The year is 2006. The must-see blockbuster at the box office is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Shakira’s famously truthful hips are all over the radio, Italy edges France on penalties to win the FIFA World Cup and Ryuichi Kiyonari secures the first of his three British Superbike Championship titles.
It is also the year a young, fresh-faced Peter Hickman rolled up for his BSB debut.
Let’s put those 16 years into a motorcycle context; In 2006, Hickman the rookie shared a grid with the likes of Gregorio Lavilla and a young upstart by the name of Jonathan Rea, John McGuinness romped to his ninth Isle of Man TT success without knowing another 14 were to follow in the ensuing years and the notion of a Title Showdown or standard ECU would have generated some baffled responses.
Still, while the details may have changed as milestones of points, podiums, poles and wins were ticked off the proverbial ‘to-do list’, the basics that led to Hickman’s maiden laps in 2006 remain the same as those that have made him one of motorcycle racing’s foremost standouts today.
“It’s a big bit of Tarmac and I’m going to race bikes around it, that’s it,” Hickman says in such a no-nonsense manner, it’s quite hard to believe he is referring to the hallowed but notorious Isle of Man TT Mountain Course, the lap record of which he holds at a rather brisk average speed of 135.452mph.
“I’m a ‘take it as it comes’ kind of person. Obviously, I enjoy winning. I enjoy riding bikes and I enjoy racing bikes.
“We go racing because we want to win, of course, but at the same time I’m actually just really enjoying myself all the time that I’m sat on a bike.”
A long time ago though it may seem, it’s not like Hickman is getting on - in fact, at 34 he’s younger than many of his BSB rivals - but he is the only person from the Class of 2006 still going strong in 2022. (Ed: Leon Haslam notwithstanding if rumoured return is confirmed).
Moreover, not only is Hickman still going strong, his prospects have arguably never looked stronger.
With a race-winning berth in BSB, an Isle of Man TT status so favourite it is practically scorching, and a proudly brandished target affixed to his back for the NW200, Ulster GP and Macau GP, it’s very possible that - even after all these years - the best is yet to come for ‘Hicky’…
Indeed, the Burton-on-Trent man comes into the 2022 season as a figure very capable of writing some of the year’s biggest headlines in motorcycle racing.
This is despite a career that one might describe as a ‘slow burner’, Hickman himself joking he is ‘like a fine wine, maturing with age’.
Nevertheless, he popped the cork on what he describes as his best season yet in 2021, snapping up two wins at Cadwell Park - his first since 2017 - and booking another trip to the BSB Title Showdown on the FHO Racing BMW M 1000 RR.
Now an ambassador for one of the world’s most prestigious automotive brands and boasting trophies achieved in some of motorsport’s most revered events, Hickman has come a long way from those nascent early days scraping money together for a bike built in his dad’s shed to compete in the long-forgotten Privateers’ Cup.
“When I started in 2006, there were proper factory bikes that were on the grid, and unless you were sat on one of them, there was absolutely no way that you were going to get anywhere near the front,” he says looking back.
“Nowadays, you see teams and riders where the smaller teams have actually got the capability of racing at the front, which - back in those days - was impossible.
“Definitely in the early days, I was held back for a long time because I didn’t have the wallet and I didn’t have the opportunity to be able to ride a bike that was capable of winning.
“Had I had a bike that was capable of winning, then maybe my career would have been different. But it didn’t happen like that.
“I still finished second in the privateer championship in 2009 with a bike that was built in my dad’s shed. It's just the way things go. It’s life, isn’t it?
Cash may have been scarce at the beginning, but Hickman’s wealth of experience has paid dividends over time. Now one of the UK’s leading motorcycle racers, Hickman’s status has certainly been well-earned.
Accumulating a mammoth 423 BSB race starts over the years, while the chunky number may betray a steady but momentum-building route to the top, the rewards include eight wins, 20 podiums and four trips to the all-important BSB Title Showdown deciders. He considers 2021 - his 15th season in BSB - a career zenith, so far anyway…
“Every single event that we went to, even if we didn’t have a result, I was always really fast - top five pace everywhere we went.
