Mat Oxley

The TT's biggest hero

There is no doubt that John McGuiness is an athlete. Anyone who wrestles a 200-horsepower, 165kg motorcycle around bumpy Manx roads, averaging 128mph for an hour and 45 minutes, deserves to be so called. But McGuinness isn't your normal athlete — he's five foot nine and weighs 14 stone.

There is a theory that the Lancastrian's generous frame is more of an advantage than a disadvantage around the Mountain circuit. Motorcycles travelling at 190mph over the often hellishly bumpy course spend much of their time close to take-off, so perhaps a little extra weight helps keep them grounded.

McGuinness isn't so sure. "I've never been a 10-stone jockey so I don't know' says the 19-time TT winner, who's so down to earth he's almost muddy. "But I know that guys like Joey Dunlop and Steve Hislop were like pipecleaners, and they wrestled their bikes around and won a lot of TTs.

The first week of June is the most important of the year for McGuinness: race week on the Isle of Man. But you can be sure he's not been spending hours in the gym, training for the event that has defined his life. Instead he believes in bike fitness — hours and hours on all kinds of motorcycles — to prepare his body for the terrifying ordeal of the Manx roads.

"You just can't beat being on a bike," says the 41-year-old, who rides off-road bikes as often as he can and competes in the World Endurance Championship, taking in the Le Mans 24 Hours and other long-distance events. "Doing the endurance stuff has definitely improved my bike fitness, which really helps when I come here."

We are driving around the TT course in a hire car, McGuinness (nicknamed McPint, for obvious reasons) talking us through the 250 or so corners and generally chit-chatting.

"If I walked up that hill over there I'd be a right mess by the time I got to the top, but half a dozen laps around here and I'm all right. You'd have to kill me to stop me on any bike: motocross bikes, enduro bikes, anything. You know all these gym jockeys; I'd fight them to the death on a bike. It's not me being a smart-arse, it's just the way it is. I'm embarrassed about my weight, but I feel 18 years old when I'm on the motorcycle."

This June McGuinness hopes to become only the second rider to achieve 20 TT wins, after Joey Dunlop, who had won 26 TTs by the time he lost his life in an obscure road-racing event in Estonia in July 2001.

Although there are younger riders snapping at his heels, he still knows more than anyone how to win this most demanding, most dangerous of motor sport events.

"You need an economical style," he says. "A lot of people put that much energy into it that they're huffing and puffing and they don't breathe properly because they're holding on too hard. That comes with time; you can't educate people on that.

People are already talking about McGuinness breaking Dunlop's record, but he knows he would be a fool to take aim at 27 wins. "If you were just starting out doing the TT, you'd think seven wins would be all right for your whole career. I've still got seven to go just to match him, so it feels a long, long way away to me.

The TT races (broadcast on ITV4 throughout race week) are swathed in more than a century of myth, folklore and mortality. McGuinness knows the risks better than anyone, which is why he likes to put his financial affairs in order, mow the lawn and wash the car before he heads for the ferry from Morecambe, the town of his birth. "Every year it hits home when I'm walking out of the house," he says. "F*** me, I hope I get back."