No more heroes anymore

In this lilly-livered, cotton-wool, namby-pamby world we live in, the bike racing hard-man of the last century is a dying breed. Where have all the heroes gone?

The Bike Racing Hero is dead. Starved by the introduction of political correctness, injected with large doses of professionalism in the sport and brainwashed with an abject fear of telling the truth, he passed away some time in the early part of this century. This upsets me, as being a useless, good-for-nothing, overweight couch potato, for years I’ve lived life in the same way that many of us have – vicariously and through other people, normally through the medium of sport.

My sport isn’t football. Since the 1970s my Grandad has called them ‘poofters’. This isn’t a term to offend homosexuals today, and it wasn’t even because they had long unkempt hair like girls. He simply thought footballers were paid too much and did very little for it. So far as I can see, nothing in that sport has changed since Grandad’s time, apart from the haircuts. My sport is, and always has been, bike racing. Full of proper hard men, who rode through the pain barrier.

They entertained us, dancing on the twilight of adhesion one moment, battling a bastard of a bike to win the race or crash in the attempt, nursing wounds from last weekend before slugging from a bottle of champagne and tipping a wink to a topless glamour girl.

My heroes were people I wanted to be. I winced when they crashed, I screamed for joy when they won and insulted the opposition in the most xenophobic way imaginable when they got beaten (especially by Americans, the French or Germans.) Through them, I was truly alive, lifted from my near-comatose position on the sofa and transported to sit alongside them on the podium. And I thanked them for it.

But something’s changed. Today’s bike race stars are keener to set up their website than their suspension and they’ve degenerated into pre-programmed automatons, hair-gelled, homogenised homo-sapiens, no longer allowed to speak their mind or say their piece. Who killed The Bike Race Hero, and will we ever see his like again?

Flying over occupied France in a Lancaster Bomber during 1943 was something that could seriously curtail your life expectancy. Flight Lieutenant Robert Leslie Graham – pilot of a Lancaster bomber – had not only just taken part in a high-risk raid on vital U-boat pens in France, but had also stayed behind with his crew of seven to photograph the damage done by him and his fellow squadron mates despite attacking German fighters. ‘Les’ Graham received the Distinguished Flying Cross for valour and in 1949 he went on to become the first 500cc motorcycle World Champion. Obviously, he was British.

Mike Hailwood won the George Medal – the peacetime equivalent of the Victoria Cross – for rescuing fellow driver Clay Regazzoni from his flaming Formula One car in 1973. He also took victory in the 1965 TT, crossing the line on his battered MV Agusta with blood streaking his face following a crash after which he remounted to defeat Giacomo Agostini. Proper heroes, resolute, with a dash of bloody-mindedness.

Geoff Duke won the 500cc title four times and was World Champion six times. He used the kerbs and gutters at the Isle of Man TT to stop the rear of the bike sliding. On a Manx Norton, that takes balls. “In some ways it’s a much easier life for modern riders,” says Geoff today. “They only race in one class whereas riders used to race in as many as three Grands Prix in a day. It’s also more financially rewarding for today’s stars. But I can honestly say that I raced because I loved doing it, not because of what I was going to get paid. Money was secondary. The main consideration was the thrill, the challenge, and the competitiveness of the racing. Personally, looking from then to now, I get the impression that there are fewer personalities in the sport now.” My heroes don’t need to be larger or louder than life: Les Graham is remembered as a mentor and someone who was willing to offer advice to the young, up-coming stars of the day. Which fits the ID of some of my racing heroes such as Ron Haslam, Joey Dunlop and Niall Mackenzie.

However, add a trace of cockiness, arrogance and wit and you’re taking your bike race hero into another league. He’s now become an entertainer. This is the fact with some of my other heroes, the likes of Barry Sheene, Carl Fogarty, Kevin Schwantz and James Whitham. Overcoming adversity is another trait and adversity often equals injury in bike racing. Many of my heroes have ridden through the pain barrier more than once. They’ve ridden with broken limbs. Even I’ve ridden on the road with broken limbs, but when Michael Schumacher broke his leg at Silverstone on July 11th 1999, he was out for more than three months, coming back at the Malaysian GP in October. Feeble. When Mick Doohan smashed his leg to little pieces at Assen in 1992, so badly that they thought he’d have to lose it and knitted his two legs together so they could re-grow, he was back riding just four races later despite being in palpable agony because he had a chance of the World Championship. He lost to Rainey by just four points. Unbelievable hardness.