“I finished fourth in 2017 [he was fifth in 2021] but in terms of results, I was stronger last year - overall it was my best year with BSB.
“We want to be in the top three in the championship. Obviously, we want to win it, but I think a realistic goal is that we can finish third in the championship at minimum and win more races along the way.”
If Hickman had to bide his time in BSB, then his rise to the summit of the road racing hierarchy is by comparison a throttle-pinned blast down Bray Hill.
Indeed, for many Hickman’s name is more readily associated with his racing efforts out in the real world, a motorcycle racing art form that is as breath-taking to watch for some as it is unfathomable to comprehend to others.
It’s a gnarly discipline that spooks many short course riders from ever giving it a go, but when Hickman found himself at a career crossroads in 2014, he swiftly laid the groundwork that not only launched his road racing career but saved his BSB one too.
After being overlooked for seats in BSB - despite skirting the fringe of the overall top ten in 2013 - because he didn’t bring enough cash to the table, Hickman had become disillusioned with the skewed notion of money overruling talent.
“I’d had some pretty decent results [in 2013] but was really struggling to get a ride unless I took a big sponsor with me or a big load of money. You ring somebody or speak to the owner and they’re like, “Yeah, but how much money are you bringing?” They weren’t bothered about your results, just about how much money you had.”
However, rather than waiting his turn, Hickman considered an alternative avenue, one that just happened to lead to Ballagaray, Creg ny Baa and Ballacraine.
Finding negotiations to be a more honest affair - a free ferry ride here, a set of tyres there - Hickman stumbled across his calling with head-turning debuts on the NW200 and TT. He may not have been the first BSB rider to attempt the roads, but few have made such an impact out of the box.
“It pissed me off a lot [not getting a BSB ride]. I wasn’t setting the world alight, but I’m also not s**t. I’d just had enough of it.
“But I wanted to keep racing bikes and the TT and North West 200 allowed me to do that without being asked how much money I was bringing.
“Instead, they were saying, “actually, we can sort that bit out or ‘we can sort maybe the ferry for you’. It was a cheap way to keep riding bikes, and also at a high level. Then I finished eighth in my first-ever road race (NW200) right behind Guy Martin, then at the TT I finished eighth in SSTK and 11th in the Senior TT.”
If a dearth of interest from BSB teams set Hickman on a high-speed road towards the TT, then it was the TT that led him right back to BSB.
Indeed, his efforts hadn’t gone unnoticed, and it wasn’t long before BSB teams were contacting Hickman, leading to a RAF Regular & Reserves Honda seat that yielded his maiden BSB win at Cadwell Park.
“Off the back of the TT, people were saying, “Why hasn’t this lad got a BSB ride?” Then all of a sudden a ride opened up and I ended up being able to go racing in BSB on a decent bike, and won a race that year.
“I’ve literally not looked back ever since. So, the TT really is what turned my short circuit career around.”
Taking just three years to land his first success at the Isle of Man TT, Hickman has gone on to accumulate five wins to date and while he bluntly declares ‘lap records mean nothing’ to him, few are betting against Hickman being the one most likely to threaten his own benchmark around the Mountain.
With the TT returning from its COVID enforced hiatus in 2022, though no wheels have turned on the roads since 2019, Hickman is clear in his assertion that he covets silverware more than anything, three years after an almost certain win was scuppered by technical issues.
With the Smiths Racing squad having since morphed into FHO Racing, Hickman may say he is not chasing records, but armed with the more powerful, factory-fettled BMW M 1000 RR in the Superbike class, he thinks he can catch them anyway.
“The bike is awesome, the bike is going to be mega. In 2019, the weather was horrendous and our bike was brand-new. We only had stock engines because that’s all that was available. I did about four, maybe five laps on it, including the two laps of the Superbike race that it ended up being.
“Yet, at the start of the Senior, I did 134.2mph from a standing start. That was basically either my sixth or seventh lap ever on that bike around the TT. There’s only two people that have ever done 134-mile-an-hour, and I’m one of them.
“To do that on a bike that was brand-new and that we didn’t fully understand, was immense, really. The bike that we have now is so far advanced on that. The potential is massive.”
