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Rossi, McGuiness, Rutter, Walker, Bayliss, Corsa, Anstey. What have they got in common? All of them were (and some still are) racing with people half their age, and (often) absolutely smoking them. Most professional athletes, whatever their sport, have 10 years max at the top of their game. Few still compete professionally, at international level, into their 40s and 50s. But some do. And despite motorcycle racing being as physically demanding as any motorsport (well most), some of the best riders in history have been the most mature. So what makes the golden oldies of bike racing so golden? And why are they still so fast? 44teeth investigates…
There’s no substitute for experience. And when you’ve been doing something for 20 years, you learn a few tricks. And not just how to be fast on a bike. Because to be fast on a bike, and to be successful at a high level of the sport, you’ve got to know how to set one up. Knowing which way to go with your suspension, how to adjust your geometry, and what gearing to run etc. really does come down to experience.
When you’ve ridden umpteen different bikes on all the circuits known to man, and you’ve got the feel that comes with years and years of experience, chances are you’ll know how to set a bike up. One of the reasons Valentino Rossi was so dominant for so many years, was because he could set a bike up so well.
And when you’ve been at it for years, with countless wins under your belt, there’s a certain confidence you take to every race start. Look at Michael Rutter, Bruce Anstey and John McGuiness; just three riders capable of winning TT races well into their 40s. I’m not saying any of those lads find taking a TT win easy, but knowing exactly what you’re capable off can be the difference between pushing 100% and only pushing 90%. And if you want to win a TT, these days, you’ve got to push 100%.
And the TT is a good example of somewhere circuit knowledge is mega important. Knowing where the course goes left and right is one thing, but knowing exactly which line to take to avoid a particular bump, what can be used as a breaking marker, and what gear to be in for every turn, takes years to learn. And it’s that knowledge that’s helped so many older boys win TT races over the years.
It’s not just circuit knowledge that makes the difference. Knowledge of the industry, and how it works, has meant plenty of riders have been able to forge a career out of racing bikes, for years and years. Knowing how to negotiate contracts with teams, find sponsors and do all the background stuff gets more and more important, the older you get.
And when you’ve been racing for years, doing all the ‘background stuff’ you’ll have a list of contacts as long as your arm. Knowing who to call, and being able to call them, when you’ve lost a ride, or a sponsorship deal has fallen through, can save your bacon; the more people you know, and can call, the better chance you have of prolonging your bike racing career.
When you look at a sport that demands endurance rather than out and out strength, it’s not uncommon to see older athletes showing the kids how it’s done. Think cycling, long distance running, or even boxing. Bike racing, be it at the Isle of Man TT, or MotoGP requires a similar type of endurance. Keeping up lap record pace for 20-odd laps at a time is no mean feat, and if you don’t have the endurance to keep going, you’re not going to win many races.
A lot of professional bike racers started young, and don’t really know anything else. Look at Valentino Rossi. He’s been a professional MotoGP rider for his entire adult life. He loves riding bikes, he’s good at it and they pay him a massive packet to keep doing it. Whilst he’s enjoying it and still capable of winning races, why would he stop? As it happens, he’s not really capable of winning (MotoGP) races anymore; that’s why he’s knocking it on the head at the end of this (2021) season.
For a lot of the older boys, it’s not winning races that’s keeping them going, it’s the pay packet. Not all professional bike racers are multi-millionaires like Rossi, and if they can earn a few quid by turning up to race in the Ducati TriOptions Cup, they will.
Plenty of people that start racing bikes dream of making it their career, but that’s not why anyone starts. Most people start racing because they’re passionate about motorcycles and want to ride them as fast as they can. And just because you get to the point where someone starts paying you to do it, the passion doesn’t disappear. That’s why to most bike racers, professional or not, age is just a number.
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