Motorcycle road racing is a gladiatorial throwback, a refreshing antidote to the obsessive forces of health & safety. And Ian Hutchinson is one of the sport’s most remarkable performers
Wander around any motorcycle racing paddock and a limp is standard issue for many competitors, past or present. It goes with the territory: always has, always will. Bike racers have a reputation for shrugging off tumbles and carrying on regardless, maintaining competitive momentum while nursing injuries that would sideline other sports professionals for weeks if not months.
Yet even by the hardy standards of his domain, Ian Hutchinson is a case apart.
To a lesser degree, that extends to the circumstances of this interview. We’d been planning to host a podcast with the 14-time TT winner, but had been told by a third party that he was no longer available. Hence we were sitting in the office, anticipating a normal day, when ‘Hutchy’ wandered in unannounced at 9.30 one morning. Time, then, to sit down for a chat about his newly released book – aptly titled Miracle Man – and one of the most remarkable triumph-over-adversity tales in any sport.
Unlike most racers, Hutchinson didn’t come from a motor sport background. Considering this it must have been puzzling for his parents when he continually jumped out of his pram every time a motorcycle passed.
His parents actively tried to deter his penchant for bikes and he had to content himself with a friend’s Yamaha TY80. A few years later, at Bingley Grammar School, an older boy – Martin Crosswaite – was British Youth Trials champion and Hutchy was desperate to have a go on his bike. He did, finally, only to fall off and puncture an artery in his knee. Returning to his parents with half his leg in a cast didn’t help their love of the sport.
They did relent eventually – his father even got a trials bike himself – and they set off for the local quarry, Hutchy in a full-face helmet with no visor and his father in wellies and corduroys. “We had no idea what you were supposed to wear,” he says.
When he turned 17 he immediately took his road test and soon started heading off with “A group of lads that were three or four years older. It made me faster, I think, because they had a few years of experience. We were pretty crazy on the roads and used to go from Bingley to a place called Devil’s Bridge, Kirby Lonsdale, and then up to the Lake District around Coniston. We used to set off at 6am on a Sunday morning and never see a car.”
Road riding soon turned to track days, which equally swiftly became club racing. Even then, though, it was purely a matter of fun for the future TT winner. During this period Hutchy also visited the Isle of Man for the first time: “We went to the TT every year; we used to go in a van, haul the bikes out and lay a mattress down to sleep on the prom. I was in my late teens and that’s when I was doing those wheelies on the Fireblade, which many have seen [a young Hutchy stars in TT: Closer to the Edge doing exactly that]. I was never really interested in racing there when we went. We used to watch a bit and then go down the back streets and do wheelies, stunts and stuff. That’s all I was bothered about.
“On Mad Sunday [when they close the roads and anyone can ride around the TT course] we used to cut through Laxey because we all wanted to do The Mountain as much as possible. We didn’t cover the full lap.”
One of Hutchy’s friends did the Manx Newcomers race in 2002 (the amateur TT for rookies) and finished fourth. “I was doing better than him in club racing so I thought, ‘I want to have a go now’.” Hutchy headed to the 2003 newcomers race on a Honda CBR600 road bike. He set the fastest-ever lap at that level, and won. The following year the TT beckoned and, equipped with very little knowledge of the layout, he set off for the Isle of Man. “I didn’t know the course for years because I didn’t learn it like they do now, when they ride around and around, when they drive laps in a car, learn off DVDs. I never did any of that. I knew The Mountain reasonably well from Mad Sundays, but even then we were on a wing and a prayer, we didn’t learn it properly, we were just taking it as it came.
“I was leading the Superstock race in 2006 on the McAdoo Kawasaki and came to a part called Alpine Cottage [a very fast right-hander], but I wasn’t 100 per cent sure which corner it was. Obviously I’d been through it loads of times beforehand, but I’ll never forget having a really vague moment thinking ‘Oh, where does this go?’ That was how unseriously I took it at the start!”
What followed, though, was an incredible run of success for someone who didn’t initially know which way the track went: 2007 – first win, 2009 – two wins, 2010 – five wins. After winning all five races in a week Hutchy was riding a wave; what could possibly go wrong?
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In the immediate slipstream of that historic run of victories he fell during a wet British Supersport Championship race at Silverstone. In the resulting scramble his leg was run over by another rider and he fractured his left tibia and fibula.
