Author: Oli Rushby Pics: Pacemaker Press, Tony Goldsmith, Tim Keeton Posted: 18 Dec 2015
The Isle of Man TT is often referred to as the most gruelling race in the world. The ultimate test of man and machine. Like no other race.
A racer competing in the Superbike, Superstock, Supersport and Senior races at the TT will rack up over 900 miles of the demanding mountain course in race week alone.
In comparison, during a British Superbike race weekend at Silverstone (the longest circuit on the calendar) riders will cover approximately 330 miles across practice, qualifying and the two races in a weekend.
While both entail riding a motorcycle as fast as physically possible in order to achieve the best result, the way riders approach each event, both mentally and physically, couldn’t be more different.
28-year-old Peter Hickman made his name as a short circuit man before making his debut on the roads last year. Despite his little experience, he soon became someone to watch on the road racing scene as well as a British Superbike race winner.
After obliterating the fastest ever lap of the TT course by a newcomer last year, Hickman insisted there was no pressure on his shoulders as he entered his second season on the roads. Little did he expect to walk away with a brace of top ten results and a fastest lap of 131.626mph at the TT plus wins at the Ulster Grand Prix and in Macau.
“It’s been a mega season really, two international wins, top five at the TT in Superstock, top seven in the Senior, top eight in the Superbike and all on a stocker,” he said talking to Bike Social. I also ventured out on a 600 for the first time in 12 years which I’d not even ridden until I headed down Bray Hill on it and that ended up alright too."
On top of his success on the roads, Hickman also enjoyed a positive season in the British Superbike Championship taking three podiums and finishing ninth overall in the series despite breaking several vertebrae in a 150mph horror crash at Oulton Park.
We asked Peter whether his preparation for racing the roads is any different to how he’d prepare for a British Superbike weekened…
“I approach a road race in a different way to what I’d approach a short circuit race but what you’ve got to bear in mind is that this is only my second year on the roads,” he explained. “I didn’t really consider myself in a position to go and win things or put myself under pressure to win. I might have won two races but that’s by the by; I went into both of those races without putting any pressure on myself and just rode how I saw fit.
“Maybe the other riders who have been doing it a long time approach it knowing that they need to be winning, or need to be on the podium, and put more pressure on themselves so my approach might be different to theirs.
“I’m very relaxed on the roads but I’m also relaxed at BSB. There’s a lot more pressure and a lot more focus in some respects at BSB. The riding is very different. For me, the road riding is very relaxed. I’ve been quoted as saying it's ‘easy’ in the past but I didn’t really mean that; it’s a different style of riding which I find easier than short circuit racing, but I don’t think easy is the right word!"
One of the biggest differences between road racing and short circuit racing is the level of risk. Motorcycle racing in general can be dangerous, we know that, but generally speaking, if you crash at Brands Hatch or Silverstone you are likely to walk away in a better condition than you would if you crashed at the TT. Is this why the riding is so different?
“Yes and no,” Hickman tells us. “It’s more the nature of the circuits. Even if the TT was a short circuit you would ride it very similar to how you ride it now. Because the corners are so fast you don’t ride how you’d ride on a short circuit and the grip levels are obviously much different as it’s a road not a purpose-built track.
“Sometimes you ride that same way on short circuits. At Thruxton the corners are so fast so you tend to let off the brakes a bit earlier to tip it in and that’s exactly how you ride at the TT. Where you see short circuit racers doing particularly well on the roads is at somewhere like the North West where it’s all about braking really late. That’s where the road riders tend to struggle against the short circuit riders as short circuit riders are used to braking late and hard before dropping into the apex. That’s why you’ll see the likes of Alastair Seeley going well over there."
He continues: “I don’t really think about the risk. I am aware of it as I’m sure everyone is. However, you do not go road racing with the mind-set of ‘I can’t crash’, you just don’t put yourself under pressure to ride too hard and instead let the circuit and bike come to you.
In my first two nights at the TT this year my bike was all over the place, we didn’t get the set-up right and it tried to kill me everywhere. I could have got really frustrated with it, gritted my teeth and forced it to do what I wanted it to do but I chose to relax a bit, think about it more, change the set-up and tried to understand why it was behaving in that way.
“If the bike was doing similar things on the short circuits you’d probably grit your teeth a bit more and get on with it if you can’t find your way around it.
“You get a lot less time on track at the short circuits. At a BSB event you actually don’t do that many laps meaning you don’t get a lot of time on the bike. Whereas the TT is two weeks long so you’ve got loads of time, loads of space and you can get away from the other riders. A lot of the time you don’t even see other riders on the circuit because it’s so big. That’s definitely a good thing and it means you can approach it differently.
“Because the roads style of riding is more relaxed you’re not on the edge as much as you are on a short circuit. On a short circuit, you have to be braking as late as possible, on the edge of the tyre and close to crashing nearly every corner. You don’t ride like that on the roads.
Fitness is a topic that often comes up when comparing road racing to short circuits. Top British Superbike racers both train and eat like elite athletes but hauling a 200bhp, 170kg superbike around the 37.73-mile mountain course isn’t exactly effortless. However, Hickman reckons the intensiveness of short circuit racing means you have to be fitter on the whole.
“In some respects you do have to be fitter to races short circuits. It depends how you ride, put [John] McGuinness on a short circuit these days and he’s not that quick but put him on the line for the Senior TT, which is still very, very hard, and he can do it fine.
“On the roads you aren’t wrestling the bike as much as you are on the short circuits and you get a lot of big long breaks at somewhere like the TT. The run from Union Mills to Ballagarey gives you about 10 seconds where you can rest a bit. Yes, you’re doing ridiculous speeds, but it’s all in a straight line. It’s flat out so you don’t really have to move. It means you can relax a bit; you don’t switch off but you can catch your breath a bit.
“Nowadays on a superbike at a short circuit there is no chance of resting anywhere. Even at Snetterton, where there’s a big back straight you still don’t get a rest as you’re at the next corner in three or four seconds!”
Mental strength is hugely important in racing; to remain focussed at those kind of speeds for a considerable period of time can’t be easy whether you’re at the TT or racing in British Superbikes.
“Both are mentally demanding in different ways,” Hickman explains. “At the TT you can relax physically in certain places but you can’t relax mentally; you’ve got to be so switched on because if you make even the smallest error at 180mph it can go really wrong and the consequences are huge.
“On the short circuits you don’t get as much chance to relax so you’ve got to be switched on all the time again but for a different reason. You have no choice but to be switched on all the time whereas at the TT you have to make yourself be switched on so you don’t relax too much.”
Racing in British Superbikes and at key international road races poses a significant challenge for Hickman. He finds himself having to switch between the two different mentalities he describes in a short space of time. For example, there were British Superbike rounds the week before the North West 200 and the week after the TT this year.
“I find it easier to go from riding short circuits to the roads than I do from the roads back to short circuits,” Hickman says. “You’re so relaxed on the roads so if you then go to Snetterton, which is a really hard circuit - very physical, stop-start - you have to be really late on the brakes. After two weeks of not doing that it’s difficult to switch your brain back. That being said, I won at the Ulster and a week or so later stuck it on the podium at Cadwell!”
Hickman moves to the GBmoto Kawasaki team next season for both the roads and British Superbikes.