AS a kid growing up in the ’70s, like many of my peers, I had an Evel Knievel wind-up toy Skycycle, complete with stars and stripes-clad Knievel doll.
After about a year of playing at Knievel, I customised the bike and the doll in a manner more fitting to the new biking hero to hit the headlines.
Off came the stars and stripes stickers and on went a number seven. I also scrawled a number seven on Evel’s back. Except he wasn’t called Evel any more - he was called Barry Sheene.
The year was 1976, Sheene had just won the 500cc world championship and had been catapulted (quite literally) into the spotlight the year before when he survived a 176mph crash on the Daytona banking. Britain had gone Sheene mad.
So when, 24 years later, I get the chance to meet that very man – and go for a ride with him on two of his own bikes – well... you would, wouldn’t you.
It’s rare to catch Sheene in the country these days as he lives on Australia’s Gold Coast, just down the road from Mick Doohan.
But he was in town to compete in the classic race at the 2000 British Grand Prix. Oddly, in all the years his name has been synonymous with motorcycling, no representative of a publication had ever been given the chance to ride on the road with him. I feel honoured and privileged to break that duck.
Sheene keeps two bikes in the UK – a Cagiva Raptor and an MV Agusta F4. It’s the standard F4 he has here, though – his hand-built Oro version is kept in Oz.
Envious at all? Well, before you start thinking Barry Sheene is a spoiled rich kid with too many toys, allow me to refresh your memory as to how he came by his wealth.
That Daytona crash saw him shatter his left thigh, right wrist, forearm, collarbone and six ribs. He also fractured several vertebrae, but was back racing just seven weeks later.
He’s also had a finger amputated, smashed his right kneecap and shin bones and broken both shins and had his left wrist completely shattered. Sound hard enough? If this guy started comparing war wounds with Evel Knievel in a bar, they’d be there for weeks.
But Sheene didn’t just specialise in breaking bones, he was also a pretty handy racer. He won two 500cc world titles (in 1976 and ’77), the Formula 750cc European title in 1973, stacks of British titles and was voted MCN’s Man of the Year an astonishing five times. But it was as much his off-track activities which made him a mainstream celebrity. He did TV ads for Brut 33 with boxer Henry Cooper, hosted a TV show called Just Amazing, appeared on every chat show going and made front page news every time he went out on the town.
We met at one of his friends’ luxury London pads. The first thing that strikes you when you meet Sheene is that he looks almost the same at 50 as he did at 30. Deeply tanned, slim and fit with the same cheeky grin and twinkle in the eye, the Australian climate has obviously been good to him. In fact, he moved there for that very reason as the damp and cold of England played havoc with his shattered bones.
As I peel off my Dainese back protector, he quips: " I invented that. " Apparently he made his own in the ’70s and sent it to Dainese, who refined it and put it into production.
His 11-year-old son Freddie introduces us to his taste in hip hop music. But Sheene is ready to talk bikes. So why, when he could have any bike in the world, did he opt for a Raptor and an MV Agusta?
" I’ve known Claudio Castiglioni (Cagiva and MV owner) since 1976 and we’ve been great friends ever since. I’ve followed his career at Ducati and Cagiva with interest and I just happen to think he makes some of the most beautiful bikes. "
He reckons not many people know how Cagiva got started in the first place. Apparently, Italian rider Marco Luchinelli, who would go on to become 500cc world champ in 1981, was looking for a bike in 1976 and some friends bought him a Suzuki and modified it extensively. This bike was dubbed a Cagiva and the rest is history. The firm has come on in leaps and bounds since then.
It’s Sheene’s close friendship with Castiglioni that ensured he got the first Raptor in the UK. But why a Raptor? He explains: " I’d ridden it quite a bit during development and just loved the fact that it felt like a little 125cc bike but had the power of a 1000cc machine. That makes it so much fun to ride. " He also likes it as a means of transport through the choked streets of London. He says: " It’s so small you can filter traffic easily and it’s really nimble so I use it round town a lot. " Bear that in mind should you ever find yourself next to a Raptor at the lights in the capital city.
Sheene hasn’t spent a lot of time on the roads. He started riding a 50cc Ducati special made by his dad Frank in his own back yard when he was five. From there he progressed to race tracks. But he admits the Australian climate encourages him on to the Tarmac more often these days.
