Considering his obvious talent and factory rider status Christian Iddon is remarkably level-headed, especially for a lad of his tender years. Although he still hasn't turned 23 he's done a lot in racing terms and spent most of his life in various paddocks all over the world. Sitting on the floor of a pit garage at Donington Park he looks and acts just like any other young racer. When a camera is pointed in his direction he instinctively reaches for a baseball cap, partly to keep sponsors Red Bull happy, but also because he's self-conscious about his hair. Apparently he's having a bad hair day today.
To look at him you wouldn't ever imagine that this kid is currently lying 4th in the World Supermoto championship and can do things on a bike that would make your balls shrink. Talking to him, there isn't a hint of cockiness, he's just a young lad who loves what he does. And he's very good at it.
Like so many racers, the initial bug came from a family involvement in motorsport. His dad Paul was a successful racer competing in GPs, World Superbike and domestic championships. So when Christian popped out he joined the Iddon family on the road as they travelled between circuits.
By the age of two, when most kids are still mastering walking, Christian was charging around the paddock on a 30cc bike with stabilisers. It was only a matter of time before he started racing.
"When I was six I started racing in the British motocross championship. I spent my life on two wheels, either a pushbike or motorbike. As soon as I was home from school I'd be riding," he remembers.
Then came the hard times. Motocross can be a cruel sport and injuries are common, especially if you are trying to get to the top. By the time he was 16 Christian had collected more than his fair share of broken bones. Wrist (three times), leg (three times) and collarbones were all snapped. It was during one of his many trips to hospital, Paul is convinced, Christian's determination emerged.
"He used to be a shy kid, but the racing toughened him up both physically and mentally," he remembers.
"He had a crash that left his leg almost hanging off. I'm sure that having gone through that Christian thought 'well if I can deal with that pain I can deal with anything.' Nothing scared him anymore. He had been through more pain than most and by then wasn't afraid of it anymore."
But the family decided enough was enough when it came to motocross and the risks weren't worth the results. Although Christian was a good off-roader he wasn't exceptional, and after another injury (when most of us would consider giving up) their focus changed to supermoto. In 2002 Paul had been racing supermoto in Britain, which meant the Iddon family attended those races as well. After much pestering (and against his mum's wishes) Christian raced his dad's bike in a round. Although he didn't win he showed enough promise in that one run to secure a sponsor for the 2003 British championship.
The next year he won both the British 450 and Open Summer Championships as well as the Open Winter Championship. By 2005 Christian was racing for Husaberg in the World Championship, finishing 6th overall. Aprilia then signed him up in 2006 to team up with supermoto legend Thierry Van Den Bosch in a fully factory team. Christian finished fourth while Thierry won the title. In supermoto terms being teamed up with Van Den Bosch is like sharing a pit garage with Rossi.
Christian may currently lie 4th in the 2007 championship, but his eyes are now set on the future. At the end of this season Christian faces a tough choice - should he stay in supermoto, perhaps win the championship, but never realise his potential? Or should he risk it all and jump into the unknown of road-racing? Supermoto is a niche sport and while it is fairly big in Europe, it will never be mainstream. But to turn his back on not only supermoto but also a factory Aprilia ride is a hard call for anyone to make, let alone a 22 year old.
Despite testing a roadrace bike a few times Christian had no real idea if he could make the swap, so we decided to help out. With the fountain of knowledge that is Niall Mackenzie as his personal guide, Christian spent a full day lapping Donington Park on an RSV-R Powerbike racer to find out whether he's got what it takes to make the switch.
Niall's first introduction to Christian's supermoto riding was at the Melbourne Loop. In a squeal of tortured tyre he was casually sliding his supermoto bike at full lock into the Loop before firing it out sideways leaving a big thick dark line. To Christian it was business as usual. What he was really excited about doing was riding the RSV-R racebike.
Sitting on the bike for the first time Christian looked uncomfortable, the RSV-R was bigger than anything he had ridden before. As he doesn't have a road bike licence Christian's road bike experience is limited to a few trackdays on borrowed bikes, mainly 600s. Not that this stopped his talent showing through.
