Top 10s

Top 10 Hardest Rides Of All Time

The top ten riders who against injured continued battling on to inspiring acts of courage

Bike racing, in its dozens of forms and shapes, is always a hard man’s sport. By definition, merely covering yourself in cow skin, plonking a helmet on your head and then pushing the limits around every single corner you encounter on something with no safety whatsoever can hardly be a pastime for softies. Put the inhuman desire for championship wins and manufacturer tribalism into the mix and the pressure to perform, no matter what, makes the whole business even tougher again.

It therefore attracts people with the kind of grit, bravery and determination that in wartime would make them candidates for a Victoria Cross.

The 10 hardest rides of all time? Well shit, that’s a toughie. In placing only 10 rides out of tens of thousands of superhuman displays thus far in motorcycling history into a single feature like this is a tough task. For starters, were we all to name our most notable 10 hardest rides, we would all come out with different ideas, different eras and totally different results.

You will notice we have purposefully excluded some rides against the odds that resulted in riders paying the ultimate price, or suffering true career ending injuries. That, I believe, has no place in a feature meant as a celebration of the human spirit, its ability to overcome through sheer valour and endurance. Even if all some of them got for their gutsy displays was another step closer to losing over a season. So here they are, the 10 hardest rides of all time. Prepare to disagree!

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10. Jorge Lorenzo

10. Jorge Lorenzo

Where: MotoGP, Le Mans
When: 2008
What: Yamaha M1
Why so hard?: Two broken ankles and he still manages a 4th place

During practice at the Chinese MotoGP Jorge had a stunning highside rendering both ankles broken and utterly useless. Nobody told that to the often outspoken Spaniard though, who after push starting a stalled bike off the line rode to an incredible 4th place. After 22 laps of pure agony in high humidity, Jorge celebrated his 21st birthday by watching Rossi and co take their place on the podium.

Two weeks later Jorge was back on the bike for the French round at Le Mans. After being lifted onto the bike he promptly jumped off it in the first practice session. When 99% of other racers would have gone home to lick their wounds Jorge opted instead to lick a lollypop. Practice session two saw crash number two but still Gorgeous George hadn’t had enough. The second place that he rode gave Yamaha a vital 1-2-3 on the podium.

He was carried up the steps to the podium, then sat on a chair (lollypop still in gob), much to the admiration of fans and fellow racers. If ever there was any doubt over the courage and determination of the modern racer this surely silences it.

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9. Hakan Carlqvist

9. Hakan Carlqvist

Where: French 500 MXGP
When: 1983
What: Yamaha YZ500
Why so hard?: Sheer guts and stamina beats Honda trio to the title

Fitted with an air-cooled engine nicknamed ‘The Motor of Death’ in the US, the works Yamaha 500 ‘crosser was not the most sophisticated or smooth unit in the days of big MX two-stroke engines. Swede Hakan Carlqvist was the only man who could win on them, even though he had to put tape all over his battle-scarred hands to stop them blistering.

After suffering what turned out to be two cracked ribs and a trapped nerve in his spine at the previous Namur race, the always tough and gritty Carlqvist rated the next moto in France as his hardest ever, particularly as he had already determined to stop early, until his mechanic intervened.

“I thought I’d just hurt the back muscles and tried to race. But it was a bigger problem than I realised. I had a flat tyre in the first moto when I was leading. I lost 15 points there. In the second race, I could only push 80 per cent. I had so much pain; I couldn’t race. Thorpe was closing on me and I thought I must stop. Then my mechanic gave me a signal for three laps. Just six minutes left. I can make it! Velthoven and Malherbe were going so slowly. I gassed it and caught up eight seconds in one and a half laps!”

The exhausted Carlqvist had to be lifted off his bike and collapsed, but he had earned enough points to allow him to win the title against three much more sophisticated water-cooled Hondas. In an era when men were men, Carlqvist was the toughest of them all.

