The 135 man

When Peter Hickman went to the Isle of Man TT for the first time it was because he had no choice. Race on the roads or stop racing. Now he’s the man to beat as the reigning Senior TT winner and the outright lap record holder

Last year Peter Hickman completed the set. He finally added an Isle of Man TT victory to his Northwest 200, Ulster Grand Prix and Macau Grand Prix success. The 32 year old is the only rider in history to have posted a 135mph lap. He is the man to beat again this year but how did it all come about?

Hickman, from Lincolnshire, was an established British Superbike rider in 2014 but his career was reaching a crucial turning point. At 27 years of age he needed to make a choice; keep finding money to go racing or face a future without it. The winter of 2013 was spent ensuring he was ready for the year that would ultimately define his career.

The following year he would tackle the international road races for the first time. Making his debut at the Northwest 200 would give him an idea of what to expect but the TT would be the centre point of his season. It would also prove to be the turning point of his career.

Hickman had ran out of options in BSB and with only three top five finishes in over 150 BSB starts the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook with offers of riders. Within a year he had turned being the fastest ever newcomer at the TT into rides that allowed him to become a BSB race winner.

At the time the goal was to find a way to stay in the British Championship. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it without a big checkbook. I never had a big checkbook so I had to find another way to keep racing bikes. At the time one of the ways I could do that, and the cheapest way, was to try some road racing. I didn’t fancy doing all the kind of national Irish stuff but I fancied the Northwest, the TT, the Ulster and Macau. That’s was why I decided to have a go at it. Then it turned out that I’m all right at it!

Is it scary? For me not really. A lot of riders say they’re nervous and not sure about things. My first ever road race was the Northwest 200 in 2014, and on the run down to University I was absolutely flat out and doing nearly 200 mph on first lap through the speed trap! I’d never been there before but I prepared and learned the track. I knew where I was going and I knew it was a straight line. It didn’t scare me. I was confident in myself to be able to do it. So I just kind of got on, really.

After my first night at the TT it was difficult to find the words to describe it. Doing 190mph down a public road is just an unreal experience but most of all it was a really enjoyable experience. I felt really comfortable out there straight away, didn’t push hard and just concentrating on learning as much as possible. It was a different experience on the closed roads compared to the laps I did on open roads to prepare for the TT. Obviously you can use both sides of the road and there’s nothing coming the other way! There were bumps in places I never realised there’d be bumps.

I was the fastest ever newcomer and I ended up getting a good BSB ride off the back of it and I’ve never looked back since. With a decent BSB ride I actually won a race. For that people started to think ‘Oh, he can actually win races in BSB.’ I never looked back from that point.”

Indeed he hasn’t. Hickman is now a regular contender in BSB. He’s been into the showdown, the championship decider for the top six riders, for the last two years. Hickman is now a bone fide star of the British championship. He’s a man in demand. It’s all so very different compared to when he was forced to race on the roads initially.

Making that decision to make the switch at 27 also offers Hickman some perspective. Would he have raced on the roads at five or six years earlier? Probably not. Having the benefit of that added experience and extra maturity to understand his own limits allowed him to jump into the road racing crucible as a contender.

I go to the TT because I enjoy it. I go because I want to be there. I’m not going for a big cheque. I go there because I want to. Initially I went to the TT because I wanted to keep riding. At the time I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ Road racing was an option. I was mature enough. I was 27 and I’d been riding big bikes for ten years. I had experience in the Superstock and Superbike classes and I felt that I had enough experience. I felt that I was mature enough in myself to not ride like a dickhead and keep myself alive.

I don’t know what I would have been like if I went racing at the TT when I was 21 or 22 years old. I don’t think that I would have gone at that point and, to be honest, I’m not sure whether people should race over there that early. I had learned all my craft on short circuits.

Obviously the worst can still happen at a short circuit but in general pretty safe. So all my mistakes I made, all the crashes I had and all that, 99% of the time I was absolutely fine. The young lads that come here and road race and do the Irish road racing and TT and all that when they’re young, they’re making mistakes on roads with massive consequences. That’s tough. Then they don’t have the safety barrier, if you like, to be able to push beyond the limit, get it wrong and understand why and how and learn from it because the consequences are so high.”

Those consequences are all too easy to remember at the TT. Every stretch of road has a story. Those stories are typically not easy reading. Riding on the roads takes a commitment that few can fathom. Do riders ride with those thoughts on their mind? Do they ride easier through the races? Are they riding within themselves?

The way you ride on the roads is different but you’re still pushing at 100%. I think that it’s a mistake to think that a short circuit rider is going at 95% when they race on the roads. You still push as hard as you o the roads but it is different. It’s hard to explain. You don’t ride in the same way. You don’t push the front anywhere near what you do at BSB. You don’t ride the front into the corners really hard. You don’t lean over as much, because there’s not as much grip. So it’s not because you don’t want to or you aren’t able to do what short circuit riders can do. The reason it’s different is because there isn’t as much grip on the track. Without the grip you can’t ride the same.

You find the limit in a different way. A lot of the corners at the TT lead onto really long straights.Any kind of corner that leads onto a long straight, and you might have a two mile straight, you need to lose a little bit going into the corner so that you can gain lots coming out. If you do that in BSB you’d get hammered because the straights aren’t that long. Because you’re making sure to setup the exit you’re braking earlier. For me I’m way more relaxed on the roads because I’m braking way earlier than where I know I could. A lot of my success on the roads comes from racing in the British championship.

The competition in BSB is at such a high level. The way you have to ride in BSB is so different and a much faster way of riding than how we ride at the Isle of Man TT or the Northwest. For me when I go to race on the roads I’m almost taking a step back compared to how I have to ride in BSB. I still ride hard but it’s different.

It’s interest for Dean Harrison and more and more of the roads riders that are doing the full BSB season now. They get the benefit of racing but they also have a problem because the focus for them is obviously on the road races but by racing in BSB the risk of crashing is higher. You push to the limit and beyond on short circuuits and it can take time to figure out where that limit is. If you crash and end up hurting yourself then you could miss out on the road racing season.

I’m the opposite; I’m a short circuit racer that comes road racing. I don’t have to worry about not hurting myself doing because both are just as important for me. I’ll be doing BSB and that’s my focus. Once that’s done and I’m doing a road race it becomes my focus. If there’s another BSB I’ll do that, and then go back to a road race. It’s a bit different. The TT is the big race, for road racing at least, and it’s obviously a main focus of minebut once the TT is done I’ll BSB on my mind again.”

Will the pressure of being the favourite change things for Hickman. He’s got a target on his back as a Senior TT winner, lap record holder and the rider that came from behind on the last lap 12 months ago to win the biggest prize. Hickman does his best to play down that pressure.

The TT is such a diverse place. It’s so unique. It’s so long and it goes through so many different types of tarmac and areas of the island. It changes all the time. It goes from narrow and bumpy to being wide open and smooth. It’s got bit uphill and downhill sections while other bits are quite flat. Some of it is blind. Some of it you can see easily. It’s very, very different.

Before I won my first TT I always said that the pressure was on the people that have already won races. Once you’ve won a TT you can’t really go back. You know you can win and want to do it again. Now that I’ve won one I’ve kind of changed my mind! I’m now saying, ‘I’ve won one so now the pressure’s on the people who haven’t won one!’”

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