North West 200: Life & love in the fast lane with the wives of two top riders
As the North West 200 takes place this weekend, Stephanie Bell talks to two women about what it's like watching the man they love race round the circuit - and coping with serious injury
Around 100,000 people are in the seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart this weekend for Ireland's biggest annual sporting event. The thrilling, high speed North West 200 is bigger than ever as it celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
It's an electric few days for everyone, including the riders' wives and girlfriends who face a nervous wait in the paddock as their partners speed along the 8.9 mile circuit.
Today the wives of two top riders - both of whom have suffered severe injuries in crashes in Northern Ireland - confess just how challenging it is to stand by their men as they risk it all for their sport.
When John McGuinness competed in the North West 200 in 2017 he came off his bike and suffered catastrophic injuries.
For Becky (43), his partner of 25 years, it was without a shadow of doubt the most frightening moment of her life.
The couple have been travelling to the event every year for the past 25 years and even though John couldn't compete last year, they still joined their extended "family" in the biking world to lap up the excitement.
But the six-time North West 200 race winner and 23-time TT winner is back this year, taking part for Norton in the supersport and superstock races.
He was injured in a practice session at the event two years ago, suffering four broken vertebrae, three broken ribs and fracturing his lower right leg as he crashed off the course on his Honda Superbike on the coast road between Portrush and Portstewart.
He spent 10 days in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and a further five days in hospital in Liverpool before being allowed home to Gressingham, a small Lancashire village, where his recovery was expected to take up to a year-and-a-half.
Consequently doctors were amazed when John was back on his feet after 10 months and he made a spectacular comeback when he competed in the Classic TT and was victorious.
John and Becky, who have two children Maisie (9) and Ewan (18), were childhood sweethearts who have been together since their mid-teens. However, they only married seven years ago when Becky's dad urged them to tie the knot before he passed away from cancer.
Becky, who freely admits that racing is their lives, says John's accident two years ago was the first serious incident that she has experienced in over two decades of accompanying him to races.
Recalling that day, she says: "I was standing in the paddock and had just seen him go round the top corner off into the distance and was thinking everything was good and his timing wasn't bad when the red flag went up.
"When the red flag goes up it gives you the most horrible sinking feeling inside and it's not just for your loved one but for any rider who may have been injured, as we are all good friends.
"John always used his head and always stayed safe and we had never had any situation like this, so even when this lady with a red jacket started walking towards me I was still thinking 'it can't be John'.
"I remember that she had tears in her eyes and I couldn't imagine having to do that job of telling family members their loved ones have crashed.
"The people and volunteers who do these jobs are usually in the background and they are amazing.
"She put her arm around me and told me to come with her. I started crying and she reassured me he was okay, but I couldn't be reassured as I know the dangers. It was horrible to say the least."
Becky was taken immediately to the crash scene so that she could accompany John in the ambulance to the hospital.
It was a difficult journey as John was in agony and once they arrived at the hospital an anxious Becky faced a tense 10-hour wait for news of the full extent of John's injuries. "It was the worst 10 hours of my life waiting to see if he was okay as you never know if there is something internal. Luckily doctors said all that was fine," she adds.
"The help and support you get from the racing family is amazing and the hospital staff too were fantastic too."
What made the situation even worse was the fact the couple's son and daughter were back at home in England, anxiously waiting for news about their dad.
"It was tough because the children were at home and John was in hospital in Belfast for 10 days. There were lots of video calls and phone calls, which helped," says Becky.
"Our son was doing his GCSE exams and I wanted to be with him, but at the same time I couldn't leave John so I was really torn. Thankfully, our families rallied round and helped with the kids."
John was then transferred to a hospital in Liverpool, which is a one-and-a-half-hour drive from the couple's home outside Lancaster.
Becky made the three-hour round trip twice a day, once when the kids were at school and again with the children in the evenings.
"He actually healed much quicker than they thought but it was a horrendous 10 months," she says. "He was in a lot of pain and living on painkillers which made him very weak.
"He had a cage attached to his leg with 26 pins and I had to quickly learn some nursing skills as the hospital taught me how to keep them clean and clear of infection.
"It took two hours to clean them every seven to 10 days - and I'm quite squeamish as well.
"He was able to get up and about but the medication left him quite weak and he didn't have the energy to go anywhere and sometimes had to use a wheelchair."
Finally, John got the cage removed last April and on his doctor's advice, the family booked a holiday.
Tragically, however, while enjoying a break in the sun, his leg fractured again and he had to have a plate attached to it for a further three months, pushing back both his recovery and his plans to return to racing again.
"We don't know how it happened," Becky says. "And the doctors couldn't believe it either; they said it had only happened twice in 20 years. It did set him back and he had to have another operation."
However, John made a spectacular comeback to racing in August of last year in the Classic TT senior race which he won.
"You can just imagine the emotions we all felt after he won his first race back; it was a massive comeback and a massive accomplishment and I am just so proud of what he has done," says his wife.
John and Becky grew up in the same street in Morecambe and were childhood sweethearts. They moved to their dream home in the countryside, surrounded by 27 acres, just three months before John's accident at the North West 200.
Recalling how they first met, Becky says: "I was just 14 and starting to grow into a young lady when I caught John's eye. I wasn't interested in boys in the slightest at the time.
"We became friends and eventually started dating. I remember going into his house for the first time and he had all these motocross trophies on the wall and this big shrine to Joey Dunlop and I had no idea who Joey was.
"Joey was John's absolute idol and he lived his dream when he became Joey's team-mate in 2000."
Becky has accompanied John to most of his races over the years and the couple are a big part of the extended racing family, which tends to be a very tightknit bunch.
