'Scotsman': Triumph Of a Bike Courier
Friday, May 4, 2007
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 storied achievements.
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 tight-lipped words.
"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 bumbling biking-buddy-cum-manager.
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.