"Having watched Christian slide his supermoto there is little doubt he has fantastic feeling and control for a bike, but he's still quite raw when it comes to road racing," were Niall's first impressions. "His riding style is noticeably different. He rides the bike like a supermoto, it's something he's very conscious about. The whole knee-down riding style is alien to Christian and speaking to him about it he can feel he's sitting more upright on the bike and pushes it into corners rather than hanging off it to keep the bike up. But he is very natural. Much of this feeling of uncomfortableness is purely getting used to a road bike's riding position. I was expecting him to be a lot stiffer on the road bike, uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but he wasn't."
A few pointers exchanged and the two of them head out again. From the trackside Christian looks more relaxed on the bike and his times are dropping. Niall is having to work his R6 hard to keep with him on the straights but is making up time in the corners. As he would, being Niall.
"You need to improve your corner entry," is the verdict. "You don't flow around the bends, you're very aggressive on the brakes but brake too much and lose time entering the bend."
"I'm used to getting it anchored up then going around the corner before squirting it out again," confirms Christian, "It's the supermoto style, and I'm not sure what the front end is doing, it feels in a different postcode compared to my supermoto." Christian was struggling to get the feel he is used to from the RSV-R due to a combination of road tyres (not slicks) and the lazier geometry, but his technique was hampering him. Supermoto racers don't really trail brake into corners. Instead they slide and balance both ends of the bike with even pressure on both brakes, which is totally different to a road race technique.
"Exiting the corner he is thinking about getting on the power as quickly as possible and actually looks comfier when the bike is moving than when it isn't," Niall observes. "From his supermoto racing he is more than happy to ride a bike that is sliding, and it shows. There would be no point in Christian racing a 125 or 250 GP bike, he doesn't have the right style, he needs to start on a 600 or even a 1000 so he can slide it. He is smooth with the throttle and has so much feeling for a rear tyre."
After a full day's tuition around Donington's famous curves, how did Niall rate his pupil?
"I was surprised that Christian adapted so quickly to the extra speed involved with road racing, he wasn't fazed by it at all, and once he had a few laps to get into the groove he was fine," he said.
"I'm certain he can develop the skills necessary to become a top road racer, but where do you go? It doesn't seem right for someone of his talent to start at the bottom and go through the system, and his age might work against him. I know a lot of people have said 'why not do the R6 Cup?' but it's a case of going from the top of his game to a British domestic series. That's no disrespect to the R6 lads, but Christian is now a paid top-level rider, and that's a step down. He's in a very difficult position. I have no doubt he can be competitive in road racing, even at a world level, but he needs the right team and a two-year deal. One year to get used to the bike, the next to shine. Watching him ride he has no real weaknesses and I'd have every confidence that with the right people around he could make it. But it's a massive leap of faith for anyone."
OTHERS WHO SWAPPED SADDLES...
THIERRY VAN DEN BOSCH
Having dominated the World Supermoto championship VDB tried his hand at World Supersport in 2003. Despite showing much promise, a crash in pre-season testing ruined his season and left him with virtually no strength in his arm. His best result was 4th at a wet Silverstone and he returned to supermoto when the season ended, where he is still a top runner.
Having kicked everyone's arse both sides of the Atlantic in motocross Bayle turned his hand to road racing in 1993. His first road race was the French 250 GP, where he finished last, picking up the nickname Jean-Michel Snail. The next year he race a factory 250 Aprilia then progressed to 500 GPs alongside the world's best. Although he bagged two poles, the podium eluded him and he retired from racing in 2002.
Growing up in Kentucky, Hayden first raced flat track where he won a string of races and Rookie of the Year in 1999 before turning to the tarmac and winning the AMA Supersport and Superbike titles. A darling of Honda he was promoted to MotoGP and won the title in 2006 due to consistency. Some guy called Kenny Roberts Senior also used to race flat track before turning to road racing, and he was quite good too.