Hitting the trail with the plain-speaking, truck-building, bike racing Guy Martin; far more than just 'that sideburns bloke off the telly'.
Within seconds of mentioning that I was arranging a ride with Guy Martin – the best-known Isle of Man specialist never to have won the TT – my colleagues had the whole feature mapped out. “You’ve got to go for a ride on the back of his motorbike” they chimed, barely containing their glee at the prospect of me shitting myself as the fastest sideburns in Lincolnshire slid his knee round some hedge-lined bend at 170mph. And the problem was I could hardly blame them. Countless long journeys around the country, driven at what could be described as a ‘spirited’ pace, had meant that I’d frayed enough nerves around the office that the mere notion of me intravenously wired up to a healthy dose of my own medicine seemed to inspire some worryingly sadistic thoughts.
Yours truly, on the other hand, was rather more anxious at the prospect. I’ve never been on the back of a sports bike, let alone one piloted by a man who takes great pleasure in skimming stone walls at 190mph. Control is something I don’t like to relinquish very often, particularly when the reins are attached to a something as lethal as a motorbike. But, of course, this only served to intensify my colleagues’ malicious anticipation.
Then I found out that Guy owns a turbo-charged missile on wheels on which he’s hoping to race up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. It’s got about four times as much power as the average family hatchback and about 1/7th of the weight. Even Guy calls is a “bloody monster of a thing”. Oh goody, I thought, the two-wheeled equivalent of a pit bull with ADHD, and my name on it.
So when a battered old Astra van – it’s paintwork thoroughly decorated by the business end of a duck – pulls up outside the Punchbowl Inn, in Edmundbyers, my relief is palpable. There is barely room in the back for Guy’s battle-scared Cotic, let alone a superbike. I think I’m off the hook.
Guy’s just got off a plane back from Ireland where he’s been testing tyres, and a slight mix-up about our meeting point has meant that we’ve both been waiting for half an hour in different locations. “No worries”, Guy responds when I apologise for the delay. “I was listening to a really good programme on Radio 4”. I wonder how many motorcycle racers have ever linked those words together before into a single sentence.
Yet Guy is no ordinary motorcycle racer. If you’ve watched any of his recent BBC1 series, “The Boat that Guy Built” you’ll know that there’s a lot more to this man than just the ability to ride fast. He has a willingness to learn, a self-effacing honesty and a passion for engineering. And we get our first experience of this enthusiasm for anything mechanical not half a mile from the pub, where a collection of old tractors is stood rotting by the side of the trail. Guy’s eyes are immediately drawn to the agricultural relics, so we stop to get a few portraits of him sitting on an old David Brown. “Did you know that the DB in Aston Martin stands for David Brown?” he asks. I didn’t. “There you go you see; every day’s a school day”.
What I do know is that Martin owns an Aston Martin; a 2010 V12 Vantage. He rents a house, but owns a £140,000 supercar. This is a man who’s got his priorities right. “I haven’t driven it this year”, he explains. “I need to sort out the insurance, but I’ve got 21 points on my licence, so I might need to earn a bit of overtime”. 21 points? How is that even possible? “I just keep getting caught in the van. I was in court last Friday. The judge asked me if it would affect my living if I couldn’t drive. I said I race motorbikes, I race mountain bikes and I go to work and if I can’t drive I can’t do any of them. He gave me three points and let me keep my licence”.
Two minutes into the first climb, and as the last gate separating farmland from moorland swings back and clicks satisfyingly into its latch, Guy opens up the taps like he’s back in Douglas on the start/finish line. He drops down a couple of cogs, the drivetrain on his Cotic protesting noisily, and his wiry frame – smaller than perhaps you might imagine, but hewn from good, honest graft – takes off up the hill at a blistering pace. I might have dodged one bullet, but I wasn’t going to make it through the day completely unscathed.
Eventually I manage to summon some spare breath and wheeze to Roo that we should maybe stop and take some photos. Not because the scenery is particularly photogenic, but because designer Ben and I are about to pass out.
“I’ve entered that Salzkammergut trophy thing this summer, so I’m trying to get fit for that” Guy reveals, immediately shedding some light on his devastating tempo. “I did all these tests and stuff in the lab with my new team. They told me about all these zones and gave me a heart monitor”, he points at the Garmin 800 mounted on his bars. “Apparently you can only ride for six minutes anaerobically…” Well I’m sure we’ve just been redlining for at least ten minutes, but who am I to argue with science?
