You know there's something deeply wrong with Graeme Obree from the
opening moments of "The Flying Scotsman." The tall, unusually thin
figure in a hooded sweat shirt is traipsing through the woods holding
his bike in one hand and a length of rope in the other. This is not a
happy hike. Obree, played with smoldering reticence by Jonny Lee Miller
("Trainspotting," "Hackers"), was once the world's fastest cyclist, but
he's just been dethroned by his archrival. The podium Obree seeks now
is a rotten stump under a high branch, with the rope as a necklace.
How he got there is a true story that's as old as David and Goliath, a
classic tale of the heroic little guy who goes beyond the sport of
cycling, told with elegant restraint in this sensitive and beautifully
rendered film directed by Douglas Mackinnon. The little guy in question
is Obree, a Scottish messenger boy and amateur cyclist who defied the
odds by twice holding the world hour record, one of cycling's most
Held in a velodrome, this grueling act of self-flagellation charts the
longest distance traveled in an hour, and it exacts a numbing toll.
Unlike, say, the Tour de France, a team effort in which the leader can
rely on his worker bees for aid and protection, this race against the
clock is a solo slog. Victory is won through lonesome, exhaustive,
eyeball-bursting effort. In a sport that celebrates pain, the hour
record-holder is held in awed respect. The legendary Belgian cyclist
Eddy Merckx held the record for an incredible 12 years (and said
achieving it burned three years off his life, according to the film).
Lance Armstrong, for all his talk of wanting to try for it, never did.
You almost have to be crazy to attempt the race -- and perhaps that's
why Obree, who went for the record three times, winning it in 1993 and
'94, became obsessed by it. He battled depression before and after his
triumphs (which included other titles). But the condemning voices in
his head were hardly the worst of his problems.
The greater evil in Obree's life was the sport itself -- or rather,
those who made up its rules. Official cyclingdom looked askance at the
achievements of the onetime bike courier with pitifully few corporate
sponsors. More to his detriment, in the quest for greater aerodynamics
the cash-poor but imagination-rich Obree built his own bike out of
washing-machine bearings and junkyard parts. Sacre bleu! How are
cycling fans supposed to covet and buy the same thing if it's not for
sale for thousands of dollars from a major manufacturer (read:
corporate backer of the sport)? Pooh-poohing Obree's homemade machine
and his unorthodox riding position (crouched forward, his chest resting
on his handlebars), cycling's official body, the International Cycling
Union, made life hell for the racer. The officials changed the rules
faster than he could adapt to them.
The other side of the story, which the film does not go into, is that
the hour record has long figured in a debate over how to measure pure
human effort apart from technological advances. Still, Obree's
struggles in a sport tipped in favor of those with the greatest
resources makes for immensely compelling drama.
"You're a threat. You got to the top the wrong way," says his wife,
Anne (Laura Fraser), hitting the nail squarely on the head.
Miller is key to the film's success, with his earnest, sweet-faced
looks and evident dark side. Skinny enough to wear an unforgiving Lycra
skinsuit, he plays Obree with just the right understated intensity, a
believable competitor who fights back fiercely with his wits and a few
"You English are mad!" exclaims a cycling union official after learning
that Obree intends to make an unheard-of second run at the hour record
the day after he fails to beat it.
Hisses Obree, "You want to know what mad is, keep calling me English."
Of course, Miller is English, but his accent here is so ripplingly
Scottish that in parts you might, as I did, wish for subtitles.
Particularly in the fast chatter between him and Billy Boyd (a native
Scotsman, and Pippin in "Lord of the Rings"), who plays his likable
Following Miller around on his bike allows for swift pacing, but there
is also a lush texture to this film, with plenty of views of wet, green
Scottish countryside, with cows lowing and Highland hills rolling.
But what doesn't feel right is the way Obree's mental illness is
handled. Its origins don't seem terribly realistic, it comes and goes
with little explanation, and the people around him treat his suffering
with alarming coolness. More credible, in terms of ramped-up drama, is
the way the powers that be conspired to keep him down. The outsider
will always ride alone.
The Flying Scotsman (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for
mature themes and strong language.