The terrible losses which the community has suffered are felt deeply by them all, but the danger is something which they also learn to live with.
Becky, who worked as a nursery nurse before becoming a full-time mum, says: "We have lost so many friends over the years and I can't begin to tell you what that's like. Going to the races is like being part of a big travelling circus moving from place to place. You know everyone.
"We socialise together and I have made some of my best friends in the world through racing.
"There are so many advantages to this lifestyle, it is not just about danger.
"The joy it brings to your life is fantastic and you are part of this big community of friends. You are only here once and you've got to enjoy yourself."
While she remains positive, Becky admits that she will be tense when John is competing on the North West 200 circuity again this weekend.
"I am more nervous than usual this week but I always get anxiety when John is racing and it is something that you learn to deal with," she says.
"But you know your friends are in the same situation. I know that to anyone outside the sport looking at what we do, we must appear crazy. But we are not crazy, we are just people doing something dangerous, but at the same time amazing.
"I would love to give a big thank you to all the team and staff at the North West 200 for looking after us so well and especially the medical team."
Sophie Senior (32) had only been dating Jamie Coward (28) for a few months when he had a serious crash while competing in the Tandragee 100. As someone who was new to the racing world, the incident, which left Jamie with shattering injuries, proved a baptism of fire for the then 26-year-old.
But like other wives and girlfriends, Sophie has learned how to cope with her fears as she supports the man she loves doing a job he loves.
The couple live in Halifax and have two children, Lilly (2) and baby Stanley who is six months.
Currently on maternity leave from her job as a pharmacy technician, Sophie has been unable to travel to the North West 200 this year because their children are so young.
Instead, when Jamie takes part in three races, she will be anxiously watching her phones for texts from friends in Portrush who will reassure her throughout his events.
Like John and Becky, she grew up in the same street as Jamie but it was some years before they started to date.
"I knew nothing about bikes before I met Jamie but I very quickly got into them," she explains.
"You do get addicted to it and I think you either love it or hate it.
"I get a real buzz from it so I can only imagine how the racers feel.
"Jamie and I have actually known each other since we were babies as we lived across the road from each other. Our parents were friends and we were actually playmates as children.
"Then, when I was 10 we moved further up the road and our paths drifted apart. His dad raced and Jamie would have been off to meetings with him quite a lot growing up.
"But when I was about 26, I split up from my boyfriend.
"I worked with Jamie's mum in the same pharmacy and when Jamie heard I was single again, he sent me a message and asked me out - and here we are with a house and two children nearly seven years later."
Jamie is seen as a young talent in road racing. He is regarded as an up-and-coming Isle of Man TT star, where he became the first rider to lap the Mountain Course at more than 110mph on a British single cylinder machine. This year he is competing at the North West 200 and the TT races as part of the PreZ Racing team.
Another of his memorable achievements is finishing above Michael Dunlop in the 2017 Ulster GP Superstock race - Jamie finished in sixth place, one spot ahead of Dunlop. He has also had top 10 finishes at the North West 200. Sophie usually accompanies him to as many races as she can, but with a new baby, she has opted to stay at home for this year's big race on the north coast.
The couple started dating in November 2013 and understandably Sophie says she will never forget receiving the call in April 2014 when Jamie was injured at the Tandragee 100.
"None of us were there and I still don't know how I coped," she says.
"I was with friends and I knew something wasn't right as I hadn't heard from him.
"He would usually call me after his race to let me know everything was okay so it felt really strange that I hadn't got the call.
"Then when I heard he had crashed and had been taken to hospital I went onto autopilot. I flew out as soon as possible to Belfast and when I saw him in hospital I was so shocked I just slid down the wall.
"He had broken his tibia and fibula in his leg and had to have a cage fitted. He had back and neck injuries and damage to his arm.
"When I saw him, he was hooked up to all these machines and it wasn't nice.
"He spent four weeks in hospital in Belfast and I stayed with him for two weeks.
"He was able to get the cage off his leg in October and was fit and ready to get back to racing the following year."
Sophie admits: "We hadn't been together that long and I didn't know how to deal with it.
"After the initial shock I just had to be positive about it and make sure he was well. You just go with it."
Perhaps inevitably though, since having children, Sophie is more aware than ever of the dangers of Jamie's job. Like many partners of racers she has every confidence in his approach to the sport and remains upbeat and positive even though this weekend she will be anxiously waiting by the phone when Jamie competes in three races at the North West triangle.
"I have so much confidence in him," she says. "I know how he rides and he will only push himself as much as he needs to, he won't go crazy with it.
"I always sense he is fine every time he goes out. You've got to. I don't think you could be with someone who races if you aren't positive. It was a bit different before we had the children. Now, you are very aware you have these two little responsibilities who need you 24-7.
"But I still have a positive outlook. Jamie loves it, he has a good team behind him and I support him all the way."
His passion for the sport also runs in the family, Sophie reveals: "Lilly has been going to the races with us since she was four months old and she just loves it. It is a big family and everyone is there to support each other. I've made really good friends through it."
Sophie says that it is even harder not to be at a race rather than be trackside, and she chooses not to listen to the live commentary for fear of hearing that the dreaded red flag has been raised.
Instead, she relies on friends in the paddock to keep her posted by phone and anxiously waits for Jamie's call after the race has finished.
She adds: "When you are at the race you can see him leaving and you know when he is back in. I am quite nervous when I know he is racing and I am not there, but friends will message me to reassure me.
"Jamie always rings me when he is back in and I just wait for that call and there is a huge sense of relief when I hear from him. I can actually breathe again. You don't even realise how tense you are until it's all over.
"Jamie has a wonderful team around him at the North West and I will be rooting for him back home."