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Stepping out of the Superbike shadow

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Matt Roberts | 06:51 UK time, Monday, 10 September 2012

With two free weekends between the Czech Republic Grand Prix and the next round at Misano, there has been plenty of time to reflect on a breakthrough moment for British motorcycling.


Cal Crutchlow's first podium in MotoGP was a first for our country since Jeremy McWilliams back in 2000 – and it feels good to know that's the last time I will have to reference that stat!


Many outsiders will think that it's about time we had some success in this sport, which has a huge and loyal fanbase in this country and has produced its fair share of top-class riders over the years – even though we have been waiting for a premier-class Grand Prix victory since the late Barry Sheene last celebrated at Anderstorp, Sweden, in 1981.


The main reason for this lies within the culture of motorcycle racing on a national level, which over the past two decades has revolved around production racing, i.e racing bikes you can essentially buy in your local dealership.


A thriving British Superbike Championship has developed riders ideally suited for its World equivalent and our success there – particularly that of Carl Fogarty in the 1990s – created the momentum that allowed other young British talents to thrive in that particular series, most notably Neil Hodgson and James Toseland.

Cal Crutchlow

Before his success in MotoGP Cal Crutchlow was a winner in World Supersport and World Superbike racing. Image: AP


A look at this year’s World Superbike standings shows that we currently have five riders competing for wins and the top five in the second race in Germany on Sunday were all from Britain or Ireland.


Their success has obviously not been a bad thing for British motorcycle racing, but it has certainly had a negative effect on our fortunes at the elite level of MotoGP.


While Fogarty did little more than dip his toe in the then-500cc World Championship, dominated at the time by the fearsome Mick Doohan, both Hodgson and Toseland made a more concerted but ultimately doomed attempt to blaze a trail in MotoGP for British riders in recent years.


Both riders had legitimate complaints about the tools they were given for the task – Hodgson in particular – but I am a great believer that any bike in MotoGP is enough to impress the people who matter, providing you show sufficient promise, and the bottom line is that both Hodgson and Toseland were unable to master the nuances of prototype racing in the short time they were afforded.


It was with great interest that I watched Matthew Syed's contributions to the BBC's coverage of the Olympic Games and by coincidence on the journey home from Brno I was reading his book Bounce, which offers an insight into why this might be.


In a first part entitled The Talent Myth, Syed explores the concept that thousands of hours of practice in a particular field is the only way to excel in it, whether that be sport, music or indeed any other practice.


Syed cites one particular study conducted back in 1991 by Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, on a group of violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin in Germany. Ericsson found that without fail the most 'talented' violinists in the group – those earmarked by their tutors to become international soloists - had practised for an average of 10,000 hours by the age of 20.


This compared with an average of 8,000 for the 'good' violinists, those tipped to play in the world's top orchestras and 4,000 for those expected to go on to be music teachers.


Syed outlines the relevance of this theory to sport and argues the case that the ‘10-thousand hour rule' (also known as the ‘10-year rule' as a thousand hours is considered the optimum amount of practice per year) “is the minimum time necessary for the acquisition of expertise in any complex task.”


One example that particularly struck me was a study that showed how professional tennis players are instinctively able to judge the trajectory of an opponent's serve before it is made, due to an ability to read their body position, based on hours and hours of observation.


I believe that this theory also applies to motorcycle racing. While most professional racers start life on two wheels at a very early age, those who gather the experience of riding Grand Prix motorcycles from as young as 15 are far better equipped for the demands of MotoGP than those who make the switch at a later age from production racing in the Supersport and Superbike classes.


There are other contributory factors of course, but it can be no coincidence that the four men who have dominated MotoGP in recent seasons - Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner - all came through the 125cc and 250cc Grand Prix classes.


Going back to the start of the four-stroke MotoGP era in 2002, there have been a total of 182 races, with only eight of them won by riders who had not previously competed in at least one of the smaller GP classes: Nicky Hayden (three wins), Makoto Tamada (two), Troy Bayliss, Chris Vermeulen and Ben Spies (one win each).


A prototype chassis, carbon brakes and slick tyres make for a machine with very different behavioural habits to that of a production motorcycle, which among many things is a far heavier, more flexible piece of equipment. Superbikes also have slick tyres but Supersport, their junior equivalent, must be fitted with road legal rubber.


Without hours and hours of practice on these machines and tyres, it is extremely difficult for riders to form the kind of instinctive reactions required to predict the behaviour of a MotoGP bike.

After riding a MotoGP machine for the first time last week Northern Ireland's Jonathan Rea, who will stand in for the injured Casey Stoner for the next two rounds, talked about having to adjust his braking style, improving corner exit and learning how to adjust his riding when the tyres are worn.


Having lapped three seconds shy of team-mate Pedrosa in an initial one-day test at Brno he managed to halve the deficit over two days at Aragon but, as with all of the British riders who have gone before him in MotoGP, the final few tenths will no doubt prove the most difficult to find.