" The one thing that pisses me off about England is the weather. It’s just no fun riding in the wet. The roads in Oz are good and empty, too. "
When at home he’ll be on his MV Agusta F4 Oro – another gift. Sheene reckons the MV is way better than the last 500cc grand prix bike he had back in 1984. Many other current sports bikes are therefore in a similar enviable position.
As we’re chatting, Sheene’s mobile rings and he switches comfortably into fluent Italian. Despite leaving school at 14 without a qualification to his name, he now speaks Italian, French, Japanese and Spanish with varying degrees of fluency, all picked up in paddocks around the world. His Italian probably goes some way to cementing his relationship with Castiglioni, who Sheene flies over to Italy to have lunch with when he’s in the UK. He’s never given up the jet-set lifestyle and still flies his own helicopter.
The weather starts to clear and we decide to have a bit of a run round old London town on the Raptor and F4. I jump on the Raptor first and get set to follow Bazza on the MV. The first thing that’s apparent when you sling a leg over the Raptor is its low seat height. It feels like you’re down in the bike.
Ducati’s Monster started the fashion for stylish, naked bikes that would look equally at home outside a swish Milan cafe as down the local chippie. They’re all about style and user-friendliness. Fire up the Raptor’s TL1000S Suzuki engine and it’s apparent that it’s more refined than the ever-so-slightly agricultural Monster - and it’s got heaps more power, too. Combine that with fairly high bars and you have a ready-made wheelie machine.
" It’ll wheelie in every gear with minimum effort if you want it to, " says Sheene. But he swears he’s more sensible than that these days. And he did appear pretty level-headed through the London traffic. You just have to wonder if he rides with the same restraint back in Oz on hot sticky roads when no-one’s around?
Power is nothing without handling and it was Cagiva’s intention to build a bike which would not only look good and provide heaps of power, but one that was easy to ride, too. The firm succeeded. The Raptor is light and flickable whether in town traffic or on country roads.
Sheene loves the whole feel of the Raptor compared to some of the evil-handling two-stroke beasts he used to ride.
" The steering geometry’s so good and the power’s easy to use, " he says. That might be partly thanks to Barry, as he rode the Raptor before you or I had even heard about it.
He’s also ridden Ducati’s Monster extensively as he’s got one of those back in Oz, too, but he reckons the Raptor’s better. He says: " There’s no comparison, the Raptor is light years ahead of my Monster 900 in terms of power, handling and looks. "
The Raptor’s comfortable riding position is also a blessing for Sheene’s mangled legs, though he claims the hot Australian climate means he doesn’t get much grief from them these days.
The engine has had its ECU re-mapped so the fuel injection and ignition curves aren’t as severe as on the TL1000S. That makes the Raptor’s power less intimidating.
If you want more of a thrill, try revving the bike beyond 6000rpm for a bit of a giggle. That’s when the twin carbon-fibre end cans sound at their best, too.
A combination of four-pot Brembo brakes and Bridgestone BT56 tyres means it’s easy to stop the Raptor even on greasy London roads with mental traffic doing its best to take you out. Sheene pulls alongside me and warns me about diesel all over the place. It reminded me who I was actually following.
This was Barry bloody Sheene. Me and Barry out for a gentle ride. Santa does get the letters.
The untrained eye wouldn’t have known. Arai makes a Sheene rep helmet and a lot of people wear them – including the man himself. In fact, a couple of riders in Sheene reps pass us during the day and I can’t help but giggle at the fact that they’ve just passed the real thing and didn’t know it. Hard luck, fellas.
But Sheene doesn’t want to advertise the fact that it’s him out there. He’s taped over his name on the back of his lid.
" I saw a guy the other day in a Sheene helmet and he spotted that mine was taped up. I met him soon after in a shop and he said ‘oh, you’re actually Barry Sheene - I wondered why someone had taped out your name.’ I signed his lid for him and he was quite happy. "
If you’re into posing and can’t book Barry Sheene for a rideout, the Raptor won’t disappoint. It is naked but stylised and aggressive. Ducati’s Monster has established a classic look but the Raptor has taken things on a bit. It’s also a better all-round performer and costs just £6399, compared to the latest 900 Monster at £7000.
Mr Sheene likes it so much he fancies a ride on it himself. So I get a go on his MV – and Sheene is a big fan of his MV.
