A hail of rocks kicked up by John McGuinness’ rear wheel whizz past my helmet and pepper the front of my KTM. I want to let off, slow down and re-group but I’m 50 metres into a 200-metre rocky, stepped climb and I know if I stop now I’ll never get going again.
With every second that passes, McPint is easing away. He’s fast, confident and clearly working in harmony with his well-loved and well-prepped KTM 450 EXC. I can feel my heart rate rising and I’m already getting the first twinges of arm pump, but when I get a second of respite and manage to look up I see there’s still a long way to go – it’s time to man up.
By the time we reach the top I’ve most definitely ‘got a pant on’ and even McPint is showing some signs of exertion. It’s an abrupt start to our ride: we only fired up the bikes five minutes ago and 10 minutes before that we were sitting in a van drinking a coffee.
"That gets the juices going, doesn’t it?" he smiles. "It’s a tricky little climb that. It’s good to start as you mean to go on!"
I nod in nervous agreement, but the 23-time TT winner has already selected first and is off. I follow but am still mulling over what he’s just said about it being a ‘little’ climb and ‘starting as we mean to go on’.
With the altitude the beauty of the Lake District is revealed and we’re rewarded with wide, spectacular views. Civilisation already seems to have been left a long way behind – but we’re only just starting out.
To make the most of the weather we made an early start. Our 5.30am alarm was followed by bike loading and a 45-minute drive from the McGuinness family home in Morecambe into the heart of the Lake District.
There are benefits of being up so early: first, the aim was to get up and out before our sometimes critical rambler friends began to clog the trails and, second, John has got a busy day ahead. We’re riding on the day he’s due to board the boat over to the NW200 – and he hasn’t finished packing his motorhome yet.
But despite the hectic schedule, the greatest living TT racer, on the brink of making his road racing comeback, finds it hard to turn down a day playing on enduro bikes.
"There’s plenty to go at up here. There’s technical riding, bogs, mud, climbs and descents. You can do as much or as little as you want and tie a route together. I don’t need anyone to twist my arm to go out riding up here. I’ve ridden it so many times but I never get bored of it. Whenever I’m on two wheels I feel like a dog with two dicks," he laughs.
And the now 47-year-old’s enthusiasm in infectious. We’re both middle-aged men but are like kids in a sweet shop with great bikes and a riding playground to die for.
The next stretch is a wide open, twin track. There’s clearly been some 4x4 action up here and as a result it’s a case of staying in a water-filled rut for the next two miles as it weaves over the mountain top. To the left it’s a long way down with Lake Coniston in the distance.
To the right, the mountain climbs even higher with rugged rock formations making up the horizon. For now, though, my focus is the ruts. While they’re not deep, they’re sufficient to stop you getting out of them easily. But John is obviously at ease: smooth, fast and accurate. The fact there’s absolutely only one line with no option to deviate seemingly doesn’t register.
I do my best to hang on and just about succeed, but I know John is going easy on me: simply cruising. The further we get into the ride the more technical it becomes: the ruts turn into bogs and the puddles turn into ponds.
It’s clear John is on home turf: he knows what’s coming up, what lines to take and when, and when not to deviate from the marked track. So I follow his tracks exactly, watching how his bike is reacting and what he does in a bid to better understand what I’m going to have to deal with five seconds later.
"I’ve been riding here for years," he smiles when we stop. "I couldn’t tell you where we are half the time if you showed me a map, but I know the trails. I know how they link up. I know pretty much every rock step, every bog, every corner."
The next stretch is a mix of easy-going fire roads and narrow, tree-lined, rocky, single tracks. I’ve no idea in which direction we’re going or where we’re heading. My complete focus is trying to keep sight of John. I shouldn’t be surprised, but he’s annoyingly fast. ‘Annoying’ because he doesn’t ever look like he’s trying. He’s super-smooth, energy-efficient and, obviously, spectacularly talented.
