North West 200: The heartbreak and thrill of road racing

 

"You can sit on a bike travelling at 200mph or you can sit on your sofa watching Coronation Street. That's the choice." Paul Owen, road racer.

Paul Owen sits astride his beloved bike and thinks about his beloved wife and beloved son Thomas. And for a moment he thinks about the mess he might leave behind. Given one mistake. That's all it takes. And then he sees the light.

Down to York Corner, up past the roundabout and now he begins to take flight. On past Station Corner, through Black Bridge and Owen is truly alive. "Once that light goes green," he says, "it's all forgotten about. I just do what I do. Flat out for three miles on a superbike - I don't care about anyone else."

Huddled behind hedges and perched on hills are spectators seeking vicarious thrills. Palms sweating, hearts pounding, some fearing the worst. Stand on University Corner and you'll hear them before they see you. Not that they'll be looking.

What is the North West 200?

Honda TT Legends
  • Run on public roads between Portstewart, Coleraine & Portrush on northern coast of Northern Ireland
  • One of the fastest races in the world. Martin Jessop clocked 208mph in practice last year
  • Event attracts 150,000 spectators
  • First run in 1929
  • Called the NW 200 as it was originally run over 200 miles on course that was supposed to be run on north-west coast (though never was)
  • Race will be live on BBC Sport website (details at bottom)

"When I come to the end of that straight," Owen says, "I'll often be gasping for air because I'll have forgotten to take a breath. I expect it's like being high on drugs. I wouldn't know, I can't afford them. I spend all my money on bikes."

If it's a riotous exhibition of what it is to be alive you're after, then come to Northern Ireland and see riders dice with death. The North West 200  might be the UK's biggest and most thrilling sporting event you've never heard of. And for the 150,000 punters - if it's sunny, which is doubtful - it doubles as a sobering lesson in the authentic. Think you're living? Think again.

"Some people think it's ridiculous," says John McGuinness, road racing legend  and six-time winner at the North West, "to be sat on a bike going at 200mph. But you're not alive if you don't get excited by it: the sound and smell of bikes, wheel-to-wheel racing, 18 inches away from the next rider, grandstand finishes. I don't care what anyone says, everyone loves bikes.

"Stick your head out of the sunroof of a car travelling at 80mph and see how it feels. Now imagine travelling at 200mph and doing the same thing. In truth, we don't have time to think about how it feels. The only time it feels that fast is when something goes wrong. Then everything speeds up a little bit."

Nevertheless, McGuinness is keen to point out that he and his comrades amount to a whole lot more than "a bunch of lunatics howling around a road". "We're professional sportsmen," says the 41-year-old 'Morecambe Missile', who worries about newcomers such as Australian Josh Brookes, who is hoping to transfer his short circuit prowess to the roads of Northern Ireland's north coast.

"I'm still learning and I've done 18 North Wests and 16 Isle of Man TTs. Josh and some of these new guys are vulnerable: they know where they're going, they know it's left and right, but they don't know the niggly bits that catch you out. That's something you can't teach, you feel it inside with experience.

Thrills and spills ahead in the North West 200

"Josh doesn't know about the bumps and manholes, the wind directions, the grip levels, the drops in temperature and pressure. Then old matey might have been dropping pig manure out the back of his tractor or one of the pipes on his JCB might be leaking and dripping hydraulic fluid all over the road."

While Honda rider McGuinness is part of the elite, Owen, also 41, is in it purely for the love of the game. Their bike might have the same name, it's just that McGuinness's, souped up to very last sprocket, costs about 20 times as much.

"I plough every penny I make back into road racing," says Welshman Owen - house-husband, odd-job man and semi-professional road racer. "It's not just a case of turning up, getting the bike out and sticking it on the start line.

"I've taken time off work, I've paid out £600 for the boat over, I've got to feed a mechanic and pay for his travel and accommodation, the tyre bill comes to £1,000 and every practice session and race takes a tank of fuel. Either my wife is a very understanding woman or she enjoys me being away."

John McGuinness

McGuinness won the Superbike category at the NW 200 last year

But Owen's first true love never stops breaking his heart. It was colourful and sometimes controversial Lincolnshire rider Guy Martin who said: "I don't go out to kill myself - but that's the buzz." And so it goes.

Last year, Owen's friend Mark Buckley was killed after a crash at the North West 200; in 2010, perhaps his closest friend in the sport, Kiwi Paul Dobbs, was killed after a crash during the Isle of Man TT.

"There is that dark side to it," says Owen. "Stuff can happen. Luckily, Mark Buckley happened behind me so I didn't see it. But I was right behind Paul Dobbs. I stopped and tried to help but there was nothing I could do.

