The Sunday Social with stunt rider Kevin Carmichael

Published: 24 September 2017

For this week's Sunday Social we caught up with stunt legend and all-round bike addict, Kevin Carmichael, to talk about his legacy in the stunt scene, going fast on sand, and riding the TT.

What's for breakfast at the cafe?

“On a Sunday it would probably be a full English or a full Scottish breakfast.”

What’s the difference?

“I think we’ve got black pudding, or do you have that as well? And we’ve got square sausage, I know that, you’ve got the normal ones.”

What's your mission on a Sunday ride?

“For me I’m looking for adventure. I use adventure bikes for what they’re built for. I was on the KTM 1290 Adventure recently and it was just phenomenal. I’ve had it on the beach, off-road, through rivers, on the race track. A perfect day for me is with an adventure bike in the Highlands, the Alps, or maybe Colombia or Africa.”

Have you ridden those places before?

“Yeah, I’ve been to all these places. The further away from civilisation for me, the better.”

What's in your backpack?

“Probably some chocolate! Water and maybe some tools and a tent if I’m going far away.”

It sounds like you’ve kind of got two different sides to your motorcycling then, with the stunt riding and your adventure riding.

“Yeah, I just love remote places and I came from a motocross background and I still love riding off-road. I love sportsbikes as well, really fast, ballistic sportsbikes, but it’s getting to a point, even up here where it’s quiet in a lot of places, where people are getting jailed or 120mph It just makes you think twice. You know yourself, sportsbikes can do well over 100mph n second gear if you’re pinning them hard. A good adventure bike is the most fun for me now. But a good adventure bike, like the 1290 Adventure R is fast, it’s a really fast bike and you still get the rush of a sportsbike up to a certain speed. Obviously, you lose a bit in the handling and the grip, but it more than makes up for it because you can ride to really remote places, ride on the beach, then ride on the road again. They’re so versatile.”

And you’ve also got your tour company as well?

“Yeah, I run tours all around the highlands, it’s called Scotland Moto Tours. I normally pick the guys up at Newcastle and head up the west coast. It’s good, I enjoy doing that. I know my way about up here and I love riding so it’s getting paid do what you like really, pretty much like yourself!”

Can the tours be personalised?

“Absolutely. I’ve not got fixed routes or fixed hotels. If somebody said to me I want that tour with brand new bikes I could organise bike hire and five star hotels, if that’s what they wanted. I just ask them what they want to do and for how long. A had a group of guys over fairly recently all on BMWs and I assumed wrongly that they’d all want to do some forest trails, nothing too heavy – an R1 could have ridden on these roads. I found some good ones in the Galloway Forest that give a feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere. There were eight of them, and only two of them wanted to go on the gravel roads. I should have asked first but I can tailor it. If people want to do proper hardcore stuff that’s no problem, we can go and get stuck!”

You started in motocross, at what point did you move to road bikes?

“I was 27 when I got my first proper road bike. Actually, I had 50s and 125s when I was 16 and 17, so I suppose I started riding road bikes when I was 16.”

At what point did the stunt side of things start to creep into it?

“Well to be honest I was always being a bit naughty. I can actually remember pulling a wheelie on a 50cc MV down the street. It was quite a slow wheelie and all my friends were stood at the bottom of the street, waving their hands and trying to get my attention but I was too busy concentrating. As soon as I put the front wheel down I heard the siren about 15 feet behind me.”

They can’t have been too impressed?

“I think they were because they just let me off with a bollocking!”

At what point did you switch to stunt riding properly?

“I entered the European Stunt Riding Championships just for a bit of fun and I actually won it! I was offered sponsorship more or less that day and that was the start of my stunt riding career more or less. After that a few organisers contacted me to go to their events and ride for them.”

You’ve been in the stunt scene quite a while now and you actually did the first wheelie without a front wheel?

