A legend on two wheels, a life lived in full
FEW can say they really knew Steve Hislop. Fewer still, perhaps, understood him.
The Borders-born and bred motorbike rider, who died in a helicopter accident a week past Wednesday at the age of 41, brought entertainment, frustration, joy and unbridled excitement to millions who grew up with him and watched from afar. He has attracted so many descriptions in tributes since his death, from renegade to quiet man, maverick to cool head, and selfish and self-obsessed to generous and big-hearted, that to the neutral observer he must appear a bewildering enigma.
What there is no dispute over is the fact that Steve Hislop was not merely talented, but was one of the world’s fastest motorbike riders of all time.
While there was always the feeling that much was going on inside the Hislop cranium, more than was ever communicated, to say he was complicated would contradict the fact that he preferred simplicity, told it straight, sometimes too straight for his own good, and cared little for hyperbole. It is also hard to term ‘Hizzy’ either an introvert or an extrovert. He could be both.
He was, however, shy and a self-confessed loner, someone who grew up in the rural Borders village of Chesters, tucked away in the hills between Jedburgh and Hawick, surrounded only by farms. He spent most of his childhood with his younger brother Garry, had few close friends and grew to love life without the intrusion of adulation.
When Garry was killed, in a motorbike accident at Silloth in 1982, aged 19, his best friend was taken from him. His father Sandy, Steve and Garry’s inspiration for motorbike racing, had suffered a heart attack and died in his arms three years earlier, when Steve was just 17. If ever there were reasons for being introverted, here was good cause.
With the support of his mother, Margaret, he came through alcohol-filled depression and numerous car crashes, and motorcycle racing inevitably proved his saviour. Without initially telling his mother, he entered and finished second in a newcomers’ race at the Manx Grand Prix in 1983 - the year after Garry had won it. The future then became clearer, his calling grew louder, and the focus on achieving something in his life intensified.
Though attracting wide interest, he remained the shy Borderer, which explains why he could be viewed as a stern, distant character when at the racetrack or PR events, as he was amidst strangers, be they sponsors, fans, team-mates or rivals.
His mother Margaret admitted to me: "I never understood how he could speak so confidently on the television after races because he was always a shy, quiet boy. He was just a country lad, who liked shooting and fishing, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence.
"I worried when he went into the world of professional racing that he would change, but he never did. He still liked nothing more than getting back to his house and away from all that, to spend time with his boys. The boys brought something out of Steve that many people hadn’t seen before, and that is how I will remember him: a doting dad."
Unused to crowds, Hislop was never as happy and confident as when taking on the contours and elements at nearly 200mph on a screaming, thrusting bike with only himself for company or, latterly, piloting a state-of-the-art helicopter. In both, he was his own man, free as a bird and reliant on courage and a rare high degree of skill that few could match.
Hislop was undoubtedly a character, both in the sporting realm and in his private life. From his early days rolling down hillsides inside old tyres, poaching salmon or skidding bikes round Borders fields, always with his brother, to the months before his death, sport and life were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.
There was a hard edge to Hislop, and his gruff, suffer-no-fools manner could prove a turn-off to those who didn’t know him. That is true of many Borderers, and many recognised and sympathised with the man often chastised by team managers and fellow racers as an arrogant, detached and mouthy Scot. Now, they admit he was a fantastically generous individual whose honesty, skill and courage left vivid imprints, and many in sport wish they had his mental toughness.
That is because few would mistake his intense demeanour for anything other than a determined focus on his sport and the concentration it demanded of him to become what many regard as the fastest and smoothest rider of his generation. The incredible number of tributes which have flooded the media, paid by those who raced with and against him, serve as a lasting testament to the regard in which he was held. It is sad they come only now Hislop is gone - too few of his rivals could see beyond the mask to heap the deserved praise on his shoulders while he lived.
The term ‘perfectionist’ has been used regularly this week to describe Hislop. The sport might have been wild and Hislop may have enjoyed some wild nights out on occasion, but he was not a wild thing in the sense that he did not like to leave things to chance. Meticulous and knowledgeable, he always felt in control, though as he dipped and weaved to incredible record times on the dangerous, winding roads of the Isle of Man, few spectators would have believed it.
The incredible knowledge he had of the bumps, bends and ripples of the island he made his home and of other British Superbike circuits, regularly amazed other riders, while the attention to minute detail also contributed to bust-ups as he would point out errors, demand changes to his bikes and sometimes refuse to ride if he felt the bike was dangerous.
