Hutchy’s pain, torture and glory
In June 2010 Ian Hutchinson did what no one had managed to do in more than a century of motorcycle racing on the Isle of Man: he won five TT races in one week.
Hutchinson’s success is all the more remarkable considering his late entry into the sport. He started racing when he was 21, so he is a very different creature from today’s MotoGP dominators, who mostly began when they were four or five.
Born just a few months after Valentino Rossi, Hutchy had just bought his first road bike and was doing his motorcycle mechanic’s apprenticeship when Rossi won his first world championship. So he is very old-school: his love of speed came from misbehaving on Her Majesty’s highway, not by grinding out endless laps around minimoto tracks.
“From the first time I got a road bike when I was 17 I was pretty disrespectful on the roads – I was lucky to get away with it,” says the 36-year-old from Bingley, West Yorkshire. “We used to get up at 6am on a Sunday morning and set off to the Lake District.”
Inevitably, Hutchy’s love of bikes and speed took him to the Isle of Man with a few friends. During that first TT visit they spectated at Rhencullen, a notorious right/left kink between the walls, taken at 140mph with the front wheel hanging in the air.
“It was fantastic, unbelievable to watch there, but I never once thought ‘I want to do this’. I still didn’t have a clue about racing. We were obsessed with the Mad Sunday thing [when part of the 37-mile course is opened to road riders: one-way traffic, no speed limit]. We did lap after lap.”
Four years later, with much the same inevitability, Hutchy started racing on short circuits. In 2003 he was back at the TT, doing pit-board duty for David Jefferies, a work colleague and at that time the undisputed king of the island. That was the year DJ died in a 160mph crash during practice week. “When the news came through I was devastated. But at the end of race week I went to Douglas casino and won 300 quid, so I stuffed it in an envelope, filled in an entry form and gave it to the organisers of the Manx GP [the amateur TT].”
Hutchinson won his first TT in 2007, three years before his five in a week, an astonishing achievement around a racetrack where merely living to tell the tale is an achievement.
Although even the best TT racers can’t be sure of enjoying a long career, Hutchy at least had joined the pantheon. However, his joy was short-lived. Just weeks after he made history his career very nearly ended; ironically at Silverstone, a track that’s immeasurably safer than the TT.
Injury is a given in motorcycle racing – a lot of limping goes on in bike racing paddocks – but few riders have had to endure what Hutchinson went through over the next five years.
Surgeon after surgeon told him they had no option but to amputate his shattered lower left leg. Hutchy would have nothing of it. “I said to them from the start: ‘I don’t want my leg repairing so I can walk, I want it repairing so I can race.’ That was always the thing.”
Two years later he re-broke the leg because the bones were infected. More operations followed – surgeons removed the fibula bone, encased the leg in an internal fixator and once again came close to amputating the limb. Meanwhile his gear shifter was switched to the right side of his bike, because he could no longer change gear with his left foot. It took a total of 30 operations to save the leg, including one op from which he awoke convinced he was on his way to meet his maker.
“A lot of the skin had died because I’d lost two of the arteries that feed blood to the foot. You could see the tendons and bone, so the surgeons said, ‘This a real problem: if we can’t cover the bone, we’ll have to take your leg off.’
“I wouldn’t let it go; I said, ‘Try anything, I don’t care what goes wrong, just try anything.’ So they took me into theatre and took a lot of skin from the thigh. That was a 12-hour op. The next morning they came in and the leg was all purple, it wasn’t looking good, so they took me back into theatre. That was a 16-hour op.
“I came around in the middle of the night, having scary hallucinations because of all the drugs. It was dark and eerie, with orange lighting and machines bleeping. This time they’d taken all the skin off my back, so I was laid down and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t work out what was going on, so I asked where I was. A nurse said: ‘ICU’. Then all these weird thoughts went into my head that I’d died and I was on a space shuttle, being taken away. The only thing I was pissed off about was that I still had a frame on my leg – I thought, ‘If you’re dead you’d be brand new!’
“But I never considered giving up. Occasionally, doubts crept in that I might not be able to win again, but I tried my hardest to fight against those doubts.”
Hutchinson slaved over his rehab, always looking forward, never daring to look back. “Nobody has any idea of the pain, torture and worry I went through.”
Last June his grit was finally rewarded: he won another three TTs, beating John McGuinness, Michael Dunlop, the lot.
This year’s TT starts on June 4, with ITV4 showing every race.