Blessed by nature?


The third of our four Hall of Fame blogs examines the dazzling skills of the so-called natural riders: Freddie Spencer, Kevin Schwantz and Casey Stoner

People often talk about naturally talented bike racers, but does such a thing as natural talent to ride a motorcycle actually exist?

It seems unlikely. Our distant ancestor homo erectus lived 1.9 million years ago, while the motorcycle, in any useful form, arrived a little over a hundred years ago, which works out as 0.005 percent of mankind’s time on earth. It doesn’t seem possible that in such a short time a gene might exist that allows some of us to control machinery better than others.

Of course, some people do have superior hand-to-eye coordination, spatial awareness, bravery and so on, but the riders we believe to be blessed with natural talent for riding motorcycle actually have nothing of the sort.

There is, however, something that unites all the greatest so-called natural talents: a childhood spent hooning around on minibikes. And possibly none more so than Freddie Spencer, Casey Stoner and Kevin Schwantz.

All three of these men seemed beyond mortal when they raced. They were capable of doing things on a motorcycle that would make even their greatest rivals blink and gulp in awe. (I use the past tense for Stoner, because he is a retired racer until he says otherwise.)

Spencer was like that on Honda’s superb NS500 triple in the early 1980s, sliding the front and rear tyres, modulating the throttle to increase or decrease load and grip to the front and rear as he deemed appropriate.

But this wasn’t some talent that had been blessed upon him. Fast Freddie learned his abilities as a kid, doing the hard yards in the backyard of the family home in Louisiana.

“I’d be out in the rain, using the wet leaves and the slick Louisiana clay, trying to learn to change direction at any lean angle. When it was dry I’d carry more speed, throw the bike in on its side, snap it around and pop it up. I’d use the front brake too because the front brake controls the gyroscopic effect of the front wheel.

“I could judge when the bike would stop sliding. Right at the apex I’d pick it up, so it’s pivoting around the front and the front’s not pushing anymore, then I could just drift turn. Think how important that is in a 130mph sweeper – when you’ve got the bike on its side you know exactly where it’s going to end up. When I was on top of my game I could go through that 130mph corner on a four-inch-wide line lap after lap.”

Spencer’s awe-inspiring precision took him to the 1983 500 world championship and to the 1985 250/500 double. Both are historic achievements: his first title was Honda’s first in the premier class and his 250/500 double is unique and unlikely to be matched. Sadly, the rest of his career was a long and slippery downward slope, cursed by injury. Surgeons struggled for years to fix bone and nerve damage to his neck and right hand but never quite managed it.

Schwantz walked into the Grand Prix paddock as Spencer was on the way out. The Texan – who did all kinds of off-road competition when he was a kid – had that same ability to make onlookers dizzy with admiration and confusion, although his talent was usually applied with more recklessness than Spencer’s.

Sometimes he crashed because his skill made things almost too easy. At the 1989 Spanish GP at Jerez he was leading by half a mile when he slid off for no real reason. His excuse? “I was in La La Land.”

There is little doubt that the 1993 500 world champion would have won more world titles if he had left Suzuki and signed for Honda or Yamaha. Suzuki’s race department was (and still is) a tiny outfit staffed by a few dozen engineers, so they always struggle to amass the resources to beat the bigger factories.

However, it’s worth pointing out that Schwantz never wanted to ride for ‘King’ Kenny Roberts’ factory-backed Marlboro Yamaha squad. There just wasn’t enough room in the pit box for those two egos.

Vote for Stoner, Schwantz and Spencer here.

“If I’d ridden a Yamaha for Kenny I probably would’ve had a pretty short career because I would have told him to get fucked real early,” says Schwantz. “When I used to beat Wayne [Rainey] I’d listen to Kenny giving him shit. Kenny would be going, what did you do, you stupid son of a bitch?! If that had been me, I’d have punched him.”

Instead Schwantz stayed faithful to Suzuki, making something of a legend of the factory’s quick-turning but woefully inconsistent RGV500. The RGV was superb on its day but the bike had an incredibly small set-up window, which made it impossible for Schwantz to deliver a serious title challenge, at least until Suzuki signed former HRC engineer Stuart Shenton.

Schwantz attributes his 1993 title success to Shenton more than anyone else, but he should also attribute it to his fearlessness, which allowed him to exploit his talent where others feared to tread.

“I enjoyed places like Spa-Francorchamps – I really liked those fucking fast lefts (the awe-inspiring Armco-lined 150mph Blanchimont]. I remember getting pole there and hearing Gardner, Lawson or someone saying, ‘I don’t know what the fuck Kevin’s doing out there – obviously nothing scares him’. I wasn’t smart enough to realise the imminent danger, but places like that allowed me to make a gap over the other guys. Suzuka was the same. Most of the other guys would go: ‘fuck, the guardrail’s right by the track in that 120mph turn…’”

Stoner had his first fun on a motorcycle about the same time Schwantz started scaring his rivals in GPs.

“When I was 18 months old I was doing the throttle on a Pee Wee [Yamaha PW50], sitting on the bike, with my cousin on the back, turning the throttle,” he says.

Stoner was a pure racer in every sense of the word: he despised the razzmatazz that surrounds MotoGP and never liked racing with traction control. Like his fellow ‘naturals’ he is happiest on the dirt, meting out torque to the rear tyre according to the available grip via those three vital parts of the racer’s anatomy: the backside, the right hand and the brain. No electronics required other than his buzzing synapses.

“I’d rather race without traction control,” he told me some years ago. “When I won the 2007 title I was hammered for being the new-age rider who just trusted the traction control. Finally, people are starting to realise that I use less than anyone. I like it that way, I feel much better with the bike.”

Stoner made rivals goggle-eyed in awe, just as Spencer and Schwantz did before him and just as Marc Marquez does now. He did things on a bike that seemed to defy the laws of physics, so much so that he took some rivals close to insanity. In 2008 Toni Elias raced a Ducati Desmosedici just like Stoner’s. Like everyone else the Spaniard struggled with the big Duke. In an effort to work his way out of his difficulties he decided to examine Stoner’s data for clues. But that only made things worse because he realised the impossibility of mimicking the Aussie’s riding technique. “If I look at Casey’s data I become crazy!” said Elias.

Perhaps that should be the definition of those riders we like to call natural riders: someone who sends rivals crazy with jealousy and befuddlement.

Vote for Stoner, Schwantz and Spencer here.

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