BikeSocial talks to John McGuinness about recovery, retirement and Honda’s Fireblade.
BikeSocial: Hi John, I’m sure you’re sick of people asking – but how are you?
John McGuinness: I’m alright; I’m good. I’m starting to learn to live with this five kilogram torture cylinder on my leg. It’s frustrating, but if you look at end-over-ending myself down the road into a fence, and I could’ve hit a lamppost, bashed my head; it could be far worse. So pulling the positives out of it, yeah, I’ve got a bad leg that’s probably never going to be the same, probably going to have limp, going to have scars; chicks dig scars, don’t they? It’s been difficult because I’ve always taken pride in keeping out of trouble and I’ve only had a couple of tumbles in 20-odd years of racing on the roads. So to go whizzing through a fence at 100mph plus is a hard one to swallow – but we’re alright. I broke me back quite bad – broke four bones in me lower back – I broke five ribs on the left side which, it’s fair to say, have been delicate for the last few weeks and months... but because I’m growing a leg, the pins are hitting nerves and that sends vibes around my body and that’s not much fun.
BS: This is trying to knit the broken bones together?
JM: The original fracture was at the bottom of my leg, and the bones come out the side – so they had to cut them back to healthy bone, then clamp them together – which basically made me about 50mm shorter on the left leg. So they re-broke it just below the knee because it’s got a lot better blood circulation and a lot healthier bone at the top. Then they put a ring around the top of the tibia, and then pull the rest of it down – I adjust it with a 10mm spanner...
BS: Snap-On or Facom?
JM: Either, or adjustables; the lot. I adjust it 1mm a day – you can see how far down it’s gone. So it looks ridiculous but it’s doing the job, it’s limb reconstruction. Clever stuff. Fascinating.
BS: There are two sides to the crash though; the physiological and the psychological. How’s it working out inside your head?
JM: It’s playing with my head – it’s definitely taken me to the ends of me tether. I think the worst thing is everyone is active, everyone is doing something, but even simple little things like mowing the lawn, bit of gardening, even going to the bloody kitchen and making a brew and talking it back to the front room, you know; I’ve got to shuffle along, put it down, move again – I can’t even carry things. I’ve been looked after by a great family and great friends chauffeuring me about; I get to hospital once or twice a week for some physio, and X-rays an’ that... so it’s been testing. Everyone’s flying around on the bikes and enjoying themselves while I’m sat on the sidelines.
BS: I saw you had your CFR450X for sale on Twitter recently; you said it was because of your leg injury. Is off-road something you’re having to give up?
JM: No, just the power of social media; see if I get a cheeky little nibble. I’ll get another off-road bike, I’ll never give it up. I was always pretty crap, to be fair. It was just something we always did and now I’ve got a little motocross track in the back garden for the kids on their quads...
BS: How long will it be before you get back out there?
JM: It’s a question I don’t think anyone can answer. Best will in the world, I reckon the cast will come off February or March. That’s if everything goes to plan perfectly. If I get an infection, or the bone doesn’t grow as quick, some people heal betters than others... I just look at what Jamie Hamilton’s been through – he’s had his on for two years [Hamilton suffered a horrific crash at the TT in 2015]. And Hutchy – he’s been through hell, and I was with him in London at the bike show years ago when he re-broke his leg on that mini-bike. So I’m just thinking, you know, I’ve been around people who’ve not had the greatest of luck with it, so I’m just...
BS: You want to finish the healing process properly?
JM: Yes. If I was 25 I’d be jumping through hoops to get better; I’d be in hyperbaric chambers, I’d wank a mountain dog off if it helped me out. Anything. But I’m 45 years old and I’m going through the motions that’ll make it heal properly because I’ve got a long time to live, hopefully.
BS: So where does that leave your riding career?
JM: You know what, it’s weird. When I first had me bump, and I’d been to a few functions, a few obligations, met people – and the first thing people asked me was, “How’s yer leg?”. I’ve been asked a million times. Half of me wants to head-butt them, and half of me thinks, well, it’s just fans, isn’t it? That’s what they want to know. And I’ve had a lot of nice things said, nice comments, things on Facebook and Twitter, you know. It’s like the public is slowly turning me round – I was like, “Oh, I’m not going to get on one of those bikes again, I’ve had me innings, I’ve had a good time and I’ve got nothing left to prove.” And everyone’s like, “When are you coming back? What you gonna do? When d’ya reckon? Will you be ready for next year’s TT?” It’s like people have convinced me to come back and ride. I think everybody wants me to ride again. But me, personally, I dunno what to say.
BS: You mean you don’t know yourself?
JM: I lie there, got all the time in the world; my godsend over the last few months has been Hutchy because he’s in the same boat and at two o’clock in the morning when I’m in pain, he’s in pain – so we have a bit of a crack on Whatsapp, reinvent the wheel and tell all our shit stories... but when the pain goes and I’m on me feet, looking at stuff and thinking, “Oooo I’d love to get back on that...”... maybe some classic bike racing... but the big superbikes, possibly, probably, are out of my reach I would say. Guy came back and it never worked for him. You’ve got to be on the 8-ball every week, week in, week out and if you’re not, you’re just going to get humped. And I was always there, never missed anything – World Endurance, testing, I was sharp. But a year away from it... could be difficult. You know Supertwins or electric bike TT, maybe a Classic TT... not out of my reach.
