Monday, January 14, 2013

Review -- The Obree Way

In his book, The Obree Way, Graeme Obree has created a text that not only details the techniques he used to become a record-breaking cyclist, he's given us a glimpse into the focused mind of a champion. Even those having no interest in racing or cycling at speed will find that The Obree Way provides fascinating and valuable insights into how analyze a problem, gather data, focus the mind, train the body and achieve real results.

Though my current favorite form of riding (visiting scenic sites at a take lots of pictures and visit lots of coffee shops pace) is far removed from Mr. Obree's specialty of covering more ground in an hour on a bicycle than any other human on the planet, I found myself fascinated, charmed and informed by this compact book.

It becomes clear in a very few pages that Mr. Obree pays attention to the small details. His style of writing is like his riding, simple, direct and to the point. Whether he is writing of trainers, time management, pedal technique, breathing, stretching or nutrition, all his chapters follow a basic "here is the problem, here is what I've observed, this is what I do and this is why" format. He has clear opinions, based on years of experience, and he states them clearly.

Obree cuts through a lot of the marketing hype, pseudo-science and flat-out mythology that might be great for selling the latest cycle magazine or frame design by looking at his own data and drawing his own conclusions. It is refreshing to find a data-driven fellow like Obree to be somewhat skeptical of gadgets. He writes of power meters that they are:

"another distraction from the path of true self-improvement. I have the same opinion of computers for road use and heart-rate monitors, but for one exception. The heart-rate monitor can be useful when going out on a proper recovery ride to not let team-mates force you to ruin your recovery by going too fast. The reason is simply that these appliances complicate the job of training on the road and they are hard to use as instant feed-back training aids in that training environment."

One of the great services Obree does in his book is to point out important but often neglected truths of riding. While much has been written about training, breathing and eating, Obree looks at the full cycle, so to speak. Resting is recognized and explained at least as fully as his training excercises. He has an entire chapter detailing his three-phase "Obree Method" of breathing. When he talks of nutrition you can tell he's not saying things based on whatever company is sponsoring his race. For example, he writes:

"My preferred food is sardines on toast with side servings of broccoli and carrots. I prepare this before leaving since the effort of mashing up the sardines can seem like a mammoth task if I do the ride as I described. It may not seem appetising on departure but on return it appears to be a culinary delight! The secret is to put a bit of tomato sauce in the mix. This gives the perfect balance of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and essential oils such as omega3."


"There are loads of post-ride commercial mixtures available, but none that I have seen can match the nutritional content of this meal. Remember the human body is designed to chew and digest REAL food and chewing and forming small balls of food is a very important part of the digestive process that commercial drinks disregard. Be cynical; think it through for yourself, there is no profit in telling you that sardines, toast and veggies is one of the best meals you can eat."

My sense from reading this book is very much that Obree is his own man although the following passage made me think for a fraction of a second that maybe he's been bought off by the global marzipan cartel:

"After a quest taking years I discovered that the best long distance food is marzipan. This has the advantage not only in that it doesn’t produce crumbs but also it has perfect consistency to be pushed to the outside of the mouth on either side almost like a hamster. This means it can be chewed on while breathing heavily even on high output stretches such as climbs. The other benefit is that energy content is incredibly high. Commercial energy bars also have a high energy content but these must be tested on training ride to monitor your personal affinity with them."

(Just kidding there!)

Obree does not own a car, a fact he briefly notes in the book's introduction, and while he does describe various aspects of his time-trial bikes, I found his comments on his training bike to be interesting and wise:

"Depending on where you live in the world it would be highly recommended that you have full length mud-guards. The most important thing is that when you want and need to train you are not constrained by weather or darkness. Lights will be a must of course and the choice of wheel and tyre is important as well. Your training bike should have reliable cheaper wheels with full spoking normally 32 spokes. The choice of tyre is important since the last thing you want in the middle of a good effort is a puncture. Not only does it destroy a good effort but there is the problem of getting cold in the middle of nowhere sorting a puncture that could be avoided. I choose the widest possible tyre that will fit into my bike."


"With good care your training bike will be a vehicle of effort you can rely on. I personally, living on the west coast of Scotland, would not feel safe unless I had at least 2 spare tubes and a patch repair kit. I also carry an emergency kit of tools but if you are not mechanically minded then the fully charged mobile phone has to be your fallback position." 


"One very important issue in any frame or bike that you buy is tyre clearance. A lot of frames leave little clearance for wider tyres and carbon frames are bad for this in general. It would be easy to believe that a narrower tyre will be faster than a wider one but this is most certainly not the case. The narrower a tyre is then the longer the footprint on the road and this causes more resistance than a shorter, wider footprint from a wider tyre. Not only this but a wider tyre will puncture less easily and give a smooth ride."

Obree's chapters describing how to select, set up and use a bike trainer are hype-free and results oriented. Looking at Mr. Obree's results and after having read his whole book, I would certainly follow his guidance if I was looking to train for competition. His voice of experience rises clear and true above the marketing noise.

The chapter on stretching is compact an clear. Obree writes:

"In my whole career I did a routine of just 4 stretches and trust me, if I had not, I would never have been the rider I was. You would never accept having a stiff bottom bracket so don’t accept having a stiff body! The benefits are remarkable when you consider also that it has been shown that a suppleness programme reduces sports injuries considerably."

Obree does not advocate stretching before an event, but rather that it be a simple evening exercise taking 10 or 15 minutes. Suppleness is the goal and stretching is a means to that end. Again, Obree writes:

"The last word on all of this is that gaining this suppleness is a lot more work than maintaining it. Persevere with it and the accumulation of tiny gains makes a real difference. To be honest, maintaining the suppleness I had in my racing career would take as little as five minutes – but only if I stuck to the schedule every night!"

Obree concludes his book with his thanks and this note to the reader:

"Please trust me that this body of honest work is given in the best of spirit, I have been the guinea–pig in the quest to refine my training on every level and I can commend it really does work. Knowledge and understanding is a constant quest. This book is not definitive and keeping an open mind on new findings and developments is not only a good thing but essential if you are serious in your search for new and better ways to improve your cycling and athletic performance."

Like the rest of The Obree Way, those words are true.


Bob Warvi said...

A great review. I'll have to get a copy, and some marzipan.

Ian Smitton said...

Really good review. Obree is one of my favourite cyclists; the way he competed and was successful (on the track at least) in an era when it seems like he was one of very few not on an advanced PED programme is really impressive. I'm sure his scientific approach was noted by some of the teams that were a bit primitive in their training methods and preparation.

Goon said...

Kent, thanks for the excellent review.

This book is Kindle-only, correct?

Kent Peterson said...

As near as I know, the book only exists for the Kindle. You can get free Kindle software for PCs, Macs, iPads and so forth but for plain old paper so far I think you're out of luck.

Wesley Bellairs said...

The Flying ScotSman is on Netflix. Must see for Obree fans:

Anonymous said...

I would like to have a paper version for my library. Oh well.