For the uninitiated, the Salzkammergut Trophy is a proper hardman’s event. Competitors must pedal 208km across Austria’s rugged alpine terrain in a single day. The route incorporates a mind-boggling 7000m of ascending and the attrition rate is as much as 70%. But this is not the sort of statistic to faze Guy. In fact, if statistics held much sway with the 29-year old, he wouldn’t be the doing what he does. In 108 years, 231 people have lost their lives racing the TT. Guy himself narrowly eluded the grim reaper last year in a spectacular fireball on a particularly fast and deadly corner known amongst the TT racers as Ballascary.
Guy’s outlook is much more matter of fact; set yourself a goal, work hard and do your best to achieve it. The old school way. Case in point; a couple of weeks prior to our meeting Guy’s preparation for Salzkammergut took him from his house in North Lincolnshire to Dalby Forest for a quick lap of the red. It was a round trip of well over 100miles, but Guy rode the entire thing on his mountain bike.
All about the buzz
It’s hardly surprising that a man who shuns the lucrative, and relatively safe, arena of Superbike and Moto GP Racing for the death or glory, gladiatorial purity, of road racing, is drawn to perverse, masochistic events such as the Salzkammergut Trophy and Megavalanche. “You could ride around Donnington park all day but you don’t get the same buzz you do racing on the roads. There’s very, very few circuits that you can reach 200mph on, but we’re doing that all the time on the road. You get it wrong, you’re f**ked; that’s what I like about it. Like last year a fella came off the day before on that same corner and he was dead.”
Does he think that the life expectancy of road racing events, such as the North West 200 and TT, is as short as that of the racers? “Health and safety will get hold of it eventually. But then, I think it’s as popular as it ever has been, from a spectator point of view and a racer point of view. It’s a young government, and it brings such a lot of money into the island. I just need to win a f**ker before they ban it.”
A narrow thread of singletrack slices through the heather to Chop Hardy. Knowing that we’ll get to ride this trail again later in the opposite direction, I try to record the sequence of gentle curves and multitude of branch lines. I can’t wait; instead of struggling into a powerful headwind, we’ll be blown all the way back to the car park.
A fast, arrow-straight bridleway drops down to the historic grandeur of Blanchland. There’s an inviting tearoom in the village, but we continue our relentless pace and ride briskly toward the next climb. As we begin the long haul out of Derwant Dale I take the chance to ask Guy about life since becoming a television star. The first episode of ‘The Boat that Guy Built’ drew over five million viewers, and the schedulers saw enough potential in Guy’s personality to give the show a primetime slot on BBC1. So what is it like now that he is known as ‘Guy off the telly’ rather than ‘Guy the TT racer’? “F**k off! I’m not a TV presenter; I’m a truck mechanic. To me that’s a bloody insult. I’m dead embarrassed when somebody says that. I’m a lad that has a normal job; I’ll do my engines and work on trucks, and I have my civil job, I race motorbikes and pushbikes; that’s what I do. I can go about my day’s business and never get any bother from being a motorbike racer. But doing the BBC stuff, f**king hell; I go down the shops in my dinner hour at work and people are recognising me.”
Which begs the question, why do it? “Well, doing stuff like this means I get to ride my bike; it’s f**king mint! It keeps me in pushbikes and I can buy the odd Aston Martin, so f**k it! But I don’t want to be known as a TV presenter. It’s not proper work is it? When it’s me funeral I want to be known as Guy Martin; he weren’t shy of graft.”
Whether he likes it or not though, the cult of Guy Martin is infectious and it’s spreading. The following day Guy would be in London for the red carpet premiere of TT3D, the feature film about the Isle of Man TT in which he is very much the human interest. But unlike so many others who have found themselves in a similar position, Guy remains true to his roots. He still holds down a day job doing civil engineering work, then at nights he switches on the milling machine in his workshop and gets stuck into tuning a motorcycle race engine for a client. Around these two jobs he fits his “hobbies”; motorcycle racing and mountain biking.
“I like me jobs that I do now. I like me engine stuff and I like me fitting because you get job satisfaction. You can see what you’ve done at the end of the day. Whereas that TV stuff there’s no satisfaction. It’s money for old rope really. I love my engine work because it’s like people pimping their engines out. Like porting cylinder heads and that. I’d genuinely, genuinely rather port cylinder heads than shag women.”
His outlook makes a refreshing change from the dull, scripted world of the professional sports man or woman. What you see is what you get when it comes to Guy. It’s a trait that has won him many fans, but also got him into plenty of hot water with sponsors. “I speak in facts, that’s the problem. I speak in blacks and whites and facts. Some people don’t like that.
