There are few motorcycle racers – or perhaps even professional athletes altogether – quite like Michael Dunlop.
The latest in a road racing dynasty, his incredible CV includes 19 Isle of Man TT victories before he even turned 30 – but he almost shuns the media spotlight in which many of his rivals bask, which makes it very difficult to avoid comparisons with his uncle Joey, the most successful TT racer of all time.
As a result, while many of the guys he’s going to face when racing finally resumes on Saturday at the TT have been very much in the spotlight in the two years we’ve gone without the historic race thanks to the COVID pandemic, Dunlop has been largely anonymous throughout.
He hasn’t had an easy run in the TT either, first with the switch from Ducati machines to Hawk Racing’s British Suzuki Superbike machines after a falling out with former team boss Paul Bird and then a switch. at the eleventh hour from Dunlop to Metzeler. after a spectacular (and incredibly dangerous) series of tire failures at the North West 200 two weeks ago.
However, none of these factors are likely to be Dunlop’s biggest challenge ahead. Rivals like Peter Hickman, Dean Harrison and Lee Johnston have raced and won British Championship competition throughout 2020 and 2021 at a time when Dunlop has barely sat on a motorbike let alone opened up about his plans to people .
He says this lack of time at speed will be his greatest weakness when he receives the infamous pat on the shoulder for the opening Superbike TT this weekend.
“That’s going to be our biggest problem,” he admitted to The Race. “Unfortunately that is how things are now.
“Before, road racing was just road racing. Don’t get me wrong, there were BSB boys or World Superbike boys coming and going, but for a while it was more about road racing.
“Now it’s become more of a short circuit thing with the guys from BSB coming in and being quite fast.
“Then there are people like Dean who used to be a road racer but now also races in the BSB Championship. They do miles where in Ireland we are a bit more clueless.
“Road racing had dropped off at home to some degree but BSB was able to keep going and those boys were able to keep riding. I was able to sign up to do a few, but it’s not practical to do a full season.
This is partly due to his upbringing and family history, as a product not of circuit racing but of small national road races in the north and south of Ireland, places with names like Tandragee, Skerries, Kells and Dundrod.
For many years, this is where road racers cut their teeth and learned their trade. Dunlop was probably the last TT legend to go this route, as the number of races and the quality of races there have declined – which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“When you were at the Irish road races,” he explained, “you could have picked 10 boys who when you went to the TT probably could have won a race. It’s the long and the short.
“Now if you could sit at your desk with all your heart and name people with road racing backgrounds, who is fit to win a race?
“It’s not disrespecting them, but that’s where road racing comes from.
“I remember 125cc and 250cc races where there could have been 12 winners, all dicing for road wins in Ireland and then doing the same in the Isle of Man.
“It changes, but that’s life for you. Things always change, and either you change with it or you get left behind.
Dunlop is pretty certain he won’t be left behind when things get going. Unable to be competitive the last time the TT raced in 2019 (pictured below) thanks to pre-season injuries, it’s going in top form this time around – and while it may not have had too much time on a bike, he insists so much. winning on the 37.73 mile course depends on knowledge and experience.
“I don’t think I’m s***e, that’s for sure!” joked the 33-year-old.
“It’s like riding a bike and you don’t forget, so all we can do is try.
“Listen, everyone is in the same boat. I haven’t cycled as much as the others, all the guys on the short circuit who have done laps and it’s fantastic for them – but we’re back on the roads where there are trees and hedges and walls.
“It’s a different aspect of racing, and all I can do is give it a shot.
“The challenge is just the TT. You hit the road again at 8 p.m. with the sun setting, tar changes, a bunch of different aspects.
“TT has so many different scenarios. It’s like making you understand this old school stuff. Riding with 5000 flies on your visor, riding to the edge of the grass with a million people standing on it.
“You don’t ride looking through pissholes in the snow because your visor is full of flies when you race at BSB. There’s all these aspects that you get used to and don’t realize you’re used to until you get back to it.
This is confirmed not only by his past record, but also by the way he started to build at the start of the training week, which started on Sunday.
Not setting the world on fire yet, he has nonetheless started to pick up his speed and remains very close to Hickman and Harrison, widely recognized as the men to beat.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, flip me, so yeah, I’m looking forward to it,” Dunlop said just before things got going.
“It’s the pinnacle of the sport and it’s good to see him back. There have been a lot of changes, they have done a lot of work, and it should go faster.
“I would like to try to be fast in everything, as I have been in the past.
“I think some people in the paddock might not rate me anymore, but I was fast in everything, good in everything, I won everything.
“Last time I was there I was injured, but my lap times were good before.
“I did a 130mph lap on my 600cc and was the first person to break the lap in under 17 minutes.
“I understand the other guys have a bit of speed, but I’m not slow for sure, and hopefully everything will fall back into place and I’ll hit the speeds I know I can hit, and more. far.”
But while he may be going to the TT hoping to win races again, it’s pretty clear that one thing he doesn’t really think about is his place in the record books.
Now just seven wins shy of Joey Dunlop’s all-time record, Michael is only too aware of the bittersweet price that comes with TT immortality.
At only 33 years old but having already seen his uncle Joey, his father Robert and his older brother William lose their lives in road racing, he just wants to continue with what he does best in life: winning.
“I hear about it when I’m away,” he said of his own winning record, “but I don’t think about it much myself.
“It’s one of those things that everyone talks about – ‘oh you should be knighted for what you’ve done and at a young age.
“But I don’t really think about it. I have 19 TTs under my belt and I was all in my twenties, and when you look at that, it was pretty impressive.
“But I always say in this job, you don’t get what you deserve until something happens to you. Then they say ‘well done, he did a good job’.
“People see it in different ways, but I just want to ride my bike and win races.”