Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Darren’s the real spirit of the North West 200

Darren Gilpin emerges from a humble background to rub shoulders with giants of the motorcycle world at the North West 200

Past the swanky £100,000 motorhomes of the big name teams, decked out like the Ritz, Darren Gilpin tinkers at a borrowed bike by a regulation Volkswagen van that doesn't even have his name on the side.

Darren (34), from Galgorm, is by his own admission, one of the poor relations of the paddock.

It's costing him £1,000 from his own pocket and a week off work as a car salesman for Donnelly's to race at this weekend's North West.

All around are full-time riders earning that for their week's work, backed up by teams of mechanics and an endless supply of costly parts and tyres, no expense spared, you might say.

He's like an Irish League player rubbing shoulders with Man United for a day.

And yet, 6ft tall Darren still believes there's a place for him and his like at the ultra-professional event the North West has become.

Long may he find the resources to compete.

Lad-next-door riders like Darren evoke the spirit of the all-comers race we grew up with before the dominance of the star names from the big factory teams and today's global media exposure.

For that the North West should be thankful, the presence of the privateers providing reassuring evidence that the race has not lost touch with its roots.

“It is a bit of a struggle,” Darren admitted.

“I am lucky to have secured a few sponsors but you are talking £100 contributions here and there.

“It’s a help but it doesn't begin to cover my costs.

“I stripped the bike, an RS125 Honda, the morning after first practice on Tuesday and fortunately it didn't need a lot of work.

“But between now and the race, I'll definitely need more parts. Then afterwards, I'll have to find another £500 for replacement pistons and clutch.

“Tyres are another big expenditure. On a track like this, you are flat out all the time. There's a huge amount of wear and tear.”

So while he works at his bike by the modest van which is his home for the week, shared by wife Roisin and daughter Lucy (3), does he ever glance up in envy at the palatial set-ups of the Japanese-backed giants parked alongside.

“Sometimes,” he admits. “I don't begrudge the riders their fantastic machinery, their teams of mechanics and the home comforts they enjoy. They've worked to earn that.

“I do envy them when I'm preparing for a race, having to do everything, while the big boys just walk out of their motorhomes and climb aboard.

“That's all forgotten when we're out on the course. Its a great leveller and I've run a lot of the top guys close.”

Sixteen years in racing, Darren has enjoyed success on a shoestring, including third in last year's Irish Championship, won by Ryan Farquhar. His best performance at the North West was an 11th place in 2008.

“I was eighth fastest in 125 practice on Tuesday night and clocked 136mph through the speed trap, the same as William Dunlop, who finished on pole,” he points out.

Were those positions to be replicated in Saturday's race, questions may be asked at the next Gilpin family gathering.

“My brother Ian is actually a mechanic for Loris Capirossi in MotoGP,” Darren relates, “but this week he is helping William.

“That's the way it is and again I don't envy William his set-up.

“My back-up consists of a group of pals who work unpaid. One of them Tony Martin, goes everywhere with me at his own expense. He could go on holiday to Florida with the money he spends so I appreciate the support.

“There's a lot of sacrifice involved at my level of the sport, away from the headline makers and the TV spotlight, and I am not unique. But I love racing so I wouldn't have it any other way.”

Darren would make one change to the North West, though.

“I used to ride in the 650 Supertwin class, run alongside the 125s but they dropped the class this year and I don't know why.

“There should be a place for both and I'd like to see the Supertwins back to give the working man another chance to compete.

“Instead, I'm having to go in the 125 even though at six feet tall, I'm too big for the bike, which itself is 14-years-old and not even mine.”

Two years ago, the little 125 sat redundant as an advert for a painting contractor.

“A man called Trevor Dickson, a cousin of road racing legend Eddie Laycock, owns the bike. He paints buses for Dublin Corporation and the bike was on show in his offices as a testament to his work. I heard through mutual friends that he'd like to see it ridden again and a few phone calls later, here it is.”

Stories like Darren's abound in bike racing and the fans up here relate to his breed as one of their own. There'll be plenty of support for him on Saturday.

He'll be up against local favourite William Dunlop, who he admires, again but can't help the ironic observation: “I read where William said his wee team had shown themselves to be as good as the big boys in Tuesday's practice.

“I'm six feet tall but in terms of the size of our teams, I'm even smaller than William.”

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