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Two Wheel Obsession

Cycling is widely used as a cross-training exercise by sportsmen and women from various other disciplines as part of their regular training regimes. Even if only occasionally, swapping 200kw for 0.2kw may seem a retrograde step for real rev-heads, but Honda’s Johnny Rea has found the path to enlightenment on his pushbike. Eamon Fitzpatrick caught up with the World Superbike rider to find out more.

Most sportspeople are called by their surname only. However some are always called by their full name. With a name that just rolls off the tongue like Johnny Rea, he falls into neatly into this category. Commentators, fans and friends alike all call him by his full name so I shall do the same.

You’re probably wondering what on earth a Superbike rider is doing on the pages of a cycling magazine. Well, Johnny Rea is not only a contender for the World Superbike title; he also happens to be right into pedal power and thus is keen to talk to us about it. He had just arrived back to his Australian home at Phillip Island after a stint of testing in Europe, so I gave him a bell.

His phone rang several times before the unmistakable sound of rushing wind and panting came down the line. I introduced myself and the equally unmistakable accent of an Irishman answers, “Oh, hi! Can I call you back in half an hour? I’m just out on the bike.” He wasn’t talking about a motorbike either because he, ironically, doesn’t have his motorbike licence!

We don’t condone as answering your phone whilst riding but this instantly put my mind at ease. Not only was he a true Irishman that I could fully understand, he was also at the very least, semi serious about pushbike riding.

At the time of this interview he was preparing for the first round of the World Superbike series. Extremely generous with his time, he offered to take me on a cycle tour of Phillip Island, followed later in the week with a back stage pass to see him in action on his Pata Honda Superbike.

Cycling has been a favourite cross training and rehab tool for people from other sports for quite a while now, but how could pushbike riding be used to benefit a motorbike rider?

When Johnny Rea jumped from Motocross to Supersport circuit racing (one level below Superbikes) in 2008, there was an underlying party culture on tour. He explains that “Other guys would go out drinking and partying… Enjoying the good life.” Being the young kid on the block, he naturally thought this party vibe was pretty good, so joined in.

Although he was brought up with a good work ethic and values, he often relied on his natural talent for his success. He always thought he could one day be a good motorbike rider but never took it too seriously. He was riding the wave of his early success.

One year on, there came a couple of game changers for Johnny Rea.

He signed his first Superbike contract which meant he now had to take a step up, as they say. It gave him belief that he was capable of making a good living off the sport. It now became a job to become the best he could possibly be, not just something he was naturally good at.

The other came in the form of former teammate Andrew Pitt. He was into cycling.

Because of the odd hours of Johnny Rea’s workdays, he found he had plenty of time on his hands when his mates were at their more regular jobs. So he bought himself a Specialized road bike.

The roads and weather of Belfast aren’t favourable for a pleasant cycle and he confesses, “That old Specialized never got a lot of miles because I never really got hooked on it [cycling].”

He decided to pack up his belongings and make the move across the way to the Isle of Man, home of the famous Isle TT, where fearless men ride motorbikes at ludicrous speeds on the narrow streets, risking life and limb for glory.

It so happened that Pitt also based himself out of the Isle of Man. Johnny Rea dusted off the Specialized and started to join Andrew on the local group rides. A far cry from the solo rides in Belfast, he discovered that bunch rides can be quite a social experience. After a couple of months of being dropped he started to see some real improvement.

The thing with cycling is, the more you put in, the more you get out. The more Johnny Rea trained, the more he put his riding buddies in pain, which being a competitive man, he really enjoys.

Just start talking about cycling and Johnny’s face lights up. He really loves the science of it.

“You can see improvements so easily… You can feel it in your body. You can feel if you have form or not.”

“When you have form, you come back [from your ride] and your day is amazing!”

“Wife knows you’ve had a great ride when you bound through the door and your mate is moping… Cycling gives you that kind of buzz when you’re going well.”

If pedalling along at 30-40kph gives you a buzz, I can only wonder what 300km/h on two wheels does to you!

His personal sponsor, Red Bull, has always provided him with a high performance program to look after his strength and conditioning but he has taken it upon himself to ‘go the extra mile’ and use cycling as physical and mental preparation for his sport.

You get the sense that with the down-time he gets away from competition, practice and testing, cycling fills that void by providing him the opportunity to keep the competitive juices flowing. It may keep him focused for his sport but you can’t help but think that cycling has taken on a life of its own now.

It’s funny how cycling grows on people; you see it time and time again. Once used to fill the boring hours of the day, now a healthy obsession which not only has a by-product of keeping him physically strong but also focused and hungry for success in life.

Interestingly, he mentions to me that if he could do it all again, he would love to be a cyclist.

“The lifestyle and winning as a team I miss quite a lot, because in my sport, once the lights go out there is nothing my guys can do.”

Certainly his team do a massive job and Jonathan is the first to admit that his team are “constantly in the workshop, working on the bike. Through the weekend, they’re in the garage til midnight whilst I’m snoozing.”

One of the biggest misconceptions of cycling is that it is an individual sport. We do have individual winners but in the pro ranks you would very rarely have a winner without a huge workload from his or her team. And they will celebrate and share each other’s success. 

I went to his garage on race day. The Superbike sat in silence in the middle of the garage, plugged into a cord which drops down from the ceiling and feeding information back to multiple computers. Its tyres were being warmed to optimum temperature and Johnny Rea was quietly being briefed by three men in the corner. It takes four guys to start up the beast but it is left til the final seconds to unwrap, unplug and breathe life into the impressive machine.

Fifteen seconds later, Johnny Rea was hammering around the Phillip Island Circuit at close to 300kph. It is a very intense atmosphere (and somewhat superstitious I suspect) once the boys are on the track. The team all have a very specific role in getting that bike around as quickly as possible. Guys sit around the rather small garage in silence. Some watching graphs on computer monitors, others watching the live telecast, some watching the action from the pit wall, all monitoring performance. It is a game of split seconds and imminent danger, so it is full-focus for all.

Johnny Rea returned to the pits, instantly handing his bike over to the mechanics and proceeded to his corner for some technical debriefing. Everyone goes about their specific roles in a very segmented way, with little fuss.

Such a complex sport requires experts in very specific roles and you can’t have success without a great group working with a common goal, but the whole process is very clinical and mechanical and it suddenly becomes clear to me what Johnny Rea means when he says he misses being part of a team sport.

Not only is cycling a very social sport, it gives you the opportunity to see things differently. As a cyclist, what you consider normal won’t necessarily be normal to someone else, the Irishman explains. “I could get on the phone tonight to a mate back home and be like, ‘yeah, a journalist was here and we went for a ride and there was a kangaroo on the road… He would be like, ‘what? There was a what? There was a Kangaroo!?’”

“To you and I, that’s normal.” 

Despite growing up as an indoors kid, he boasts that he can now show his nature loving, Phillip Island-local wife parts of the Island or the Isle she hasn’t seen.  He wouldn’t have seen them either if he hadn’t fallen in love with cycling.

Cycling is a sport with people from all walks of life. Whether it is your local doctor, builder, businessman or World Superbike contender. It is a pure thrill which has this ability to join people together with a common bond. It takes you places, physically and mentally, you wouldn’t have normally gone. For me, this moment was one of them: Hanging out with Johnny Rea at a local cafe after a ride, sharing cycling stories. That is what cycling is all about: competition, friendships and unexpected adventures. 

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