From the motorcycle diaries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2006, 12:00am

MOTORCYCLE daredevils are the darlings of the sports pages and, sadly, motorcycle accidents figure all too frequently in news items on television or in the dailies. The excitement and the risks are all part of the attraction for the riders, the fans and the racing crowd.

Macau-born motorcycle racer Cheung Wai-on will tell you that motorcycle racing is not a sport that depends on talent alone - money matters, too.

Motorcycle racing is one of the world's most expensive sports and how good you are as a rider is irrelevant if you do not have the financial support or sponsorship to keep you in the racing loop.

'The first thing I'd say to anyone interested in getting into motorcycle racing is to have a lot of money,' Cheng said. 'Without it, you can do nothing. Even those who have a passion for racing will lose interest fast without the proper funding.'

Of course, this did not reduce the importance of talent, which was the first requirement, Cheung said. He said he learnt how to ride by watching his father, also a motorcycle racer, and observing the styles of different motorcycle racing stars.

'People can teach you the basic skills but you won't move to the higher levels of competition if you lack talent,' said the 25-year-old Cheung, who started racing at the age of 13.

Of the two types of motorcycle racing, street circuit is considered the more dangerous because the riders must navigate terrain with a variety of challenges, such as walls, rivers and sharp bends. The racetrack circuits, on the other hand, are relatively straightforward. But the dangers in both track settings are equally great.

'The most dangerous moments in any race are when you are trying to overtake the guy in front while navigating a tight corner and when you are accelerating immediately after passing a fellow ,' he said. These are the occasions when motorcycles are most likely to crash into each other or go off track.

All racers must be well padded with full-body leather suit, synthetic gloves with plastic knobs to soften the impact of falling on your hands, and a shock-absorbing helmet.

'Eight out of 10 racers I know have fractured a collarbone at some point in their career. This is the easiest body part to fall on when you roll off your bike,' he said. Cheung has also sustained other types of injury, such as dislocating an ankle and scraping his hands even with gloves on.

In 2002, he dislocated an ankle in a Zhuhai race, just two weeks before the Macau grand prix. 'I fell off my bike and was rushed to hospital. I spent a night there before being discharged. My ankle was heavily bandaged for weeks.' Despite the pain and the swollen foot, he participated in the Macau race that year.

In 1997, he hurt himself badly when he fell off his motorcycle. Under the impact, the gravel punctured his gloves and cut his hands. He had to get nine stitches and the hands took months to heal.

Shoulder dislocation is another common injury among motorcycle racers. Broken bones result when a racer lands in an awkward position.

While accidents are accepted as part of the game, racers can mitigate the dangers with confidence and experience gained on the track.

'Of course, you need courage at the start to even get on a bike. Later, with some experience, it is no longer about guts but about caution and discipline,' he said.

Racing is unique in that every race is different and no circuit scenario can be accurately predicted.

'The crucial thing about driving is concentration and brain power. You have literally less than a second to make a decision about your next move, maintain a lead, drive faster or overtake a rival. Your brain, arm and leg movements must all be well co-ordinated. Things literally happen in a heartbeat,' he said.

Cheung has brought home many trophies from races in China, Macau, Australia, Japan and Britain over the years. He now feels he has arrived at a plateau in his racing career, and is not likely to go on competing on a grand scale. Besides, the city's lack of investment in the sport can be discouraging.

'The prime age band for racers is between 18 and 20,' he said. 'When you get to my age you are likely to maintain your standard but not get much better.'

Cheung is sorry for competitive racers and hopefuls in a city that does not have even one racetrack to boast of. 'Without even a racetrack to practise on, the sport might as well be dead in Hong Kong,' he said.

Cheung keeps fit for racing by running every day. Real practice opportunities come only a few days before a race, at the competition venue.

'The actual race is typically on a Sunday, but we arrive a couple of days earlier to test the bikes, practise on the circuits and make sure everything is okay,' he said.

The limited time for practise means the actual practice runs are high-pressure exercises.

Cheung is sponsored by the Yamaha team in China, but the financial pressures of running a home and maintaining his sport forced him to open a motorcycle accessories store in Mongkok last year.

'I had no option but to start this business. Most racers these days can't survive on competitions alone. The majority have a side job they can survive on, although most tend to stay in the industry, selling motorcycles and motorcycle parts or fixing them, like my dad.'

Cheung once had dreams of competing at international level in countries famed for motorcycle racing, such as Spain, Italy and Japan. But his experience over the years has shown him the harsh realities of the world. Limited resources and a lack of opportunities have dashed his hopes in slow motion over the years.

'Sometimes, I think it is better not to have any dreams, because they won't materialise anyway,' he said with resignation.

Cheung knows the day will come when his sponsor will pull the plug on his sponsorship in favour of younger talent. But until that happens, he will stay with the sport and continue to enjoy its irresistible, adrenalin-pumping thrills.


11/2-21/2 minutes Average time to race round one circuit

6.5km Total length of the Macau street circuit

HK$10,000+ Cost of protective full-leather bodysuit

HK$2,000+ Cost of leather boots

HK$2,000+ Cost of leather gloves

20 Number of laps after which a tyre change is necessary in professional racing