Barry Sheene and Steve Parrish drove a Rolls Royce courtesy car around the Nurburging and then trashed it. They firebombed the ‘below-par’ toilets at the Finnish GP in Imatra in 1976 and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Rumour had it that Sheene was once pontificating to a journalist while being blown by a girl under the covers of his motorhome bed. That’s a hero. Could you imagine Casey and Vale doing the same? Course not. Freddie Spencer would fail to show up for a race, or blame loose contact lenses for not winning, or throw a tantrum because the team hadn’t got Dr Pepper in the hospitality. And Eddie Lawson, after hearing Spencer blame his loss of a race on clipping a haybale on the final turn, grabbed the microphone from the interviewer and said slowly and carefully, “it was also possible to MISS the bale…” This stuff was magic. Today’s post-race interviews are mind-bogglingly dull in comparison.

And here’s another thing that pisses me off. Heroes need battlegrounds that befit them. Places in which to be heroic. This means Monza, Hockenheim, Brands Hatch, Mugello and yes, the Isle of Man. But today it’s the likes of Sepang, Lausitzring, Qatar and other sanitized tracks with miles of F1-style run-off that take pride of place on the GP calendar. “There is a ‘sameness’ about all the circuits that I find dull,” continues Geoff Duke. “There’s so much run-off that a rider can afford to ride near the limit in the knowledge that if he does fall he’s probably not going to hurt himself. We never had that luxury.” This neutering extends to the bikes. The ultimate expression of a motorcycle race machine is the 500cc V-four two-stroke. If ever malice, malevolence and evil truly found a home in aluminium and carbon-fibre, this was it. In comparison, modern MotoGP four-stroke bikes are so flexible, they can be ridden by anybody. The level of technology in brakes, suspension and tyres is like night and day to what was around just 20 years ago.

Kevin Schwantz is in the unique position to have ridden all the current crop of four-stroke MotoGP bikes. The 1993 500cc Champion started out in GPs in 1986 and retired in 1995. He was beloved by the British for his impossibly gutsy riding and knows the difference between the screaming two-strokes of his generation and the more user-friendly tractable four-strokes. “I managed to ride all the 2007 MotoGP bikes at the end of the season,” he says. “And the four-stroke bikes are easier to ride – no question. I was there at Valencia in 2006 doing 1m 35s, and the current guys are doing 31s and 32s. So I’m four seconds off the pace, but the bikes today have so much torque and power you can do that. On a 500, if you were three or four seconds off the pace you’d find that you could hardly ride it as the gearbox ratios would be way out. You’d got maybe 2,500-3,000rpm as your powerband and the bike would be geared for that. Today’s MotoGP bikes may have around 250bhp, but the trick for many modern riders is being able to trust the electronics to do the job and not spit them off. In my day we just got spat off…”

An oft-used argument that defends the current crop of riders, that the amount of races they do (it’s an 18-race MotoGP calendar this year) and the number of testing miles means that the ‘three GPs in a day’ argument for favour of the 50s and 60s generation is blown out of the water. “I believe,” says Martyn Ogbourne, who spannered for Barry Sheene in his glory years, “that the sheer amount of miles modern riders do, along with all the media attention and corporate calls upon their time means they’re just as much a hero as anyone back in previous generations. It’s like a heavyweight bout now, sure there’s only one race, but the attention, the stress and the pressure is immense.” But I’m not so sure.

