Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

It's time to ban macho madness of North West 200

Brilliantly Dun: double winner Michael Dunlop claimed Man of the Meeting honour, named in memory of his dad Robert
Brilliantly Dun: double winner Michael Dunlop claimed Man of the Meeting honour, named in memory of his dad Robert
Wheel to wheel: William Dunlop (right) comes under pressure fromTyco Suzuki partner Guy Martin
Wheel to wheel: William Dunlop (right) comes under pressure from Tyco Suzuki partner Guy Martin
Pacemaker Belfast 13-05-14
Vauxhall International North West 200 2014
James Hillier (Quattro Plant/muc-off Kawasaki) crashes at Ballysally during today's first practice session for this years Vauxhall International NW200 in Portrush.  Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
James Hillier (Quattro Plant/muc-off Kawasaki) crashes at Ballysally during today's first practice session for this years Vauxhall International NW200 in Portrush. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

Following the pink-splattered euphoria of the Giro d'Italia, I have a great new idea for a road race that'll really bring the tourists flocking in.

It'll never happen, of course: too extreme, too irresponsible, just too madly dangerous, but, still, we can always dream.

So here's the plan. Keep the public street circuit – because specially-designed tracks are for safety-obsessed sissies – but why not swap those pathetic pushbikes for something more hardcore? Say a pack of high-powered motorbikes, roaring along at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour?

That'd get the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, wouldn't it? Sure, the possibility of chaos, death and bloody mayhem would be high and the riders would be an extreme risk to themselves and anybody else who happened to be in the vicinity, but what would all that matter compared to the thrill of the thing. Can you imagine?

Well, you don't need to imagine it, because – unbelievably, absurdly – it's happening right now. The North West 200, now in its 85th year, has taken over the roads around Portrush, Coleraine and Portstewart and men in leathers, with more adrenaline than sense, are propelling themselves at unfeasible speeds round the tightest of bends.

The margin of error is infinitesimally small and, as usual, it's never long before a crash happens. On the opening day of official practice, French rider Franck Petricola – who was competing in the event for the first time – was airlifted to hospital in a critical condition.

If someone suggested putting on a race like the North West 200 today, complete with tens of thousands of pounds of government funding, and the happy endorsement of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, they would be dismissed as a lunatic.

It's only the fact that it's been going for the best part of a century, and has thus become normalised, familiar, embedded in the culture, that allows it to continue.

Fatal crashes happen with grim regularity and the public nods, momentarily regretful. Another death at the North West 200. Sad, but not surprising. One more name on an ever-increasing list, to be remembered and venerated as a brave hero, who died doing the thing he loved.

But brave isn't the word I would use and I certainly wouldn't call these bikers heroes. That's all part of the macho mythology which keeps this deadly race going, year after year. Glorified sensation-seekers would be a more accurate term.

Yes, it takes a fair bit of courage to show up at the starting line, but that's more to do with an addiction to speed than true bravery, or heroism, which are attributes defined by selflessness, not selfishness.

As John McGuinness, worshipped as a road-racing legend, and six times winner of the NW200, said: "You don't care about anything but getting on the bike and riding."

In fairness, you can't say that these guys are in it for the money. There's a proud lack of glamour and cash in this sport.

Admitting that he still sometimes worries about paying the bills, McGuinness told the BBC last year that, when he was 21, he never thought he'd still be doing the North West aged 41.

"But I'm still at it, still rattling away," he said. "When my son came along, it made me think, 'Hang on a minute, I've got another mouth to feed.' And it made me go faster. And now I've got a little girl and I'm going even faster still."

Sorry, John, but what kind of reckless, twisted logic is that? How can putting yourself at even more risk, by increasing your speed still further, be good for your kids?

One of the worst aspects of road racing is the pant-wetting male sports journalists and enthusiasts who cluster round the swaggering bikers like teenage girls at a One Direction concert, only it's not knickers, but admiring words that they throw at their love objects.

"They're proper men, hard men, with 100% commitment," swooned one. These "heroes are the wraiths of international sport, relentlessly ordinary men capable of consistently extraordinary acts of bravery and precision," simpered another.

In Britain, road races like the North West 200 have been banned since 1925. In Northern Ireland, almost 90 years later, we're still embracing state-sponsored carnage, still cheering these speed-junkie riders on towards potential oblivion, regardless of the cost to themselves, or to the people watching them.

When are we going to learn that deliberately dicing with death doesn't make you more of a man?

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