For 2011 Guy signed a contract with the highly regarded Suzuki Tas team; effectively a factory team with a proven track record at the TT. I ask if this openness has become more of an issue in light of his new sponsors? “Yeah, there’s a time and a place for speaking the truth. I won’t tell any lies but maybe if we do have any bother I’ll have to keep me gob shut. A bit. But I’m getting the proper tools for the job, so I shouldn’t have to do that. I don’t mean any harm on anyone, it’s just the truth’s the truth.”
“It’s just about the delivery I guess?” I say.
“Yeah, yeah. You’re right. But if I’ve just broken down in a race and someone asks me the question…”
“They know when to get a juicy quote…”
“That’s when I said I want to rip some f**ker’s head off! I told them, but that was what was going to happen.” He says, laughing. “It was the truth!”
We crest the top of Blanchland Moor, where a rocky path leads us towards the edge of a dark forest. We’re almost at the halfway point and the pace has been rapid, cancelling out our late start. Early drizzle has been blown away by the strong winds and it’s beginning to brighten up. It’s at this point that Guy punctures, as his skinny tyres and rigid back end finally cave in under the constant pounding.
“Have you got a tube?” I ask. Guy pulls out a ring of rubber with more perforations than one of his favoured Yorkshire Gold tea bags. Ancient patches sprout like melanomas across the surface. I give him a fresh tube and ask him whether he thinks this new team is the missing piece of the jigsaw that will enable him to finally win the TT? “I’ve been with proper teams before but I just try and do it my way and nothing runs smoothly. My way does work; I build the bikes before the season starts and they’re always fast, but I’ve too much on my mind. Tas Suzuki its a proper, proper team; a factory team. I just go in there and ride the motorbike, nothing else. But you can’t rush it can you? When it’s time, it’s time. I could take it to heart that I haven’t won the thing or bad luck here, bad luck there. But at the end of the day you make your own luck don’t you? I don’t take it to heart, I just go back to work and forget about it.”
With Guy’s bike back in action we rejoin the slender path spearing through the heather. The ground is beautifully parched and the combination of shallow corners, patches of loose rock and chance of catching a pedal makes progress brisk but rewardingly challenging. Unfortunately the singletrack runs out before we descend off the moor, leaving no choice but to watch all our hard won height being flushed down the drain by road.
It’s a long and painful road climb from here to the start of the return singletrack across Bolt’s Law and Edmundbyers Common and, to make matters worse, we must battle into the headwind for the entire three miles. An effort that sees Guy and Roo disappear into the distance as Ben and I suffer desperately some way behind.
All the pain is forgotten once we reach the trig point at the intriguingly named Bolts Law however; beautiful moorland singletrack drops away from our front wheels, for what seems like the first time during the day the wind pushes against our backs; and the sun bathes us in warm early evening light.
I file in behind Guy and watch him skilfully flick through the bends and chicanes, spinning here and there to top up his momentum. He’s light on his feet, adroit in his movements, the minimal mass of his Cotic positively buoyant compared to a 150kg Suzuki. His speed in reading the terrain gives a clear insight into the talents that allow him to pick out a fish painted on a garden wall at 170mph that marks the braking point for Douglas Road Corner. Bizarrely I watch all this through a fine spray of energy drink as his leaking hydration tube flails behind him like a startled serpent.
The Punchbowl’s swinging sign is a welcome sight after nearly thirty miles flat out, so we pile in and make straight for the bar. Guy orders a Guinness and black. “That’s a bit of a girl’s thing to do innit; Guinness and black? But it’s a good brew”.
It’s obvious that Guy isn’t shy of hard work and isn’t looking for any short cuts, but surely there must be something in the genes? “I’ve got no natural talent, but I f**kin’ want it. Like me brother; he’s got loads of natural talent, he’s loads better than me. But as soon as he got a sniff of fanny and beer that’s all he were interested in. My dad was a TT racer for fifteen years. He never encouraged me into racing at all. I left school at sixteen, I saved up enough money, bought a bike and went racing. I started racing on my own then he started helping me out a bit; used to buy me odd sets of tyres here and there. He were crackin’ bloke but he did right really ‘cos you see it so much now. If I were to have kids – which I don’t think I ever will, but never say never – I’d do exactly the same with them as what he did with me. I were working at Chicago Rock Café at nights, used to work down the docks at the weekend, just to earn enough money to race me bikes. It makes you hungry; it makes you better. You see all these kids that their dads forced them into it. Alright, you get loads with natural talent, but they’ve got no hunger in them.”
