A review of The Race against time – Obree, Boardman and the quest to be the fastest man on two wheels by Edward Pickering.
This is one of the best cycling books I’ve read for quite a long time. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s pacey, interesting, amusing and based on two giants of British Cycling – the unique characters of Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman.
Firstly, I’m a bit biased, Obree and Boardman were key figures in the British time trial scene and I’ve always been interested in their careers. Boardman was a multiple hill climb champion, and I’ve come across their course records whilst racing myself. If I could have been a professional cyclist, I would have chosen their path. From the outside in. The lone tester going for the ultimate record – the prize of the hour. I would never have had the interest in joining a French amateur team and sweating away as a domestique for years. I would have been wanting to riding time trials and individual pursuits. How cool is it to be an amateur British tester and turn up in Bordeaux, break the hour record and get to share the podium with Miguel Indurain? But, even better was Obree. It’s astonishing than an unemployed, eccentric Scottish amateur bike rider, could turn the sport upside down, just by experimenting with some tribars, different positions and being able to push yourself to the absolute limits.
I’ve read a few books about Obree, so there weren’t any major revelations, but I found some aspects of the book really funny. I don’t know if it was intended, but Obree would come out with these bizarrely comic situations. Turning up to a track meet and eating from a pot of jam with a spanner. There’s another great moment, when Obree comes down in the morning after been beaten by Boardman and asks ‘did I just dream about being beaten by Boardman by 15 seconds’ ‘O well, I better have some cornflakes’
(Those quotes are not quite right, but for some reason the writing about Obree kept hitting my funny bone.)
A nice thing is we learn that Obree wasn’t just a disorganised space cadet (for example turning up to the World Championship pursuit race, not knowing about the signals coaches give to riders – walking up and down the track, depending if you’re in front or not). In 1996, we also learn that Obree was incredibly smart to win the pursuit title, a year after being unfairly dsq by the UCI overlords, and two years after his first title.
I hadn’t read as much about Boardman, so it was nice to read about his career highlights. It was also good to get more of an insight into the motivation and personality of Boardman.
It makes a great book to have two champions pushing each other. They both achieved remarkable things. In many ways they were very different, and it makes for fascinating comparisons. But, as Pickering notes, they may have been different, but they also shared similarities – a unique desire to push themselves against their limits. Those years of breaking the world hour record and world pursuit titles make for a great story. Once I started, I finished pretty quick.