Tunnel vision: how Shakey Byrne was built for bikes
Shakey Byrne has just secured a sixth British Superbikes title to further extend his own historic record. But how did he come to dominate the event like no other? Kevin Coulson takes a look at a long, and remarkable, road...
Shakey Byrne lay on the kerb, his back broken.
Instantly, he knew something was wrong, something serious. Thoughts of potential paralysis crossed his mind. Would he ever ride again? It was 2000 and the greatest career in British Superbikes history could have been over before it had really begun.
John Crawford, riding a Suzuki, tried to pass him late going into a chicane, forcing Byrne wide. He hit the notoriously big Thruxton kerb and flipped over the handle bars. Byrne, in his first year in BSB, lay prone, in excruciating pain, worrying, wondering, wishing. Fortunately, long-term damage was avoided and no surgery was required. Incredibly, he was back on a bike within months.
Soon after, he came even closer to death. In turn two of the Snetterton round, Byrne split from his bike, and split his liver. This time he was hit in the side and run over by an unsighted Crawford after falling off trying to avoid a collision in front.
Unlike with the broken back, this was a different kind of pain – "a weird, internal sort" – making Byrne uneasy about what he had done. After diagnosis at the hospital, the seriousness of the situation only became clear when the impatient patient could not lie still and had to shift himself to a nearby chair. Byrne was ordered back to bed by an irate doctor, who had come across a similar problem a week earlier but had seen the man he was treating die after his lacerated liver failed to heal.
Many would’ve taken these two incidents as the time to quit. Three-time British Superbikes champion John Reynolds recalls the exact moment at Brands Hatch in 2005 when "a switch in his head flipped" following a terrible crash. Once recovered from his broken ribs and collarbone, plus a punctured lung, he could, perhaps, have carried on. Yet he knew it was time to retire.
But not Byrne. Whereas Reynolds was 40 and coming to the end of a distinguished career, Byrne had achieved nothing in his own estimation. He was not going to give up on his dreams yet. He knew he had to get back on his bike. And soon.
"As a bike racer there is always, always, always someone there ready to try and nick your job as soon as you are out of action,” he insists. "They are like a bunch of vultures. It’s savage.”
By getting back in the saddle straight away, there is no time to dwell, less chance of being petrified by the past. "The minute you get knocked down, you get straight back up again," adds Byrne. "It’s what you have to do. The minute you have time to reflect on how much it hurts or what is going on physically is the time you need to stop."
For Byrne, returning to the track was the right decision – five BSB titles are testament to that – and looking back, 17 years later, there are no chicanes in conversation with him, no bravado. He's honest and open, admitting how much the incidents scared him back then.
" Crashing hurts, no matter who you are"
But time is a healer, as the cliche goes, and the mental scars have also faded. He can even joke about Crawford, who had the misfortune of being involved in both incidents. "He was trying to finish me off, bless him!" chuckles Byrne.
One thing the 40-year-old does bristle at, however, is the idea that for superbike riders injuries are easier to take because they are so frequent, like they are some sort of professionals in pain. The matter-of-fact way they are often spoken about shows the riders know it is part of the job, but they are fully aware of the danger.
"Motorbike racers aren’t superhuman, but at the same time we’re not football players, rolling around on the floor looking for an Oscar nomination when we’ve chipped a fingernail. But everything hurts – if you go and sit in a car and drive 120mph down a motorway and jump out the door and roll around for a bit, feel the friction and the impact, you’ll feel the same type of pain that I do. People have this perception that because we do it all the time we get used to the pain or it doesn’t hurt. Of course it does. Crashing hurts, no matter who you are."
So it was with his eyes wide open that Byrne bravely decided to return to the track. He’d come too far down the road to turn back. It was not the first time in his life that his focus was fixed on the future...
Many modern-day racers jump on a bike as youngsters and are pre-destined for a life on the circuit. Take Leon Haslam, one of Byrne’s major rivals for the 2017 BSB title. He is the son of Ron, a two-time world champion, and was exposed to the sport as an infant, even travelling to many events with his parents. A path was there for him if he wanted it.
For Byrne, things were very different. For a start, he has had three sets of parents after being adopted as a six-week-old baby. He had a period with his initial carers, whom he was placed with from his biological parents, before coming under the care of his life-long mother and father – Janet and Peter – the only family he remembers. Something he does recall, however, is an early obsession with bikes, despite his mum and dad not having the slightest interest in motorsports – indeed, they did not possess a driving license between them.
“From as early as I can remember, I always wanted to be a motorbike racer,” he adds, recalling occasions as a six-year-old schoolboy when he had to write down what he wanted to be when he grew up.
