Graeme Obree on Battle Mountain: Fascinating, Disturbing, Extraordinary

By Robbie Broughton

If you’re a tiger you may be a slightly ageing tiger, but you’re still a tiger. The thing is, the stopwatch doesn’t care what age you are. And the power meter doesn’t care what age you are. That speed track doesn’t care what age you are. I want to go and break the world land speed record.

So starts David Street’s inspiring, moving, uncomfortable and revealing documentary on Graeme Obree’s emotional and physically draining journey. Of course, this being Graeme Obree, he doesn’t want to just to break the record. He intends to smash it and from within an extraordinary homemade contraption that will travel ridiculous speeds with its rider’s chin just inches away from the tarmac of a Nevada desert road.

Obree is of course known for twice breaking the world hour record, a feat he achieved by adopting an unusual riding position astride a homemade bike called Old Faithful. Famously it contained parts of his washing machine and here we see him back in his Kilmarnock flat building another record breaking machine from scratch. 

Back in the 1990s Obree had to encounter various rulings from the governing body about his riding position. As he says, “Unlike the UCI I believe in technology” and to that end begins assembling his contraption with some charity shop roller skates and parts of a cooking pot. A snorkel, sink and drainage unit also make an appearance. Using his thumb as a measurement he lops bits off here and there, saws off a template cardboard frame with a kitchen knife and knocks over his KitKat mug of tea over the drawings in the process. 

At one point he gets his sons to squash him between the wall and a side dresser to gauge the width of what his bike should be. You watch this and just think the guy’s mad, crazy. Surely he can’t be serious and it’s both funny and disturbing at the same time.

Obree’s obsessions, his motivation and driving force come from a deeply troubled psyche. We revisit his unhappy childhood, the death of his brother at the age of 30 and his rocky marriage that he began when he had the mental age of a young teenager. Having suffered mental illness, and moments of what he describes as ‘blackness’ he has attempted suicide on several occasions and struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. 

His career as a racing cyclist on the road ended abruptly when he refused to take drugs. He became the maverick individual who did things in his own way, and against the conventions of the establishment, and all the time riven by personal anguish and doubt. Now at the age of 50, “I need to justify my self worth as a human being,” he says and, in so doing, plunges himself into a cauldron of stress that no psychiatrist would ever countenance him descend into. “I must break that record for my emotional survival…the fear needs to be strong.”

And then there’s the physical stress. He must lie on top of the machine head first in the most awkward looking position while being encased in a fibre glass shell with absolutely no concessions made for either comfort or safety. We see him push himself so hard on a turbo trainer that he collapses. He develops an abscess that has to be operated on leaving a hole on his hip that we have to avert our eyes from.

Early testing of the bike, now nicknamed Beastie by his friend Chris Hoy, has predictably disastrous consequences. The ridiculous looking vessel quivers, totters and eventually falls ignominiously on its side. Any sane person would have given up but, driven as he is by a compulsive and obsessive desire to see it through to the end, he perseveres.

From now on the action moves to Battle Mountain, actually a flat plateau in the wastes of Nevada. We see it through the front windscreen of a car  - vistas of dead flat roads that stretch on and on into distant mountains. It’s a stark contrast from the rolling lush Scottish countryside that Obree loves to cycle through. I won’t spoil the end, but safe to say, the emotional roller coaster continues in this bleak and barren land.

This is an extraordinary film that gives an, at times, uncomfortable insight into the depths of a deeply troubled soul. But the equilibrium is maintained by clever editing in which we laugh at Obree’s self deprecating, witty and off the wall humour. What could have been a harrowing portrait of a man’s devastating mental illness becomes a life affirming and optimistic tale of fortitude, determination and overcoming the odds. A fascinating film.