Eugene Laverty: 'Some lads, after the first big knock, can't handle it. They never ride again... it's about how you deal with it'
Ahead of a planned visit to this week's North West 200, World Superbike ace Eugene Laverty tells Lorraine Wylie how he'll know when it's time to retire, why he loves the North West 200 and about life in Monaco with wife Pippa
Motorcycle ace Eugene Laverty's World Superbikes season may have stalled following the accident that left him with two broken wrists but he remains in good spirits and hopeful of honouring a North West 200 homecoming commitment this week.
Eugene is scheduled to join fellow Northern Ireland rider and World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea in an eagerly awaited chat show for fans in the North West paddock marquee tomorrow night.
Wife Pippa witnessed last Friday's accident in qualifying for the Imola round of the WSB championship in Italy and accompanied her husband of three years to a specialist hospital in Barcelona by air ambulance.
"Eugene landed on both hands and, luckily, has no head injuries or anything like that. We still plan to be back in Northern Ireland on Tuesday. It's North West week and Eugene doesn't want to miss out on that. He is in good spirits. We've just got to wait for second surgery here in Spain on Tuesday," Pippa, from north east England, confirms.
Pippa was echoing what Eugene told me from their home in Monaco just before his ill-fated trip to Italy, knowing he has overcome more serious crash injuries in the past, most famously walking down the aisle at their wedding at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, on crutches after wrist, shoulder and back injuries from a horror crash at Jerez in Spain.
He sounded relaxed and in optimistic mood following April's performance at Aragon in Spain where he racked up two top six finishes on his Go Eleven team Ducati machine and came close to a podium place in the opening race.
Things appeared to be looking up, prior to his weekend setback. Softly spoken and refreshingly candid, he told me about life on and off the track. But first, conversation took a brief detour with a trip down memory lane.
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"I grew up in Toomebridge, a great little community," he says. "My family all lived within five minutes of each other so it was nice to have that sense of closeness.
"I have a lot of friends back in Northern Ireland and, as a young lad we had great fun hanging out around the north coast, in places like Portstewart, Portrush and Coleraine. One of the main reasons I love going back is catching up with everyone. The other is the North West 200. Friends, bikes and scenery - perfect! When the sun shines, you couldn't beat that part of the world."
Every year, the North West 200 road races attract thousands from around the world. But the 2019 race is extra special. In celebration of its 90th anniversary, Eugene readily agreed to join countryman Rea onstage in the marquee chat show.
"I didn't get back last year," Eugene says. "So I'm really looking forward to coming over this time. It's such a special occasion and it'll be great to part of the whole thing. I'll also enjoy catching up with friends and family, it's always good to get home.
"We live in Monaco and its quite different to Northern Ireland. For a start, we live in an apartment so there isn't as much space. We live in a quiet residential part of Monaco, it's a friendly community and we have a number of British and Irish neighbours.
"It attracts a lot of sports people, especially racers, so we have the same mindset and understand each other's schedule. At home, our friends worked Monday to Friday and went out at the weekend. But for us, the weekend was usually spent racing. In Monaco, we can have dinner or go out with whoever happens to be available at the time. I guess I could do with an app for my phone to help me keep track of who's around same time as us!"
The other benefit of living in Monaco is the sunshine.
"Oh yeah, that's a plus!" he laughs. "Although I think having too much sunshine softens you up! I remember back in Northern Ireland, I'd ride in the cold and rain and I'd think nothing of it. Now, I'm far too soft for that."
And there was a certain irony as he spoke about previous track accidents.
"I believe everyone has a certain level of fear," he admits. "When you look at guys doing all these dangerous things, especially extreme sports, they don't appear to be afraid. Sometimes, it looks as though they don't have any fear at all. But I know they do. It's there in the subconscious.
"Many guys suffer night terrors, waking in their beds screaming. That's just the fear coming out. You know, when I was a kid, I wasn't particularly brave. I'd be afraid of something until I experienced it and then I'd realise it wasn't as bad as I'd imagined. Some lads, after the first big knock, can't handle it and let fear get in the way. They never ride again. It isn't really about being afraid. It's about how you deal with it.
"Everyone has to learn their own way of coping, to be able to compartmentalise. Once you stop being able to do that, it's time to retire. I think that's something that comes to all of us, at some time. I think it takes a special kind of character to be able to do this job."
How has technology influenced the sport?
"Well, in one sense, with electronic assistance, bikes are getting easier to ride. But on the other hand, bikes are becoming increasingly powerful. At one time a 200 brake horse power engine was huge for a motorbike. Then it went to 300. While the bikes become more powerful and a lot more physical, the tracks remain the same. Because the bikes are going faster, the straights are becoming shorter, leaving riders less time to rest.
"There is no specific training programme for a motorbike rider. It's not like other sports where you can fit in a lot of practice during the week and improve performance. Riders don't have that, it all depends on what happens on the weekend of the race. You know, at the end of the day, it's experience that counts."
Does he have a specific routine to maintain basic fitness?
"I've had a lot of coaches in the past and now, after many years, I know what works for me. I try to keep fit by doing some aerobic exercises such as cycling, running and a little gym work. Apart from that, I like to ride a bike at least once a week, usually motocross."
Much has been said about the current World Superbike Championship but how does Eugene rate his own performance?
"Yes, I'm happy. The pace we've shown in the last couple of rounds has been exceptional for a small private team. We're right there with the big factory guys. Admittedly we haven't quite been rewarded with the results as shown in practice. But that's just around the corner, we have to remain patient. I'm confident that, in Spain, we'll get the podiums."
Any advice for young riders coming up?
"Yes, I'd like to encourage kids back home in Northern Ireland, where we tend to think a bit less of ourselves, to try and have a little more confidence," he explains.
"When I was 15 or 16, my dream was to stand on a British Championship podium. Winning races at World Superbike championship level happened almost by accident. You do have to believe in yourself but in Northern Ireland we don't have that out and out kind of confidence. I know it's an old cliche but if I had to give kids one piece of advice it's to dream big!"
Competing against some of the best riders in the world demands concentration as well as skill. But when one of the competitors is Jonathan Rea, a fellow countryman and four times world champion, there's bound to be an element of rivalry.
"No, not really," Eugene smiles. "When I see competitors on the track, I never differentiate between them, they're all the same to me. I don't see individuals, just riders that I'm out to beat! I know some do struggle, focusing on a particular rider and adding a personal element. Those are the things that get the headlines.
"Maybe in a different kind of sport, such as swimming where you're able to look across and see the individual, it's more likely. But in this sport, identity is hidden. We all wear helmets, leathers and we appear more anonymous. On track, I don't see the guys as individuals or friends. I see them as racers."
As the interview winds down, I ask whether he'd like to predict who will be the 2019 World Superbike Championship.
"At this stage, I'd say it's still 50/50 between Alvaro Bautista and Jonny Rea," he insists.
"So far, Bautista has dominated but Jonny could bounce back. Jonny knows how to win championships and, although he hasn't been the fastest guy this year, he has finished second in every race bar one where he was third (since this interview Jonny won twice at the weekend in Imola).
"At the end of the day, that sort of consistency wins titles. If Bautista slips up, just once, Jonny Rea will be there. It's going to be interesting!"