" The handling is streets ahead of anything I ever raced in grand prix. And the engineering is absolutely beautiful. "
There’s no doubting the MV is one of the most gorgeous bikes on the planet. The classic red and silver paintjob taken from the racers of the ’60s and ’70s, the sculpted lines of the bodywork and, as Sheene says, the wonderful engineering of items like the four exhausts peeking out from under the seat make the MV a crowd-stopper.
As soon as you sit on the £11,900 MV its race track heritage becomes apparent. The seat feels sparse like a race bike’s and the riding position very sporty. Fire up the 749cc in-line four-cylinder engine and you can tell Cagiva’s musicians have been at work. It has a deep, throaty sound and begs to be revved once it’s warmed up. Pulling in the light clutch and clicking down on the tiny race-style gear lever, I slip off into the London traffic once more. It looks weird seeing Sheene on a naked bike, but it’s obvious that he’s at home as he slices through heavy traffic.
It’s also obvious how well he knows his original home town because he leads me on a myriad of traffic-beating short cuts through Fulham, Chelsea and Earl’s Court. Back streets like these are not the MV’s natural home. The handlebars trap your hands against the panel which reaches between the tank and the upper fairing on tight turns. But then the F4 wasn’t designed for commuting.
It’s not the most powerful bike there is, but it does have a claimed 124bhp.
" It makes me laugh when people say the MV needs more power. Show me a road rider who can use every ounce of its power, because I’ve never met one, " he spits. The MV feels about as fast as the Suzuki GSX-R750 I keep at home, which is plenty fast enough.
The handling is possibly the bike’s finest point. It’s a joy to flick through corners without traumas and the Showa 49mm upside-down forks and Sachs rear shock do their jobs perfectly. The six-pot Nissin brakes are progressive and forgiving in the wet or dry and the Pirelli Dragon Evo Corsa tyres seem a near-perfect match for the MV.
Revving the bike above 6000rpm is where the real fun starts - and the real noise. The exhaust note emitting from under the seat makes you want to cane it more and more.
Riding one makes you feel really special, even if you don’t happen to be following Barry Sheene at the time. Tuck in behind the small screen, grasp the moulded tank with your legs, dance on the dinky gear lever and just listen to the exhaust note. You’ll feel like you could be the man to add to MV’s awesome record of 75 world championship titles.
It’s a moving experience and one that you won’t want to end. You can also bask in the knowledge that you’re riding one of the most desirable bikes on the planet - there’s an eight-month waiting list if you want one.
Any bike which can put Ducati’s all-time classic 916 in the shade has to be special and the MV is. It’s exactly the sort of bike you would expect Barry Sheene to have. And even he’s thrilled to own not just one but two.
Sheene says of the MV: " It’s everything from the weight distribution to the geometry that makes the MV special. No-one’s saying it’s the most powerful bike out there but that’s bullshit anyway. I’ve never been a power buff with road bikes, I’d rather have power delivered in the smooth, progressive way that the MV puts it down. "
Sheene knows a thing or two about setting up race bikes and he reckons the MV feels like a well set-up racer. His only regret is that his hectic schedule as a TV presenter and his many businesses don’t allow as much time as he’d like to get out on his Gold MV back in Oz. But he’s planning to spend more time on it.
He says: " My mate imports MVs into Australia and he’s going to have a track event so I’ll try to get to that. "
But the time that he has spent on the bike leaves him raving about it. He says: " It does exactly what a good bike should. It stops great, it squirts away from corners easily and the front lifts under power then comes down solid, straight and steady, exactly as it should. There’s no wriggles or shakes or nervousness. "
I stop for a fag break to discuss the bikes with Sheene and I’m shocked to hear that he’s stopped smoking. This was the man who smoked since he was nine years old and had a hole in his helmet chinbar so he could have a last puff before a race. Smoking was almost Sheene’s trademark. And who does he thank for chucking the habit?
The late, great Joey Dunlop. He says: " I’d tried to give up three times and couldn’t manage and it was annoying me that I couldn’t stop. Then I saw Joey at Scarborough Bike Week and he’d managed to stop. I thought, right, that’s it - if Joey can quit so can I. I was devastated to hear of his death. He was a wonderful bloke. "
Sheene pulls on the most famous helmet in bike racing and I ask him how the famous Donald Duck design came about. He says: " My dad gave me a little plastic lid when I was five.It had a Donald Duck sticker on and the same gold surround and I just kept the idea and developed it. Oh, and Donald Duck is cockney rhyming slang for... "
Way back in the early ’70s, though, a vigilant Disney worker spotted Sheene using Donald without permission.