All youngsters dream, of course, that's the easy part. The real challenge is filling the chasm between aspiration and achievement. School never really appealed and his parents, who he has clearly doted on all his life, were not able to afford the expensive kit that came with the sport. Although he dabbled in schoolboy motorcross and trials riding, his path was still not clear. Compared with his rivals at this stage, he was at the back of the grid.
So following his education, ‘Shakey’, as he was now branded after a friend noticed him shivering in the wind while wet from a holiday swimming pool in Spain, ended up literally following in the tracks of his father, who worked on the London Underground. Peter, a former Army boxer, who was known as Popeye because of his small but powerful stature, sadly died in 2008. He was a frequent companion at race meetings later on but before Shakey could devote his life to superbikes, his dad set him up with a job as a maintenance engineer.
“We’d go up every night and re-lay tracks and railway sleepers and dig pieces of the Underground out,” recalls Byrne. “They are still brilliant now, the bits of the underground I worked on! Ninety percent of the work we did was on the Central Line, so it was places like Amersham and Rickmansworth, all outside of London. But I also did a bit in Baker Street.
"We were just throwing a few bits about, changing pieces here and there. That was it. It was good fun, I enjoyed it. A lot of the time as well it was what we used to call 'job and knock' so you’d get on the track at one in the morning and you’d have, between yourself and your partner, to do two sleepers. But as soon as you’d done your sleepers, you were pretty much free to go as long as you had taken all the tools back to the truck.
"So we would pretty much rattle on really quickly and be back home in bed in [Sittingbourne in] Kent by four in the morning! You got paid eight or 10 hours every single night for that – it was brilliant.
"When I was an 18-year-old kid with all the RS Turbos and Cosworths, that was what I went to work for – to have stuff like that."
From Sinner to Winner
The cars did not go well. Despite being able to buy one with some of his wages, Byrne was soon banned from the road for dangerous driving. But, ironically, this was the best thing that could have happened. Although he is clearly not proud of it, Byrne recalls that time, in 1996, as a turning point.
"I had a road bike when I knew I was getting banned – a 250 Suzuki that I was going to turn into a race bike. But I ended up part-exchanging it for one that was already done and then I raced that and away I went. I did two track days then went and won my first ever race.
" I just thought: 'You know what, unless I make this happen, it’s not going to happen'"
"I just thought: 'You know what, unless I make this happen, it’s not going to happen. I’m just going to get older and older and it will get more and more difficult'. I guess I invested in myself and it turned out to be worthwhile."
Myopic, bleary-eyed views of Tube tunnels had quickly morphed into a tunnel vision of his future...
Control Amongst Chaos
Shane Byrne in action in Assen in 2015Imago
No matter the talent, any sportsman needs a slice of luck. They need to be discovered. Fortunately, while in club racing and working as a shop assistant to make ends meet, Byrne's speed stood out. Scouts from Fast Bikes magazine, that would later propel Sean Emmett into British and World Superbikes, mentioned Byrne to Colin Schiller, the owner, who took him on as a test rider. He was an instant hit with the staff.
“He had the same mentality as us, which was, ‘I don’t care if you ride 500 miles before breakfast, just get up, have fun and don’t worry about anything’,” says Schiller. "He was cheeky, just like we were. I liked him. He didn’t have any chip on his shoulder or any issues. The one thing I really liked about him was that – unlike all other racers that I’ve met – he didn’t go on all the time about how his bike was s**t and if he had a faster bike he would win all the races. That is what all racers say. But he never did."
Although attitude is not everything, Schiller still knew he was on to something special.
“We used to do these crazy, mad road tests where we would leave London on a Friday night and drive to Italy and come back to Switzerland in two days,” he recounts. “There was a gang of about five of us who did that and Shakey enjoyed it. He did it like he had been doing it all of his life. I’d watched Jeremy McWilliams, James Haydon, and Sean Emmett on the road – and Shakey looked better than all of them."
The great American racing driver Mario Andretti once said: "If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough." And that is, perhaps, where Byrne comes into his own – staying calm amongst the chaos. At 200mph, with the equivalent of 220 horses thundering beneath you, this is far easier said than done.
"He’s fearless – all riders are fearless to a point, but Shakey definitely," continues Schiller. "He’s just not a drama queen, that’s the best thing about him. He doesn’t get spooked or worried or anxious. He almost died at Thruxton, which is as bad as it gets."
