True bravery of Michael Dunlop is in his words, not in his road racing exploits
Death, loss, despair, depression... total honesty of bike ace's autobiography makes him a real hero in my book, writes Gail Walker
Whether we follow the sport or not — in fact, whether we regard it as a sport or not, or just as an odd way to get maimed or even killed — there is no doubt that road racing is a task for people of exceptional character.
It re-enacts one of the most basic of human challenges — the high risk dalliance with speed — which leaves the rest of us amazed and appalled by turns.
That’s just the way it is for all the riders and their support teams.
But every now and then the sport achieves what can only be described as greatness — of the sort that inspires awe and respect and astonishment, and even devotion and love.
None of these words fall easily on the shoulders of those various plain-spoken Antrim men going by the name of Dunlop. We know the tales now of Joey and Robert and Michael and William and Gary… the incredible feats of endurance and bravery against the wind and the road, the ghastly fatalities, the bone-crushing injuries, the widows, the legacy…
All that has entered into the folklore not only of the locale in which the passion for speed was developed, but worldwide, as a kind of emblem of risk-taking, stubbornness, courage and plenty of style.
But just when you think we’ve heard it all about the Dunlop clan, just when you think there can be no more risks, unexpected chance-taking or surprising turn-ups, it has to be said that Michael Dunlop — son of the late Robert and nephew of the late Joey — has possibly topped them all in every one of those categories and this time without putting his backside on a motorbike saddle, but by sitting at a keyboard and telling the honest, plain-spoken truth about his life, his passions, his flights from reality and his despair.
His story — exclusively serialised in this paper — is astonishing. Not because anything in it — aside from the fuel-soaked glamour of the road — is unique.
Depression, fear, anxiety, insecurity, emotional paralysis — these are as common as the grass and have driven many people over the edge.
No, what is special is the blunt, head-on, clear-eyed, honest self-exposure Michael doesn’t shy away from in making sure his story gets told.
Most sports biographies focus exclusively on the public glories, not the fears, mistakes, anxieties. Facts, not feelings, are the order of the day. If there are difficulties, they will have been well-aired previously. Scandal may have prompted the revelation and the tell-all ends up being a catalogue of excuses or a round of poor-me’s.
Not so with Dunlop. Yes, there were public fallings-out over the Dunlop memorial garden, and strained relations with Honda, his motorcycle team.
But none of those couldn’t be put down to ordinary family tensions in the wake of bereavement or professional haggling.
What Michael tells now is the human cost of all those losses, struggles and tensions. His candid admissions about why he quit Honda and his financial troubles are remarkable. “Maybe if I’d told Honda what I needed more money for, they’d have struck a deal better suited to my needs. Because I wasn’t after big bucks to spend on booze and birds. I just wanted to keep a roof over my Ma’s head. In 2013 our time ran out. The bailiff knocked on the door and said the banks had claimed back the house.”
Who knew? And in any case, how would we as a society have reacted if we’d known such bad times were threatening the Dunlops — to all of whom we as a society owe so much for sustained moments of pride, exhilaration and simple decent goodness, without even a tinge of the indigenous nasty sectarian touch that seems to pollute practically everything here.
All those questions we used to ask — how can that family endure such losses, how does a widow watch her sons race — were, in fact, all the right ones. There was a moment — and it is there to be seen even in that astonishingly brilliant 2014 Doubleband documentary Road, narrated by Liam Neeson — when it actually began to look as though this family of Dunlops was literally to be killed, one by one, in front of our eyes, like some classical tragedy, and all we were to do was stand there, open-mouthed.
The answers to those questions are all the same: those losses almost destroyed that family, quite literally.
Michael is candid about the thousands of well-wishers who contacted the Dunlop family on Joey’s death, and his dad’s, and gives an insight into the chilly world where not even a torrent of sympathy can mellow even slightly the savage emotions of grief.
In fact, the public sympathy became intolerable itself. “I didn’t realise it,” he says, “but racing was my crutch. My enabler, I think you’d call it. I had reached such heights in 2013 that below was a long way down. And I fell all the way without a parachute. I never spoke to anyone about what I was going through. I’m a man in a man’s world. The only person I could discuss things with, apart from my dogs, was myself.”
Suddenly, the drive to get out on the road was an escape mechanism for someone who simply wasn’t coping and for whom there was no context to talk out the problems. It makes you wonder how you can begin to calculate the extent of someone else’s loneliness.
How many people, men especially, are locked in such a psychological vice, feeling hemmed-in by everyday family difficulties or the pressures of debt and expectation? How many men might be helped by someone with all the panache of Michael going public about depression?
But this autobiography isn’t an apology or a way of shifting blame onto other people. This Dunlop points the finger firmly at himself. Indeed, he points out that the largely self-contained world of motorbike racing allowed him to hide from his problems: “I let the problems build up, I know I did. When I was racing I was doing so well that the real world didn’t touch me. “I ignored the s**t going on with the house, with Dad’s estate, his memorial, everything. It was denial, plain and simple. The debt collector was ringing every day but while I was on track he couldn’t touch me. He couldn’t get into my helmet. There was no phone in there.”
In losing more or less everything, Michael shows that the black and white certainties of sport don’t blot out the messiness of real life. It will always be there waiting for you — champion or no.
The point is, though, from the very centre of the single most macho sport on Earth, the most unreflective, most headlong and reckless culture anyone could devise, fuelled by utter self-belief and utter disregard for danger — it takes a Dunlop, once again, to break out from the pack and head out onto the open road with breathtaking honesty and self-analysis.
In its own peculiar way, this book is a classic. When Michael had finally managed to secure his dad’s house for his mother, he put his own TT trophies on the mantelpiece — all seven of them at that time, with room for more.
I think this terrific book can be set up there beside them, because, in spite of all the plaudits and titles and garlands and Champagne, it may well be Michael Dunlop’s single biggest achievement.