So where does mountain biking fit in around work, racing and TV? “The buzz I get from that is probably the nearest thing that I get to my motorbikes. It’s not as good, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that replicates it. Cross-country not, but I do the mega. Done that for a couple of years. I f**king love it. I love my downhill and that, but like my cross-country you’ve got to put the time in to get your legs right, but it’s in the head. Ignoring the pain from your legs and just keeping going. That’s why I keep setting myself these goals, like that Salzgammerkut thing; whatever it takes I’ll finish it. I don’t care if I finish last, I just want to finish it.”
Guy finishes up his Guinness and black and bids us farewell. He’s due to catch an early train to London the following morning in time for the premiere of TT3D and, in typical Guy Martin fashion, has a long list of things to do before he goes. As a reluctant cog in the PR machine, it’s not a trip that he’s relishing. A week later, I check a few videos from the premiere. Sure enough, Guy is fielding a string of predictable queries. But as the interview ends, dressed in virtually the same outfit as he’s wearing in this feature, he awkwardly wheels his Cotic up the red carpet. In that moment the casual viewer would have learned more about Guy Martin than from any of the preceding questions; just an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary talent, married to an honesty and absence of pretentiousness that makes him stick out like a sore thumb in the world of entertainment.
The Bike that Guy Built
I had a Raleigh Chopper, then a Raleigh Mustang, Falcon Fattrack, but that was just shit. My first proper bike was in ’05 was a Whyte 46. I should never have sold that; what a bike! I went from that to an Orange 224, Scott Ransom 10, Alpine 160, Cotic. I’ve had that Cotic for years, that’s f**king brilliant that. That’s the workhorse, it goes everywhere with me. It’s getting chain and sprockets two or three times a year it gets bottom brackets twice a year. People say, oh they don’t wear out on my bike. Well the only reason they don’t is ‘cos you’re not f**king riding it.
You can wind it out to 140mm and it slackens the head a bit. It’s a bit too twitchy at 110mm, but at 140mm it’s a good stable bike. That’s what I think they’ve done on the new frame; they’ve slackened the front slightly. I might get one of them.
When I got that frame it was bloody £360, which was right enough, but now they’ll be £600. I thought I’ll have it built for a grand. F**king didn’t; it cost me about bloody 2200 quid in the end. By the time I bought X0 shifters and X0 back mech and XTR cranks and this and that. How much it’s cost me up to now I don’t know, because you’re always wearing stuff out. But what would you be doing on a Sunday morning; sat in mowing the grass watching the tele; f**k that I’d rather be out on my bike.
I had me first Scott Ransom nicked from the farm, and that was two weeks before the Mega. Michael Bonny (from Orange) found out and he says ‘I’ll lend you one that’s been used for the adverts’. It was the Alpine 160. So they sent me that and it was all last minute. I drove to the alps, did the Mega and thought ‘f**king hell, what a bike’. That is mega that. So I says ‘can I buy it off you?’ He says ‘yeah, I’ll get you a price’. Four months later he rings me back with a price. I’d rather pay for it; I feel better paying for it. But I’ve had it nicked. Well, I think I’ll get it back.
I’ve still got this Ransom 10 now, which I suppose is a similar type of bike to what an Alpine 160 is, it’ alright, it’s got the fancy seatpost on it, the Hammerschmidt, it’s got the lockout suspension but it’s not in the same league as the 160. The 160 doesn’t look as flash, but it just does everything without the fancy knobs. So, I do need another 160. They are the bollocks. I just think they look shit.
Who is Guy Martin?
In his own words, Guy Martin is just a truck fitter who likes to ride motorbikes and mountain bikes. To the rest of the world he’s a devastatingly fast TT racer and that bloke off the BBC TV series “the Boat that Guy Built”. Although Guy has never won the infamous Isle of Man TT, he has stood on the podium nine times, and very nearly joined the exclusive club of riders to have broken the 130mph average speed for a lap. Last year he crashed spectacularly when he lost his front end on the high speed Ballagarey corner, his bike bursting into flames. Incredibly, although Guy suffered a broken back, amongst other injuries, he was out of hospital after only a week. For 2011 he’s with a new team – Relentless TAS Suzuki – and hoping to finally shed the monkey from his back. Follow Guy’s progress during the season, and read some of his hilarious ramblings, at www.guymartinracing.co.uk.
Words: Danny Milner Photos: Roo Fowler