BS: Does a life after riding in the business turn you on at all? There must be an ambassador role, maybe with Honda?
JM: Yes... could be a bit frosty for a while, but we’ll see. I’d like to think I’d fit in somewhere along the line. The Honda thing... they’ve admitted it wasn’t my fault, it was a machine problem... you can point the fingers about and blaming people, getting bitter and twisted about it, but it’s happened and I’ve got to deal with it. Whether I have any involvement with Honda again... there’s a big question mark over that at the minute. I’d like there to be, I would like to think there’s some loyalty in racing. I’ve always been loyal; I’ve had a loyal contract with Honda, I’ve been with Shoei for 12 years, been with same woman for 28 years! So I try to keep continuity with everything... but I’m sure I could pick the phone up and say, “Hey, can I come on a launch Triumph, or a Norton, or whatever?” – whatever I do it’ll be in the industry because I like it; I like the people. Definitely won’t be walking away from it. I’ve had me bump, and if it means I don’t race again I won’t be walking away from the sport. I love it.
BS: Going back to the start of the year, what’s happened to the Fireblade on the track has really affected what’s happened to it on the road. It’s having a hard time.
JM: It is.
BS: But would it be fair to say the problems you’ve had with the race bike aren’t connected to the road bike?
JM: I think you hit the nail on the head. As a road bike it’s not going to do anything like what happened to me. It was a race kit ECU problem; an autoblipper problem that was completely out of my hands. I’ve had throttles stick open before and when a throttle sticks you pull the clutch in; but when they just accelerate on their own, doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you’re just a passenger. From my side, I went to the launch at Portimao, I thought the bike was great, the autoblipper was good, the traction control worked good, you know – as a road bike I think it’s terrific. I really do. It’s smooth, it’s linear, it’s very safe; it’s very Honda. They’ve gone down this lightweight route which... for racing, it doesn’t make any difference. Has it worked? The black and white facts are, no. As a road bike, it’s a good bike. But as a race bike, it’s not gone backwards, but it’s been disappointing for me. As a racer, I’ve ridden the 2008 bike, 2009, 2010... up to 2016... and I’m waiting, waiting for something to blow me skirt up, you know? And for whatever reason, it’s nearly killed me. So I’m entitled to be a little bit emotional about the job. And nobody can say anything else; I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve put all my years of experience into it, and it’s done what it’s done. So, you know, I’ve got to sit on the fence a bit; can’t get too involved and start pointing fingers... but, as a rider, I was at the top of me game. And sport’s cruel. I remember a Honda boss telling me along, long time ago that you’re just like busses, you riders – there’ll always be another one along in a minute. Which is a shitty thing to say... but he was right. There are 30 lads waiting to jump in me boots. They won’t worry about the throttle sticking, they’ll be straight on the bike.
BS: Would it be easier to take if it’d been your mistake?
JM: Oh definitely. Absolutely. I’ve crashed bikes before and I fell off the Paton here last year at bloody Quarterbridge. The number of riders I’ve told to be careful at Quarterbridge on a full tank and cold tyres... and then I do the ultimate crash. I was so angry and pissed off with myself; picked up back up, rode it back, straightened it out, and said, “Right, let’s fu@£king get back out there.” And then I did the fastest lap of practice. I had to redeem myself. And I fell off at the North West in 2004 – and that was my fault.
BS: But this one wasn’t your fault.
JM: No, it wasn’t, and I’m entitled to be pissed off. All the years I’ve raced, all the miles – it’s incredible. I think if that bike hadn’t done what it did, it would’ve been capable of getting in the top six at the TT. And I would’ve ridden it safely and brought it home. I wouldn’t have said, “I’ve got to win on this,” and got dragged into the pressures of it. I couldn’t. You can only piss with the dick you’ve got. I wouldn’t have stuck me neck out to get further than the bike was capable of finishing. And where that was, we’ll never know.
BS: I know it can’t take the pain away, or change what happened, but you must appreciate how much respect and love people have for you.
JM: I tell you what, I’ve been in tears at times. It’s so humbling. I had so many cards in hospital, and I don’t know who they are. I’ve saved them all; got them all at home. Got some really nice comments, nothing ever negative. I’ve had people banging on the hospital door in Belfast while I’m being bed-bathed with my bollocks hanging out, and they want to come in and give me a gift! So it’s been good – without the fans we’re just riding around for nothing. A lot of people say, “Thanks for all the years of joy you’ve given us,” and that means more than anything. So it’s been a special last couple of months in some ways. A lot of pressure is off me at the minute and, you know, me racing spots have gone and I’ve lost a bit of timber. I feel alright. And there’s this little demon on me shoulder saying, “Get back on the bike.” But, you know, in my head I’m 26; the body is a lot older. But I’ve got the memories, got the pictures, got the DVDs, been round here at 130mph, 131, 132... won seven Seniors and there’s only Hailwood ever won seven Seniors so they can cut me leg off but they can’t take that away from me. So it’s been a hell of journey. Hell of a journey.