That said, while speed may be king on the TT, Hickman would rather not have to win by putting more than just revs on the limit.
“I want to win as much as possible… but also win at the slowest pace possible. If I can win every race at 110 mile an hour, that’s what I’ll do! [However] The competition is that strong, it isn’t going to happen!”
With this in mind, Hickman comes into the 2022 TT with six opportunities to redecorate his trophy cabinet, a prospective sweep of the board that would surpass Ian Hutchinson’s five terrific successes on the island back in 2010.
With a tweak in this year’s schedule allowing riders the chance to submit entries into more categories without exceeding daily track time limits, Hickman is maxing out his schedule, eyeing three wins on the FHO BMW (2x in Superbike, 1x in Superstock) and two victories in Supersport on his eponymous ex-BSSP Triumph Street Triple 765.
More intriguingly, he is also seeking glory in the Supertwins category aboard the Norton Superlight he dragged around to a top ten finish in 2019 despite the motorcycle barely turning a wheel beforehand. After purchasing the machine from Norton itself, Hickman has put it on a weight-shedding diet and invested in a significant upgrade, leaving him confident at landing the British marque’s first TT victory in 30 years.
“The potential in the Norton is actually quite good. I finished eighth on it and I only did four laps, including the two laps in the race. We finished eight, and managed a 120mph-plus lap, so close to the lap record. It definitely has potential.”
What sets Hickman apart from both his road racing and BSB contemporaries is the effortless success he enjoys in both simultaneously.
From McGuinness to Ian Hutchinson to Dean Harrison, scores of racers who cut their teeth in the wild, don’t play so well in the close confines of pack racing on short circuits with no traction control.
Creating a perception that a rider must choose between focusing their efforts on the road or on the track to achieve success, Hickman has refrained from prioritising one at the expense of the other.
As for why he has become the exception to the rule, while Hickman describes the transition between disciplines as ‘extremely difficult’, he says it ultimately works in his favour.
“I’m really good at adapting very quickly,” he continues. “I can jump from a Superbike at BSB on Pirelli slicks with no traction control and all the rest of it, and then the next day jump on a superbike with Dunlop slicks with no traction control on the road, then Supersport, Lightweight and go back to BSB in the same week.
“Changing bikes is a really difficult thing to do, and a lot of riders I think struggle with it, but the discipline of shorts is extremely difficult.
“It’s hard to describe. You ride the bike on the absolute limit on a short circuit, it’s very intense. On the roads, you do ride it to a limit, but it’s a different kind of limit, you ride the bike in a different way - much more relaxed way of riding.”
It isn’t just the TT that Hickman has developed a rapidly paced affinity with multiple successes on the Ulster GP and North West 200.
He’s also been the man to beat in possibly the most incomprehensible road race of them all, the solid barrier-lined inner-city streets of the Macau Grand Prix.
An event that defies some logic with bikes threading between Armco a few feet either side at fearsomely high speeds, triple winner Hickman is rather more blasé in describing it….
“Macau’s is alright - the circuit is actually really good. Yes, it’s very dangerous [but] there are only two walls to worry about: the one on the left and the one on the right.
“It’s a really unique place to ride because you can never see through any of the corners. So, every single corner you get to is completely blind. I’ve never ridden a circuit like that before, and not since either. That makes it very unique. It's a really good, fun place to be.”
And yet, despite this newfound reputation for being ‘King of the Road’, it is Hickman’s origin story in BSB that he would most dearly like to give a fairy-tale ending.
“I really want to be BSB Champion, that’s a really big goal for me. I’ve not got that long left to do it, so I need to pull my finger out of my arse a bit, really. That’s an achievement that I really, really want to make.
“People see me as a road racer, but I was a short circuit racer first and I still see myself as a short circuit rider that races on the roads, not a roads rider that races in BSB.”
Going back to Hickman’s own adage of being described as a ‘fine wine’, while it remains to be seen whether Hickman’s 2022 campaign is primed to be a vintage one, it’s testament to his hard graft that - even after 16 years - time still remains very much on his side…