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8. Hubert Auriol

8. Hubert Auriol

Where: Paris-Dakar, Twins Class
When: 1987
What: Cagiva Elefant
Why so hard?: Completed rally stage with two smashed ankles

Halfway through the Paris-Dakar of 1987 the assembled bike racers took time out to honour the memory of the series organizer, Thierry Sabine, who along with several others had perished in a helicopter accident in the previous Dakar race. It was a poignant moment, but for sheer drama nothing would beat the penultimate day.

The race was a three-way affair between the Honda of Cyril Neveu, the BMW of Gaston Rahier and the new force in the world of twins, Cagiva, and their eventual lone works rider Hubert Auriol.

Leading by a whopping 10 minutes as he approached the end of the last stage of the second last day, a shortcut eventually ended Oriol’s race in crunching, brutal fashion. But not right away…

Auriol hit a tree root with his foot before hitting the tree himself. He even stood up before realizing he had smashed his ankles. With his team-mates disqualified and the weight of Cagiva’s underdog hopes on his shoulders, Auriol tried to remount and was eventually helped back onto his restarted machine by two other riders. How Auriol made it the final 20kms to the final checkpoint of the day is without explanation. You can’t ride sections of the Dakar without taking all your weight through the feet, and Hubert did just that for 20 agonising kilometres.

With his sickening compounded leg injuries finally revealed to the shocked onlookers as he made his miraculous return, he was helicoptered away for successful restorative surgery back in France. Auriol’s chances of a well-deserved win for Cagiva went with him, with the final 200 ‘easy’ miles unbridgeable even by Auriol’s guts and determination. Victory was just out of reach, but it was the finest moral victory of the Dakar, one never to be forgotten.

As Auriol himself later said on Italian TV, in a message directed to his team manager and all the Cagiva employees, “Roberto, tell them we beat Honda!”

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7. Noriyuki Haga

7. Noriyuki Haga

Where: Miller Motorsports Park
When: 2008
What:
Yamaha YZF-R1
Why so hard?: Fighting on with effectively no collarbone

Noriyuki Haga is a bit of a tough WSB cookie, always has been. Which makes the fact that it took him 28 racing years to break any bone in his battered body unbelievable.But when he finally broke one, it was truly broken.

In qualifying on Saturday at the new Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, he clanged into a slower rider under braking, went over the front of his bike and broke his right collarbone so badly it looked like an explosive device had gone off inside it.  The bone was in four distinct pieces, the two middle ones floating around like oversize splinters of wood, providing all the support and comfort level of a broken bra strap made of barbed wire.

But still Nori went 10th in Superpole, with no operation, no plates, no pins, just some bandaging and a vein-load of extremely strong painkillers. Of his raceday prospects Haga said, “I will be racing, I just need to see how I am.”

Next day, astonishingly, he not only raced in the opener, he crashed again, at the same corner as Saturday! But Haga rode in race two, finishing with 10 points in sixth place.

“In the end it was impossible for me to do more than I did because I couldn’t move. I was happy to race today because nobody thought I would be able to.” Nutter.

Or as his ex-racer team manager, Massimo Meregalli, put it “What Noriyuki did was like a miracle; I don’t remember anything like it.”

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6. Mick Grant

6. Mick Grant

Where: IOM TT Senior
When: 1979
What: Honda CB1100R
Why so hard?: Riding the TT with a broken pelvis

In the same North West 200 event that had claimed the life of Tom Herron two weeks before the 1979 TT, Mick Grant had crashed heavily and hit an old GPO phone box. Unsurprisingly, he had broken the front of his pelvis, as well as damaging ribs.

“I spent a day and half in hospital then discharged myself,” he says today. “ At the TT the medical guy was called Doctor Beatson. Before he would pass me fit he said I had to do four press-ups and sit-ups, thinking I wouldn’t be able to do them. But there was a fantastic physio in Douglas hospital and she arranged for me to go swimming at the school she worked at and I spent eight hours a day getting treatment. It’s amazing how your body responds. I went in for my medical inspection finally without crutches, did the required press-ups and sit-ups - and that pissed on the Doctor’s bonfire. I had purposely taken no painkillers, so it was not easy.”

