At 16 I was quite shy, just an awkward kid who only wanted to ride motorbikes. Nothing else mattered to me. I would tell everyone around me that one day I was going to be a motorcycling world champion. That’s strange, looking back on it now. I was so cocky and confident about that, but I was a very, very shy, quiet person in every other way. I wasn’t confident at all. I was scruffy, not very clean teeth, a horrible little person really. If I could go back I’d change all that.
I wouldn’t say my dad was encouraging. He left it up to me. I almost wish he’d been a bit more, you know, “ever think you might fancy trying bike racing?” Even when I was a schoolboy doing motocross, he never pushed me on. I sort of wish he’d said to me when I was six or seven, right, get yourself a little bike and start racing other kids. When I left school at 16 he got me a job at a company down the road who sold trucks. If I could go back to my teenage self now I’d say, what the hell are you doing? I had no interest in trucks. I don’t understand why I didn’t tell my dad, I don’t want to do that, I want to go down the road to the shop selling motorbikes and work there. But I was a stupid, awkward kid who wasn’t able to say that.
I might have been hard work to be around when I was winning
I wasn’t the most naturally talented racer. But I had real determination. I just hated losing. When I got beaten I would look at why it had happened. The way they ran their bike, the style – I might copy some of the things they did. Was there something about the way they went round corners that made them faster than me? I was so dedicated, I would have done anything to be number one. I wanted to win so, so badly. I never met anyone who wanted it as much as I did.
I might have been hard work to be around when I was winning. The more I won, the more famous I became, the more difficult I became. It was terrible, it really was. In some ways I regret that, I was bad. I started saying things about other people as well. I don’t know why I did it. But any time I felt another rider was getting close to my level, I started slagging them in public. It’s like I needed to make my main rival a hate figure. For me it was like two boxers before a fight. I had to go on about how I was the best. I’m lucky that I always backed that up with a win. But looking back, I find it embarrassing. I was winning the races anyway, why did I do that? To go from that shy little boy to this guy… the more I won the more I opened my mouth and the more big-headed I got.
When I won my first Superbike World title in 1994 – and I should have won in 1993 – the emotions were unbelievable. Massive relief. The next year I was even better and faster. I won again. Then I sort of thought, well where do I go from here? I remember talking to Barry Sheene and he said, the only place to go from here is to start losing. I didn’t like the sound of that so I started looking for new challenges.
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In 2000 I had the big crash that ended my racing career. I knew nothing about it, I lost consciousness immediately. I did sort of try to get back to fitness for a while but in the back of my mind I knew it was all over. And I felt the opposite it of how I imagined I’d feel. I felt relief knowing that the pressure and expectation, the crowds and the TV, feeling sick every Sunday morning knowing I had to go out and everyone expected me to win – it was all gone. I actually thought, phew, thank God. Then I turned the TV off and cancelled the main papers that covered racing.
Looking back, I wish I’d had more time for the people around me along the way. I wish I’d had a manager. I was on my own most of the time. I was in my own little bubble, very selfish. My wife put up with a lot. When I retired I realised it had gone to my head a little bit and I’d lost contact with some people. I just wanted to hang out with my mates really, and have fun. Keep my mind off the fact I couldn’t race any more. I tried running a team but that didn’t work out and I lost
interest. I sold the workshops and looked somewhere else.
It had been 15 years since I’d won a race but when I won I’m a Celebrity it felt like winning a race again
After I retired I spent a lot of time with my mate who was dying of cancer. I would moan to him and he said, what’s the matter with you? Stop trying to forget who you are. I’m dying, and you’re whingeing on about how sick you are of your sport, sick of getting recognised. You’re the biggest name in your sport. You should be celebrating everything you’ve done. Those words kind of changed me. He had two years left of living. He told me to get back out there. He helped me to change my attitude to my own life really. So I got involved in TV again, I stopped avoiding things. I did what he told me.
Winning I’m a Celebrity [in 2014] was an amazing feeling. It was such a big shock. I expected to be the first one out. I knew how difficult I could be. And I don’t do the fame thing. But I learned a lot about myself in there. I was more of a team player than I thought I’d be. I was quite friendly and down to earth, I knuckled down. It had been 15 years since I’d won a race but when I won that show it felt like winning a race again. Except this time I took the time to enjoy it and enjoy all the people coming up to me afterwards to say hello and well done. To win the public support on the biggest reality show on TV – I still get goosebumps thinking about it now.
If I could go back to one day in my life it would be in 1995, a red hot summer’s Sunday, at Brands Hatch. We still weren’t sure how big the Superbike championship was going to be. I threw the curtains back that morning and all I could see was grandstands chocked full of people. [There was a crowd of over 50,000]. The kind of crowds that hadn’t been seen since the mid-Seventies. I didn’t know the circuit well but I’d qualified in pole position and the bike was going brilliantly. I went out in both races and set lap records winning them both. It made me a household name. It was the most perfect day ever.
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