Byrne's abilities were only enhanced by the thousands of miles he put in at Fast Bikes, alongside other talented riders. Crashing is part of the sport but establishing the limits of your bike and teetering up to them are key – straddling the edge must become as easy as straddling the bike. And this is what Schiller believes is part of Byrne’s brilliance, with his unconventional path aiding his development.
" People misunderstand the best racers, they are not aggressive people at all – quite the opposite"
“People would say that it was natural,” continues Schiller. “It wasn’t. It was because of his particular background – he had a similar background to Kevin Schwantz or Barry Sheene. Most people who go on to road race or Grand Prix or Superbikes have an off-road background, but Shakey didn’t. He came from more of a trials background. He had lots of delicate balance and control, as well as speed.
"People misunderstand the best racers, they are not aggressive people at all – quite the opposite. Their movements are very delicate and selective. His throttle control was incredible and so was his balance."
It was this skill that led Byrne to taking his first national race win at Cadwell Park in 1997 and becoming Supersport 600 champion under the guidance of the magazine. He then finished sixth in the British Supersport Championship on a Yamaha Thundercat – an ungainly and heavy bike – which drew the attention of the BSB teams.
Harris Performance signed him up in 1999 and Byrne was progressing nicely before the double disaster of 2000. But, having decided to carry on, his smooth progression continued, as he won the privateer championship easily, before getting a full works ride in 2002 for Team Renegade Ducati.
Byrne still needed that final step up to be a contender though, someone to take a punt on his raw talent to give him the title he craved. That moment came in 2003, and sparked quite a controversy…
Bird’s Eye View
Shakey Byrne and Paul Bird celebrate victory in 2016Eurosport
Steve Hislop had just won the 2002 BSB Championship when he was sacked. Monster Mob Ducati team owner Paul Bird took the shock decision to replace him with Byrne. It was an acrimonious departure that sent shockwaves through the sport.
Hislop was fired by the Virgin Mobile Yamaha team later that year and tragically died in 2003 in a helicopter crash. It was a tough time for Bird, who was new to BSB and a man as fiercely competitive as Byrne it seems. Despite winning the title with Hislop he felt Byrne was the future – a younger rider, better able to provide sponsors and a potential move on to the world stage. To the untrained observer it was a huge gamble.
" I got absolutely slaughtered by the public and probably the press as well"
Not so, says Bird, who had studied the form of his new protégé.
“I remember watching Shakey improve and become quite competitive against us in 2002. So I decided that Hislop was coming to the end of his career and Shakey was one of the guys who was on the up. He was already starting to win races so to me it was a no-brainer.
“I got absolutely slaughtered by the public and probably the press as well. You get a guy who is 40 and wins the championship for you and you immediately get rid of him. But we won nine of the first 12 races [with Byrne the season after] so I stuck two fingers up at them – I was the one who made the right decision. I had the last laugh. It was my team and I thought 'f*** em, I’ll do what I want'. I’m paying the bills here. I’ll put on my bike, who I want to put on it. He was winning already so he was only going to win more races on our bike, in a better team."
And more victories followed as Byrne continued to reward his new boss by winning 12 races, and his maiden BSB title by 130 points from John Reynolds. Even though he was defeated, Reynolds, who broke his collarbone early in the season and couldn't recover the points gap, has fond memories of that year and holds Byrne in high regard, with his cheeky side – and respect for his rival – coming out amongst the serious business.
Reynolds recalls the kind of backhanded compliments that were common fare: "On a few occasions when we were on the podium or at a press conference, he used to say: ‘I wish Reynolds would retire’. He thought if I retired there would be one less to beat! Pretty well every race was a tough one but one comes to mind – at Brands Hatch. On the last lap pretty well every corner we came into, we overtook each other. It was just an epic race. Although Shakey beat me it is still one of my best races ever. I really enjoyed racing with him – he’s very fair, very hard.”
John Reynolds celebrates victory at Brands Hatch in 2000AFP
"Shakey’s a legend," says Billy McConnell, the 2014 British Supersport champion. "He’s a nice humble person. At my first test on a superbike, he was one of the first guys that came up to see how I was going. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Shakey."
Josh Brookes, the 2015 champion, also outlines his respect for Byrne and then his frustration at what an outstanding competitor he is:
"What annoys me about him, is that he’s similar to me in you know he’s never going to give up – he could be having a bad practice, bad qualifying or a fall but at no point do you think ‘Oh that’s Shakey’s weekend affected. He’ll come back to the start of the grid for the next qualifying, the next practice or the next race and it will be like it never happened. It’s quite irritating that it never seems to affect him but I think it’s a quality I admire and I probably carry a bit of myself. So hopefully I infect him with the same frustration."