“No front wheel, no forks, on a big street bike. I started riding with t hand brake as well, which every stunt rider in the world has copied off me. If I sat and really thought about it there’s loads of tricks I started, but the main one was wheelying without a front end on a big street bike. I’ve actually done that on a 1200 Bandit and nobody to this day, as far as I’m aware, has ever done it on a 1200 Bandit.”

Where did that idea come from?

“I was training one day, and the European championship was between me and Craig Jones and I thought if I could come up with something innovative and different I’d win it, as long as I didn’t crash. I did a wheelie one day, and I parked the bike on the foot bar on the back, and I thought ‘hold on a minute, why do I need a front wheel?’ I said to my mate ‘if I can do this 15 times without putting the front wheel down we’re taking the front end off this bike.’ He thought I was joking but I did it 15 times and then we pulled the front end off. It was only gunna go amazingly well or tits up with me over the handlebars.

"When we took the front end off I picked up the forks and the front wheel and I thought ‘sh*t, that’s quite heavy, the bike’s gunna feel completely different.’ So it was a case of jumping on a completely strange bike and pulling a wheelie. I can jump on any bike, even if it’s 20kg lighter, and do a wheelie, but I was losing 20kg from the front. I tried it and I did it. And I did it again and again and again. In the competition I actually only took the front wheel out just to give me a bit of confidence. If you come down with no front forks at all you go absolutely somersaulting over the handlebars, I’ve done it and it’s not a pleasant experience!”

You also pioneered using a hand brake for the rear, but your stunt bikes seem pretty standard compared to some, is that deliberate?

“I don’t like being the same as everybody else. The reason I put a handbrake on in the first place was to be different from everybody, but now they’ve all copied it! I remember Christian Pfeiffer came up to my bike at a show in Germany and said ‘what’s that?’ I said it’s a brake and he said ‘wow, that’s a fantastic idea!’ Basically it allows you to do a lot more stunts because you don’t have to use the foot brake and you can stand all over the bike.

"I know now in France a lot of the younger guys can’t use the foot brake anymore because they’re living off the handbrake and jumping all over the bike. Lee Bowers, for examples, 80% of his show is only because of what he copied off me, that’s a fact. I’m just using Lee as an example because he’s very good at jumping all over the bike, I’ve nothing against him. But if you took that handbrake off his bike so much of his show would disappear in an instant.

"When I was still with Triumph they didn’t really want me modifying the bikes – KTM are the same – they’d much rather the bikes look standard. So many stunt bikes now are so modified you can’t even tell what they are. I remember a guy came to me at a show with his bike and asked me to have a look at something – this is when I was riding a Strret Triple. I looked at it and it took me a while to realise it was a Street Triple. It was all wrapped, the fuel tank was caved in so much it was unrecognisable. No headlights, he’d completely chopped it up. From KTM’s point of view it’s way better if I’m riding a standard looking bike. I’ve actually just fitted a handbrake to my 690, which I’ll be picking up next week. My bikes still have headlights, which makes it a lot harder to move around on the handlebars and stuff. Kicking in the fuel tank means you’ve got another seat basically, but they look terrible and amateurish. I think the bikes look sh*t.”

You’ve got a few KTMs at the minute, is that right?

“Yeah, a 690, 1290 Super Duke and for the next two weeks I’ve got a 1290 Adventure R, which we were doing some filming on this week. That’s my favourite now.”

You mentioned the 690 Duke, are you excited about the 790 Duke from what you’ve seen of it?

“Oh yeah, if I’m still with KTM it will obviously be a good bike from what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen the finished product. The 690 is a good bike, though. It really is. Everybody thought it would be really difficult to ride because it’s a single cylinder, which means at low revs it’s a bit more pulsey. But it’s actually a really agile bike because it’s so light. It’s totally different from what I rode before.”

How does it being a single cylinder effect you and your riding?