No, doesn’t sound it.

“I knew I could never push start the bike but I was allowed a pusher on the grid. I led it pretty well from the start with Alex George and Mike Hailwood behind me for nearly three laps, but it was getting too much for me. Something broke in the engine anyway but whether or not I could have continued much longer anyway, I don’t know. I couldn’t move my left leg when I stopped and had to be lifted off the bike.” And that, to be honest, is enough to get into anyone’s top 6 slot...

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5. Dave Thorpe

5. Dave Thorpe

Where: Namur 500 MXGP
When: 1989
What: Honda CR500
Why so hard?: Busted knee, but defended points lead

The legendary Thorpey kept it all alive to win the 500 MX title in ‘89, even with a savage knee injury holding him back.

“I had to have my left knee iced and taped between races, it was absolutely bloody awful. I’d wrecked it in a French international the previous week. But I was lucky. At Namur, there were only three places I might have to put down my left leg. Those needed serious thought. The rest of the course, I  could get away with it.”

Despite being in obvious agony, Dave rode the race of his life. “I’d never ridden at eleven-tenths for a whole GP moto before!” he says. “Both Eric Goebers and I gave our all that race. Our pace through the woods was extremely rapid. Those trees were going past visibly 10 miles an hour quicker than normal - I was so hyped-up I could ignore the pain. Eric had some problems leaping up the steep hill to the arena. Then I found a three-inch patch which was good to take off on. I got close to him and that was it. Win or lose, those sort of races are so enjoyable, with the crowd so excited and everyone pumped up. And I always enjoy Namur so much. I was frustrated by injuries in 1987 and ‘88. It was nice to go there almost in one piece!”

It was a vital race in his successful Championship campaign, and Thorpey took to the podium with his left knee in thick bandages.

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4. Carl Fogarty

4. Carl Fogarty

Where: Sugo WSB
When: 1995
What:
Ducati 916
Why so hard?: Winning despite multiple fractures hours before

Foggy had no great love of Sugo, despite having won a race there in 1993, and taken a podium the year after. He said it was a long way from home and there wasn’t much of an atmosphere there, and he was more keen on winning the world title at Assen anyway!

Be careful what you wish for.

On lap two of the first race he had the mother of all highsides, doing a by-now famous mid-air bicycle ride with his legs before he hit. So violent was the initial launch that it detached the fuel tank in mid-air. After a smack down that would make any WWF wrestler retire in shame, the 1994 World Champion had snapped two bones in his ankle, broke two small bones in his right hand, suffered a hairline fracture on a toe, badly bruised his right hip and took some knee ligament damage. Foggy was a mess.

In spite of all this, he blitzed the second race by 5.474 seconds from the soon-to-be departed Yasutomo Nagai. An astonishing performance, the painkillers helping him but making him nauseous in the process.

“If I was to choose one moment in my career, Sugo was when I was at my ultimate best as a rider,” says Carl. “I don’t think I could ever do that again. I almost threw up into my crash helmet on the slowing down lap. As soon as I finished I felt sick to the core. I was as white as a sheet and had to lie down before I fainted.”

Carl took to the podium, beaten to hell. So impressed was his then-arch rival and hate figure Colin Edwards that he bought Foggy Jack Daniels and cokes all night in the circuit hotel, to the point of it reacting with the massive amounts of painkillers in his system. Foggy was extremely ill the morning after, but he’d survived the day before.

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3. Kevin Schwantz

3. Kevin Schwantz

Where: Donington 500GP
When: 1994
What: Suzuki RGV500
Why so hard?: massively injured but still beat Doohan one-handed

One of Schwantz’s biggest ever highsides came in qualifying at the Donington GP, when modifying his line to miss a slower rider exiting the Old Hairpin. He landed hard and fast. He had been riding with a cast on his injured wrist already with three bones in his hand simply floating around. Hardly great preparation to hold off Mick Doohan, who would have taken Schwantz’s title from him with a win on Sunday.

