorder, which gives rise to alternate periods of mania (including "unrealistic beliefs in one's ability") and depression (including "feeling guilty, hopeless, or worthless"). Obree displayed all of these symptoms, and it's quite possible that it was his manic side that drove him to achieve exceptional results. That's not to say that he wasn't a very talented athlete who could push himself to extraordinary heights.

One of the most intriguing and informative features of the Graeme Obree story, both from the aspect of his cycling career and his illness, is that he wrote his autobiography, "Flying Scotsman," when he was in the hospital being treated for attempted suicide. Having traveled to the "very edge" of death, Obree shows uncanny prescience and honesty in his book in describing his singular life. One can identify with the stories of his harsh childhood and suppressed adolescence, in which one of his few releases was riding into the woods and sitting alone for hours in a treetop.

Just as revealing of his character are the stories of his life as a cyclist: gaining physical strength by cycling with his older brother up the hills near their rural home in Ayrshire, Scotland; overcoming his chronic shyness by joining a local cycling club; discovering the joys of adventure on weekend trips to distant youth hostels; finding redemption in his frequent racing duels with his English nemesis, Olympic champion Chris Boardman; and, ultimately, attacking the world hour record of Francesco Moser.

The explicit details of Obree's anecdotes, revealing his most intimate thoughts and feelings, take the reader on a roller-coaster ride - both in the book and the new movie.

Obree's colloquialisms capture the mood of a country when a large minority of its population lived in despair. He was one of Scotland's "lost souls" and his underdog role as a teenager brings uncanny relevance to his inspiring struggle to conquer the world of cycling and his even tougher battle to overcome his own demons.

Surely it is a coincidence that Graeme Obree's birthday falls on one of history's most ill-fated days: September 11. In the weeks before celebrating his 40th birthday in 2005, Obree was working as a consultant with the producers of the film about his life. He built some of the bikes used in the film in his garden shed, and he was active in making everything appear authentic at the locales where the film crew was shooting.

That film, the book and the very life of Graeme Obree are all connected by a strong thread of sincerity, candor and truth.