I’ve been a fan of bike racing for years, but have also been lucky enough to work with these guys as a sports reporter with the weekly bike press. The shrewd racer was one with a ready wit and a quotable turn of phrase. He got the most press and was the most popular. There’s been none better at this than Schwantz. Many of his phrases have now passed into legend: At Hockenheim in 1991 he left a 200-metre skid mark when he locked the front tyre as he passed Wayne Rainey going into the Sachscurve and the final stadium section to take a legendary win. When asked about how he could brake so hard and for so long and still stay upright, Schwantz shrugged and said, “See God, then back off…”

Four weeks later at Assen and Wayne ran off the track at the final chicane, just 100 yards from victory. Kevin dived through to win the race. In the post-race press conference one journalist asked Rainey what went wrong. Schwantz recalls that day. “Before Wayne could answer, I grabbed the microphone and said, ‘I’ll tell you what went wrong, the same thing that went wrong for him a month ago at Hockenheim – I beat him.’ Man, Wayne was so pissed off. I was sure he was going to go toe-to-toe to me right then. He was so angry, furious. I’d never seen him that mad before, but I wanted to wind him up more. Racing needs that needle between racers. And with Wayne and I it started years before in the USA, and then at the Trans-Atlantic Races, and it carried on in GPs.”

Racers need personality, and lack of this precious commodity could kill the sport. It happened in Formula One, which turned from a sport into a business, where now even the brilliance of Lewis Hamilton is overshadowed by ridiculous spying cases and the insane £50 million figure that Mclaren had to pay the FIA. Dani Pedrosa could well go onto become a great champion, but his lack of personality in front of the camera could see fans flocking away. Didn’t Casey Stoner win the MotoGP Championship last year? To be honest, I can’t really remember. People have enjoyed Rossi’s antics even when he’s won almost every race, but will they stay to see Dani or Casey do the same?

“There are fewer personalities in bike racing now because the riders aren’t given any chance to become a personality,” explains Steve Parrish. “They’re put on a motorbike at the age of five or six and they’re sheltered from the real world, spending their teenage years down the gym or on a race track when most teenagers are mucking about. It’s not normal. Take them away from Alberto Puig and send them over to me for a couple of months. I’ll sort them out. They’re all like homogenised beings. They do and say the same things in front of the camera and on the bikes.”

No-one could say that about Carl Fogarty. The four-time World Superbike Champion has always polarised opinion and never minced his words. “People come up to me now,” he says, “and tell me it’s not the same since I’ve been out of it. Now I don’t know if they’re just saying that or what, but for a few years World Superbikes did lose its way and personalities were in short supply. In 2004 I was standing with James Toseland and James Whitham and this fan came up to us and he said how much he missed having characters like James and me in WSB, even if Toseland had won the title that year. It was weird. Things have changed now in WSB and improved with Biaggi, Corser, Haga and everyone in there, but if you lose characters sometimes the fans lose interest.” Carl’s ability and insistence to speak his own mind won him an army of fans, but you can only do this when you’re doing well. “I could say what I liked but only when I was winning,” confirms Foggy. “Some lads these days have got it all wrong. I was at a bike show recently and these youngsters were talking about their new Porsche and this and that and I’m thinking, ‘I never bothered with any of that until I won my first World Title.’ And yet here these guys were, talking about shit like that when not one of them had even won a British Superbike race.”

Roger Burnett was a successful racer in the 1980s who now runs his own successful promotions company. He is James Toseland’s manager today. “What’s happened in bikesport has happened in every sport. Football, tennis, snooker – you name it. Look at snooker: if you put Alex Higgins at his best in today’s competitions he wouldn’t get anywhere. Things have moved on. I remember in 1985 my team-mate Roger Marshall had alcohol poisoning after a serious binge session and I had to go and tell the Honda Britain bosses that Roger had ‘food poisoning.’ Mick Grant laughed and said, ‘yeah, I bought him a pint of that food last night…’ Things began to change from then.”

Increased popularity of bike racing and the need for sponsorship and money in the sport is the prime reason that racers are becoming clones, less individual and less heroic in the process. With every team in each Championship chasing a dwindling sponsorship dollar it’s harder to secure the funding which is the life-blood of bike racing. Money talks. And the men with the money don’t like racers saying what’s really on their minds. But perhaps the death of the Bike Race Hero was an inevitable tragedy all along. After all, there are no heroes any more left in this country. A foreign bloke scores a goal for Arsenal and he’s a hero. An airline captain does his job, doesn’t kill everyone on board, and he’s a hero. The England rugby squad got handed their arses come back heroes. Britain is desperate to rally behind someone, to carry them high, to have someone to cheer for again. It’s just a shame that Les Graham isn’t with us anymore.