Only moments ago, Guy Martin was racing a top-end motorbike at 200mph on public roads in front of ecstatic crowds. You wouldn’t know it, though, back in the safety of his team truck where a wide-eyed Martin holds out an open sandwich bag filled with his mum’s home-baked scones. “Do you want one?” He tears a scone in half and dunks it into a jar of homemade rhubarb jam. His hands and body still seem to be vibrating slightly, but, from the shoulders up, all is calm and controlled.
“This should all be about Alastair Seeley,” Martin says of his Tyco BMW teammate, his machine-gun Humberside chatter tuned to its most dogmatic. “But no, it’s all about some bulls–t I’ve come out with. That’s what everyone’s talking about!” He’s not wrong.
Martin is in Northern Ireland for the North West 200 road race, and his diminutive teammate is cleaning up. But all the back pages seem to care about are Martin’s comments on live TV the previous day. Frustrated by a series of chicanes designed to curb ever-increasing speeds, he branded the track “boring”. Additional safety isn’t top of Martin’s list of concerns. He just wants to ride as fast as his wits and his BMW S1000RR can carry him.
It’s a brave man who criticises the North West 200. In Ireland, road racing is a serious business; it’s in the blood. The North West 200 – so named because when it launched in 1929, North-west Ireland was its intended location and 200 miles its distance – is the jewel in the crown and, in terms of UK road racing as a whole, second only to the infamous Isle Of Man TT. Its 9-mile circuit links Coleraine and the coastal towns of Portrush and Portstewart via closed public roads. Throughout the week, qualifying and practice sessions take place sporadically before the police reopen the route to allow school runs and the rest of everyday rural life to trickle on.
For a big-name racer like Martin, Saturday is business time, with a hectic schedule of up to five races across three classes of bike. That’s three different bikes to individually tune and adjust for a track that’s so big that it could be raining at one corner and bone dry at the next. The sixth-gear Station Corner kinks right at 150mph and, wind permitting, speeds have reached 208mph on the back straight. Here, white lines, cat’s eyes, manhole covers, potholes, kerbs, walls and buildings are simply referred to as ‘furniture’.
Riders travel thousands of miles to be part of the action. “In Brazil, everyone knows Guy Martin, John McGuinness, all the famous racers,” says Rafael Paschoalin, his bottom lip oscillating as the freezing cold North Atlantic wind blows in off the cliffs just a few feet behind him. He’s travelled to the Northern Irish coast from his native São Paulo via London, where he procured his new Yamaha YZF-R1 bike, some parts and an old van. His bike sits behind him, purring on its axle stands. “There’s no road racing in Brazil,” says Paschoalin, “so I’m really happy to be here.”
This despite the fact that for all its high-octane thrills, road racing – one of the world’s most dangerous sports – presents just as many risks. A three-bike collision during the second lap of today’s Superstock race sees the riders airlifted to hospital, along with a spectator injured in the aftermath. At these speeds, the margin for error is agonisingly thin. As the choppers circulate and a convoy of emergency response vehicles streams past, the grid reforms. The riders pop open their visors and wait stoically, but eventually the race is red-flagged.
Guy Martin is possibly the only man on the planet who could describe this track as boring. This says a lot about his mood, which can shift as quickly as his bike’s gears, and also his freedom to give an honest opinion – a rarity in this age of PR domination. But more interestingly, it demonstrates his overriding passion for speed and an acceptance of the danger that comes with it. This is what has made Guy Martin bigger than bike racing. Although he still works full-time as a truck mechanic in his hometown of Grimsby and visibly recoils when the word ‘celebrity’ is used, that is exactly what he has become.
Martin exploded into the consciousness of a wider audience as the star of the docu-movie TT3D: Closer To The Edge, which followed his attempt to win the Isle Of Man TT in 2010. It ended in heartbreak after Martin was hit with a timing infringement, but his enthusiasm and passion for racing and speed, along with engineering, mountain biking (he races in his spare time) and motor vehicles of all varieties, proved infectious. At the age of 33, the TT win still eludes Martin, but his mainstream appeal now transcends the world of bike racing.
