I enjoy most of the books I read for these reviews. There is a certain degree to which, I will admit, the content becomes monolithic and sometimes repetitive, but I try not to let this get in my way of evaluating their valuable content for the cyclist readers who visit these pages. Most of the books are about training, and improving your performance, working toward some goal, or at other times merely enjoying the process of getting from here to there using a machine that we all have come to love, and yes even sometimes hate.
The Flying Scotsman is not a book about bicycles, it is not a book about competition and training to perform better and better. It is not about doing your best to overcome physical impediments to better performance. It is a book about self hatred, self loathing, and ultimately self destruction - almost.
In brutally honest and repetitive fashion Obree lays out for us what it is to be pathologically manic depressive. He outlines his journey from an unhappy and isolated childhood, to an unhappy, isolated and self destructive adulthood. He lays out for us in detail the way in which every opportunity for a successful career and fulfilled life is short circuited by the demons of depression, alcohol, and drug abuse. He glosses over those sporadic achievements of record breaking performances as merely attempts to eradicate awareness in pain and hypoxia.
Obree's record setting performances, near record setting performances, and frequent bitterly disappointing performances are revealed to be no different than his alcoholic benders. They are presented as just another way in which he could drive himself into the abyss, an alternative way to reach out to embrace the comfortable darkness of lost self awareness.
Training was a chore he seemed to dread, and each looming contest seemed to trigger yet another bout with the devils that plagued him. When Obree ascends the podium, successful by our external definition, we see the seeds of his impending fall to the depths of depression. Time and time again we see his mood level off after a period away from the sport he sees as his reason for being. I believe he hates his sport almost as much as himself. Still we see him lift himself up, decide that he is well enough to train, and compete and then, as every event approaches, we see him throw sand into the gears, and broom handles into the spokes, assuring himself of the utmost in self inflicted pain and his self fulfilling prophesies of doom and unworthiness.
By the time I reached the final pages of the book, which wraps itself up abruptly around his very nearly successful suicide attempt, which is incidentally also the end of his career as a professional cyclist, I found myself dreading every new decision to compete. Almost to a tee, three days or so would elapse after his manic decision to compete in another event, and he would plunge again into his black humorless days of self-inflicted torture. On tours he would drink himself into stupors and revel in the fact that his sponsors and team members would abandon him. This he saw as his proper place in life, abandoned and friendless.
The unsung hero of all this appears to be his wife and family who stood by him through more than any family should be expected to bear. There were also a few friends who saw, in his good stretches, a human being of value and worth, something he apparently never saw in himself. This is not a book about cycling, it is an extremely effective and evocative book describing the demons of clinical depression and the false bouyancy of the opposing manic phase. Obree make this reader feel that I have gained a small insight into the demons that plague the Manic Depressive personality, and the dread of the next low and the almost inevitable recurrance of those lows that they wake each new day to face.
This is not a book about bicycling or championship, it is a portrait of one man's struggle to triumph through his darkest hours, and oh yes he actually wins a few world records on a bike too.