Jonathan Rea: 'I can't wait for Christmas in our new home with the family'
Newly crowned record-breaking four-in-a-row World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea reveals why he has finally returned here to live, and the importance of family in his life
Jonathan Rea smiles as though all his Christmases have come at once. It's not just that he now has a first chance to savour his history-making four-in-a-row World Superbike title success after a hectic weekend of celebration and media glare in France.
When Rea claimed his familiar place on top of the Magnys Cours circuit podium last weekend, he not only became the most successful Superbike racer of all-time, surpassing legend Carl Fogarty of I'm A Celebrity TV fame.
In that moment he also ascended the pantheon of Northern Ireland sporting greats, his achievements on his Kawasaki worthy of mention in the same breath as those of the revered Dame Mary Peters, Jack Kyle, George Best and his personal hero, Joey Dunlop.
Yet for all his fame and acclaim, Ballyclare-raised Rea could not come across as more grounded and unassuming.
He is back among his own in Northern Ireland, happy to have last month set up home in Templepatrick after a transient 10 years on the 13-country World Superbike circuit.
When he left he was a typical teenage raker, living life in the fast lane as he pursued his motorcycle racing dream.
He has returned the epitome of the proud family man, devoted to wife Tatia and their sons Jake (5) and Tyler (3).
They are the absolute reason, he explains, why he has chosen to settle here again - to provide his family with a quality of life he enjoyed growing up here and a first class education for their boys.
"One hundred per cent," he emphasises... "for the schooling and the support network of family here.
"We could have set up in any of the countries where I race. We chose the Isle of Man initially, simply because a team-mate lived there.
"But as my career began to quite literally accelerate and we were travelling more and being invited to all sorts of events, my mum was having to fly over to babysit. It was too much to ask, and not the way I envisaged raising a young family.
"The realisation was a catalyst for me and towards the end of last year I started thinking about coming home.
"I had always been looking at houses, and house prices, here because I'm nosy. I had an idea of where and what we wanted and when we found one we liked, we made a serious bid on it and ended up getting it.
"Now we have moved in and Jake started the new school term in September. We're loving it."
It has been quite some year, he reflects, understatedly.
"There's been the house move, writing my book and all the time trying to keep my focus on winning the world title again. It's been a mad three or four months," he admits.
So many plates spinning in the air and now, one by one, they are coming to rest. And so, too, will JR, eventually.
"The book wasn't a distraction," he insists. "When I agreed to do it, I knew I had to commit 101%. It's the only way I know. I knew it would be hard work but didn't realise how much.
"Looking back over my life, every chapter brought back incredible memories, and some not so cheerful.
"And now, finally, I have achieved everything I set out to do this time last year... finding a house, writing the book and, of course, winning that fourth world title.
"I have two rounds of racing to complete, in Argentina and Qatar. The last one coincides with school half-term holidays so Tatia and the boys will come over and we will stay on for five days' holiday. I will turn off my phone and enjoy quality time with them."
November will be spent testing bikes for the new season next year. And then there is Christmas.
The thought ignites that smile we are used to seeing as the race winning laurels are placed around his shoulders with regularity.
"Christmas at home," he ponders… "I love Christmas and can't wait to celebrate it in our own house. There will be us and the extended family… the turkey, the trimmings, everyone opening their presents the way I remember growing up. I honestly cannot remember the last time I spent Christmas at home.
"Tatia is from Australia and for years we've gone there for Christmas, their summer, ahead of my racing starting there at Phillip Island in January.
"But, to me, Christmas is not Santa in flip-flops, beach shorts, a white beard and red hat.
"It is late night shopping in the dark, Christmas lights and all the family coming together."
Family is a recurring theme in our conversation.
By his own admission he enjoyed the young, free and single paddock life of girls, glamour and parties as the World Superbike circus traversed the globe.
That all changed when he met Tatia, seven years his senior, working for Kawasaki when he was then with rivals Honda, the girl of his dreams, he says.
He pays Tatia the ultimate compliment in his book, testifying: "Before I found a girlfriend, and then my wife, I found a best friend."
The kindling of their relationship was a slow-burn, he reveals.
