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Scotsman recalls his refusal to dope after breaking the hour record
Graeme Obree has called for change at the UCI, suggesting that the international governing body of cycling should be reformed with far more involvement from sponsors, teams and the riders.
Speaking to the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, the former hour record holder and cycling maverick described the current structure of cycling's international governing body as a chum-ocracy.
Several leading media including The Times, L'Equipe and Gazzetta dello Sport have drawn up a manifesto for credible cycling, which includes a "cycling summit" before the start of the 2013 season in order to define the new organization and new rules. Obree agrees.
“Is it possible? I don’t know. But cycling can never go back to the way it was. This is the moment it has to change,” Obree said.
“The problem we have is that it’s not a democratic organisation, it’s autocratic, it’s almost an old boy’s network. A chum-ocracy."
“The Rabobank situation is interesting. They’ve been in the sport for 17 years, but they’re pulling out. They think professional road cycling doesn’t have the wherewithal to guarantee there won’t be any more scandals. They don’t trust the people at the top. I’m surprised professional teams aren’t going on strike, but then cycling is like an overgrown village where everybody knows everybody else and people aspire to get up the ranks and you [do that] by hanging out with the guys who are at the top. If you start trouble you’re not getting up the ranks with the UCI."
Obree recalled his own contests with the UCI. Under the tutelage and direction of Verbuggen, the UCI disqualified Obree from the 1994 track championships in Palermo, claiming his radical position on the bike was illegal.
Obree turned professional with the Le Groupement team in 1995 but quit the French team and left the first training camp after just a few hours when he realised there was an engrained doping culture in the team.
“First time I go to meet the Groupement team, I’m in Belgium and a fellow rider is saying ‘Hey, what [drugs] did you use for the hour record?’ And I’m like, ‘Nothing’. And he’s looking me up and down. The guy had no respect for me. It was an Italian guy. ‘What did you use’, he says again. ‘Nothing’. And he goes ‘Amatore’. Amateur. I’ll never forget that. He turned on his heels and walked away in disgust," Obree said.
"I think these people truly believed that I was being unprofessional by refusing to sign up to the drugs programme. They thought it was proper to take drugs otherwise you weren’t taking the sport seriously. Because I wasn’t taking the drugs, to them, I was an amateur.”
Obree spoke out against doping in an interview with L'Equipe in 1996, claiming that 99% of elite riders were taking drugs. Verbruggen responded by calling him a coward. Obree said that riders also turned against him and suggested that Verbruggen preferred to keep a lid on what was happening in cycling at the time.
“After I did that thing with L’Equipe it was difficult to go to a professional race because of the animosity from other riders. I was almost scared to [use] the changing room in case I’d get beaten up. There was real tension," he said.
"I remember reading Kimmage’s book [:Rough Ride", published in 1990] and there was lots of stuff about the problem of drugs in cycling in that book and I thought ‘It can’t be that bad, surely’. But it was. It was a Pandora’s box. If Verbruggen (then the UCI president) opened it, there would have been nothing left in the sport, so he kept it closed."
“Once, a rider actually apologised to me in advance of a race. For him, it was a moral dilemma. Riding a bike was the only thing this guy knew how to do and taking drugs was a requirement. It was a heartfelt sorry because he knew I was clean and he knew he was cheating because he felt he had to because others were doing the same as he was. I don’t want to name this person. I said to him, ‘Listen, I totally understand’. And I did. That was the culture."
“I knew that me pushing myself to the limit of my ability wasn’t going to be enough to beat these guys. Once you realise you’re at a physical disadvantage you can’t really do the sport anymore. So, road racing was over and the UCI had banned my riding positions on the track, so it was like ‘Jings, crivvens, help ma Boab, what do I do now? I know, I’ll go away and be depressed for 10 years’.”
Obree fought depression for years and made several attempts to kill himself. He has survived and is now working on a new cycling challenge: the human powered land speed record on a new horizontal bike called Beastie that he has designed and built in his kitchen.
Scotland on Sunday describes Obree's new personal challenge as "part sport, part artistic impression, part not knowing how the hell it’s going to end and being thrilled by the mystery. It’s simple and it’s pure and it’s a world away from what we’re now talking about – the state of road cycling."
“My biggest fear is not crashing this bike at 85mph and losing my skin – it’s sitting in a chair at 90 and thinking ‘I wish I’d done more’,” Obree said.