In his kitchen, Graeme Obree is building a bike he hopes will make him the fastest cyclist in the world.

In his head, he is building something much more complicated. For years, he suffered from mental health problems and suicidal thoughts, especially at the height of his success but, thanks to self-analysis, friends and years of therapy, he finally has his depression under control. It's like the bike in his kitchen: he took his brain to pieces, examined its cogs and spindles, and put it back together in a more efficient way.

It shouldn't be surprising that Obree deals with his mental health problems in this systematic way. When we meet, in a coffee shop in Kilmarnock, where he now lives, his hands are calloused and bruised from the work he has been doing on the new bike. It's named The Beastie and it's sleek, polished, black. If they had bikes in The Matrix, they would look like this, and Obree hopes it will help him beat the land speed record in the US in September. In the meantime, he's loving the creative process of it all: oil, grease, metal.

However, there's one thing missing: pressure. Obree wants to do well, but refuses to stress himself out about it because he knows what the consequences can be for his mental health. He also believes he has some good advice to pass on. He has several books on the go, including a self-help book on depression and a physical training manual, The Obree Way, to be published later this year.

But first there is Carnegie's Call, a curious quasi-self-help book featuring interviews by Michael Malone with successful Scots including Obree. There's also the likes of Tom Farmer, Michelle Mone and Tom Hunter, but what's remarkable about Obree's contribution is how different it is from the others: he celebrates success but warns of its dangers too. Striving for success, he says, can make you ill, particularly in sport. He also believes successful people have more mental health problems than the average person and that constantly striving for success is a kind of madness. The answer, he says, is to think about success in an entirely different way.

Yet there is one way in which Obree is remarkably like the other contributors to the book: almost all were non-conformist children. Obree is 47 now – wiry, stringy, intense – but, sitting in the coffee shop, he starts back-pedalling to his childhood and first days at school.

"I was definitely a non-conformist," he says. "I remember lying in the sunshine and the school bell went off, and everybody's conditioned by bells, aren't they? We're all Pavlov's children – bells, whistles and work – but I thought: 'Oh, it's such a nice day,' so I just lay there on the grass." He's not sure if this non-conformity means he was destined for success or whether success is hard-wired from childhood, but he suspects it might be.

"I can give up on something as easily as the next person," he says, "but it's what happens when the chips are down that's important, and what comes out of here." He points at his head and smiles.

In Obree's case, we know what happens when the chips are down: great triumph and great tragedy. The triumph was breaking the world hour record twice, in 1993 and 1994, and building his famous bike, Old Faithful. The tragedy was manic depression and suicide attempts. It led to contradictions and strains at the heart of what Obree did. The success inspired him but hurt him too. It strangled him but still he clung to it. He had, at times, what he called a Butch Cassidy swagger but at other times suffered acidic, corrosive negativity.

"A lot of the positive stuff was driven by negativity," he says, "by the fact I needed that success to feel worthy. My worth was dependent on the next result. When you've reached the highest point with a world record, there's not a rung of the ladder after that, so that's the point when you're thinking: 'Oh s***, I've run out of obsessional behaviour.' And people are telling you you're a great guy, what you've done is amazing, and that goes against your inner thoughts. My feeling was that if people could see past the front they would see I was dislikeable. There was a conflict between the inner self and the world. All the success and records highlighted the difference between how I felt and what people were saying."

What they were saying was that Obree had made it, he was a legend, a success, but he has some serious issues with that. For a start, even though he's a sportsman, he believes the whole idea of striving for success is dangerous, divisive and can make you ill. "I think the Americans have caused more depression than anybody," he says, "because you're a 'winner' or a 'loser'. With that, you're relegating 90% of the population to feel like s***. That entire process from 1993 right through, you can see that was the start of my demise psychologically, so it didn't bring happiness – success was one of the prime causes of my mental debilitation."

Success, says Obree, was also profoundly lonely. "It is isolating. It divides you from the rest of society because they are not successful by your definition. You're limiting your circle of friends to other successful people, in inverted commas. That's one of the main reasons I turned down an MBE, because I've got enough separating me from other people already without having a bloody title after my name."

But isn't this curious coming from a sportsman, the kind of person who needs to be defined by targets, by reaching goals and getting to the top of the pedestal? Obree thinks not – in fact, he thinks there is a strong link between successful people, including sports people, and mental illness. Do successful people have more mental health problems? "Yes, they do," he says. "Striving for success on top of success is a form of insanity. In business you can keep striving, but in sport you will go over the top of the graph and it's downhill from there.

"Sport will also attract the mentally ill at the highest level. People who are prone to depression are more likely to do sport, and they are more likely to be good at sport because they need the success to feel good, otherwise they'll feel depressed. All sport does is subjugate the depression. It's a form of obsessive behaviour. People who exhibit a desire to be the best in the world should be prohibited from doing so. They should be told: no, you're going to the therapy door."

Which is exactly what Obree did. For years, he saw the same psychologist and he's also a big fan of self-analysis and talking to friends about what you're really thinking. "Most general depression is caused by letting other people put on you. I've got it under control. If somebody hacks me off, I will tell them. Or if I've done something wrong, I'll say, 'Look, I need to apologise for that.' You've got to keep your side of the street clean in terms of not having anything to feel guilty about and not allowing other people to put on you. A lot of depression is anger and resentment that's got nothing else to turn to."

Another factor in dealing with his depression was coming to terms with his sexuality ("coming out made me less fearful") but so was thinking deeply about what he wanted in life and how he approached it. To this end, even though he's working towards the land speed record, he no longer feels dictated to by success and has his own definition.

"My definition of success is different from the one in the book," he says. "Success is usually associated with financial wealth or what stages you reach in your employment, whereas I don't think that's success at all. It's success in the eyes of the modern western world. Success is being at one with yourself."

It is also, for him, about being free of ambition, or rather putting ambition in its proper context. Yes, he is building a bike with a view to breaking a world record, but he wants to go for the record without burning his brains out with fear and pressure. It will also be a chance for his two sons, 19 and 21, to see him cycling competitively for the first time.

He accepts that this recumbent, reinvented attitude to ambition and success, particularly from a sportsman, could be confusing to some, particularly perhaps those pushy fathers who scream at their underperforming sons from touchlines. But better that way, says Obree, than making yourself mentally ill.

"At the top I was the most mentally ill," he says, "and I know that by feeling mentally good, I am less likely to succeed. But I would rather be feeling all right. I'm probably now the least competitive person I know. I'm free of the quest because I don't need to win to feel good about myself."

Graeme Obree, Aye Write!, April 16 at 6pm, with Michelle Mone. Visit Carnegie's Call: Developing The Success Habit by Michael Malone (Argyll, £7.99).