'I'm 100 per cent in control. I never take unnecessary risks... and I bounce well'

The Interview - Neil Hodgson: The World Superbikes champion has switched to souped-up bikes. He tells Nick Townsend he is only just beginning to enjoy it
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The Independent Online

Thrust "motorcycle" in front of many people undertaking one of those word-association psychological tests, and what would come immediately to mind? Greasers. Rockers, the movie Easy Rider, you begin. Neil Hodgson joins in: "Leather jackets, Hell's Angels, probably coming to rape your daughter. It's unbelievable that motor-cycling's still got that image." And motor-cycle racing tends to be damned by the same kind of perception, you suggest. Hodgson shakes his head and adds: "What's the stereotypical motorbike racer? A lot of people would still say, 'an unintelligent guy who will probably get killed'."

Thrust "motorcycle" in front of many people undertaking one of those word-association psychological tests, and what would come immediately to mind? Greasers. Rockers, the movie Easy Rider, you begin. Neil Hodgson joins in: "Leather jackets, Hell's Angels, probably coming to rape your daughter. It's unbelievable that motor-cycling's still got that image." And motor-cycle racing tends to be damned by the same kind of perception, you suggest. Hodgson shakes his head and adds: "What's the stereotypical motorbike racer? A lot of people would still say, 'an unintelligent guy who will probably get killed'."

Hodgson, who is decidedly not the former, knows that fate will decide the latter. Last year's World Superbikes champion has known enough competitors die on the track - albeit predominantly on the inherently more perilous road circuits which he eschews - to acknowledge that. A close friend, David Jefferies, died in the Isle of Man TT only last summer.

When we meet in London last week, it seems appropriate to discuss the hazards of his sport first. We are at the Dominion Theatre for the launch of this year's MotoGP season, which begins on Saturday in South Africa and where Hodgson will discover the wisdom or otherwise of deciding to forego a probable second World Superbikes title for the opportunity to compete with the élite of his sport.

The BBC are to broadcast live 12 of the 16 races. The footage they screen as a preview for us includes several incidents of leather-encased figures being catapulted off their machines before sliding as effortlessly as one of Rhona Martin's curling stones across the track. Fractured limbs, or worse, are only a collision or miscalculated manoeuvre away.

"People talk to me about the dangers, but when I leave here today, I'm going to get in a taxi and sit in the back without a seat-belt and I'll trust that the driver hasn't been working non-stop for 18 hours, isn't a drug addict and hasn't been drinking," says the 30-year-old Lancastrian who lives on the Isle of Man with wife, Kathryn, and baby daughter, Holly Jean. "But essentially it's a gamble. When I race a motorcycle I'm 100 per cent in control of what I'm doing. Even if something does go wrong, there'll be a paramedic to attend me instantly. Since I was nine, I've broken my kneecap, some ribs, a wrist - that's about it. Not bad, is it? But I've never taken unnecessary risks. And I bounce well."

Hodgson adds, with just a touch of Woody Allen-style logic: "Crashing doesn't hurt; it's the sudden stop at the end." He elaborates, pointing out a nearby radiator. "If you crash at 100mph and hit that, you're dead, or a mess. If I crash at 100mph and slide through gravel I'm fine. The safety of circuits is all about sufficient run-offs. I do know people who have been killed on short-circuit racing, but that's rare. Every year, I've known someone who's died on a road circuit. That's why I'm not a fan of the Isle of Man TT. At one time, you had to do it if you were a racer. Not any more."

That, no doubt, comes as a considerable relief to his wife, who, Hodgson reveals, "has never ridden a motorcycle; never been on the back of one. In fact, Kathryn doesn't really like them." He adds: "If I was to retire tomorrow she'd say, 'Thank God for that'." Injury permitting, that day is postponed for at least three years, the timescale Hodgson has promised himself to become master of this new discipline.

Hodgson, whose early career was nurtured by his father, Mark, began in moto-cross, but switched to circuit racing and was 18 when he won the British 125cc championship. By self-admission, he subsequently went into reverse. A legacy of achieving too much, too soon? As likely as not. "There have been times when I've been in the doldrums and not really enjoyed it so much. This can be like anyone else's job: very tedious. You want a change. But the way my career's gone, and financially, I'd be a fool to stop now."

You swiftly appreciate that you are speaking to a pragmatist rather than an obsessive. Certainly the technical aspects of his machine do not captivate him. "No, not even slightly," he concedes. "I don't want to touch engines, I don't want to get my hands dirty. It's strange, isn't it, because my father was really into it. All I'm interested in is what's going to help my bike go faster."

For the past 12 years he has been managed by Roger Burnett, a veteran of the Isle of Man TT, who won the event in 1986. The urbane Burnett also competed in the 500cc championship. He has become a mentor to Hodgson and honed his whole approach. Their association resulted in Hodgson claiming the British Superbikes Championship in 2000. The reward was a £1.5m two-year contract with the Ducati team in 2002. In September last year, he attained the pinnacle in World Superbikes, having won nine successive stages.

