Some people have a defining moment in their life: one moment, for which they will be remembered forever.

Graeme Obree had his 20 years ago tomorrow. On Sunday July 17, 1993, Obree broke the world hour record on Old Faithful, a bike he built himself.

The hour record is the most distinguished record in cycling; it is simply the record for the furthest distance ridden in one hour. Some of the most revered cyclists in history have held the hour record including Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain, with Merckx describing his successful attempt in 1972 as "the hardest ride I have ever done".

If all had gone to plan, Obree would have broken the record one day sooner. A 27 year-old, Obree travelled to Norway in an attempt to break Francesco Moser's nine year-old world hour record but failed by nearly a kilometre. That, he said "was worse than death itself".

Against all his instincts, Obree was persuaded to use a new bike to impress the media for that attempt. It was shiny and slick. Old Faithful was battered and bruised as a result of cycling round the roads of the west of Scotland. Obree, in part, attributes the failure on July 16 to the bike, but it was a blessing in disguise. "I needed to fail on the Saturday to get the record on the Sunday," he says. "Within 30 seconds of realising I'd failed, I knew I was going again. I needed that fear of failure; I was more scared of failing than wanting to break the record."

Obree used an unusual method of recovery in the aftermath of the first day, drinking pints of water before he went to bed and through the night, thus ensuring that his "natural alarm clock" woke him every hour. This allowed him to stretch his tired muscles and reduce the stiffness in his body for the following day.

"When I woke up on the Sunday I knew that the record was mine, that I was having it," he says. "And I was willing to risk heart failure to get it. I didn't just want to break the hour record; I needed to break it. I was going to keep my legs turning until I fainted or died. And I needed the failure on the Saturday in order to achieve that mindset." The Scot achieved 51.596km, breaking Moser's record by 445 metres.

Obree's willingness to push himself to his limit sounds extreme, but fits perfectly with his character. He admits he has an obsessive personality and has suffered from mental health problems throughout his life, including depression and attempted suicide. He feels his devotion to cycling at that time was just the latest manifestation of his obsessiveness. Breaking the hour record was so important to him, as if to somehow justify his existence.

"I felt I was a worthless human being. During the attempt, the pain in your body is so bad, but you think about what you'd say if you stopped," he says. "It's like someone pulling your fingernails out: you'd do anything to make them stop. But you can't stop. Your body is racked with pain but you mustn't slow down. I kept going because I needed that record in order to feel good about myself."

Obree's record stood for only six days. The Englishman Chris Boardman, his great rival, broke it by 674 metres, although Obree did reclaim the record in 1994. The Scot feels that, despite having become individual pursuit world champion in 1993 and 1995, breaking the hour record 20 years ago was the high point of his career. "Before and after it, I underachieved," he says.

Two decades ago, British cycling was not remotely like the ultraprofessional, high-profile set-up in place today. When asked if he wishes that he had been competing nowadays, with all the support available, Obree almost falls out of his chair. "Oh no! It would be awful!" he says. "It would be like going to bootcamp. I'd last about a week in the current system."

To some extent he is right, it is like bootcamp. British Cycling and Team Sky's training programmes are produced and carried out with precision, whereas Obree concocted his training programme on his own. Reflecting on his methods for his hour record attempt, he says: "I just battered into it. I'd replicate the event: I'd cycle for an hour then I'd flop on to the floor - "

But surely the support system which is available now would have been of benefit to him? He disagrees. "I knew better than the experts. I'd be kicked out of the current British system because they don't need someone with defects," he says. "There's a conveyor belt of talent, so anyone with defects gets pushed out. They're not going to tolerate someone building their own bike when they're employing their own guys to do that."

Obree is still palpably proud of Old Faithful, the bike he built, the bike that took him to that hour record. He goes into minute detail describing the aerodynamics of the bike and it still seems to irk him somewhat that the public perception is that his bike was cobbled together. Old Faithful is frequently described as being built out of a washing machine when in reality Obree used only a couple of washing machine bearings. "It annoys me when it's talked about as the washing machine bike because people don't realise how much thought went into it," he says.

Obree does concede that more financial support would have been helpful. He had to work as a receptionist in 1992, the year before his record attempt, because he needed the extra money for food. With records and sporting prizemoney come fame, though, and Obree acknowledges that he would have struggled to cope with the level of celebrity that has been bestowed upon Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins. "It would have been terrible if I'd been as famous as they are. I'd never leave my flat. If I'd been as famous as Wiggins is, I would have chucked it."

There is something unjust in the perception that Obree is an eccentric sportsman who built his bikes out of household appliances, rather than an inspired innovator who reached the top of his sport and influenced cycling forever. Although there is undeniably an element of eccentricity there.

These days, Obree is still building bikes. He is developing 'the Beastie', on which he hopes to break the human-powered land speed record. Obree's life has been punctuated by lofty highs and extreme lows, some of those lows brought on by cycling. When asked if he has any regrets, if he's glad he did it all, he thinks long and hard. "I am glad," he says. "If I hadn't been through all that adversity then I wouldn't be who I am today. And I wouldn't have that hour record."