Chris Vermeulen: life after professional motorcycle racing
With the rain beating down heavily on a cramped media tent at the Silverstone round of the MotoGP world championship causing delays to the racing action, we grabbed a coffee with former World Superbike and MotoGP race-winner Chris Vermeulen to discuss life after racing.
The trip to the Northamptonshire circuit was the 36-year-old Australian’s first venture into Europe for around three years, now spending the majority of his time at his 50-acre farm on the Australian Sunshine Coast with his wife and two daughters, as well as presenting the MotoGP coverage from each round at a studio in Sydney.
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"I live in Australia, just north of Brisbane in a little town called Maleny. It’s where I grew up and I’ve got 50 acres of land there, which we would call a small bit of land. I’m a hobby farmer and I’ve got some cows and my wife keeps some horses. There's also plenty of space to keep some dirt bikes.
"Occasionally I will also do stuff with manufacturers in Australia - especially Suzuki - when there's a new model launch. I’ve also done a little bit with BMW as well.
"I spend a lot of time riding my Beta 300s off-road, as I love riding two-strokes. I've also got a Suzuki RG500 from '85 and I’ve got a Yamaha RZ500 - which I think is called an RD over here - from '84. I may occasionally get an adventure bike from Suzuki to ride, too."
So what’s the appeal of dirt riding?
"I'm a motorcycle racer, so riding on the road is very different discipline to what I'm used to and I just like being out in the bush. We've got some great places to ride in Australia and a lot of land, meaning you can be a bit sillier without breaking any laws.
"I go out with a good bunch of guys and we push ourselves. If someone can get up a hill and someone else can't, well that’s bragging rights later on when you're in the pub!
"We see kangaroos and small wallabies and things like that when we're riding. You might run over the occasional snake too, but they're not going to do anything. You just don't want to hit a 'roo at speed either because they're quite a big animal.
"We’ve also got some big Iguanas, too. They will run out in front of you and if you hit one then you're going over the bars."
Alongside local friends, Vermeulen will also occasionally ride with former competitors too, however claims opportunities can be limited when you live in a country like Australia.
"I do still occasionally ride with Casey Stoner, as we are based quite close to each other in Australia. I'll also ride with Troy Bayliss, but he's just a motorbike fanatic and will ride anything.
"Because I live in Australia, I don't see a lot of my old teammates now and this is actually my first visit to Europe in three years. I will still send them the occasional message, because that's the world we live in now, but chances to ride together are limited."
Do you ride on circuits anymore?
"Not really, no. Like I said, I do model launches and they might be at Phillip Island or Eastern Creek, but I ride very little. I hurt my knee quite badly in World Superbikes and I can run and ride dirt bikes, but riding a race bike with my knee in that position is only possible for around 20 or 30 minutes before it becomes too painful to continue.
"When I was racing, my favourite track to ride was Laguna Seca, but in terms of tracks they still go to, I have to say Phillip Island. It was the home GP for me, which was probably a bad thing due to the pressure, but as a track to ride it's a very, very cool circuit," he said.
But do you miss the racing?
"When I stopped, I had to take at least nine months off with my knee to get it fixed," he recalled. "That was at a time where I was getting a little bit older as a racer - at nearly 30-years-old - and I was thinking about starting a family and taking the time off to do so.
"I didn’t want to bring up kids in this environment and being an Aussie, you put your life on hold because you move to Europe for 10 months of the year and I didn’t want to bring up kids and not see them, or bring them up whilst permanently travelling, so that’s why I decided to stop – but it was easier said than done, you know!
"I thought maybe I could do some testing, or race in the Australian Superbike Championship because I still had the hunger to ride motorbikes fast and try and win. However, when my first daughter was born, the hunger stopped almost instantly.
"Racing is your whole life and you eat, sleep and live going fast on a motorbike and when family comes along it's different – you can't be so selfish. I loved every bit of the sport I was involved with though and had a great career though."
Supporting your kids
Despite calling time on his racing to pursue family aspirations, the 2003 World Supersport champion claims he would actively support his kids’ aspirations of motorcycle racing, however wouldn't push them towards it.
"I’ve got two daughters, so I don’t think they would be that interested, but saying that we’ve got some great female racers at the moment in people like Ana Carrasco, but it’s difficult to say," he explained.
"However, if that's what they want to do, then I will support them – in the same way that I would support them in anything they wanted to do in life.
"I do have some little motorbikes at home and I do take my daughters riding and they really enjoy it, but my wife is really into horses and they equally enjoy that. It’s good that they get to enjoy such a balance."
Becoming a TV pundit
Away from racing, Vermeulen is now forging a television career within the MotoGP paddock with Fox Motorsport. Now into his fourth year in front of the camera, the Australian freely admits that making the switch from rider to media was a difficult one.
"When I started in television it was awkward because when I recorded my first year I remember thinking ‘this isn’t for me.’ I wanted to talk about motorbikes, but I didn’t think TV was the right outlet. However, this is now my fourth year doing it and the more I appear on camera, the more comfortable I become with it," he said.
"When you’re racing, you can have moments when you’re not happy, but you’ve got to go and speak to the media - that's what it’s all about and it’s all a show. Riders are paid to ride motorbikes in order to promote products and you have to realise that. It’s then the media’s job to extract information from riders, to then help promote the sport.
"Some riders don't see it from the media's point of view and a lot of the media can't see it from a rider’s perspective, but I think I get a lot of respect from the riders now because I was a rider, too. You know nearly as much as the rider you're talking and certainly a lot more than the general public does. A rider will realise that and then open up to you more."