By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – If motorcycle racing is a disease then there is none more virulent than the strain to be found on the Isle of Man at this time of year.
John McGuinness, the 23-times TT winner pulling on his leathers at the age of 47 for another rush of adrenalin around the mountain circuit, agrees with that and is probably incurable.
“It’s a disease you can’t get rid of. It gets hold of you,” the ‘Morecombe Missile’ told Reuters.
“I’ve ridden bikes since I was four years old and I’ve made a living out of it since 1999. I won my first TT 20 years ago and it’s all I’ve ever known, it’s all I ever look forward to,” he added.
“When I get on the bike I feel like a 21-year-old but obviously the old body clock’s ticking and I look at myself in the mirror and I’m getting a bit greyer and my teeth are getting a bit discoloured and I think ‘what an old bastard you are’.
“But when I get on the bike with my leathers on, I’m a different person. It’s not too far away, hanging my boots up, but I just want to have another crack at it.”
The Tourist Trophy races have seen some 149 fatalities since the first race in 1907. Add in other events, such as the Manx Grand Prix, and the toll rises to 258.
Critics condemn it as a terrible anachronism but McGuinness, down for potentially six races after taking the ferry across the Irish Sea to Douglas from his home in north-west England, sees it differently.
“James Hunt died as a 40-year-old of a heart attack, Barry Sheene died at 52 years old of cancer,” he said of two of Britain’s great champions from the worlds of Formula One and motorcycling.
“If somebody dealt me a pack of cards right now and said ‘You can have 48 great years or 60 shit ones’, I’d take 48 great years.”
The Englishman, an ambassador for online gambling company BetVictor, has been absent for the past two years after crashing in the 2017 North West 200 in Northern Ireland when his bike developed an electrical problem.
He ploughed through a fence and onto a golf course — a sport he has never been keen on — in a broken heap.
“I thought ‘No way am I finishing my career on a golf course’,” he said and returned this year to get the monkey off his back.
Just how much McGuinness can achieve on a variety of bikes, including a factory Norton, remains open.
“All I want to do is go and enjoy myself and do a good job,” he said. “And if a miracle happens, we’ll be stood on the top step.”
Only the late Northern Irish great Joey Dunlop, with 26 victories from 1977 to 2000, has won more TTs than McGuinness.
“Joey was my all-time hero. If I matched Joey, I think I’d retire. I’d be made up,” said McGuinness. “I’d have to retire. The Irish would string me up if I beat Joey’s record.”
McGuinness will tick a few boxes anyway this year, including racking up more than 50,000 miles around the island. And if he escapes further injury and lines up for the Senior TT on June 7, it will be his 100th start.
Asked to explain the special thrill of riding at breakneck speeds around a course with lamp posts and pavements and an assortment of other hazards, the veteran admitted it was not easy.
He has been asked a million times and still struggles for an answer that trots off the tongue.
“It’s dangerous, you can end your life in a breath, but it can also bring so much pleasure and enjoyment. There’s no other circuit like it in the world,” he said.
“You could go to the TT and stand on the side of the road and if that doesn’t get the heart rate up and the adrenalin flowing then you’re not human.”
Other circuits were ‘absolute car parks’ in comparison to a challenge that would be legislated out of existence almost anywhere else.
“It’s survived two world wars. People tried to stop it, they can’t stop it,” said McGuinness. “There’s not many places now where there’s no speed limits on the road, where you can misbehave and get away with it.
“I’ve lost a few mates. But there’s no gun to anybody’s head. You don’t have to do it…if something goes wrong it’s nasty, but the upside outweighs the downs.”
Before the opening race, Saturday’s Superbike TT, McGuinness will drop a penny down his leathers just as he has since his son found the coin in 2005 and decided it was lucky.
“It’s done a few laps around the Isle of Man, that penny,” he mused.
“But you’d wear pink knickers if you thought it was going to help you around there to stay in one piece.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)