But now for the ultimate test. "A superbike machine is a production-based bike. It's what you can go out and buy in the shop, and is tuned up," explains Hodgson. "A MotoGP bike is hand-built for one purpose, and that is to go fast round the track. It's more powerful by about 40 to 50 brake horsepower. It's lighter by about 20 kilos. The power-to-weight ratio is awesome. It takes off." One can easily comprehend its appeal, though he emphasises that taming the beast will not be an immediate process.

"I've only just started to enjoy it, because when things scare you, when things surprise you, it's not a nice feeling on a motor-cycle. At the speeds that you're going, you want everything to be in control. If you're not, before you know it you're on the floor. We're not superhuman. As a racer, I feel fear exactly like you feel fear. I feel pain like you do."

This season, the curves of Jerez, Le Mans, Nelson Piquet, Donington Park and all the other circuits will be learning ones. "You have to set yourself some realistic goals," Hodgson says. "If I set out to win the race, I'm going to be disappointed at every round. I'm going to come away miserable. If I aim for, say, 12th place, and I do that I'll be happy." On the start line next Saturday, he will experience the gamut of emotions, but mostly "total fear and nerves".

He adds: "It's like that before every race. That's the downside of the job. Like any professional sportsman who performs as an individual in an event, as opposed to a team game, there's nowhere to hide. It makes you very edgy beforehand. Once the lights turn to green, though, you're fine. Then the adrenalin kicks in."

His rivals will include the iconic Valen-tino Rossi, though the Italian has now left Honda to join Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha, a team who are unlikely immediately to secure him a sixth world championship. There is every expectation that Hodgson can ultimately burn fiercely in the motorcycling cosmos. As bright as Carl Fogarty, some contend. His fellow Lancastrian regards such a possibility without magnanimity. The four-times World Superbikes champion, and once Hodgson's team-mate, opined recently: "I used to beat Neil every week, and I'd do the same now. No one will ever be as big as I was."

Beloved by British bike fans, the character who now runs Foggy Petronas Racing, having retired from riding following a crash at Australia's Phillip Island circuit, wrote in his autobiography, Foggy: "Although we didn't fall out, we didn't get on all that well, either... Neil is quite vain and just wants to look pretty, train and eat the right food. I'm completely the opposite... and Neil was forever gassing." You wouldn't dispute that final observation. An engaging and opinionated character, Hodgson's vocal chords are well-oiled. Early in our conversation, he apologises for his garrulousness. You encourage him to continue. It is a rare, and welcome, trait in professional sportsmen.

"Mick Doohan was my all-time hero, but when I was first on the scene I really looked up to Carl. Being from Blackburn, and I was from Burnley, he was like the local guy and I always supported him. I would have hoped that he would have retired without bitterness, but he seems to have something of a chip on his shoulder."

Hodgson adds: "When I retire, I'm going to be right behind young British talents, supporting them the best I can, because I hate seeing foreigners win everything. I don't believe you should be slating today's riders and saying how brilliant you were. Anyway, we all know how good Carl was; nobody has ever disputed that."

If motorcycle racing is to jettison a testosterone-saturated image in which the only female injection is the BBC's presenter Suzi Perry, it needs high-profile, charismatic performers who can transcend their sport, like Fogarty. There is no doubt Hodgson can fulfil that role. But does he relish the prospect? "I've dipped my toe in the water of fame," Hodgson says. "I can be famous for a day, or a weekend, and I enjoy it. I can be the most approachable guy during that time. But 24 hours a day? Then I wouldn't be approachable. I don't want people coming up to me constantly, talking bikes. The beauty of my position is that afterwards I can go home to my normal life. I couldn't be a David Beckham, a Robbie Williams or a Madonna. I couldn't be famous." If Hodgson prospers in MotoGP as he did in Superbikes, it may be something he will have to live with.

As we depart the theatre where the Queen tribute We Will Rock You is staged nightly, the title music blares out. It somehow appeals as a highly appropriate anthem where Hodgson is concerned.

BIOGRAPHY: Neil Hodgson

Born: 20 November 1973 in Burnley.

Family: Married to Kathryn, daughter Holly Jean.

Career progression: 1982: Schoolboy motocross. 1990: 8th, British Clubmans. 1991: 20th, British 125cc championship. 1992: British 125cc champion. 1993: 125cc World Championship, 24th. 1994: 500cc debut (Harris Yamaha). 1995: 500cc World Championship, 11th. 1996: World Superbikes debut, 10th (Ducati Corse). 1997: 9th. 1998: 11th. (Kawasaki). 1999: British Superbikes, 4th (Ducati). 2000: Won British Superbikes, 12th in World Superbikes. 2001: World Superbikes, 5th. 2002: World Superbikes, 3rd. 2003: World Superbikes, champion.

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