Dave Taylor: The Original Wheelie King
Every year, the Isle of Man TT course offers a chance for motorbike racers to ride a gnarly 200mph tightrope.
Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, stunt rider Dave Taylor took on the course in a different way. The wiry, bespectacled South Londoner made it his mission to take on the 37.73-mile, 250-plus corner behemoth on just one wheel.
After all, Dave had a billing to live up to: he was known as The Wheelie King.
When it comes to stunt riding, Evel Knievel is arguably the guy. His audacious exploits nearly half a century ago created a global thirst for death-defying stunts, and Dave Taylor became a key player in this zeitgeist. Unlike the Star-Spangled bravado of Knievel, Taylor’s approach to stunts in the 1970s was spectacular, but also inverted and socially conscious. His stunts had a message.
Former Grand Prix rider and British Champion Steve Parrish was a man forged in that devil-may-care decade. He crossed paths with Taylor on many a race weekend.
“[Stunt riding] is such a massively different skill [to road racing],” says Parrish. “We used to go around circuits fast with our knees down. But guys like Dave were doing things I couldn’t believe.
“He was one of the first, what I would call, ‘proper’ stunt guys. Back then, you were either a trials rider or a road racer and very few made a living out of doing stunts. Dave was one of the pioneers.”
Born into a blitzed South London, Taylor ended up working in the print industry. The job bored him terribly, so he bought a 125cc bike and took up trials riding in his spare time.
After developing an uncanny knack for pulling wheelies, Taylor was spotted by a stunt promoter and was soon earning big money performing in front of thousands.
“He went everywhere,” affirms Dave’s son Gary Taylor, himself an ex-bike racer. “Spa, the Nürburgring, Zandvoort, the British Grand Prix, Misano, Monza, the North West 200… he even went to Finland.”
Writer and photographer Paul Blezard met Taylor in 1980, and the pair became friends.
“Dave earned his money,” Paul remembers. “He would jump off the back of his XS2 650 Yamaha at 80mph and do a whole lap of a GP circuit at high speed on steel shoes. He’d be tucked down so well behind the bike that the marshals would sometimes think he had fallen off. Then he’d climb a ladder and ‘fly’ eight feet in the air [and finally finish by doing] a handstand with his feet resting on a T-bar.”
Mythology is key to sport, especially motorsport. Some of Dave Taylor’s supernatural skills are a Google search away, but what he attempted on the Isle of Man – wheeling an entire lap of the track – isn’t. And it’s become an irresistible legend.
A trawl of internet message boards reveals multiple hearsay:
“I think it was 1976 and I think it was on an XT500 Yamaha. I think he dropped the front wheel once over Ballaugh Bridge,” says one user. While another chips in, “Think he did it on a YZ465 in the ‘70s – saw him do it again in 1993.”
So what is the truth?
“In 1978 he was down to do a proper Guinness Book of Records-endorsed lap on one wheel, but it never happened,” confirms Gary Taylor. “I think it is safe to say that my dad never made it round on one lap. He actually attempted it every year between 1976 and 1980 and always rode a two-stroke Yamaha. He came closest to completing the course on one wheel in 1977, but we can’t officially say he completed an entire lap on one wheel.”
Behind Taylor’s balletic performances lay a message.
As a carefree 19-year-old café racer hooning around the lanes of Kent, he witnessed the deaths of two close friends. The loss provoked him to devote his life to improving road safety. Dave visited schools all over the UK and spread his message with a very simple technique. First, he wowed kids with his skills; then, with respect fully earned, he outlined the dangers.
His crusade earned him cameos on Blue Peter, celebrity endorsements, several rides across Africa and an MBE for services to road safety.
However, Taylor wasn’t done with his one-wheeled exploits. In 1993 he returned to the Isle of Man to repeat his wheelie attempt for the Riders for Health charity.
Just a few weeks before his return, he fell off his bike during filming for a Top Gear feature and fractured his wrist. But Taylor’s health issues went much deeper than mere broken bones; he was living with cancer of the stomach, diagnosed nearly a decade previously. Defying doctors with a mixture of grit and what his daughter Katie attributes to ‘mind over matter’, he summoned the strength to make a final pass at the fearsome Isle of Man circuit.
In between races at the 1993 Isle of Man TT, on a Honda CR500 with a left-foot brake, locked-up rear suspension and a motor fitted to the front wheel to aid stability, Taylor revisited his late 1970s heyday; he was the Wheelie King once more.
“In 1993, I was following him on the lap,” remembers Gary Taylor, pictured left on his dad’s tail. “We planned to cruise at 65-70mph, but he kept on overtaking me and he didn’t drop a wheel until we reached Ramsey to scrub off speed!”
At the 34-mile mark, averaging between 50-60mph, a rear brake link broke, undermining the effort. Undeterred, Dave carried on and pulled the front up to majestically wheelie across the start-finish line.
“We can’t say he wheelied a complete lap, and a lot of that was to do with never having anyone officially recording the attempt,” adds Gary. “I’m pretty sure if there was, he would have put in the effort and made sure he did it without putting a wheel down.”
However much rubber did or didn’t touch the Manx tarmac isn’t really the issue. Dave Taylor did things on two wheels and away from the bike unrivalled to this day. His dedication to road safety, his abilities as a rider and his defiance of medical odds place him on the same plinth as the Barry Sheenes and the Evel Knievels of this world.
In August 1996, after more than a decade battling stomach cancer, Dave Taylor MBE passed away. He was 53. Long live The Wheelie King.
12-time World Trials Champion Dougie Lampkin is set to follow in Dave’s tyreprints this September. Follow Dougie’s Wheelie live on Red Bull TV here.