Nature or Nurture? Is being a ‘Top Racer’ really in their blood?

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It doesn’t matter if it’s British Superbikes, World Superbikes, MotoGP or any other major race series, for a lot of top riders it really is a family affair. Plenty are either following in the footsteps of their fathers or racing alongside their brothers. Kenny Roberts, Ron Haslam, Wayne Gardner, Niall Mackenzie and Robert Dunlop have all had sons that gone on to become household names in bike racing circles. And contemporary names like Marquez, Espagaro, Lowes and, once again, Mackenzie, could all be referring to one of a pair of bike racing brothers. So as far as nature or nurture goes, there can be only one explanation; bike racing surely is in their blood. Or is it? Upon reflection, I think there might be a little bit more to it than that.

Those of us who paid attention at school will no doubt be well aware of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, but I know there are plenty of you that didn’t even bother turning up half of the time, never mind paying attention. So let’s have a little recap. Darwin said that over countless generations, a species will either adapt to better suit its surroundings or become extinct.

This works because every creature, whether it’s a single cell organism, or a mighty buffalo, is more likely to pass on its genetic code the ‘fitter’ it is. Take giraffes, for example. They didn’t always have long necks. But the giraffe with the slightly longer neck could reach the leaves higher than the rest. That meant it was more likely to live longer therefore more likely to procreate (or shag), and so pass on the ‘slightly long neck’ gene to its offspring. Its offspring, in turn passed it to theirs, who passed it to theirs. The result is the ridiculous looking creatures they are today.

And it’s not just physical attributes that evolution affects. Intelligence and instinct are also big parts of our ‘nature’. An antelope that wasn’t scared of lions, for example, wouldn’t last five minutes on the Serengeti. The ones that are scared of them, and leg-it at the first sight, have a better chance of surviving, mating, and passing on this propensity to be scared of predators. After generations and generations, the fear becomes an instinct for the antelope. That’s why today, a lion’s lucky to get within 100 yards of one of the tasty fuckers.

All I’ve done so far is support the notion that bike racing is, indeed, in these lads’ blood. But I don’t think it really is. Evolution takes thousands of years to have any real effect, so I don’t think that’s really an argument. You could argue that some of the superfast lad’s inherited their superfast dad’s long arms, good eyesight, or strong legs. Or anything else that might help slightly on a race bike. And it’d be quite probable that the racing brothers share these attributes. But whatever these  few attributes are, it’s a microscopically small part of being a champion bike racer.

That’s enough of a biology lesson for now. It’s probably time I cut to the chase. Let me explain exactly what I think’s going on here. When most young lads (or ladies) start racing bikes, they don’t really know what they’re doing. I certainly didn’t when I embarked on my racing career. But when your riding coach and your mentor is a British or World Champion (or even just someone that spent a lot of time riding at that level) it’s probably not going to take you long to learn to get your knee down. Chances are, with a bit of help from dad, you’ll be bloody quick, bloody soon.

But it’s not always just about how fast you are. To make it in the world of bike racing you’ve got to know the right people; that’s where the real opportunities come from. And this is where dad’s impressive list of contacts comes into play. Whether it’s to find someone to help fix a broken leg, a PR person to spin a positive story about your broken leg, or a team manager to sign you up, despite the fact you’re still on crutches; daddy’s bound to know someone.

And if he doesn’t know someone, they‘ll know him. They’ll have seen him on the telly, they’ll have seen his name on the front of all the magazines and they’ll probably remember hearing about his son getting into racing too. They’ll know him, so they’ll know of you. They might want to help out, just so they can shake hands with your dad; a small price to pay for a key to a hyperbaric chamber.

Whilst dad isn’t discussing the finer points of bike control with you over the dinner table, he may well be schooling you on everything else you need to know to be a successful professional athlete. How to conduct yourself in a TV interview, how to find sponsors and how to keep them happy. And, most importantly, how to suss out which characters in the paddock are full of shit, and which can be trusted (because that’s a ratio of about 100:1 in the bike racing world).

One of the most important things in any sport is experience. Being able to extract decades worth of the stuff from your old man, at every step of your racing career is nothing short of priceless. I don’t mean to take anything away from these second generation bike racers. I don’t care who your dad is. Winning championships, or even just races, at national or international level is no mean feat at all. Nobody has it easy. I’m just saying they might not have had it quite as hard as someone who’s dad was a plumber, for example.

What about the Lowes twins, the Marquez’s, the Espagaro’s, the Laverty’s; is it in their blood? No, they were just born into a family that was passionate about bike racing. They’ve been given an opportunity to do something they love, worked like fuck and managed to get where they are today. And fair play to them.

So the next time a TV commentator says something daft like “Wow, what a champion, racing really is in his blood!” just take it with a pinch of salt.

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