"I was young and impetuous," he says, "while Tatia had it all figured out. Her life was very together, very career-orientated."
They progressed from an after-race party snog in a hot tub to Sunday night drinks to deciding "to give it a go" on the weekend of his first World Superbike career win at Misano in Italy. "Two big results in one weekend," he grins.
Fast-forward to a wedding and two children later, Tatia is now a full-time mum and the Reas, all four of them, a team.
"Tatia is my rock," he asserts. "It means so much to me to have her support and encouragement. It is not easy trying to bring up two kids and travel the world at the same time.
"I love them all to bits and want them to be with me as much as possible. If I was doing this all by myself, it would be a lonely world.
"With Jake at school now, we will have to be more selective about which races they travel to but I think us all moving back to Northern Ireland is helping us strike that balance of me being away and having family time together."
A perfect family day, he describes, would be a Sunday they enjoyed after moving into their new home a few weeks ago.
"Tatia joined a yoga class in the morning, I took the boys to the cinema, we had lunch together as a family and then we all went out, with the boys on their bikes, in the afternoon."
At home, he reveals, the couple like to cook, Tatia's speciality being Thai while JR professes to rustle up "a mean lasagne". Simple pleasures to wind down from hurtling around a race track at 180mph.
Health and fitness, he says, play a big part in his bike racing regime, adding: "I don't obsess about my diet. Over a season my weight would never fluctuate by more than plus or minus two kilograms. I enjoy all kinds of food, Asian, Italian, barbecue when we are in Australia, and back here, mostly meat and two veg. We enjoy a glass of wine at home between race weekends but my days of partying are definitely over."
Still only 31, the sky is the limit for this most personable and engaging young man. We are chatting in Belfast's new high-rise in-place, the Observatory bar at the Grand Central Hotel, selected appropriately by his trusted PR Joanne McNeill, who has known him since his teenage days as a Red Bull Rookie rider.
And yet, his soaraway success has not been without bumps in the road that helped shape the man of values he has become.
His faith in the Northern Ireland education system benefiting his boys is well placed yet remarkable in that it failed him. In his book he relates how he was bullied at school in Larne over something as innocuous as a red, white and blue pencil case - only in Northern Ireland, and yet he has never fallen out of love with his country.
He also describes candidly the marriage separation of his dad Johnny, a former racer, and mum Claire.
"The news knocked me sideways," he writes. "The tight family unit I'd grown up in was falling apart."
His attitude to marriage and relationships could have been clouded by the experience, but instead, he reasons: "I was old enough by then to realise it would be selfish to want them to stay together when they didn't want to."
Now he has his own wife and family, does he worry about the ever present danger he confronts every time he revs up his 1000cc racing machine?
"Not when I am riding, no," he replies. "Off the bike, yes, there are things that can play on your mind. Like when I walk the track before practice, I'll see a barrier I think is too close or a gravel trap I think is not close enough.
"Having a family now, it has become harder. But as soon as I close my visor, my racer's brain takes over. I park the emotion and move on."
There are boundaries, though, even for one of the world's fastest men on two wheels. Rea is adamant he will never leave the track for the roads even though the exploits between the hedges of his dad and his racing hero Joey Dunlop inspired him to race bikes in the first place.
"I love road racing and I get the thrill of why the riders do it. My dad told me the buzz he got from winning an Isle of Man TT more than matched any win on a circuit," he says. "The fatalities are the sad part but I would never knock road racing. It just isn't for me."
Rea this week showed his respect and admiration for his road racing brothers by donating a set of world championship leathers for auction in aid of the fund to assist the family of the late William Dunlop.
Our conversation is also at odds with the puzzling, recently aired view of World Superbikes sporting director Gregorio Lavilla that the four-time world champion lacks the charisma to attract more followers to the sport, missing the point that Rea has 141,000 followers on Twitter and no one, but no one, is ever attracted to a sport in thrall to the suits that run it.
"When people here say they are proud of me and my achievements, that means everything to me," he replies.
A credit to his sport, his family, his country and, above all, himself: if Jonathan Rea lacks charisma, Christmas isn't coming this year.
Dream. Believe. Achieve by Jonathan Rea is published by Harper Collins, priced £20