Hodgson in Fogarty's slipstream

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On an unfinished section of motorway - at the cobbled end of the network, comedians would say - it is possible to catch Carl Fogarty and Neil Hodgson training together for a duel which has become the talk of motorcycling.

Fogarty is the world Superbike champion, the life and soul of Ducati for the past two years. Hodgson covets his title, having leapt into the saddle "Foggy" vacated on the Italian factory team when transferring to Honda.

There is little evidence of the rivalry between the 29-year-old Fogarty and his 22-year-old challenger, however, as they steer motocross bikes over the makings of the M65 extension in East Lancashire. Hodgson even borrows one of Fogarty's machines.

The sessions are a reminder of their beginnings riding over flat, muddy local fields as members of the Vale of Rossendale schoolboy motocross club. Darren Barton, 21, another graduate, recently joined the Aprilia 125cc factory team, so there are now three professional racers living within eight miles of each other. "It must be something in the water," said Hodgson, who first rode motocross at the age of nine.

Since putting his 500cc grand prix career on hold to accept Ducati's offer of a two-year Superbike contract, Hodgson has become the focus of attention. He is about to embark on a world tour to test the machine before his contests with Fogarty and the rest over the 14 rounds of the title race, commencing with the April meetings at Misano and Donington Park.

There are signs of a growing affluence. A BMW 320, registration NSH 1 (the middle name is Stuart), a gift from one of his sponsors, a Yorkshire insurance broker, has replaced a Honda Civic in the drive of the farmhouse in Burnley where he resides with his parents and an older brother, Carl.

Although never doubting that he was destined to race motorcycles after being introduced to them by his father, Mark, a club level competitor, Hodgson used to supplement his riding by working as a pounds 60 per week labourer. Last year he made pounds 15,000 as a "privateer" on the 500cc circuit, then Ducati elevated him to six figures as a works rider. If he wins the world title, he could earn from pounds 4-5m per year.

"At school I was a daydreamer," he said. "I was the boy staring out of the window thinking about the next motocross race, so obviously my results suffered. At 16, with just three Cs [Art, Business Studies and English], I was left with a little bit of a dilemma: I had to find a job."

A friend told him that the building trade was "a bit of a laugh", which did not always prove to be the case during his two years on the sites. "I was really feeling quite small trying to carry the hod," he recounted. "They only had to put two or three bricks in it and it was weighing me down.

"I was still working when I won the British 125cc championship. From being the man interviewed on television, squirting the champagne and having all these girls round me and being a bit of a star, I'd be back carrying the hod on a Monday morning after driving through the night to get home. And the guys at work didn't treat me any different. I was the skivvy. I got the red hot tea bag on the back of the neck every morning. But I'm not complaining. I'm glad I did that, because I appreciate the position I'm in now."

Hodgson's level-headedness, exemplified by his resistance of a strong temptation to treat himself to a Porsche - "I could buy one now, but I'm a sensible northerner and know that things could all go wrong" - is counterbalanced by a fiercely competitive nature and a talent that has drawn comparison to Barry Sheene.

"At school I was the captain of the football team, and I ended up fighting with my own players because they weren't giving 100 per cent. That's how passionate I was about winning," Hodgson said. "I pulled out of grand prix, basically, because I wasn't offered the right bike to win."

British riders tend not to be first in line for the best factory 500cc machines on account of national opposition to cigarette advertising. In terms of sponsorship, the grand prix circuit is tobacco road.

"I'm pretty confident going into Superbikes," Hodgson added. "I don't think I'm going to go out there and win every race and be the man, because nobody's ever done that. But I believe that I could learn and be up there and certainly win a few races."

Fogarty is the man. According to Hodgson, the Blackburn rider is "seriously wealthy now, incredibly outspoken - he slags his own team off - and a little bit weird".

On a personal level, Hodgson has come to terms with his rival's personality. "Over the past 20 months I've got to know Foggy a little bit better, but he's hard to have a conversation with." While respecting him as an opponent, he recognises the value of adding spice to the situation.

"Carl Fogarty, I'd say, was the third or fourth best motorcyclist in the world, in any cc, and I'm going to try to beat him. If I could win the world championship - and that's the plan - I'll be a big, big hot property, and everyone's going to want me."

Is it developing into a "kick ass" rivalry? "It almost gets like that," Hodgson said. "We did a television interview and nearly ended up fighting. I said, 'Well, hopefully I'm going to win the championship. I'm on the best bike'. Then Foggy grabbed the mike and said, 'Yeah, but he isn't the best rider', and before we knew it we were arguing.

"And then Carl said probably one of the best things he's ever said. He said: 'Look, me and Neil, we aren't going to fall out with each other. We want to do well. If Neil wins one weekend, then he was the best man that weekend. And if I win the next weekend, then I'm the best man. All we want to do is kick some Australian ass and beat the Americans'."

Before that is possible, Hodgson must ensure that he is as comfortable on the Ducati as Fogarty was. "It takes weeks, and many, many laps," Hodgson said. "I'm about a stone heavier than Carl, and a lot taller, and there are thousands of permutations of the settings you can have on a bike."

His acquaintance with the Ducati began in San Marino a few days before Christmas, when he performed 45 laps and came within 1.5 seconds of the lap record on the Misano circuit. "I was pleased, considering it was a completely new bike and the conditions were so cold."

A road version of the red machine is on its way to Burnley for Hodgson's personal use. The last time he rode on the public highway was when he took his bike test at the age of 19.

"I was absolutely petrified," he recalled. "I already had a car licence and I was the British 125 champion at the time, but I would have failed if I hadn't spent two days at a training school learning to ride on the roads.

"Tell me to ride over a settee and I could do it, because I've got balance, and that's what I do. But I had to learn to do all my 'life savers' every time I braked, otherwise they class you as being dead and fail you.

"The guy who had to follow me on the test recognised me from photographs in Motor Cycle News and couldn't believe it, and I signed an autograph for the examiner after I passed."

His knees might have been knocking, but it was one occasion when they did not scrape the road.