Robin Miller: Is cycling an extreme sport?

TT and roads

Image: Impact Images

Is motorcycle racing an extreme sport? Many people, including the governing bodies, see it as too dangerous and are trying to make it safe, or at least safer.

No one would dare argue against it, and the organizers of the TT, a race known as the world’s most dangerous race, are doing everything they can to further their risk reduction efforts. Quite unlike many years ago when they put all the responsibility on the driver by saying “The throttle works both ways”.

But despite all the “improvements” made to many circuits, especially in Europe, it remains an extreme sport, much less because of the “furniture” and much more because of the amount of bikes going faster than ever.

That’s the appeal, just like watching John McGuinness wrestle his 200hp superbike down Bray Hill at a speed of no less than 200mph, even the most die-hard observers have recoiled while newcomers can’t believe their eyes.

And even Estoril WorldSBK had fans gasping in disbelief as they witnessed dozens of bikes, their fairings colliding in 150-50mph brake battles to get around turn one and the rest.

And all three Superbike races are no longer a procession of three or four riders, maybe even five, going head-to-head with competing brands and taking risks rarely seen in recent years to win the championship. And unlike MotoGP we have British riders led by Jonathan Rea, certainly one of the best we’ve produced capable of being on that podium.

Extreme sport or maybe just spectacular, the question remains why World Superbikes or MotoGP doesn’t attract the level of audience or media coverage, except maybe in countries like Spain or Italy which are anywhere near as high as F1.

And yet, even when non-bikers catch a glimpse of such amazing two-wheeler battles, they are often stunned by the antics of the riders on these 200-mile rockets.

As riders in four-wheelers became largely invisible and became extremely boring along with the total dominance of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, it led to a decline in viewership. When F1 was bought by US media conglomerate Liberty Media, they realized they needed to make changes, discovering new stars and stepping up marketing with a Netflix series based on life outside the cockpit, which was hugely popular and new attracted spectators.

Drive to Survive even got horse racers to copy F1. Daily Telegraph journalist Charlie Brooks, who described F1 as “the world’s most boring sport” before the change of ownership, suggests that national chase races in particular, i.e. races over the jumps, should copy what Netflix has done for F1 , by not making people in racing look nice or enormously talented but shed some light on what was really going on, the rivalries on every row of the grid. He cites an F1 incident when Fernando Alonso, having just crashed his car, asked his McLaren teammates (the film crew) if they needed to be here now? “The answer was that they did! Speaking of horse racing, Brooks adds, “It would also be fascinating to better understand the hardship and bravery of the jockeys, the extraordinary injuries they are recovering from, and the cruelty of the starvation diets some of them live on.”

The Isle of Man is giving motorcycle racing organizers a lead by recognizing that its viewer base is local and narrow and to survive it must promote its unique brand of racing beyond the UK. They do not describe it as an extreme sport, which is defined by the Oxford University Dictionary as “a term or reference to a sport practiced in a hazardous environment and involving a high degree of risk”. But the TT certainly falls into a category that may also include base jumping or even rugby and, on that basis, motorcycle racing even at emasculated European circuits.

Brooks’ suggestion that “Ride to Survive” was an appropriate title for horse racing should certainly apply to our sport as well. Anything labeled ‘extreme’ has its own appeal, and while motorcycle racing is a lot safer than it used to be, it’s also a lot faster and a lot closer.

The product, whether World Superbikes, MotoGP or TT, is very marketable. Full marks for a government agency, the IoM’s corporate division, that pushed the boat out.

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