Belfast Telegraph

I'm on top of the world... both on and off track: Rea

By Paul Lindsay

Ballyclare's Jonathan Rea is set to become a double World champion later tonight, needing just two points from the opening race of the uniquely floodlit final round of the World Superbike Championship in Qatar to defend his title. But it hasn't all been a year of sweetness and light, as the dedicated family man was happy to explain in an exclusive interview.

The treasured feat of consecutive crowns will give the 29-year-old membership of a unique club of just four riders who have retained a WSB title since the series started in 1988, cementing his legacy in the annals of World Superbike history.

The champagne may well be on ice, but it has been difficult for the Isle of Man-based Ulsterman not to start looking beyond the finish line in what has been a fairytale 24 months since joining the factory Kawasaki team.

"There was so much more pressure last year to win the Championship as I was leaving such a comfortable environment," he said of the Dutch Ten Kate Honda team, who had become like family to Rea since his debut year in the World Championship back in 2008.

Rea spent seven years aboard Honda's ageing Superbike, but had his best season with them during his final year in 2014, finishing third in the Championship standings.

"To come and play No.2 at Kawasaki behind Tom Sykes last year put huge pressure on me, but it was a gamble I needed to take," he said.

"At Honda it was a cushy number for me. You'd beat your team-mate and win some races; everything was fine and they paid me a lot of money, but I had aspirations of being World champion.

"When I first rode the Kawasaki it was amazing. The bike was in the final year of development before the new bike came out in 2016, so it was such a polished package. Everything came so easy and we were winning for fun.

"It was a strange feeling, whereas this year I've had to work harder on the new bike, sometimes salvaging the best of a bad job, but that's the strength of the people around me to be on the brink of another World Championship."

Rea was speaking from Doha's Ritz-Carlton hotel, where despite having an important weekend ahead - probably the biggest of his life - he and his family were celebrating his youngest son Tyler's first birthday yesterday.

"I'm running about the hotel room with Peter Rabbit playing on one side and BBC News on the other," said Rea, whose family life has added an important ingredient in both Championship campaigns over the past two seasons.

"Having the kids around has coincided very nicely. Jake came along during the final year at Honda and Tyler just this time last year, and although I can't just put the last couple of seasons down to having a family structure around me, it has certainly helped."

Reflecting on that home-life foundation, Rea - whose father Johnny was a successful racer and a 250cc Junior winner at the Isle of Man TT - confided: "It was especially important when I moved to Kawasaki at the start of 2015, as it was the most pivotal part of my career to date.

"Everything needed to be right around me, not just from a racing point of view, so having a strong family unit was paramount. They are all in this dream with me, which gave me a really good balance and perspective of life," he said of his Australian wife Tatia and sons.

From the outside looking in, life as a World champion motorcycle racer appears to be a dream job, and while the spoils of success dip into the seven-figure earning bracket for Rea and his young family, the reality of family life is the same at every level.

"I broke down at the start of the year as Tyler was so bad with his reflux and constantly in pain," said Rea of his youngest son. "Until we got him correctly diagnosed when he was four or five-months-old, he had burned the whole of his insides, as he was being sick 15-20 times a day."

Struggling to cope and feeling helpless as he watched his young son suffer, Rea was starting to have doubts about his mental state entering this season, in which he would be defending his crown for Kawasaki.

"I remember saying to my wife, 'there's no way I can win a Championship this year' because I'd felt so bad for Tyler; he wasn't sleeping and we weren't sleeping. But then I went out at Phillip Island and won both races," he said.

"Things got better as the months went on and he now sleeps in the night and life is so much easier. Well almost, he has Gastro this week.

"The start of the year with his reflux problems and trying to get used to a new bike, I was really struggling.

"So now that things have turned around, I feel like a huge cloud has passed and I'm excited about the future."

Fame and wealth can be hard to handle for some, as we have previously witnessed from afar in high-profile sportsmen and women from Northern Ireland.

The modern era has allowed teams, companies and sponsors to prepare young talented athletes, offering them a blueprint for their future. But Rea simply puts his success down to early foundations set in place by his father and mother.

"I don't feel like I'm flash and I never will, as my parents kept my feet on the ground," he said candidly.

"I didn't go to university, which they were disappointed about, but they did make me go to technical college and I served my time as an apprentice engineer.

"It wasn't glamorous and I was stuck in a paint shed working for my uncle earning £4.20 an hour and riding a second hand scooter that cost £300 to get there and back, so that makes me appreciate money. I know how hard it is to earn a pound."

With no ridiculously priced sports cars in the garage of his immaculately decorated home on the Isle of Man, I was curious to ask just what, if any, luxuries he has afforded himself since those early days grafting in his uncle's paint shed.

"I like to fly my family about business class, so I splurge on a bit of luxury travel for the sort of longer flights and I've started collecting a few nice watches," he said before explaining his first substantial purchase.

"Now that I do really well, I do enjoy spending my money, but I'm not foolish with it. I always promised myself a Breitling Navitimer.

"I remember seeing one in Vegas once and wanted to buy it, but couldn't bring myself to do so.

"I then went to buy it again after the eight-hour (the Suzuka event back in 2012, which he won) and again couldn't justify the spend.

"I have bought it since then and Tarsh (his nickname for wife Tatia) bought me another nice timepiece after my Championship win last year.

"I also enjoy spoiling the people around me with nice holidays like Bali last year after Phillip Island and Thailand the year before.

"We need to spend time together as a family, so these trips are important to us all and bring home life to work."

Rea then began to reflect on how he handled things in the early days as an 18-year-old 'sunglasses and hair-gel' paddock member, and how things have changed as he approaches his 30th birthday as a family man and soon-to-be double World champion.

"I went through my early career just relying on natural ability and enjoying being a motorcycle rider and that was about it; then I went through a period where I obsessed and over obsessed with everything being right," he said.

"Then came marriage and kids, which I feel has completed me as a person.

"I've learned to like myself, and instead of going home after having a bad weekend - where previously I would have hated myself and smashed myself in the gym even more - I've learned to appreciate the life I have.

"Basically, I've found a balance that lets me really enjoy my racing now and also enjoy my life away from it."

With his second World crown almost secured, I had to ask what's next for the affable and loyal Ulsterman with the boyish charm.

"I feel so lucky and blessed to have been given this opportunity with Kawasaki," he added.

"I feel as if I've done the hard yards in previous years, and now that I'm working with a factory that has direct involvement in Superbikes, I want to run with it.

"My motivation is really high to win again in 2017 and in 2018.

"I have a two-year deal and while I don't want to set myself any ridiculous goals - as I want to be realistic - I am motivated to go on and win a few more titles.

"I certainly don't see Carl Fogarty's record of four titles unachievable, but for now, let's just get number two done and dusted."

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