NW 200: What love is really like in the fast lane
As the Vauxhall International North West 200 takes place on the North Coast today, Stephanie Bell talks to girlfriends of three of the riders who will be racing round the famous track at speeds of 200mph-plus
Road racing fans from across the world have converged on Northern Ireland's beautiful North Coast this weekend for the annual motorcycle extravaganza, the Vauxhall International North West 200.
Ireland's largest outdoor sporting event sees crowds of more than 100,000 gather to capture the thrills of world-class motorbike racing in the famous Portrush-Coleraine-Portstewart triangle.
Millions more from nearly every part of the globe will watch what has become one the of the world's fastest road races.
Some of the biggest names in sport will hit speeds of over 200mph on the 8.9-mile circuit in what is also one of the most thrilling - and dangerous - sports in the world.
While the riders will be focused on gaining a podium place, back in the paddock it is their families, their wives and their girlfriends who will be willing them to do well while also praying they come back safely.
The partners of three of the event's top riders today explain what it is like to watch as their loved one risks all for their sport.
'All I want to know is that William gets back safely'
One of Ireland's most successful road racers, William Dunlop lives in his native Ballymoney with his girlfriend Janine Brolly and their 10-month-old baby daughter Ella.
Janine is also from Ballymoney and while aware of the world famous Dunlop family of motorcycle racers, she wasn't at all interested in the sport before she met William.
William (31) has over 100 wins, many podium finishes and is an incredibly gifted and highly-skilled racer like his brother Michael, late father, Robert and late Uncle Joey, both legends in the sport.
A former Supersport and Superbike winner at the North West, he will power round the course this year again in the Supersport races on a new Caffrey liveried R6 Yamaha with Halsall Racing.
Janine (28), a legal secretary who is now working part-time in a local shop, had never even been to a race before she met William while on a night out five years ago.
She says: "Coming from Ballymoney I was familiar with the Dunlop name but I had never been into motorbike racing.
"I met William one evening at the end of the summer which was also the end of his season so for our first few months of dating he wasn't racing as it was the winter months."
Janine freely admits that the risks involved in the sport are the reason why she often prefers not to be at the races but she will still spend her time worrying until she gets the call that William is safe.
"To be honest I didn't know anything at all about racing and I still don't go to many races. I do go to the North West and some of the local races, like Armoy. But as long as someone can let me know William is okay, I am happy enough not to be there.
"Even if I'm not at a race, the whole thing can be nerve-wracking. William's cousin Gary is very good and will give me a call and let me know how William is doing. I just need to know that he is fine."
She has twice experienced the terror of getting a call to say William had been injured at the TT Races in the Isle of Man.
Thankfully on both occasions his injuries were minor but Janine says she will never forget the fear she felt when the news came through.
She says: "I actually flew over to the Isle of Man on the day of his race and I was sitting in the grandstand when I realised his name hadn't been mentioned in the lap and I started worrying.
"Gary went to the office to find out what was happening and they told him he had crashed. That was a very scary moment and my first taste of the complete and utter panic that takes over you when you are not sure if it is serious or not.
"That drive to the hospital was very tough. He had broken his leg and I just felt great relief. The following year I was getting ready to fly out to the Isle of Man when I got a call to say he had crashed. He had broken a bone but again thankfully he was okay."
Like most wives and girlfriends of sportsmen whose profession is dangerous, Janine supports William because she knows how passionate he is about his sport.
Evidently, as with his famous father and uncle before him and his brother, racing is in William's blood.
That family history also means no one knows more than William about the high cost of the risks involved.
He was devastated by the loss of his dad Robert and Uncle Joey, who both died in racing accidents.
Knowing how passionate he is about racing, Janine says that despite her worries she wouldn't have it any other way.
She explains: "From William's perspective, racing is all he knows. That's what he was brought up with. It can be difficult for him to understand that it is a completely new world for me.
"People would have said to me 'do you know what you are getting into' and, really, I hadn't a clue. I met this boy on a night out and he is my partner and we have a home together and a little girl and that's what William is to me. That's also probably why I don't tend to go to the races.
"Racing is his job and when he sticks on his helmet he is going out to do his job and put on his professional head. I think that if I'm not there he can focus better and go and do what he has to do."
Talking earlier this week, Janine hasn't made up her mind if she will be at the North West this weekend but has planned to be in the Isle of Man for the TT next month.
She adds: "The race paddock is a very friendly place but it is also a worrying place as well. I'm undecided about whether I will go to the racing this weekend though we are going as a family to the TT.
