Motorcycle star Malachi's loss heartbreaking, but he wouldn't have lived life any other way
Yes, road racing is dangerous, but those calling for a ban must realise it is part and parcel of who we are, says Gail Walker
The death of young motorcycle star Malachi Mitchell-Thomas at the North West 200 was shocking. It is not just the idea of a young man cut down before his prime, of promise forever unfulfilled, the out of sequence grief of a father for his son, but it is also those photographs... the debris scattered across the tarmac, the paramedics running towards catastrophe and the ambulances - the brute facts of a very public death.
Twenty is no age for a man to die. If, that is, you could really call "Young Malachi", as he was routinely referred to, a man. In photographs he is something of a boy-man, on the cusp of adulthood, but still brimming with the insouciance, the brio of the teenager.
Those who know what they are talking about say that Malachi was a road racing star in the making. Last Friday, at our morning conference, where we plan the next day's paper, our Group Sports Editor Jim Gracey talked at length and with great affection about "Young Malachi", whom he'd interviewed for Saturday's Belfast Telegraph. This lad was the real deal, he said, the boyish good looks and easy charm spliced with a dry north of England wit had already generated a sizeable young female following.
"Racing is my be all and end all - I love it," Malachi told Jim. By 5pm on race day that last big interview had become his obituary.
Malachi stares out of the photographs in that spread, tousle-haired and grinning, oblivious to his own prophecy, to the horror and heartache literally just around the corner. This is how newspapers haunt.
So, it is hard not to feel a sense of waste, of potential that will never be fulfilled, a sadness at the arbitrariness of life - and death.
No wonder, too, that some call for the sport of motorcycle racing to be banned.
But that would be to ignore that life isn't just about being safe and avoiding risk. For some, risk and living life to its fullest are one and the same thing.
For thousands of motorsport fans and competitors, racing is their passion, their life even: speed, breathtaking skill, the feel of being at one with a powerful machine, the opportunity to display courage. It is a way of life that accepts the dangers, weighs up the shortening odds - and does it anyway.
It was this acceptance of danger that lay at the root of the desperately moving words of Malachi's dad Kevin: "I have lost my best friend - I have lost my son, but he died doing what he wanted to do... he lived for racing. He had taken to the roads, the crowds had taken to him. He was a petrolhead and just wanted to go faster and I supported him in that because it was what he wanted to do."
Simple words, but moving in their stoicism. Words that many a "petrolhead" can truly empathise with. The plain truth is that if Kevin had not supported his son in his chosen sport, his boy would have done it anyway.
And strange as it may seem, bikes in this part of the world are more than a sport. Like country and Irish music, they are part of the rhythms of family and communal life in rural Northern Ireland. Quite why may be a bit of a mystery, but that doesn't alter the fact.
Just as with Kevin and Malachi, it is a passion handed down from father to son, and on down through the generations. In fact, for many, bikes are rite of passage - the marking of a coming of age.
Whether it is watching dad tinkering out in the garage with some old motorcycle, or watching an elder brother dreaming of a new machine or a career in racing, to getting your own bike, motorcycles are deeply engrained in the psyche here.
My favourite photo of my father shows him astride his first motorbike, in the lane of the family farm, just after the war. The image is grainy, black and white, but he is as handsome as a movie star, his eyes fired with the beckoning freedom. I think of my late uncle's mighty collection of old motorbikes: opening the shed door to see such hidden treasure - those Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs and Royal Enfields, gleaming in the half-light.
Of course, most bikers will never compete at the highest level; only a brave few will give it a stab, many will fail honourably to clock up honours. Many become weekend motorcyclists enjoying the odd jaunt up the coasts on charity runs, or meeting up with fellow fanatics to relive the old days when they could fit more easily into their leathers.
But the passion never fully dies. It endures. Look at the champions this place has produced - the affection for Joey Dunlop, that great modest philanthropist, and his brother Robert.
Many is the small town, village and townland that can testify to having a least one serious biking family, a way of life involving the whole family - father, mother, son and daughter. This is a place where someone like Malachi would feel at home. "I love it here, the country and the people," he had told my colleague Jim.
Malachi Mitchell-Thomas may have been English, but he could have easily been a son of this place. We feel his loss, on our roads, just as much as any native son.
But sad as his untimely death is, we should remember that he died living his life at what he considered its fullest.
And how many of us will ever be able to say that?