All this goes to highlight not only how difficult it will be for Jonny to be competitive at Misano and Aragon, but also the magnitude of Crutchlow's achievement to finish on the podium having only moved to MotoGP last year at the ripe old age of 25, having progressed through the British and World Supersport and Superbike ranks.


The next step for Cal, of course, is the top step and breaking up Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner's dominance of it will be a mammoth challenge.


I moved onto something of a prototype machine myself this week, throwing my leg over Victoria Pendleton's old Pinarello Dogma bike to take part in the 'Cycle of Wishes', an 1,800km ride from Donington Park to Misano in honour of Marco Simoncelli.


In fact, by the time you read this we should already be well on our way through northern France.


Having only ever ridden a mountain bike previously, it has certainly been a steep learning curve since I picked the bike up three weeks ago and I've definitely not managed to get in 10,000 hours of practice.


Making it to the end of the ride and raising plenty of cash for charity is the only goal here though and we hope the effort will be a worthy tribute to Marco, who will be at the forefront of all our minds as the paddock assembles at his home circuit, which has been renamed in his honour, almost a year on from his untimely death.


To find out more about the ride and how to donate to the Marco Simoncelli Foundation and the other charities that are to benefit, visit



  • Comment number 1.

    Bradley Smith and Scot Redding are the next generation to shine; both are well known and respected in the MotoGP paddock and, importantly both have tasted success in the smaller engine classes. The next few years are vitally important for the future of British riders in MotoGP, if these two and Cal Crutchlow can find success then the sponsors will be willing to fund more British riders in the MotoGP circus.

  • Comment number 2.

    Very good article Matt.

    Its both the riders and the public interest. Certainly for me growing up on TV I remember watching a lot of superbike action, both World and British. I remember seeing the likes of Fogarty, Hodgson, Bayliss and Edwards all in the Championship. But that was all that was on terrestrial TV. And to think that next year we could potentially have around five British riders on the grid (Crutchlow, Smith, Redding, Ellison plus another on a Paul Bird machine) the interest is surly going to take off in Britain.

    However since the BBC started showing MotoGP (and started taking it seriously but that’s for another day) its not surprising the interest has grown as it is much more accessible.

    This coupled with the fact that in 2013, we will have for the first time in long time a British rider who has grown up in the MotoGP paddock, knows the people and the circuits – Bradley Smith made his 125 debut in 2006 things are certainly looking good for British Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing.

    Good luck with the bike ride too Matt, sounds like its for a great cause.

  • Comment number 3.

    We totally agree with Matt that British riders too often race road based machines and lose the ability to get the best out of pure race bikes, something FAB-Racing has been preaching for years.

    To provide an excellent example of how things should and could happen in Britain we could use a non British example, Spanish teenager Maverick Viñales. Maverick followed what we consider to be the more or less perfect route to GP; minimoto, MiniGP, XL-80, PreGP125, 2 years on GP125 in CEV, winning in his second year, and then into GP with instant success.

    Scott Redding followed a very similar pattern but missed the PreGP125 stage when he was picked, following his win in the XL-80 series in Spain, for the MotoGP Academy. During the year he was there he rode in the CEV Championship on a Honda, finishing 7th, then came away from the Academy to ride once again in the CEV with the Spanish BQR team. Only just losing out on the Championship to team mate Stefan Bradl, after losing points in the first round with machine problems, he impressed BQR sufficiently to put him into the full 17 GP rounds during which year at 15 years old he became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner.

    Note the parallels; neither went near a bike that was anything but a race machine. Perhaps it is also worth noting that, unfortunately, young Scott did practically all his apprenticeship in Spain once he finished on MiniGP in the UK, caused by the lack of structure in racing in the UK, something FAB-Racing has and is working to rectify by providing the missing steps.

    Minimoto to MiniGP to XL-80 are already there, although the XL-80 is currently not well enough supported with riders tempted onto the road based Superteen route, but we are missing the PreGP125 (now PreMoto3 in Spain) class to fine hone riders before GP125 / Moto3. This final step will be here in 2013 with a new PreMoto3 machine from FAB, who are in discussions with MSVR with the possibility to run this class as part of the BSB package.

    Financial support in whatever form, government or commercial sponsorship, is needed at grass roots level not just at the top end of the sport. Give FAB-Racing just a fraction of what has been given to cycling to get it where it is and we Know we could make so much happen.

    A comment on the 10,000 hour Theory of Genius. In the case of motorcycle racing it is pretty sure that a talented rider with 10,000 hours of practice could still be beaten by a rider with greater talent even with just half the number of practice hours.

    Finally Matt, enjoy your cycle ride to Misano!! It's all in a good cause.

  • Comment number 4.

    Fascinating comments from FAB Racing on a interesting blog. Already out of date though in view of the move, by Dorna, away from pure prototypes to CRT ? For me, regretably, the route FAB Racing talks about encourages midget riders such as Pedrosa, Marquez and many others. Great, therefore to see Rossi, Hayden and Redding having success as man size riders rather than tiny "jockeys".

  • Comment number 5.

    Very envious, Matt - many's the cyclist who would like to throw a leg over Victoria or indeed her top of the range Pinarello machine.


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