The working wounded

Racers get hurt – it’s part of the job. The inevitability of injury and, more importantly, of riding injured is something that every bike racer has to accept; even Valentino Rossi.

Until his bone-crunching tumble during June’s Italian GP, Rossi had lived a charmed existence by motorcycle racing standards. He’d never missed a race since his World Championship debut in April 1996; that’s 230 consecutive events. Needless to say, no one else comes close to that record. It would be a remarkable achievement for any racer, but for one who’s spent so many years dancing on the edge of the precipice, it’s like he was blessed.

Which is why in the immediate aftermath of his accident (above), many people thought Rossi might quit bikes. After all, he’s 31 years old and teetering towards the twilight of his career. The fact that the shattered right tibia he sustained at Mugello is his first serious injury only added credence to the retirement theory: Rossi would be shocked by an agony he had never experienced and (having taken a good look at his bank balance and trophy room) would decide that the game was no longer worth the candle.

This assumption ignores the fact that Rossi is an intelligent man who knew full well that one day he was likely to get hurt. He must have been as surprised as the rest of us at his knack of avoiding injury. He certainly surprised everyone with his speedy return, bravely battling for a podium finish at the German GP just six weeks after Mugello.

Of course, Rossi has raced hurt before. He broke bones in his throttle hand at Assen in 2006, popped some pills, gritted his teeth and scored some points. Until that moment there were some people in MotoGP who still wondered if he was a real man. “Of course he’s fast,” they said. “He’s never been hurt.”

Rossi can handle pain, with a little help. After surgeons pinned the tibia he announced from his hospital bed that he was feeling good “because I’ve discovered a great rapport with morphine”.

Mick Doohan, the teak-tough Aussie who ruled MotoGP pre-Rossi, was different. He suffered horrible injuries but astounded surgeons by refusing heavy painkilling medication, saying: “I prefer to deal with the pain and not have a headache from the drugs.”

Doohan’s great rivals of the early ’90s also retired hurt; Wayne Rainey paralysed from the chest down at Misano in 1993, Kevin Schwantz torn apart by countless minor and not-so-minor injuries.

“I broke a lot of bones,” Schwantz recalls. “I’ve tried to count them but it’s not easy; overall it’s got to be 40 or 50.

During 1994 – Schwantz’s last full season – he broke his left hand for the third time. He should have undergone surgery and rested. Instead, he carried on racing, in grim agony. “I got [MotoGP medic] Dr Costa to do a quick fix and kept riding. The bones would dislocate every race and I’d get them reset Sunday night. I won at Donington, even though the bones dislocated halfway through the race. That evening I was in Costa’s with two guys hanging onto my upper arm, one guy hanging onto my hand and Costa poking around, popping the bones back into place.”

Motorcycle racing is now much less dangerous, thanks to better primary safety (safer race tracks and motorcycles) and better secondary safety (much-improved riding gear and medical back-up). But it is still dangerous, and while some developments make it safer – like traction control – others can make it more hazardous.

Rossi’s crash bears similarities with a rash of recent MotoGP accidents – it happened during morning practice when track temperatures were low. Other 2010 morning victims include Dani Pedrosa, Ben Spies, Mika Kallio, Alvaro Bautista, Hector Barbera, Marco Simoncelli, Marco Melandri, Nicky Hayden, Randy de Puniet and Hiroshi Aoyama; or half the grid. The solution is simple: rewrite the tyre rules to give riders more than two compound choices, so they can run softer tyres that actually work in cool conditions.