“Doing no-handed circle wheelies are the only thing I can’t do on the 690 because the pulses of the single just create tiny power surges so it doesn’t have that smoothness of a three or four cylinder. That’s the downside, but the upside is it’s lighter. I don’t know if it’s to do with how the engine pulses but weaving wheelies are really easy on the 690. It’s swings and roundabouts, some bikes are good at one thing, some are good at something else. It’s also amazing in the wet. I was doing a show in Glasgow and there were four inch puddles everywhere. I was so confident in the bike I was deliberately driving in to the puddles and doing rolling stoppies. I thought ‘my God, I don’t know any bike that could do this.’ That was on standard tyres as well.”

Apart from the power how does the 690 differ from the Super Duke?

“The Super Duke is heavier, and a lot more powerful, obviously. I use it mostly for doing big drifts and power slides. They’re so different. If I had to choose, just for a tight arena, I’d choose the 690. If I was playing on a big open circuit like Brands Hatch I’d choose the 1290. The problem with the Super Duke is if you’ve got a small area to work with you can’t use the power, so you can’t get the benefit of that bike. All you’re doing is riding a bike that’s heavier than the one you should be using.”

I assume you turn all the electronics off?

“Yeah. I’ve got a dongle on the 1290 so I just keep it in track mode and everything is turned off.”

Have you ever tried doing anything with the electronics on?

“Yeah, but it doesn’t benefit me in a stunt show at all, it’s the opposite. The best thing is to switch it all off. I hate ABS. I can see the point of it on a wet, sh*tty road. Even if you’re a really good rider and somebody pulls out in front you, you’ll panic brake in that situation – anybody would. It’s definitely got its advantages in that type of situation. Cornering ABS is a wonderful thing, traction control as well. At the end of the day bikes need to be fun. If they start making it mandatory that you won’t turn these things off then I think that will put a lot of people off. It’ll certainly put me off going and buying a bike. If the only bike you could buy in this world was a bike with traction control and all that I wouldn’t bother, there’s no point, it would kill it for me.”

Going back to the stoppie, for most riders even just a stoppie is terrifying enough. What makes your stomach turn in terms of bike riding?

“I had a moment, a big moment, yesterday. We were doing some filming on the beach and I was doing 130mph on soft, wet sand. Actually I’d just glanced at the speedo and it said 109mph, but it was still pulling and it was probably wide open in fourth gear at that point. We got some footage of it I think, but I hit some really, really soft sand and it was terrifying. Because I used to ride a lot of motocross on sand and I did a lot of beach racing it’s quite a normal surface to ride on for me. I know in sand if you get any kind of front end trouble you just go full throttle and try and get as much weight on the rear as possible to stop the front digging in. The problem I had was that I was already at full gas and it just dropped the nose enough to go into the soft sand and I started getting a pretty hefty tank slapper. To be fair to the bike it never went lock to lock, but I really sh*t myself. Before I knew where I was the bike was straight again. When I got back to the film crew I had a look at the bike and realised it had a steering damper, which saved my arse for sure. I’ve had a 1200 Bandit – which is quite a stable bike – go lock to lock before and it was terrifying – almost coming out of my hands.”

There’s not really a way to distinguish soft sand from the rest of it is there?

“No. When you’re doing over 100mph you’re coming upto it so fast it’s almost impossible to see. The conditions yesterday were really far from perfect, it was wet. I’ve done 140mph before on a beach but the conditions were perfect and the sand was really hard packed. Sand really saps the power of a bike, and the softer it is the more power you lose, so I didn’t expect to get much over 100mph yesterday, but that bikes got so much power it just pulls it through.”

Does the high speed stuff give you as much of a buzz as stunt riding?

“Definitely, I love speed. Once I got through the soft stuff it was really good, with a huge sensation of speed with the sea rushing past. At one point, when I went along to get a good go at it, I was probably in fourth gear flat out and the sea was only a few feet away because the sand was more hard packed there. But at those speeds on a beach there’s things lying about that have been washed up, so you’re just trying to find a line through washed up pieces of plastic and everything else. It’s quite a rush.”

