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Love in the fast lane

As more than 100,000 racing fans gather to see the spectacular racing at the North West 200, three women give their perspective on what it's like to watch the men they love risk all on the roads.

By Stephanie Bell

All roads lead to the north coast this weekend as more than 100,000 people take up pole position to watch the thrills of world-class motorbike racing at the North West 200.

Road racing fans from across the globe make the annual pilgrimage to the Portrush-Portstewart-Coleraine triangle for what is the biggest outdoor sporting event on the island of Ireland.

Some of the biggest names in sport will compete on the 8.9-mile circuit, reaching speeds in excess of 200mph in what is one of the most thrilling - and dangerous - sports in the world.

It is not only the riders though who need nerves of steel. For their families, especially their wives and girlfriends, race days bring a rollercoaster of emotions as they loyally stand by their men, willing them to do well while all the time praying they come back safely.

We talked to three road racing WAGs who know what it is like to watch the men they love risk all for their love of the sport.

Rachel Burrows (37) is married to former race ace John Burrows, who runs the Cookstown BE Racing team, which has two riders competing in the North West 200. John holds the distinction of being only the third rider to achieve an Irish Clubman's championship double and the only rider to score six wins from six starts at a Clubman's meeting. He retired from racing in 2012 after the tragic death of his friend and fellow racer Trevor Ferguson in the Isle of Man. He and Rachel live in Dungannon and have two children Jack (6) and Isla (3). Rachel says:

Even though John and I lived just three miles apart, we never knew each other. We first met nine years ago when mutual friends set us up on a blind date. The date was a disaster and we didn't like each other. I don't know what happened, it just didn't go well and we didn't hit it off. I felt he wasn't my type and I think he felt the same about me.

But a short time later we met up again - and that was it! Two years later we were married and since then we have been by each other's side.

I didn't know anything about racing when I met John and I just thought he was absolutely nuts, yet now the sport has taken over our lives and takes up all our time, weekend after weekend. I will never forget the day John announced that he was retiring; his decision came as a real shock to me. In the past, many of my friends and my family would have kept sayonmg to me that John needed to stop racing, especially after we had our first child, Jack, but I never ever put pressure on him.

Road racing was what John did from the moment I met him and I didn't want to change him as a person. After Trevor died, though, I remember coming home from work and John just said 'that's it I'm finished'. And he has never looked back. Instead, he got stuck into running the team. Frankly, I don't know what John would do if he didn't have the bikes.

It's strange now because John sees the sport not as a rider but as the person standing watching someone else compete. He is really nervous when the boys go out to race and on race day I know better than to try to speak to him; I just have to let him get on with it. Of course, I can see how nervous he is.

People ask John all the time if Jack wants to be a racer when he grows up but I can't ever see John letting Jack road race.

Before John retired, everyone, especially his parents, were worried sick all the time. Thankfully that concern has gone now, and that is certainly a change for the better.

Certainly my attitude to the sport changed over the years. When I started going out with John I just thought of him as my crazy road racing boyfriend but as our relationship progressed and we got married and then Jack arrived, everything changed for me.

On our way to the Isle of Man for the TT I couldn't help thinking 'are we going to be coming back as a family?'

Yet while I was always so nervous, I would never have mentioned my feelings to John.

Overall, John has adjusted pretty well to retirement. Yes, sometimes he says he would love to do one more TT race but he knows that it could also be his last, and so I think he has accepted that he isn't going to do another.

And it's great to see the team doing so well. We try to keep a family atmosphere going with them. Road racing is our life and I know some people think we are crazy but we love it.

John is a self-employed engineer and he has to juggle the business with the race team. Admittedly, even though he has retired from racing, the sport still consumes him.

Jill McWilliams (49) is married to two-time North West 200 winner Jeremy McWilliams (52), who is the only rider from the British Isles to win a race or pole in the FIM MotoGP World Championship class in the 2000s. He first raced at the North West in 2012 and this year will be racing with the Mar Train Racing team. It will be the first time that Jeremy has competed in the Superbike, Supersport and Superstock at the North West. The couple live in Newtownabbey and have two sons Jack (21) and Zak (18). Jill says:

I was only 15 when I started dating Jeremy so we were childhood sweethearts and he was my first serious boyfriend. We've been together for 35 years and will be married 25 years this year. We've always stuck together through the good times and the bad.

