When you talk about individual sports, there can be few more individual than road racing. In a race like the Isle of Man TT, you might not even see another rider.
It’s a race against the clock, against the track, against the unique challenges of one of the world’s most extreme motorsport events. If that sounds a trifle melodramatic, a few minutes in the company of Michael Dunlop will set the TT in context.
To the 28-year-old from Ballymoney in County Antrim, all this is just work. There’s no room for melodrama: “You’ve got a job and something you’ve got to do, so that’s it really. You don’t get carried away. You’ve just got to think about the task ahead of you.”
The only hint that it’s not all quite as matter-of-fact as Dunlop paints it is the toll the TT takes on him after the annual fortnight of racing is over: “I can’t get out of bed for three days. My body shuts down. Whether it’s the adrenalin or the pain kicking in, I don’t know. I get a thumping headache and I feel physically and mentally drained.”
Pushing the limits
Dunlop, who builds his own bikes and runs his own team, is a regular, down-to-earth Irish guy. He just happens to be part of road racing royalty and the fastest man ever around the Isle of Man TT circuit – the 60.7km (37.75 miles) Snaefell Mountain Course, with more than 200 bends and a climb from sea level to an altitude of over 396m (1,300 feet).
His uncle was the legendary Joey Dunlop, who won 26 TTs – more than anyone else in history before losing his life in a crash in Estonia; his father Robert died after crashing at the North West 200, a few miles from the family home; and his older brother Willia also races.
Asked why the tragedies he’s experienced haven’t convinced him to stop, he replies, matter-of-factly: “If people had a relative that was killed in a car crash, would they stop driving a car?”
If anything, it makes Dunlop ride harder. In 2016, he became the first man in history to complete a lap in under 17 minutes, averaging nearly 134mph.
A road racing hero then, born and bred, yet Dunlop prefers to keep himself apart from the circus. He has no desire to join the glamour boys in Moto GP, regarding circuit racing as a completely different challenge to what he does.
“In circuit racing, if you crash there’s a run-off area. You can push yourself to the limit and find out where your limit is. When we crash we don’t go into a gravel pit, we go into a lamppost or through a hedge, so you don’t really know where the limit is because you only get one chance to find out. It’s probably as far as your brain wants to push.”
When he’s not tearing up the track, Dunlop runs a couple of construction businesses that help to pay the bills. Road racing is not a lucrative sport. He relaxes by driving a rally car. Speed, it seems, is in the blood.
“Anything with some sort of speed or adrenalin, I’m up for it. People say, ‘I do an extreme sport,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I ride a motorbike at 200mph through lampposts.’ So there’s no such thing for me as an extreme sport really. This is about as extreme as it gets.”
“I’ve had suits come off during a crash”
Dunlop has broken more bones than he can remember, though he’s kept the hospitals less busy recently, thanks in part to experience – “It took a year or two before I realised you’re better off staying on the bike” – and also to Furygan, who supply his leathers, complete with D3O® impact protection.
“Everything’s got better,” he says. “I’ve had suits that have come off during a crash but now I’m wearing top quality. Comfort and protection are the main things. You’ve got to be comfortable and able to move. My suit’s custom made and it’s very comfortable, the protection’s really light and flexible.
“Obviously when you break something you think I could have protected that better, but I’ve been going 10-12 years now and this is probably the first time I’ve really got into the depths of it and discussed what we could change to make it better for me. But the job’s good. The suits are really top class.”
So how much longer will he continue to push himself to that indefinable limit? “I don’t really know,” he muses. “I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do so there must be something in my mind that makes me keep going.
“The day I’ve had enough, though, I’ll go. Cheerio.”
This article was originally published in Issue 05 of Impact Magazine, which is available to download for free from our Resources area.