Why read when you can ride? Put simply, I read for motivation and inspiration - they ride so much better than we do. You can see what they do on the bikes on TV but not why they do it, and what it takes behind the scenes. Not that any of these books are fully frank, the riders are public sportsmen so their image is carefully cultivated by their representatives and for the benefit of their sponsors.
The book about Valentino Rossi is written by a journalist so is in the third person in the style of a long article in Motorcycle News; Boorman’s and Rutter’s are written by the rider with an associate writer, ie ghost writer, and are the better for the professional writer’s input. Charley Boorman’s style is at once intimate, biker to biker, but with the polish (and thus detachment) of a TV documentary voice-over. It’s easy to imagine Michael Rutter telling his tales over a few pints in a Manx pub, tidying them up for publication and making a nice book with it all in for his grandchildren and fans.
Bike racer books are written by and about the winners (as with history) but thank goodness: motorbike racing is a cruel sport; the racer is only ever one accident away from being totally deprived of his greatest passion, mobility and income. The stories of the winners are hair-raising enough, it’s not entertaining or motivating to read of those who don’t make it, although in practice the less successful racers retire or move in to other areas of motorcycle sport.
These riders’ books cover the period in between the popularity of 1970s icons like Barry Sheene, when it wasn’t necessary to train in a gym to race bikes, to the dawn of the current era of high tech electronic engine control when the top level riders train as much as elite athletes as well as honing their riding skills between races. I’m sure one or two of the riders who have block-passed me on cols of the Alps have been racers riding on the road for pleasure, as do I, but professional racers increasingly can’t do that because of the risks and their commitments to testing, publicity, fitness and riding skills programmes.
I’ve enjoyed reading all three books. Both for the pleasure of riding vicariously with someone far better at it than I am but also to gain an insight on the mindset of these successful racers. I’m not sure it’s an entirely happy place, although they hardly mention the times feeling very down, the hours in the gym and on physiotherapy following fractures; none of them cover simply what it feels like to loose a big time race, again. These books show the riders as simply bouncing back and trying again but it can’t be that simple. There are books on sports psychology but that’s mostly about athletes and footballers, not how to control and harness the addictive nature of extreme speed and power on two wheels and the thrill of winning.
Nor really is there any technical stuff about the bikes, or the relationships between the rider and mechanics. Commercial and team secrets I guess. Nor anything about the detailed technicalities of how to ride fast and very little detail about the developments of the bikes over the years. But with these guys their success clearly follows from riding as a teenager. A Dad who has raced is clearly an immense help too.
What you do get from these biographies are descriptions of the practicalities of racing motorbikes, the stuff you hardly see on TV race coverage or documentaries. There’s almost no good TV on the Dakar race when it was in Africa, there’s helicopter footage but not the nitty-gritty grind, race-day after race-day of stages of hundreds of kilometres on sand which Boorman and his team take the reader through. And until very recently the coverage of the Isle of Man TT has been limited to highlights. MotoGP television has dallied with current riders’ recreations and social media has opened that up as well, but essentially the racers’ recreations remain off limits, even in these biographies.
Rossi remains the most charismatic of these racers but also the most mythical and remote. He speaks most strongly on the track, and more recently through establishing his race riders college that is pushing new VR46 riders to the top of the profession. Boorman is a communicator as well as an accomplished rider, and Rutter has the balls to race and win the TT many times.
Not a lot of pictures in any of them (Rutter’s has the most) but all three books are good reads you could give to a biker as a present.
Note that I’ve bought my own copies, no pay-per-click either.
Valentino Rossi: The Definitive Biography (2020)
by Stuart Barker
ISBN-13 : 978-1789462951
Race To Dakar (2006)
by Charley Boorman
ISBN-13 : 978-0316731928
Michael Rutter: The Life of a Racer (2020)
by Michael Rutter
ISBN-13 : 978-1789631166