Jeremy was 23 when he started racing, which was quite late to take up the sport. He always had motorbikes and it was a friend who said that he should try the race track.

He was doing a lot of CCTV work at the time, which was really good money, and he was able to buy a van, though I remember that for his first race he had to borrow a set of leathers.

In his first year he won the Street Bike Championship and the year after that he was fortunate to get good sponsorship from the local paper shop in Ballyclare.

At the time it was just a bit of fun for us, loading the bikes up and sleeping in the back of the van. If he was going well then we all celebrated.

When our sons were young, racing was our life and we travelled the roads like a circus in our motorhome, going from one race to another all round Europe.

It was Ryan Farquhar who suggested in 2012 that Jeremy should try road racing. We have a really good relationship with Ryan and his wife Karen and Karen and I would be quite close. She has two girls so she knows what it is like to bring up two children when your husband is a racer.

Jeremy knew Ryan and knew the bike and had confidence in Ryan as a mechanic and knew he had a good team around him.

The North West 200 is a huge event and this year Jeremy will be riding four different bikes all one after the other. Fortunately, he is physically quite fit and able to cope with it.

To be truthful, I have always been afraid when Jeremy is racing. He has had a few crashes and on race days I am nervous.

I am so out of my comfort zone at the North West. With Moto GP it is very different as there are cameras all round the track and you always know exactly what is happening but this weekend I will be standing there, trying to listen to all the commentary so that I know how it is going. It will be nerve-wracking. I don't think anyone could stand there waiting and listening and remain calm, but Jeremy always likes us all to be there, although I know some riders prefer it if their family isn't at the race.

As a mum, too, I have looked into my two sons' eyes and I know that they worry, too. There have been occasions when they have said to me 'dad's not doing this anymore after this one' but then he wins and the whole euphoria of that takes over.

My boys have always had motorbikes but thankfully they did not follow their father into racing. They have seen their father injured and in and out of hospital quite a few times and they have seen the aches and pains.

Now that they are adults it is more difficult because they have their opinions now and they understand the dangers but then they are also very proud of him.

And we always try to be positive and think positive vibes. For all of the families waiting, it doesn't matter if their loved one wins or loses as long as he comes back safely.

Danni Henry (27), a recruitment consultant from Leicester, moved to Carrickfergus four years ago to be with her fiancé Alastair Seeley (36). Alastair is tipped to become the most successful rider ever at the North West 200 this year if he secures a first place. Last year he chalked up 15 wins to equal the record held by the late Robert Dunlop. Danni says:

I grew up in the paddock, as my two brothers were racers. I got my first bike when I was four and I have been involved in racing all my life. I have worked as a team co-ordinator with the World and British Superbikes and in recent years helped with Alastair's team.

I think it was inevitable that I would end up falling in love with a racer. If you are a rider, it can be very hard to be with someone who isn't involved in road racing as they can't really understand what exactly you are going through when you race.

I didn't race myself but because my brothers did I have an understanding of what it is like in the run up to a race meeting. I know what riders' needs are and how their minds work. Riders turn into different people around race time. Their focus changes and you have to work around them.

Alastair and I have two big birthdays coming up in 2019 - my 30th and his 40th - and although it seems a long time away we thought it would be a good time to get married and have one big party. We are currently in the process of buying a house.

Outside of my job, though, Alastair and I just live and breathe racing and life is very busy. For me, Alastair competing in the North West 200 is very different to taking part in the British Superbikes.

At the Superbikes the longest lap is around two miles so I know if he has an accident I can be with him and pick him up in a matter of minutes.

At the North West 200 he could be in a different town, so the anticipation of waiting to see that he gets round okay is hard. At this weekend's event I am also very aware of the risks of the speeds they are doing on those roads, with all those tight corners. You just never know what could happen and there is always that 'what if' factor.

I suppose I go through a whole mix of emotions because while I'm naturally anxious, there is also a real sense of excitement.

And I never forget that is was racing that brought us together. I knew what was involved from the start and all I can do is support him.

Everyone is nervous and everyone handles it in a different way. I just think about what I can do for him to make sure he is prepared and when he is on the grid, I am on the sidelines and I always say the same thing to him when he is going out. It's just a little private saying that we have.

This year people keep saying to Alastair about breaking the record but you can't let that be in the forefront of your mind. You don't want to feel that pressure. He has to think of it as just another race and if he does break the record then that is a bonus and if he doesn't, then there is always next year.

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