The Ultimate Race: Conor Cummins talks TT 2016
On the eve of the 2016 TT, Conor Cummins talks about the win that would define his career and why he's willing to lay it all on the line.
Don't call Conor Cummins a madman. You'd be hard pressed to find a more laidback, likeable character, but as one of the world's best motorcycle road racers and a 10-year veteran of the Isle of Man TT, Cummins is used to having his sanity questioned. And he's getting a bit tired of it. 'It annoys me,' says Cummins a week before the start of this year's TT, 'but I don't think people do it intentionally, they just don't understand what we do.'
What Cummins does is race motorbikes flat-out around road circuits like the TT in the Isle of Man - 37.73 miles known as the Snaefell Mountain Course and one of the world's most unforgiving sporting arenas. The TT doesn't offer run-offs and gravel traps, but trees, walls and houses. The margin for error is infinitesimal and riders can - and do - pay the ultimate price.
Cummins was one of the lucky ones, coming back to the sport just nine months after a horrific crash in the Senior TT Race in 2010 left him with multiple breaks, a dislocated knee and ligament damage.
Quitting the sport wasn't on his mind though. 'It wasn't going to be a mental decision, it was going to be a physical one,' says Cummins. 'My injuries were that bad there were some uncertainties. My head was in gear but if your body doesn't allow it there's nothing you can do.'
The element of risk
The crash featured in the superb documentary Closer to the Edge, which was marketed with the tagline, 'Just because you're breathing doesn't mean you're alive.' For a lot of people it was their first glimpse of the TT and watching a race can be a very visceral experience, something Cummins appreciates.
'From the outside looking in you can totally understand the reaction you get,' he says. 'But at the same time it's like, hang on, we're not monkeys, we know what we're doing. People must think we're being forced to do it with a gun to our head. We make choices as people do. It's like playing poker, you choose to either play this hand or not. Obviously there's still an element of risk but you've made the decision. For someone to say it's madness or that you're mental, I mean you take it on the chin but actually, no I'm not, far from it. Every decision we make, split second decisions, are calculated and I love it.'
The passion is real. 'We want to bring the event to the masses,' says Cummins. 'There's the safety brigade who are quite happy to jump on the bandwagon and say this is madness and should be banned, but there's danger in every walk of life. You can fall down the stairs! It bloody angers me when people say it should be banned. It's just an insult really.'
Oil in the blood
Road racing is in his DNA. His dad, Billy Cummins, contested the TT himself and is still racing at the age 53. Conor was born during TT week in 1986 and turned professional in 2006. 'There are a few different paths you can take in bike racing and I've chosen a different one to most,' says Cummins. 'The pure road race is a niche thing, not many choose people do it.'
Cummins started on circuits but soon realised that without big money backers he'd never make it. The road offered him a chance to succeed with his racing ability alone. 'Because I'd grown up with TT and racing on the road, that candle kept getting brighter and brighter,' he says. 'The more I raced I realised it was time to switch over to pure roads and it's a decision I've not regretted once.'
He says he was inspired by the TT racers he watched when he was young and that his greatest achievement was his first TT podium in 2009. 'That was a standout moment for me, coming from the Isle of Man,' says Cummins. 'I've gone from watching the races from a grassy bank to being up on the podium at the best event in the world.'
Cummins is still looking for his first TT win though. And, in a shock move just a fortnight before the 2016 TT he announced he was switching teams, from Jackson Racing to Padgetts Honda. Cummins will now contest the Supersport and Superstock classes with Padgetts and continue to race the Superbike and Senior with the Honda Racing factory team.
'I want to win races and be competitive and I've got to do what's right for me,' says Cummins. 'I'm a ticking clock and you have to make these kinds of decisions to help your career and that's what I've done. I want to go and win races. Road racing is an exceptionally dangerous sport, especially on the TT course, and everything has to be right.'
Running on adrenaline
Switching bikes this late is a tough proposition but Cummins cites the support of his sponsors, friends and team. 'They're the people that really matter and they wouldn't be doing it if they didn't believe in me,' he says. 'I'm really grateful to everyone involved, my sponsor PokerStars, and Honda. I'm really fortunate I've got two great teams behind me now that have given me the tools that I need to go on and do a job. Hopefully I can repay them with some bloody wins!'
One man who is no stranger to winning is Cummins' racing partner at Honda, John McGuiness. He won the PokerStars Senior race last year, setting a new outright lap record and equaling Mike Hailwood's all-time record of seven Senior wins. With 23 TT victories he's now just three off Joey Dunlop's all-time record. There's not even a hint of jealousy though. 'We get on really well,' says Cummins. 'It would be bad if we didn't. I know his wife and kids and we all get on. You need that because it gets really stressful around race time.'
And with race time approaching is this going to be Cummins' year? 'I hope so,' he says. 'I feel good and I'm going into TT week now with some really great tackle. My intention is to win races. It would be nice if I won the PokerStars race, that's the one. The Superbike races are unbelievable too but the Seniors is the one.'
Cummins says that all the hard work has been done and that he'll do nothing in the build-up to the TT but relax. That kickback might even involve a game of poker these days after Cummins was introduced to the game through PokerStars, who have been long time supporters of the TT. PokerStars started sponsoring Cummins in 2008 and he's now played in some big tournaments, such as the PokerStars sponsored UKIPT event on the Isle of Man. For a man who's used to experiencing the adrenaline highs of clinging to his bike at an average speed of 130mph though, Cummins wasn't expecting the jolt that poker had in store for him.
'Being perfectly honest, the first hand I ever won, the adrenaline rush I got was massive - and I mean massive,' Cummins says. 'I felt on top of the world. It was quite a surreal experience. I was just sat there with cards in my hand, and I mean that with the most respect in the world... I couldn't believe it.'
And race day itself? 'I'll just sit there being a nervous wreck,' he jokes, before quickly adding, 'no, actually I'm quite calm. Obviously under the surface I'm a bit nervous but that's good because it focuses the mind.'
He acknowledges that he's going to have to push himself even further to claim the win that will define his career. 'I think the boundaries are getting pushed every year,' he says. 'You've only got to look at the speeds. We're just laying it on the line every time we go out there. I think you have to. There's only one thing that's certain in the TT and that's as soon as you throw your leg over the bike you're going to try to go as fast as you can.'
The 2016 TT runs May 28 - June 10 in the Isle of Man. Race week starts Saturday, 4 June and the PokerStars Senior TT Race takes places on Friday, 10 June.
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