In the race Kevin’s unbowed spirit made him not only ignore all of his problems, but eventually hunt down the fast-starting Doohan. And he was doing that in between bouts of shaking his wrist on the straights to get the circulation going again. What would turn out to be his last ever race win in GPs was also his toughest, and he passed Doohan for the flag - around the outside.

His mum and some of his mechanics were in tears in pitlane because they knew how painful and hard his ride was. For Kevin, in a career swamped in special moments, this one stood out because “I did it one-handed after that big crash in qualifying… it would just about stop wheelying and then I’d switch hands just long enough to give my right hand a bit of a shake - and then go back to it.” Absolutely the stuff legends are made of.

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2. Barry Sheene

2. Barry Sheene

Where: Cadwell British Championship
When: 1975
What: Suzuki RG500
Why so hard?: Sheene leads grand prix after huge injury tally

Two gigantic crashes, one that smashed his right leg to pulp and a second that splintered both his legs, preceded two miraculous recoveries that made Bazza a star before he had even won a single 500GP.

His hardest ride, and of course there are a few candidates, was probably his Cadwell comeback, a mere seven weeks after the infamous Daytona crash that left him with a catalogue of injures. They ran to a mashed left thigh, a broken right wrist, forearm and collarbone, plus six busted ribs. As he said himself, “If I’d been a race horse, I would have been shot.”

Seven weeks later, in April 1975, he was back in action, but not before a short and very secret test session at Cadwell, in which he started slow but finished fast. After lapping at his usual pace after 20 or so laps, he said to his crew, “okay, pack the bike up. I know I can still beat the bastards.”

In his autobiography, Leader of the Pack, Sheene himself said,  “With an 18 inch steel rod in my left leg, minus enough skin to upholster a settee, and needing to have regular pain-killing injections, I had to return to riding a motorcycle at the first opportunity to convince myself I was capable physically of doing the job again. My comeback at Cadwell Park seven weeks after the Daytona smash, told me that all would be well.”

What he omitted to say was that he had to pull in from the lead near the end of that race because his hands were so weak they could not operate the controls properly anymore…

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1. Mick Doohan

1. Mick Doohan

Where: Sao Paolo, Brazilian 500ccGP
Where: 1992
What: Honda NSR500
Why so hard?: Mick fights appalling pain and fatigue to protect lead

In late June 1992 Mick Doohan fell at the Assen GP and suffered a savage lower right leg break - spiral fractures of the tibia and fibula. After botched early treatment, amputation was on the cards. It was horrendous.

After rescue and relocation, a radical op performed by Doctor Claudio Costa’s Clinica Mobile saved his legs from being sawn off and speeded up his recovery. Seven weeks after his crash, as weak as a kitten and with his  leg withered and useless, Doohan came back to defend what was left of his once imperious 57-point Championship lead at the hideously dangerous Interlagos circuit.

His treatment had included radical surgery, sewing both his legs together and transplanting muscle tissue from his torso to his calves, to help get the dying muscles become oxygenated by the living tissue.

Mick, until that stage an unbeatable prospect, knew he was in trouble in Brazil and was a physical wreck. “I’d lost six kilos, and had been pretty lean to start with; I was run down, beat up and on some pretty strong pills,” says Mick with typical ‘no worries’ understatement.

He eventually finished 12th, but in 1992 that meant no points and all that grit and risk had been for nothing. He finished the Championship in second place, losing out to Wayne Rainey by just four points.  “That was my toughest race ever, but I was happy that I had finished,” he says. “I got back to the pits and Costa and another doctor were crying. It was all pretty emotional.” But the legend that was Mick Doohan had been born. The infamous Gold & Goose photo of him in appalling pain, with his stick-thin leg clearly on display and Dr Costa  offering comfort, shows the true grit of the man. And that’s why Doohan’s Sao Paolo effort is unquestionably our hardest race of all time.

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