He was asked to pay them a visit. He says: " I thought I was in trouble but they loved it and, from then on, I’ve always been invited to Donald’s birthday parties. "
Speaking of helmets, it was Sheene who advised a young rider several years ago to have a distinctive design made and to stick to it so everyone knew him. The rider? Five times world champ and good friend Mick Doohan. It seemed to pay off for mighty Mick. Does anyone not recognise his lid today?
We set off again to explore the city. Sheene sits astride the Raptor next to me at some lights and fiddles with my clutch lever. I don’t know what he was doing but it was quite a privilege to have on-going adjustments made by the most famous bike racer of them all as we cruised through London. At the next set of lights, he’s in front of me and I momentarily spot the reflection in his wing mirror. It brought back a thousand memories. The visor was open and all I could see was Sheene’s distinctive, piercing blue eyes. I realised I’d seen that very shot on TV from starting grids all over the world and here it was on the streets of London.
" Who do you think you are sonny, Barry Sheene? " I’d been daydreaming that a copper might actually give us a tug and come out with that over-used phrase. I’d have given anything to see the look on his face when Sheene removed his lid.
The MV is attracting attention, though – some admiring glances as well as some envious ones. Don’t expect a wave from every rider you see if you buy one of these - there’s bound to be a few jealous ones.
We arrive back at Sheene’s mate’s pad to pick up his son, Freddie. Sheene says: " No, before you ask, he’s not named after Freddie Spencer. Sheene junior speaks pure Australian but he’s definitely inherited his dad’s cheeky, up-front character. The pair are like a comedy duo as they argue over clothes, bike kit, DVDs and CDs. And young Freddie is a budding rider, too.
He’s got a little motocross bike and prefers that to road racing. He begs dad to take him for a ride and do some wheelies and burnouts. Dad’s having none of it. But he does agree to take Freddie on the back to lunch with Damon Hill. Me? I’ve got to ride back to Kettering in the pouring rain.
Sheene comes out with us to point me on the right road home. But when he goes to start his Raptor... it won’t. He asks me to push while he tries to bump start it. It refuses to fire up and I start to think I know what the problem is, but dare I try to tell Barry Sheene something about motorcycles? What the hell. I pull the clutch in and ask him to hit the ignition. Bingo.
He laughs at his oversight. " Well I don’t know about bloody modern bikes do I? "
I slap him on the back, thank him for letting me ride his bikes and remind him that old dogs can still learn new tricks.
With that he’s off and I’m left thinking that I’ve taught my childhood hero something about bikes. Not many people can say that.
IN HIS OPINION…
BARRY Sheene has never been known for keeping his mouth shut when he’s got an opinion to air and, thankfully, he’s not changed a bit.
Here are his latest outpourings on...
•The future of grand prix: " The four-stroke idea is brilliant but it’s ludicrous they won’t run unsilenced bikes. Imagine a V10 with five pipes – it’d be awesome. That’s all that GP racing needs and I don’t see why F1 cars can get away with running unsilenced and bikes can’t. "
•Kenny Roberts Snr: " Despite what many people thought, I never really hated Kenny. I got on with him all right, but we were just very different people. "
•Kenny Roberts Jnr: " He’s going all right but I can’t help thinking he should have run away with the title by now. I used to pick him up off crashed pushbikes when he was a nipper. "
•Valentino Rossi: " He’s put the fun back into grands prix in the same way that Jenson Button has in Formula One. Everybody’s so serious now, but Rossi proves you can still do the business and have a laugh. "
•Chris Vermuelen: " I rate Chris massively because he’s a brilliant rider, but I’m pissed off at the lack of kit and support he’s getting. It’s not right. "
•Riding in Australia: " There’s a great scene out there because of the weather and the good roads. There’s only 19 million people in the whole country but you still get 30,000 at a race meeting, which is a pretty high proportion. "
•Helping Australian riders: " People say I only help Aussies like Doohan, Beattie and McCoy and that I don’t help British riders. How the hell can I? I don’t know who they are. "
No, we can’t give out his mobile phone number.