This technical knowledge and track awareness was built up over a lifetime spent on and under bikes. The intelligence came from eight years as a mechanic at Jim Oliver’s garage in Denholm, and from boyhood adventures at racing circuits around the UK with his father and his racing friends. At five, he would recount the famous Isle of Man bends, and how to beat them, to a stunned father.
Hislop did, however, suffer from another Border trait, a lack of self-confidence. There was always a determination to prove himself, to dismiss doubters and underline that he was better than he felt some believed. When I interviewed him, frequently at high points in his rollercoaster career, he would often finish the conversation by telling me: "Just watch, I’ll show them." I’d ask: "Who, Steve?" He’d reply: "All of them."
When he won the 250cc British Championship in 1990, many commentators and riders sneered at the country boy’s "luck", and when he first won the British Superbike Championship, in 1995, he was frustrated by reports he’d won only because his main rival James Whitham was battling cancer.
Injuries, bad luck, ill-timed bust-ups and lack of cash - he, incredibly, agreed to ride for top teams for no wages in major seasons, only to lose the big prize money through injury - saw him miss out on the chance to go for the World Superbike crown, yet he still beat the world’s best in one-off races. But there was no disguising his delight in reclaiming the British crown last year at the age of 40.
Such was his in-built determination that he was rarely scared of anything. One exception was when he had to leave the comfort of Chesters for his first day at primary school and another was when forced to undergo an operation on his spine, after he’d discovered his neck had been broken in a horrendous, high-speed smash at Brands Hatch in 2000. The crash, which had left him unconscious, put him in hospital, but he was back in his hotel that night and in his Isle of Man home the next morning having signed himself out.
What hadn’t been picked up was the spinal damage, and he tried to race at two further meetings before the seriousness of the injury was detected. When it was revealed that one wrong move of his head in the four weeks he’d been wandering around oblivious to the damage could have resulted in death or paralysis - he said he would have preferred death - Hislop believed he had been granted a second chance at life.
His autobiography, launched earlier this year, starts with a chapter called ‘Day Number One, Life Number Two’ and opens with the now-haunting words: ‘Everyone thought I was dead - except me, who wasn’t thinking at all’. It recounts the crash and his recovery, revealing that a titanium plate was screwed into his neck to allow him to continue racing, but more, it underlines his incredible drive and hunger for the next challenge.
But there was an unmistakable contrast within Hislop, a natural air which blended with his sporting prowess to produce a love of life shared with those who did know him. He was a very honest and loyal individual, who placed great trust in those dear to him and, as a result, was loved by many more than he probably realised. He suffered in splitting from his partner, Kelly Bailey, just before his second son Connor was born, but remained close to her with joint custody of the boys on whom he doted, before discovering love again with girlfriend Ally Greenwood.
Seeing the hundreds of riders who flocked to Hislop’s funeral on Thursday, reminiscent of the funeral of another legendary Hawick rider, Jimmie Guthrie, in 1937, it struck me he has died just a few months older than his boyhood hero. Guthrie was an Isle of Man TT star and European Champion before being killed in a racing accident. Hislop and his brother used to fight over who would pretend to be Guthrie in their boyhood races. His statue stands in Hawick and there is already a memorial fund begun for Hislop.
Particularly coming after the passing this year of stars Barry Sheene and David Jefferies, the motorsport world has been devastated by Hislop’s tragic death and yesterday, when riders congregated at Oulton Park, the sadness was palpable. After twice being dumped by teams in the past year, "Hizzy" was set to return to the track on an ETI Ducati, the bike which helped make him the reigning British Champion. And there were few events as appetising or sweat-inducing in the sporting calendar as the underdog Scot, Steve Hislop, roaring off the grid determined to prove a point.
The Borderer wanted dearly to prove he could live with the best again before bowing out - on his terms - at the end of this season and turning his attention to the buzz of helicopters and bringing up Aaron and Connor.
That is the ultimate dream which will go unfulfilled. Many will point to the irony of his death not on a motorcycle, but in a helicopter when he was at play. Others might find it achingly apt that Hislop proved he was the supreme master of all that motorcycle racing could throw at him, and it was the start of another challenge which instead snatched him from the world.
His mother revealed: "When he told me he was taking up helicopter flying I said to him ‘Can you not do something less dangerous?’ He just laughed. That was him and though I maybe didn’t like it, I never tried to change him. I am very proud of what he achieved in his life."
Hislop said recently: "Adrenalin is the best drug on earth and if you could bottle it and sell it you’d make a fortune. My view is you’re only on this planet for a short space of time and you’ve got to make the most of it."
Steven Hislop most certainly did.
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