"The next day I went back out for the superbike race, sat on the bike at the start and said to my sponsors: 'I don't know if I can do this.' But Paul Dobbs's wife asked me to carry on. She said: 'Don't give up, he would have wanted you to go out and race.' I guess it's just one of those things. It's how you bounce."

"I've seen close mates laid out in the road," says McGuinness. "Most people would think: 'Right, that's it, I'll buy myself some golf clubs.' But it's an addiction. My team-mate Simon Andrews nearly lost his lower leg, came back, crashed at the TT again, broke his collarbone, and is back again. He's got that racing drug pumping through his veins.

"If it happens to me I just hope it happens pretty quick and there's no suffering. As long as nobody thought I was an idiot, that would do it for me."

"Road racing is certainly more dangerous than circuit racing. But, subsequently, the exhilaration and satisfaction is greater on the road.

"Road racers are generally a different breed, made of sturdier stuff. You haven't got a big gravel trap to run into if you make a mistake, you're travelling at 200mph and you've got houses and trees on the side of the road.

"But if John McGuinness were to die at the North West, or the Isle of Man TT, he would have gone doing something he was passionate about."

Even the great ones are not immune. In 2000, Northern Irish legend Joey Dunlop, perhaps the finest road racer ever, was killed in a crash in an obscure race in Estonia. In 2008, Joey's younger brother Robert, who has more North West 200 victories than any other rider, was killed during a practice session for the 250cc race. Back in the field were Robert's sons Michael and William.

Two days later, 19-year-old Michael did what he does and won the actual 250cc race. "He had tens of thousands of people sitting on his bike with him," says McGuinness, who was directly behind Robert when his accident happened and was Joey's last team-mate. "He went from a boy to a man that day."

While Michael Dunlop is young - "raw," says McGuinness, "he wants to kill dead things" - McGuinness is middle-aged. Time to wind down and consider his commitments and responsibilities; to take up rambling or home brewing or to sit around, getting fat, doing nothing much at all. In other words, to die inside.

"When I was 21 I never thought I'd still be doing the North West at 41," says McGuinness, who admits to a degree of irritation that footballers can earn £200,000-a-week while he sometimes worries about paying the bills.

"But I'm still at it, still rattling away. When my son came along it made me think, 'Hang on a minute, I've got another mouth to feed.' And it made me go faster. And now I've got a little girl and I'm going even faster still.

"I hear Guy Martin saying he's going to win a TT and retire. We'll see, I bet he doesn't. That's what I said to my missus, and that was 14 years ago. You can't hang up your leathers just like that. There's always unfinished business."

Robert Dunlop

In 2008, Robert Dunlop (pictured) was killed during practice for the 250cc race at the NW 200. His brother, the legendary Joey Dunlop, died in a crash in a race in Estonia in 2000.

McGuinness has had his fair share of lumps and bumps. But "nothing too bad". "I've cracked my kneecap," he says. "Broken quite a few bones in my toes. Most of my fingers. My left collarbone. Dislocated my shoulder quite a few times. Got a screw in my left wrist. Broke a few ribs. Been knocked out a few times, that's a bit weird. I also broke my femur in 2000 - 15 July, about 11:17 am. It hurt that much, the bone was sticking out through my leg.

"But I'm not out to kill myself. I always think I've got a little bit in hand, on the road you have to have a sub-conscious safety barrier. But any split-second and anyone can be gone, doing the North West or walking to the shops. Look at Mike Hailwood - 14 TT wins, retired and he died popping down to the chippy." 

Meanwhile, Owen frets about his future away from the edge. "I've got a couple of years yet," he says, "but already I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do then?' All through the winter you're craving your next fix. But then you start thinking, 'Is this what I want to do? Do I want to put my family through it all again?'

"But when you get back on that start line and the light turns green, you get that feeling again. That feeling we can't explain. Pop down to the paddock at the North West - number 98, the bikes are white and blue. I'll put the kettle on."

Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose sitting on that couch watching Coronation Street. But why would you want to do a thing like that? Choose sitting on a bike travelling at 200mph. Choose your future. Choose life.

  • BBC coverage of 2013 NW 200:

Thursday 16 May : Practice - 10:00-14:30 live on BBC Sport website; 10:03-14:00 on Radio Ulster MW. Racing - 17:15-21:00 live on BBC Sport NI website and 17:30-21:00 on Radio Ulster MW

Friday 17 May : NW 200 preview BBC One NI 22:35-23:15

Saturday 18 May : Race day - 10:00-18:30 live BBC Sport website and 10:30-18:00 on Radio Ulster MW

Sunday 19 May: NW 200 Highlights 22:25-23:25 on BBC 1 NI

Monday 20 May: Ben Dirs piece on race on BBC Sport website. NW 200 Highlights from 22:35-23:35 on BBC 1 NI.