We go down a steep descent to a road at the bottom and stop. I’m buzzing. My eyes are wide and my heart racing through a combination of exertion and adrenalin.
"That’s a beautiful trail isn’t it?" the great man comments, casually. "Now we go past where Beatrix Potter used to live and down to Windermere. We’ll ride alongside the lake then go up a twat of a trail. It’s one of those bits that doesn’t look much, but it’s a long, uphill climb, the rocks are all round and they move as soon as you ride over them.
"It doesn’t get ridden much, either, so its slippery as they’re covered in moss. I’ve had some times when I’ve ridden up it no problem and others where I’ve had an absolute nightmare. I’ll stop when we get to the top you’ll either say ‘What are you on about’ or ‘That was hard work!’"
The views over Windermere are stunning: reflections of boats mirrored in the water surrounded by ancient forests and mountains. I’m still soaking up the beauty when I see in my peripheral vision that McGuinness has stopped.
I pull up behind him, but he’s off, focused instead on the challenging climb ahead. I leave it 20 seconds, take a deep breath, hook second gear on the fuel-injected, two stroke KTM and I’m away.
It’s all going well to start with, then my rear wheel turns over a loose rock and drops sideways. A couple of dabs and I’m back standing on the footpegs desperately trying to remember about when I rode trials as a kid.
The super-smooth, low-down power of the ’stroker helps me to save face and I’m quickly back on target, picking my line with eyes now zeroed in on the summit.
When I get to the top I’m greeted by a beaming McGuinness who gives me a high five and is genuinely chuffed that we’ve both made it to the top without any drama.
"Nice one! You’ve got to keep on the footpegs and get on a roll. I was using third gear there with just a little bit of clutch. You’re one of those Junior Kickstart kids aren’t you? Riding with you is a bit ‘tortoise and the hare’.
"You’re not fast but you keep on going and don’t get stuck. My mate is like that. He’s 50-years-old but he can just go and go and whenever you think you’re getting away from him, he’s right there behind you. Then you have a little crash and he overtakes you… it annoys the hell out of me!"
I’m not sure if it’s meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it as one, especially considering where it’s coming from... The climb then continues – but without the rocks, which makes it a beautiful meander through the trees and out into the open.
Time is rushing by and unfortunately we need to start heading back. Because of the early start neither of us have eaten anything all day and we suddenly realise that we’re starving hungry. I pull out a couple of cereal bars from my rucksack and we sit down to admire the view.
"On a clear day – you can see the Isle of Man from here," comments the Manx legend, idly, after taking a bite. "Whenever I catch a glimpse of it I get excited – even now.
"I love days like this," he concludes. "Up here riding my bike. I think you’re always proud of where you come from, but I can’t lie, this is a beautiful part of the world." It’s now over two years since McGuinness suffered severe injuries during practice at the NW200.
He’s now back to fitness and back racing having just bagged another TT podium in the Zero, but on our Lakes ride he gave an insight into just how tough his road to recovery has been and the intense challenges he faced.
"It’s fair to say there have been a few ups and downs. The pain killing drugs were a problem, Tramadol etc. I can half relate to the people that are addicted to these type of drugs. I had three or four days when I went cold turkey. It had got to a point where my missus said ‘Either you’re off these or I’m off’.
"I was like ‘Oh dear, I can’t have a divorce it’ll cost me too much and I’ll lose all my bikes.’ She’s a strong woman and she got me off them but I never want to go through those feelings again.
"They were fixing one problem and causing another one. They were turning me into a nasty person and that wasn’t fair on my kids or my friends. It was horrible. In yourself you’re alright, but your friends are telling you you’re turning into a dick – and it was those friends that carried me through the early dark days when I was going to have to go to hospital every week.
"All this was going on when I was still going to bike shows and promoting my book but I was a complete vegetable. People were literally propping me up and I was signing copies. I wasn’t the real John McGuinness, but I am now."
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