I was talking to Zef Eisenberg recently, and he said he was at Pendine Sands one year for a top speed run and he had to dodge loads of jellyfish that had washed up on the beach at 180mph.

“The sand can be unpredictable. It can be really hard packed then all of a sudden soft. I flipped a Maico 500 motocross bike once on the beach at about 80mph and just from nowhere the sand just disappeared and it was enough to take me off balance and flip the bike. I totalled the bike and we both went somersaulting through the air.”

How do you prepare mentally for that sort of riding?

“I don’t, I just enjoy it so it’s no big deal. I get quite excited to be honest. I’m sure if you ask any of the guys that do the TT I think they’d be the same. I know I’d be excited to do the TT, it wouldn’t scare me, it would be an amazing thrill. In a situation like that you just have to ride within your limits then you’ll never be in any serious danger unless anything unpredictable happens. I’ve been over the mountain loads of times and I love it, but I always ride just that little bit back so I’ve got some sort of safety net.”

Is circuit racing something that’s ever interested you?

“I’ve done one short circuit race, in South Africa. I really wanted to do the TT, but I couldn’t afford it at the time. When I was about 22 I was absolutely obsessed with the TT – I would have done anything to get there on a bike and race. I have no fear of it whatsoever. You know yourself if you’ve ever been there, you come out of Ramsey and get onto the mountain where it’s one way with no speed limit, it’s just paradise for me. That’s what I really, really wanted to do. I was riding too fast on the road. I had a Yamaha TZR250 and I was just wringing its neck every time I went out. I can remember every single time I got home my hands would be shaking from the adrenaline, I absolutely loved it. Anything that’s fast, I love fast cars as well.”

You’re not just restricted to two wheels, then?

“No, no. I love cars, the faster the better. I was lucky enough to get a shot in a 720 McLaren a few weeks ago and that was superbike quick.”

With the weather starting to change do you do anything different over winter?

“Yeah, I’ve got a trials bike and a KTM enduro bike so I take them out in winter. I still ride in winter, there’s nothing that a heated vest won’t sort, you know? As long as it’s dry. Me and my friends have some monkey bikes, you know the MSX125? We take them upto Applecross and back around November and that’s always an adventure! Three years ago we were pulling into a petrol station near Glencoe and the weather was terrible, it was really snowing, you couldn’t event clear your visor quick enough. There was a group of Irish guys who said we wouldn’t get through Glencoe on the little bikes. They were all on adventure bikes and they said they’d had to turn back. We got through, but that was an adventure. It was cold, it was horrible, it was tough.”

What do you get upto outside of motorcycling?

“I fly microlights, that’s quite good, and I’ve got a couple of stunt cars I use just for fun, driving on two wheels and stuff.”

Do you get a similar buzz from the microlight?

“Flying low level in a microlight is a huge rush. If you’re flying along a deserted beach at really low level it’s fantastic.”

What sort of speeds do you get upto?

“Mine’s a fixed-wing and it’ll do over 100mph.”

That’s fast.

“Oh yeah! My flying instructor had a quick one that would go over 100mph. You can get a real rush in one.”

Are you allowed to do aerobatics?

“No, microlights are not permitted. If you do something like that and make a mess of it once it’ll be your last time. I’m really safety conscious when I fly, I think because I know what can go wrong. I’ve been in a few aerobatic planes but I don’t do it in the microlight.”

How did you find the aerobatics?

“Good, completely different. I used to do a lot of shows for the RAF so I’ve been in a Tornado GR4 through the Lake District at low level and that was a buzz.”

You managed to keep your lunch down?

“Yeah, my dad used to fly small planes when I was a kid so I’ve done a lot of flying and I don’t get sick. Not yet, anyway!”

What’s next for you?

“Much of the same for the foreseeable future. I like the tours because you can do that until you’re 90 and it’s enjoyable.”

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Kevin.

“No problem, see you later.”