The story of an accidental bike star
Dealing with fatal accidents hasn't deflected one paramedic from his ambition, says Tim Luckhurst
Tuesday 26 October 2004
Richard "Richie" Elliot is an ambulance man. He patrols the streets of Glasgow in a rapid-response unit. He knows about the grim injuries that befall motorcyclists; he has given emergency first aid, strained nerves and jumped red lights to get them to casualty. His hobby is motorcycle racing.
Richie loves motorbikes and so, fortunately, does his girlfriend, Catherine, an architect. The couple share their flat in Pollockshields with several partially dismantled machines. Richie says: "I like to keep them close. I bump into my bike on the way to have a pee at three in the morning. At least that way I know it's safe, otherwise I'd spend the night staring out the window to check it's there."
Richie used to race on public roads. He admits: "There are still places in Scotland where you can stretch the legs of a modern hyperbike, if you know where to look and when to go." But he reserved the really fast riding for European roads. Last summer, he and two friends rode from Glasgow to the Czech Republic and back in 48 hours. "We actually missed Prague because we were going so fast." By "fast", Richie means twice the British motorway speed limit or more.
When Richie Elliot began attending track schools at his local racing circuit, he did not know about the Search for a Star competition run by Rizla Suzuki. The company, winners of the 2004 British Superbike championship, chose not to alert novices to the prize awaiting one particularly impressive student. The winner would ride a professionally prepared, race-tuned Suzuki GSXR600 in a competition against professional race riders. Richie Elliot won. He was overjoyed. "Every road rider and track day-rider wonders what the absolute top-class kit is like. But for most of us, the opportunity to ride a factory-prepared bike is only going to happen after a lottery win."
Richie first sat on a motorbike in 1981 at the age of seven. "It was my uncle's Laverda Jota. He took me for a spin round Rutherglen while my mum watched, crying. I knew from then that I would be around motorbikes if there was any way I could."
Last year Richie started riding on race tracks "as an answer to modern policing issues". A lot of speed fiends try real racing once. Many do not like it. Richie says: "Some guys think they're really quick when they're out pulling stunts on the roads. When they get on a race track they realise they're not really."
The bike he raced at Knockhill recently was built by Mark Hanna, chassis technician to Rizla Suzuki Superbike rider Yukio Kagayama. It was an amateur racer's dream: £50,000 worth of state-of-the-art racing technology provided free of charge and with full pit support.
After riding it for the first practice laps, Richie says: "It feels like it's on rails. With a road bike, you're immediately aware of its limits and if you push past them you'll pay the penalty. This bike is so good that you are challenging your own limits. You are the limiting factor."
His first experience of professional racing took place in front of John Reynolds, the British Superbike Champion 2004. Richie was more concerned about what his colleagues from Govan ambulance station would think. "The majority of my ambulance colleagues think I should be getting therapy, but there are bikers at every ambulance station. Driving is part of our job. I think we like to experience the world in a different way from other road users."
But there is a big difference between riding motorbikes fast on public roads and professional racing. Dale Meech, a member of the Crescent Suzuki pit crew who prepared and maintained Richie's GSXR600, says: "Top riders are really hard on themselves. Their whole lives revolve around riding the motorcycle well. You have to be a certain breed to be able to do it."
Mark Hanna and Dale Meech work for a rider whose recent history reveals just how hard it is. At Cadwell Park in August 2003, Kagayama crashed head-on into a safety barrier at over 100mph. His pelvis was broken in two places. He was back in the saddle as soon as he could get out of a wheelchair, riding as fast as ever.
Could Richie make that sort of commitment? "There's another side to my job - which is dealing with people who are terminally ill. People sometimes think all large projects can be kept in the future, but you don't always get a chance to follow them through. Realising that can make you want to risk a bit of instability. There are aspects of my job that make me want to live harder."
Richie rode in two professional races at Knockhill. On both occasions his Rizla Suzuki was the finest piece of technology on the track, and he held his own against the professionals on a demanding, wet and windy track. He qualified at the tail end of the grid and avoided last place in both races. Hanna described him as: "Going steady, doing nothing silly."
Now Richie has sampled the best, he is keen to continue.And road-users can celebrate, because he has given up road riding.He no longer feels any need to test his potential where tractors may cross the road ahead of him. At Govan ambulance station there is relief that the next call is unlikely to involve scraping Richie off the M8.
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