It's weird sitting around the garden at home while the world – my world, really – continues to go on without me. I’m several leg operations deep now, and while it’s going in the right direction, it’s a long way from being right and being able to make a call on whether I can race again. Everybody who’s usually around me is gearing up for the Ulster GP, and even though I’ve not raced there for years, it’s something I still go to if I can. I’m too old to be banging elbows between the hedges there, so I’ll let them get on with it! More than the speed, or the excitement of a mass start compared to the personal challenge of riding alone at the TT, What I love about racing in Northern Ireland is the fans. They’re absolutely mad for it – some proper nutters of the best sort turn up there!
As the TT has improved in the last 10 years and got a bit more mainstream, it’s attracted fans who probably weren’t into the roads before. That’s great for the sport, but it’s a different atmosphere at races like the Ulster where it’s diehards who know it inside out. Because they still have a culture of smaller road races over there, they really appreciate and support us, which usually means I don’t have to pay for a drink anywhere! The only danger in that is it soon gets out of hand – I’ve had my fair share of hangovers after the final race at the Ulster and the North West... Back in my early career when I first started racing over there, Joey was the man: for me, for most people. Especially the Irish... The whole place would be expecting him to win – he was super-human to them, and they’d be just a little bit bitter if anyone else won. It didn’t happen too often, because things went Joey’s way more often than not there.
Everyone knows Joey was king on the Isle of Man, but it doesn’t matter who you are around there, things have to go your way. You can have a bad tyre, you might not quite be on the pace in your own head, or you might have made a set-up mistake, especially in the days of getting a two-stroke jetted right. Joey had TTs that didn’t go right for him, but the Ulster was different: it’s a little more forgiving, and it was ahome race. He knew that place better than most, and more often than not it’d be a Joey masterclass. Dry, wet, 125 or Superbike – he was the man to beat. Hehad 24 wins around there – only two less than at the TT. And just like his last TT, his last Ulster in 1999 might have been his greatest ever ride. David Jefferies was the man that year – between him and the V&M R1, you had the best bike and one of the fastest riders on the road. Although it was his first Ulster, DJ was a bit of a natural. Whatever he rode – trials, supermoto or whatever, he’d just grab it and make everyone else look daft whilstlaughing his tits off.
Joey on the RC45 hadn’t been able to live with him at the TT and it was expected DJ’s Yamaha would have the edge at Dundrod, too – it had another 250cc on a fast circuit. But Joey was on home turf. The slipstreaming battle they had is one of the classic road races. DJ broke the lap record on the last lap of the Superbike race trying to beat him, and he still couldn’t do it. Joey was the man that day, and forever for a lot of people. Both were big heroes and mates to me, but a 47-year-old bloke on an out-of-date bike beating a 26-year-old bloke on the latest and fastest was amazing. I bet he didn’t have a hangover the next day, either – he could drink as well as he could ride, put it that way!
As I’m writing this, there’s load of rumours flying about regarding my fuzzy-faced team mate: will he race the Ulster, or won’t he? He didn’t race at the Southern 100. Honestly, I don’t know why Guy sat that one out – I’ve been sorting myself out and keeping out of team business. I’d guess it’s the obvious reasons – both of us were on the back foot before the season started, trying to develop a bike that arrived late, and we’ve both paid a price. You have to know when you’re beaten, and running the bike out again if it’s still not where it needs to be is pointless. He was lucky to get away with tipping off at the TT, too – maybe that’s a factor. That can easily affect you: I’ve come close to sitting races out due to other people’s accidents – I know how it might be hard to get back on a bike if you’re in any doubt. We’re not messing around, groping the arse of brolly dollys and having a jolly – if it doesn’t feel right, I’ve always advised anyone to pack it in. It’s fantastic when it’s going well, but it’s not a sport to do half-heartedly. But if I can physically return, you can guarantee I’ll be into it 100% – as you should be.