Reynolds also pinpoints another crucial aspect of Byrne's prolonged period of success: his physical conditioning. Although he is perhaps not even the fittest in his family, with his model wife Petra running ultra marathons in her spare time, Byrne takes care of his body. Back in the 90s, he would go on post-ride work-outs with Schiller and now, in his 41st year, he keeps trim through another two-wheeled passion: bicycles.
He splits his time his time between homes in Spain and the Isle of Sheppey, and both give him plenty of opportunity in the off season.
"I saw him last year at Brands Hatch", says Reynolds. "I was on a track day and he cycled there from his house in Kent. I don’t know how far it would be but he didn’t up turn in a flash car, he came on a push bike with a set of lycras on."
This humble side shows Byrne has not got carried away with his own success, despite his five titles leaving a trio of three time-winners – Reynolds, Ryuichi Kiyonari and Niall Mackenzie – in his wake. And with no current rider having more than a single BSB title to his name, his place at the forefront of the sport's history is secure.
So, what keeps him going?
'I Dream of Being a World Champion'
Shakey Byrne after winning five world titlesEurosport
It can be tedious trying to pull apart the strands of someone’s motivation, attempting to pinpoint what makes them great. There is no universal elixir that can be distilled. But sport is littered with examples of teams and athletes who reach the pinnacle of their discipline only to come tumbling rapidly down the other side of the mountain. In the past 12 months alone, Leicester’s form nosedived after they won the Premier League and Novak Djokovic imploded after realising a life’s ambition of winning the ‘career slam’ in Paris. So Byrne’s lasting success and incomparable record in BSB legitimises the search for that elusive formula.
The 1993 British Superbikes champion James Whitham has followed Byrne's career for 20 years, since the man from Kent turned his head in a televised race while riding one of his old machines after he had stepped up to World Superbikes. Byrne is an oddity for many reasons, he notes, partly because he is a family man, unlike many of the younger, single riders on the circuit.
"He’s really good for the sport and is his own man," says Whitham. "He’s at an age where he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to any more. He’s not trying to impress anyone, only his family."
But, crucially, that fearlessness remains. “I like to see a rider who is prepared to do something a little bit daft," adds Whitham, "it’s part of the job. You can be as experienced as you want but what we all love about the sport is taking the odd risk. Sometimes it will go wrong and you have to be prepared for that but he is doing it. And in my book it’s an admirable quality. You might get his wife saying something different though!”
Bird has a more prosaic, jokey, explanation for the lasting hunger – "he needs to earn a living, he’s a big spender, so I’m sure he hasn’t got enough to finish his life off without having a job!” – while Byrne's first thoughts turn to his children, Zack, eight, and five-year-old Lilly.
“Lilly hates all my rivals and Zack wants everybody off the track”, laughs Byrne. “So I have quite a lot to answer for if I don’t win a race!”
But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that there are still big targets he is aiming for, still huge reasons for him to ride.
“I don’t want to stop racing one day and in five minutes someone becomes more successful,” he admits. “Realistically it’s going to be five or six years before anyone can top what I’ve achieved. But at the same time I’d like to make that 15 years or something – a big number so that I can always stay involved in the sport and the name will always be there and I will always be the most successful guy.
" I don’t want to stop racing one day and in five minutes someone becomes more successful"
And then there’s the one that got away. Following his success in 2003, Byrne incredibly won two World Superbikes races as a wild card entry at Brands Hatch to give Monstermob its first World Championship successes. He stepped straight up into MotoGP but had two seasons where he struggled with injury and poor bikes from the back of the grid before returning to BSB.
The performances didn't reflect his talent and it is still a scratch Byrne would like to itch:
"I’ve won five titles and a privateer title – so six in superbikes. But I’d swap them all for one World Superbikes title. Ultimately I dream of being a world champion. Realistically I’ve turned 40 so people look at it and say ‘he’s a bit older now, how much longer is he going to want to carry on?’ But they’ve never asked that of Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa or Troy Bayliss when they were winning WSB titles. I firmly believe I could still win a world championship. But I’m realistic enough to know that you can’t win a WSB title without a manufacturer behind you. So I’m going to try and stretch the envelope in this championship."
His rivals have been warned, and betting against Byrne would be folly. The next corner is the focus, the past is done and worrying about it is a waste of time.
“You could spend your whole life looking back and wondering what should have or could have happened," he says, discussing why he never found out who his biological parents were. "I don’t do that, I like focusing on what is in front of me.”
He’s right. After all, there are no rear-view mirrors on a superbike.
Illustration by Dave Will