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SPOKES: Remembering the great Barry Sheene

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Written by Staff Writer   
Monday, 04 March 2013 17:22

Image by Jamie Dwelly.

I was just a kid when Barry Sheene was at the peak of his success, he had his first GP win at Assen in 1975 when I was just 6, previously, the same year, he had the first of two nearly fatal accidents, a 180 mph crash testing at Daytona on his 500cc Suzuki following a rear wheel lockup.

The result was a broken collarbone, thigh, arm, a bunch of ribs – basically everything you could barbecue. Sheene was famous before the crash, but it could be argued that the Daytona incident was the making of him. Now everyone knew who Barry Sheene was, not just because he’d survived such a horrific ordeal but the way he recovered from it. Far from moaning or bleating about his injuries, Sheene seemed almost proud of them and received the media with grins and self-deprecating jokes, but he was far from flippant when it came to safety.

Period footage shows just how far we’ve come on since the ’70s. All the riders look eggshell vulnerable in paper-thin one-piece suits, perfunctory gloves (honestly, Sheene wore Marigolds when it was wet) and helmets you wouldn’t give to modern cyclist. Modern MotoGP safety is, in part, down to Sheene himself. In 1975 he famously headed a campaign to boycott Nurburgring after complaining about a lack of straw bales – which is somewhat ironic when you consider the dynamics of a straw bale – and worked closely with Dainese in the development of back protectors after his Daytona accident.

Meanwhile he’d became a pinup, literally, for boys and girls alike. Advertising contacts rolled in, he began to rub shoulders with the great and good, in 1976/77, at the height of his fame, you’d see him on TV and in the papers more off his bike than on, and he made no secret of the fact that he was having a whale of a time. In some way I had mixed feelings about this. He was my hero and I didn’t really want to share him with silly little girls preoccupied by his good looks and the sorts of boys that would do nothing but harp-on about football and space wars. Sheene rode motorcycles; the rest of the package attracting my little mates wasn’t the point. The fact he was a certified dude was a happy coincidence as far as I was concerned. The Sheene I idolized was the one racing.

In 1976 Sheene became world champion for the first time and again in 1977, but it was the battles in 1979 with Kenny Roberts, his greatest rival, that I recall the most vividly. These were violent, hair-raising races that I’d imagine Dorna, the body that oversees modern MotoGP, would be less than impressed by. These bikes were unencumbered by electronic trickery and state-of-the-art rubber, and while the skill goes without saying, the sense of trust and respect for your racing colleagues is worth citing.

Astonishingly Sheene left his Suzuki team, with whom he’d become synonymous, in 1980 and went private with Yamaha. It was a courageous move but backfired because of a lack of cohesion which, among other things, resulted in a dearth of spares. Despite having a win the following year in the last race of the season, Sheene would never repeat the success of the ’70s. By then he was a successful businessman; richer than Croesus and as famous as his best pal George Harrison. But this didn’t automatically mean his was ready to hang up his helmet just yet.

In 1982 Sheene had his second near-death accident when his bike hit another motorcycle, the result of a previous incident, during practice at the British Grand Prix. Following an explosion, flames and an aftermath described as “like an air crash” by one fellow rider, Sheene lay motionless less under smoking leathers with everyone expecting the worst. Amazingly, his injuries weren’t quite as extensive as the Daytona accident. His left wrist was smashed to pieces and both legs required scaffolding to hold them together, but Sheene was to spend less than a month in the hospital. While being typically jovial about what had happened in front of mass newspaper coverage featuring x-rays of his broken pinned-up legs, Sheene’s bike racing career had effectively come to an end.

In 1983 Sheene was back with Suzuki (in circumstances similar to those of Rossi and Yamaha, which speak volumes) but, following one final GP podium at the start of his final professional season in ’84, he retired.

By this time MotoGP was a very different sport to the one he’d entered, more akin to the forthcoming season than the push-start days at the beginning of Sheene’s career. For me, too, his departure from the sport was sufficient to cause a break from MotoGP, I was happier to focus on classic or club racing until returning to the professional classes in the late ’90s.

After retiring Sheene divided his time between his homes in the UK and Australia with his family, where he found the latter climate more suited to alleviating the constant pain in his legs. He dabbled with car and truck racing, became a racing commentator and lived the jet-set lifestyle of a man enjoying all the trappings of his enormous success. Occasionally the old Barry would pop up on a circuit to undertake a spot of classic bike racing.

It was during an excursion to the Goodwood Revival with my dad in 2002 I saw Sheene’s last ever race, not that I knew it at the time. I’d heard rumors that he was suffering from cancer but Sheene’s attitude was so defiant in the face of the disease it didn’t seem plausible. The fact he won the race to the adulation of the crowds, myself included, and passed by on his victory lap without his helmet, waving, grinning ... well.

He’d been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus a few months earlier, likely from all those filterless Gitanes he was so fond of smoking. The man who’d sidestepped death twice refused treatment. He simply didn’t believe it would get him.

Keeping track of time isn’t one of my best qualities. The dual clichés of “when did that happen/where did it go?” are so commonplace in my lexical choice I should seriously consider inventing a sound, or movement, where I can convey either/or sentiment without wasting precious breath.

Mostly, these are fairly mundane realizations, such as forgetting, then suddenly remembering, the amount of time since graduation, or the last time you had a drink with a friend. But every so often one will spin you over and force you to see things from a different perspective, usually when the former realization meets another seemingly abstract aspect of human perception.

"Explosante-fixe," (literally, an explosion-fixed) is the cessation of motion of something that should, or would, be in motion. It’s a phrase invented by the founder of the surrealists, Andre Breton, to describe a part of what he termed "Convulsive Beauty."

Explosante-fixe suggests that, for the sake of this argument, every nonmoving motorcycle is “surreal,” and while this may seem a ludicrous suggestion to those who instantly think of melting clocks, lobster telephones et al, it’s worth considering this: A parked motorcycle is so overtly ergonomic (a car wouldn’t fall over of its own accord when not moving, for example) it’s almost impossible to look at it without automatically projecting the human form into the empty space, therefore, by simply looking at a stationary motorcycle your mind is inviting you to see movement that doesn’t exist.

And what if the motorcycle belonged to someone you know, or more pertinently, knew? In addition to the weirdness of explosante-fixe the machine has taken on additional signifiers far greater than the sum of its parts, it transmogrifies into a totem, a fetish, to the person who once owned it. It’s no longer any old human being that is noticeable by his absence but a real person onto which are attached real emotions. So when at the London Bike Show I stumbled across a bunch of motorcycles that had been ridden by the late, great Barry Sheene, at the exact instant I realized they were his bikes, empty. I noticed the commemoration, 10th anniversary of his passing, which forced my tiny mind-clock to wonder who wound it last.

Happening across all this, at once, without warning, was literally surreal – not the previously cited tabloid version that has as much to do with the movement as I do show-jumping- the real, occasionally awful, fundamental heart of it.

Once I’d calmed down I took some some time to reflect on the situation, I shot some pictures and decided that, once home, I’d attempt to provide some sort of backdrop to my fascination with Sheene and why my encounter with his bikes, and the un-encounter with him, was so profound.

Barry’s 10th anniversary is on March 10. Should you remember that on the day, please acknowledge his having been here.

Toodle pip.


Image by Jamie Dwelly. 

Image by Jamie Dwelly. 

Image by Jamie Dwelly. 


Last Updated on Friday, 15 November 2013 14:35

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