Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Meeting Steve, 10 years on...

Although it's in the 20s here this morning, so far, this has been the winter that wasn't, in Kansas City. All of us motorcyclists are still riding. So it doesn't feel like the middle of January. Maybe that helps to explain the mild surprise I felt the other day when I realized it was ten years ago that I moved to the Isle of Man, with the goal of qualifying for and riding in the TT.

Last night, Mary and I had dinner with two friends, Jim Carns and Bill Jeffreys, who were on the Island with me when I raced there. We ate in a KC brew pub. I had a beer and fish & chips; sat in crowded booth with good company; left after dark in the cold. It brought back some memories.

Getting to know the Island; learning (or at least scratching the surface of) the Mountain Course; racing in the TT... in many ways the first half of 2002 served as a (the?) major milestone in my life. Whatever my experiences on the Isle of Man might have been, they were shaped by one person more than any other -- Steve Hodgson.

This is how I described meeting Steve, in Riding Man...

On the spur of the moment, I wander into the Padgett’s shop in Douglas. It’s a quiet day. There are a couple of guys clattering around a dank workshop, but there’s no one at all in the showroom. Up on the wall, a TV endlessly replays a highlight tape from the 1999 TT races. There’s a little office, off to the side of the entrance. I introduce myself, and Steve Hodgson, the manager of the business, does the same. We start talking, and for whatever reason, my story (“Here I am. I quit my job, sold everything I owned, and moved here to ride the TT,”) strikes him as rational. He’s laid-back. (In the end, I will get to know him well before I ever see flashes of the young Steve–a brain-out two-stroke racer, with a room full of trophies and Barry Sheene in his sights.) He first came to the Isle of Man as a fan, with his friend Phil Mellor. They stood in the front garden of a house on Bray Hill, right at the spot where a sidecar crash came to its gruesome, fatal conclusion. “That’s it!” Mellor said, “I’m never going to race here!”

Steve didn’t want to race here, either. He thought of himself as a circuit specialist. He did come back and race in the Manx Grand Prix, under pressure from his sponsors. The plan was to quickly qualify for a TT berth the following year. That all ended with a massive crash at Aintree, broken femurs, and a sudden desire to get a regular job. Still, like so many motorcyclists, he knew once he’d been here that it was his spiritual home. Mellor eventually rode here and stayed too–he killed himself at Doran’s Bend in 1989. He was fast, no question about that, but the way he rode, everyone had seen it coming.

All this comes out in a long, rambling conversation, uninterrupted by even a single paying customer. Padgett’s main shops are in Yorkshire, where they do enough business to bankroll a major race team. At one point, Steve interrupts his train of thought to point to the television. “Are you really sure you want to do this?” he asks, adding “Just watch.” The video shows a motorcycle (ridden by a guy named Paul Orritt) accelerating down Bray Hill. At well over a hundred miles an hour the handlebars suddenly begin to shake, violently throwing the machine and rider to the road. Orritt’s like a rag doll. We both laugh, rather cruelly.

I ask if Padgett’s still leases bikes for the TT. “Sure,” says Steve. In fact, they have a race-prepped R6 down in the shop right now. “Some American guy leased it in 2000 but he didn’t qualify.” I tell him that I’ve got my heart set on a Honda. We call Clive Padgett, who runs the racing side of the business. Clive tells me I can lease the brand new CBR that they have in the showroom here on the Island, break it in on the road–which will help me learn the course–then we’ll pull off the lights and race it. This’ll cost me £3,000. I could wait and see if anything materializes at Motorcyclist, but I realize that this uncertainty just weighs too much. I put £1,500 on each of my two credit cards, and in two minutes, I’ve got a deal. Although I’m spending money I don’t really have, it’s a huge relief to think that the bike issue has been resolved. 

That's Steve at right. The other two guys are Paul Smith, my Canadian mechanic and my nephew Kris Gardiner. Peter Riddihough, who shot the documentary film One Man's Island, took this photo when we were out on a deserted stretch of Manx road, trying to figure out how to bring the CBR's handling under control. We never did resolve it; we didn't have the right shock spring; we didn't have the right tires; we didn't have right fork mods. Any one or maybe two of those problems could've been over-ridden if we'd had the right rider, but I was stuck with me.

Over the course of the next few months, there was scarcely a day that I didn't drop into the Padgett's shop for a coffee; hardly a day that Steve and I didn't go to The Terminus for a beer after he closed up the shop. Steve was my guide and interpreter, my sponsor, and my friend. We lapped the TT course on motorcycles, and he even accompanied me on a bicycle lap that was nearly the death of him (but his doggedness in completing that lap gave me some real insight into the competitive fires that had burned in him as a racer.)

After I'd gotten to know Steve, I realized that he could be utterly brusque in dismissing people looking for favors. I saw a couple of guys rub him the wrong way, and he just about throw them out into the street. On one of those days I told him, "Wow, you really have your New York head on today," which made him laugh. But it made me realize that on a different day, I might have got that treatment, and my time on the Isle of Man would have been totally different.

I think that at some level we were drawn to each other because -- while we were both in the only place we really wanted to be -- we were both lonely. Both of us were, at the time, in relationships that failed. I'd overthrown my career. Steve's quit his job at Padgett's a few times, but always come back after a couple of weeks and the Padgetts always take him back; they love to hate each other.

Since leaving the Isle of Man, I met and married the right wife. Steve's divorced, met someone new and, in his fifties, now has two new kids. I hope they keep him young. I know that I'm infinitely happier in my home life, and I think he is, too.

Every motorcyclist who makes the pilgrimage to the TT will find that the Isle of Man is his spiritual home. Some, like Steve, will find a way to stay there forever. Most, like me, will leave but be reminded of the place every day of their lives. I'll be on some little stretch of road that reminds me of part of the TT course, or I'll eat fish & chips, or I'll step out into the cold (especially if it's drizzly, too) and I'll be transported back there. And whenever that happens, I wonder how my friend Steve is.

It wouldn't have been the same without you, man.


  1. Fantastic Mark. Steve is one of the best guys on the planet to call your friend.

  2. MARK GARDINER IS one of the best guys on the planet to call your friend