A 200mph will to win: Conor Cummins talks adrenaline, sanity and the Isle of Man TT
You might consider yourself a speed freak, but like everything in life it's all incremental. Try to imagine hanging onto a 1,000cc vulcanised hog tearing down tight country roads, whipping through villages at 200mph, and bending towards the tarmac just inches away from pavement kerbs and old rock walls. It's the kind of rush that money can't buy and one that sometimes makes those taking part pay the ultimate price.
Each year, the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) attracts thousands of spectators, enthusiasts and riders to visit. The event was started by racing aficionados from the UK way back at the beginning of the 20th Century. They were looking for a way round British motoring laws that prevented vehicles from travelling at speeds greater than 20mph. They only had to look as far as the Isle of Man, which welcomed them with open arms. Since then, the Isle of Man TT has become a legendary race that attracts the most courageous and fearless racers: it's frequently coined as the most dangerous race in the world. It's little wonder it attracts crowds and partying. This year, the 85,000-strong local population swelled with a two-week surge of almost 40,000 people. It's quite the spectacle.
"It's an event that lights up the Isle of Man, a little place in the middle of the Irish Sea, for two weeks a year," said Conor Cummins, one of the race's growing stars, "and it creates an absolutely awesome buzz. It raises the island out of the ocean. Thousands and thousands of spectators come each year to see this awesome event and the riders who are lucky enough to compete."
Cummins is a local hero, born and bred in Ramsey in the north of the island, who came close to winning the blue ribbon event this year when he took second-place in the PokerStars Senior TT. Either side of him were Michael Dunlop (1st) and Guy Martin (3rd), both of whom starred alongside Cummins in the Closer to the Edge cinematic release documentary. It's an incredible film and certainly worth the watch. Not least of all to see the incredible focus and resilience of the competitors. Not only do they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, they seem to embrace them. Racing the Isle of Man TT is not for the faint-hearted, not that the riders see it that way.
"I don't think we're any different, to be fair," said Cummins, who was trying at the UKIPT IOM last night trying his hand in the £110 six-max turbo, "I like to think we're sane anyway. We just do different things, you know. Whether it's working in a bank or whatever, it's your chosen thing in life. We've just chosen to do bike racing and we love it. As human beings, we just set challenge for ourselves. At the end of the day, we get a lot of enjoyment out of it and we're passionate about it. We love racing and our bikes. It's our chosen route in life. I don't think we're any different. We're human."
Not for the faint-hearted
If the statement was feigned modesty, it was well disguised. It may simply be that if you have the ability and desire to race at that level then doing it must seem like a no-brainer, maybe even normal. Riders take part in the TT despite knowing the associated dangers. More than 200 riders have died on the course since 1907, but they take the risk with eyes wide open. It may seem unreasonable to an outside observer that anyone is allowed the option to in the first place, but equally so many find the encroaching march of nanny-state politics to be equally unpleasant Each to their own. No one is forcing the riders to compete and all know the inherent threat. Risk and control go hand in hand, which is felt all too keenly when just missing out on a title.
"First and foremost, you have to get back safe and in one piece," said Cummins, "but you do then start dwelling on it. You think woulda-should-coulda. For me, I gave it my all (in the PokerStars Senior TT). It definitely wasn't down to lack of effort. It was circumstances. There were yellow flags and crashes that happened and being in the wrong place at the wrong time a few times, but that's just part of racing. There's lots of luck involved too. I'm not saying the result would have been any different, but in the PokerStars Senior, which was the one that I was really, really gunning for me, everyone gives their best and I came away with another second position on the racing Fireblade. It's a bloody tough race."
Cummins recorded a course average speed of 128.396mph that day while riding for approaching two hours. Think about that. Consider the mental and physical strain.
"We want to win," said Cummins. "We want to win the TT. It's such a prestigious event, It's been going for over a hundred years. To get your name on one of those trophies alongside the greats means so much. It's massive. That's what brings me to the races each year. I want to win and get my name on the silverware.
"It's a massive challenge. It's thirty-seven and three-quarter miles of pure road. You're going between houses and up on mountain tops. You're going near 200 miles per hour on public roads. It's an amazing event and the challenge of getting round as fast - and obviously as safely as well - there's nothing like it. There's nothing like it that even comes close when I think of challenging the human body."
It's not for everyone...
Contrary to what you might think, not everyone on the Isle of Man dreams of gunning a motorbike at 200mph. The 50 non-TT weeks of the year are relatively quiet on this idyllic part of the British Isles.
"Everyone else was into football and going out on the rip with the other lads," said Cummins, explaining that he was the only one at school with a passion to compete in the TT. "I was a bit different. I'm always trying to challenge myself, to be fair. Even going to the gym, you try to push yourself more and more to better yourself. That's what I'm doing. I want to ride a bike and I want to ride it fast. I want to win.
"I wasn't interested in going out on the lash or stand about on street corners talking crap all night. I was focused on my racing and that was my life really. Don't get me wrong, I've got a social life, but my ambition was to be a successful bike racer. My mates are teachers or lawyers or whatever, and every credit to them, but it just wasn't for me."
As difficult as a room of school children can be, it's doubtful that many would trade wrangling a throng of unruly 12-year-old kids with trying to wrestle a sports bike at top speed for two hours.
"You can only control the controllable," said Cummins. "When racing motorbikes there are certain things that can happen that are outside of your control. You just have to take it on the chin at times. I suppose in poker you get dealt a crap hand and you can't do anything about it. It's on to the next one. I guess it's a similar kind of thing. You just get on with it, don't you? You can't be defeated. Just get your head down and job's a good'un."
The poker comparison didn't come entirely out of the blue, nor is it an irrelevant one. Cummins is sponsored by PokerStars, which is also based in the Isle of Man. Being able to play poker successfully is also about balancing risk and control while trying to manage moments of adrenaline. Cummins played his first major poker tournament at the UKIPT IOM last October, the UKIPT Main Event, but racing at Silverstone is stopping him from playing the £350,000 event which started today (and why he squeezed in the six-max tournament last night).
"It was an absolutely awesome event," said Cummins, reminiscing about last year's festival. "I finished 16th out of a hundred in the charity event. I was happy enough about that. All the pros were there and David Williams (a pro player with $8,584,226 in live winnings) knocked me out. That's not bad. I really, really love the game. I've developed a bit of a passion for it... I got such a rush off it was unreal. I was absolutely peaking. It was pure adrenaline for me. It was fantastic and I thought, 'Crikey, this is for me.'"
If you've not played much poker then you might find it hard to imagine that someone who finished on the podium of the most dangerous race on earth was shaking playing a game of cards.
"It is unbelievable," admitted Cummins. "The surprise for me was having that adrenaline rush. I've only had that bike racing before. I was in a room full of experts and pros thinking, 'I might be out of my depth here.' Next thing, I've won a hand. I suppose the adrenaline was mixed with a sigh of relief that I didn't make a fool of myself. I got away with it."
Cummins isn't about to hand in his racing leathers for dark glasses and a rack of chips though, "I wouldn't even get out of the paddock... but it's great to get a crate of beers in and play with a group of mates."
Read Brad Willis' interview with Conor last year: "At least you're not dead..."
Rick Dacey is a Corporate Writer for PokerStars.