Since 2013, TV viewers have seen him rebuild a Spitfire plane, break a British speed record by pedalling a bike at 112.94mph behind a truck, and conquer America’s classic hill race Pike’s Peak on a motorbike he built from scratch, all in his own series. Meanwhile, his autobiography sits on supermarket shelves alongside Justin Bieber’s.
His northern feet still firmly on the ground, Martin views this new-found fame as more of a hindrance than a privilege. Virtually every free minute during the week in Northern Ireland has been spent hidden in the back of his team truck. “This year will be my last TT,” he says matter-of-factly as he manoeuvres a particularly reluctant lump of rhubarb out of the jar. “At least I think it is. I’m not sure yet. The team knows I don’t want to do press launches. They know I don’t want to take anyone’s money. But [being well-known] takes away from it a lot.
It’s just hard, because every single person wants something all of the time. When I drove back from the TT last year, I asked myself, ‘Did I enjoy that?’ And I knew that of course I bloody didn’t. That’s not because of the team – this is the best team I’ve ever ridden for – but because of everything else. They’re my fans and I’m not ungrateful for that, but I’m here to ride my bike, and the attention can make it difficult to keep your head on the job.”
Motorcycling has been a constant in Guy’s life from an early age. “Christmas Day, 1985,” he recalls. “That was when I first rode a motorbike. I was four and I rode it straight into the rose garden!” He laughs and winces slightly at the memory. “My dad raced, you see, so it was never really a conscious decision. I rode motorbikes – that’s what I did.” Martin entered his first road race in 1999, and success eventually came in the form of victories at Oliver’s Mount in Scarborough.
“I’m pretty much immune to the speed of racing now,” he says, taking another scone. “You build up to it; at the North West you’re pretty immune to it, and then by the end of the TT you’re fine. To me now, the speed is nothing terrifying. It’s just what you do.”
While others accept danger as a necessary evil of the sport, Martin thrives on the level of skill required to deal with the high stakes. “The big appeal of road racing over circuit racing is the danger,” he says. “It’s a big part of it. You have to be so committed to the fast corners. That’s what I like. I had the biggest crash of my life here in 2012. I still don’t know what happened. I’ve had a lot of crashes, but not many where I genuinely don’t know what went on. That was the worst. But I always want to come back.”
On the grid of the big-ticket Superbike race, Michael Rutter, one of the most successful men ever to throw a leg over a motorcycle at the North West 200, sits on his BMW. He’s staring at Martin through the surrounding throng, which consists of busy mechanics, a scrum of media in fluoro bibs, and a cluster of selfie-hungry fans.
The grid clears amid whistles and shouts from the marshals. After a sighting lap, they reform and wait for the red lights to go out as the revs rise. The noise is incredible. The lights disappear. A sheer metallic rasp erupts, caught on the wind as the first wave of riders disappear towards Portstewart.
A number of them battle to keep their front wheels on the ground as bikes try to rear up and rotate themselves backwards under the strain of transmitting power to tarmac. Gunshot-like cracks echo back up from the first proper braking zone at the York Corner hairpin as unburnt fuel ignites on already red-hot exhausts. Martin finishes the Superbike race seventh – 14 seconds behind the winner, Seeley, but 30 ahead of the chasing pack.
“What do I see myself doing in five years’ time?” he says, back in the sanctuary of the motorhome, as he runs his cragged knuckles through the trademark mop of thick brown hair, cup of milky tea in hand. “My job. Truck mechanic.” He smiles. “I want to take on the company I work for.” This might be a surprising answer given the opportunities for sponsorship, fame and a television career, but Martin means it. This is the man who once said the satisfaction of getting a truck a 100 per cent MOT pass was a greater thrill than any bike race.
“I’m OK,” he says. “I’ve never lived like a bloody rock star or anything. I’ve got a Volvo estate and a Transit van – they’re my toys. I just like messing about in my shed and putting turbos on stuff. That’s it, really.”
Despite the sun emerging for its longest appearance of the day, strong winds are forcing huge white waves onto nearby cliffs, leading to the cancellation of the second and final Superbike race. Martin leaves the pits on his mountain bike, in jeans and a hoodie, towing a suitcase. This may well be the last the North West 200 sees of him. But with Guy Martin, you never can tell.