WorldSBK: Gutting it out – How a rider gets through the pain barrier
In motorcycle racing crashes will happen. These might be the best riders in the world but sometimes they’ll step off the tightrope of the limit and suffer the consequences. Injuries are a fact of life in racing and every rider is always carrying a knock. They suffer for their art and the aches and pains add up. Months after a crash they’ll still find it hard to get a good nights sleep. The pain adds up but so does the resolve to get back out there.
“If you’re a pussy you’re not going to go far in motorcycle racing,” is something that every rider believes. Nothing will push them to their limits like an injury and getting back out there. Some times it comes down to needing to get back on the bike to earn your next contract. Sometimes it’s to make sure you can stay in title contention. Whatever the source of this pressure the only constant is going into a pain cave and gutting it out.
During the build-up to the 2018 WorldSBK season some of the top riders in the series talked about their roads to recovery at various times during their careers. With Marc Marquez attempting what we all thought impossible just four days ago what’s it like to ride hurt?
Motorcycle racers are a different breed. Their ability to ride a bike to the limit provides one of the most awesome spectacles. The co-ordination, flexibility and sheer strength required puts them into an elite category of athlete but their ability to override their survival instinct is perhaps their greatest skill.
At the highest level of any sport it isn’t the level of talent that separates competitors it’s their mental make-up. For any elite athlete availability is arguably their most important ability. Availability in racing comes from gutting it out and forcing yourself to get on the bike when every instinct says “the pain is too much!” Being able to compartmentalise pain is what separates the great from the good.
“Recovering from injury is the most boring thing you can do,” Leon Camier said. “You’re limited in what you can do but you have to do as much work as you can with the physio. Typically for injuries it’s about trying to get movement back. You need to work hard and push yourself because if you wait and do nothing it’ll take a long time to get better from most injuries.
“I’ve always been able to recover from injury really fast. I’ve broken a lot of bones including my femur and pelvis in 2007 but I did that just before the end of the season. That gave me plenty of time to recover but I once broke my foot really badly. I had internal rods, external fixators and screws and everything. I went to five or six doctors trying to find one that could help me. All of them told me it would be impossible to even put weight on it so racing was out of the question.
“I had four weeks after the accident to get ready to race again. The foot was smashed into pieces but I got the rods removed after two weeks. I was back training and finished third in a 120km bike race the following week and then went to the race weekend! Doctors told me I was an idiot that I’d never be fit to race in that time frame but you can do it if you do the work.”
The common denominator for all successful recoveries is a positive approach mentally. If you get mired in the pain you’re on the back foot for your recovery.
“If you’re a pussy you’re not going to go far in this sport,” assessed Eugene Laverty. “When you’re riding through an injury your mentality is the key to fighting through it. I’ve always thought determination is the most important thing for a rider and I never want to quit. There’s time when you get injured and you know that you have to race in a couple of hours or race the next day and that’s where your mindset really is key.
“It comes down to how much do you want it? Sometimes you need to take an injection but that determination is needed in this sport. If you see a determined rider crash they’re always running to the bike straight away. Sam or Alex Lowes are so determined and after any crash, no matter how big it is, they’re looking for the bike as they slide and straight away they’re on their feet. That’s a racer and that’s the kind of guy that I respect.”
For Lowes the ability to understand the difference between being injured and being hurt is key. The battle of mind over matter can’t always be won.
“Injuries are always tough for riders because you want to gut it out and try and get back on the bike,” Alex Lowes explained. “Typically you can try and ride through an injury because in most cases it’s in the mind. You just focus on the job at hand and fight through the pain. You still feel it and in the second half of races you start to get tired and tight and you miss a few apexes. Depending on the injury you can’t keep the pace you want to keep.
“I’d class that as being hurt; you can gut it out and get through it even though you’re not at your best. Being injured is when you’re forced to sit out races. I remember in 2016 I had a lot of injuries-I fractured my shoulder in winter testing, broke a collarbone at Sepang and bashed up my ankle in a MotoGP crash-but the worst pain was having to sit out my home race at Donington.
“I tried to ride on Friday but it was too painful. If you’re not fit to race you just can’t do it. When you’re hurt it’s gut check time; can you do it? Most times you can but sometimes even motorbike racers know not to race!”
Gutting it out can be a double edged sword. Riders are almost constantly banged up and refuse to publicise the extent of their pain. We laud their ability to ride through a serious injury but in most cases the cumulative effect of smaller injuries can have a more lasting impact.
“Mentally it’s very difficult to keep racing while you’re recovering from injuries,” continued Lowes. “You’re rehabbing while trying to block out what some of the media are saying about you. They don’t understand how you’re feeling because all they see are your results. Sometimes you keep racing even though you’re actually quite badly hurt. You’re the only person that knows how you feel and if you can lie in bed after a race, whether you’re fit or injured, and know that you’ve ridden your balls off that’s always been enough for me.”