“I’ve been lucky. The only thing I had damaged before the accident was a collarbone and it took two weeks to fix [plus that punctured artery on the trials bike]. I had it plated and raced in Macau two weeks later. When this one happened, though, my leg was dangling off and my bone was out of the back of my leathers. I just thought it was the end of the world. I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to this point, why does it have to end?’ You just think how much you’ve put in to get to a point where you’re winning and it’s just about to be really good, you’re going to get the rewards, and then that happens. Yeah, it was terrible, but I was thinking it might be a straightforward break through the leg. ‘Don’t panic yet,’ I thought, but obviously it wasn’t.”
Hutchy was airlifted to a Coventry hospital where it was discovered that there was no blood supply to his foot. Unbeknownst to the doctors one of the three arteries in Hutchy’s leg survived, but his foot was going blue and they wanted it off.
“I was screaming and shouting, ‘No matter what you do, don’t take my leg off!’ They didn’t know what I did or who I was. Eventually somebody got through to them that they needed to try to save it because I was a bike racer; it was my living. They took me down to theatre and put a really rough bar down the side of it. They bolted it in just to keep it straight and left it three or four days to see if it would settle down and stay alive. I was then lucky that another surgeon came along, who hadn’t been there on Sunday. He’d seen my X-rays on the screen, came in talk to me and said ‘I’d like a go at saving your leg’.”
He started by fitting an external fixator, but the blood supply was still poor – large chunks of skin were dying and when the fixator was finally removed after a year the leg was bare back to the bone with three-inch by two-inch pieces with no skin at all.
* * *
Determined not to lose the Midas touch Hutchy immediately entered the 2011 Macau Grand Prix and, unbelievably, led the race and finished third.
Later in the conversation talk turns to Macau: “It’s the scariest place in the world, it really is. It’s a crazy place to race motorbikes. God knows who thought of it. Every year I go there and the build-up is so scary I always think ‘I am never coming back here.’ We don’t even get paid to go there – you get a couple of grand if you win it and I just think ‘What am I doing?’ But then as soon as the race is finished you can’t wait to come back the year after. It just lures you in.”
Back to late 2011 and Hutchy, with his leg still not 100 per cent, was still undergoing operations. There was hope, but that was dashed early in 2012 when he fell off a child’s motorbike at the ExCel Motorcycle Show and broke his leg. “I thought, ‘Every time I fall off my leg’s going to snap; it’s not strong enough to race any more.’ I went back to my surgeon straight away and said ‘I am not going to any hospitals down here. I want to go to Coventry and that’s it.’ He had no idea why it had broken again. He put a frame on it and said, ‘It’s a low-energy, straightforward fracture; the best form of repair is a frame again. It should take three months.’ That meant I could still do the North West and the TT.”
An X-ray a month later showed the bone starting to heal, so the surgeon told Hutchy to stay away for eight weeks, because too many X-rays which would affect his recovery, and then he could remove the frame again. Things still looked OK for the North West 200 and the TT.
At the start of April the frame was due to come off, but there had been no healing and the area was rife with infection. At least now they knew why it had broken so easily the second time – the break had healed around the infected bone. The only way to sort it was via bone transport where they remove a section of bone either side of the infection, break the leg higher up and then literally pull the appropriate parts together. Hutchy’s reaction was: “There’s no way I can miss the TT again. I asked, ‘Can you make me a light cast to wear so that I can go and do the TT just to keep my eye in? After I come back we can start this bone transport thing.’ He obviously thought I was mad.”
The first problem was that the aforementioned cast wouldn’t go under his leathers, so Hutchy made his own from carbon fibre. He did the North West and TT, as promised, and finished sixth in the 600cc
race. Not bad for someone just trying to
keep their eye in.
The bone transport then started: “It was the worst thing I have ever done. It took about four and a half months to pull the bone down my leg and then another year for it to heal and grow strong enough. Then it was back to August/September when the frame was coming off and I wanted to do Macau again.” He’d been out for 18 months, but set pole position and won.
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Since then Hutchy has gone on to win six more Isle of Man TTs in a story worthy of a Hollywood film. It hasn’t been easy, though, even with an almost fully functioning leg. “In 2014, when I rode the Yamahas, we didn’t have a Superstock bike so I went to watch that race at Barregarrow. Seeing the guys through there I thought, ‘If that’s what you’ve got to do to win I’m never winning again.’ It was absolutely crazy what they were making the bikes do. I think if you do watch it’s totally different to what we feel. I just looks wrong.”
Some would consider it wrong to put yourself through all of that, but his story is one of wonderful natural talent and gritty determination, a never-say-die mentality and a will to win beyond that of any normal human being. Nobody knows quite how many TT victories he will accumulate, but there is no doubt that his is one of the most remarkable island stories.