"I find it difficult - people will ask me about the results but all I can tell them is that he is back safe. To be honest, that is all I want to know. They do go at crazy speeds and when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty crazy, but for William it is just another day at the office. Above and beyond the tremendous achievements that William has attained in his career to date, in my eyes the one that I am most proud of is how he is as a dad to our little girl, Ella - she utterly adores him.
"At the races, the helmet goes on and he is William Dunlop - racer. At home, he's just William."
'Glenn liked the fact that I wasn't into road racing'
Laura Magee (22), a nurse, has been with British Superbike championship star, Glenn Irwin, for two-and-a half years. The couple who live in Hillsborough have a young son, Freddie, who is 10 months old.
Like Janine, Laura was completely unfamiliar with the rac ing world when she met Glenn on a night out in Belfast, so much so that she laughs now as she recalls that she thought the Grand National was a motor racing event.
A few years down the line and now she happily accompanies Glenn to most of his races, cheering him on from the sidelines.
Glenn (27) is one of three racing brothers from Carrickfergus whose father, Alan, was also a multiple champion as well as an occasional Grand Prix racer. Glenn is set to race the PBM/Be Wiser Ducati in both Superbike races at the North West 200.
Laura says: "When I met Glenn motorbike racing was all new to me. I didn't realise it was as big as it was and that as many people were into it. Everywhere we go we bump into someone who is a fan yet I knew so little about it that I actually thought the Grand National was a motorbike race.
"I think Glenn liked the fact that I wasn't into it. I am happy to look after Freddie while he is racing.
"Freddie and I do go over to all the big British Superbike events with Glenn. People often ask me how I cope with the speed and, of course, I am nervous but it is because I want him to do well. I don't even think about the prospect of him crashing.
"The North West is different though and I try to keep myself busy as it is nerve-wracking thinking of him flying round the coast road.
“And now that we have Freddie it makes the risks a whole lot more real.
“Glenn is in two superbike races on Saturday and I will be there with his dad. Standing in the grandstand my heart is usually going 100 beats a minute but the last thing I would want to do is give him a negative vibe.”
Laura has been with Glenn throughout practice week in Portrush. She appreciates how much her partner’s sport means to him and is one of his biggest supporters.
She says: “Glenn loves it. He would race around Tesco’s car park if you let him. He is in his element racing and it is nice to see him racing and enjoying it. It is his passion.
“This year we are staying in a house belonging to one of his sponsors just behind the paddock, and with the baby it is nice to have a place like that to stay,” she adds.
“Every day Glenn gets up and asks me to make him eggs and green tea for breakfast. I know he is really busy and I just do it, for me that is my part in the team. While being at the North West can be scary, it is exciting too, especially knowing how committed Glenn is to his sport.
“On race day, I will be just counting down the laps until he is back in again.
“Yesterday his team told him to go out and do one flying lap and come back in again. I had just driven down that road and the thought of him riding at 200mph on it is daunting to say the least.”
'You can't stop someone you love doing what they want they love to do ...'
Welsh rider Matthew Rees (34) crashed and broke his collar bone at the North West 200 two years ago. He went on to race at the Isle of Man TT where he met his girlfriend, motorbike enthusiast Danielle Ashburner last year.
The couple have been inseparable ever since and Danielle has accompanied Matt to most of his races. This weekend she is in Portrush to see him take part in the Superbike and Superstock races.
Danielle (28), a physiotherapist originally from north-west England, now lives in Wales with Matthew.
She says: “I have got my own bike at home, a Suzuki 650, and it has always been a hobby.
“I was working in the physio tent at last year’s TT when I met Matt. It was always a dream to go to the TT. To get to go there and work as a physio was fantastic and then to also meet someone was just amazing.
“Matt just seemed like this lovely cheeky chappy and had a great sense of humour which won me over. Matt and I both do motocross together as a hobby and I’ve now moved to Wales where we live together.
“I have been lucky enough to get time off work to go to most races with him.
“I had never been to the Irish road races until I met Matt but I love it.”
As a bike enthusiast, Danielle accompanies Matt on laps of the courses he is racing before events and says it can get a bit hairy when he points out key spots where colleagues have crashed. She says: “It can be a bit overwhelming when he says this is where so and so went over a cliff.
“I’ve just told Matt that’s too much information and I’d prefer not to know.”
But her knowledge of the sport doesn’t stop her worrying and she is understandably nervous this weekend as she supports Matt, knowing he crashed there last year.
She says: “It is nail-biting when he is racing and there is real relief when you see him coming back to you.” She is, however, also philosophical about dating someone who competes in such a dangerous sport, adding: “It is what he loves to do and you can’t stop someone you love doing what they love. I just try to help him in every way I can. I give him physio and help him to be in the best condition he can be in to stay safe.”