Motorcycle diaries filled with pain and suffering, resilience and hope
Ryan Farquhar and Jamie Hamilton know how much sport gives – and can take away
Jamie Hamilton moments before he crashed at the 2015 Isle of Man TT. Photograph: Stephen Davison.
In 2012 Ryan Farquhar, one of Ireland’s most successful motorcycle road racers, retired from the sport following the death of his uncle in a Manx Grand Prix race. The 40-year-old may have quit racing but he had been mentoring a young up-and-coming rider, Jamie Hamilton, in his KMR Kawasaki team and the youngster continued to ride in the team’s bright orange livery.
Hamilton, a former British short circuit champion, won races and set lap records in road events under Farquhar’s tutelage. The successful partnership continued until the Dungannon veteran decided to return to the sport in 2014. The 22-year-old moved on to a new team and the pair continued to race against each other almost every weekend until disaster struck in June 2015. On the opening lap of the Senior TT on the Isle of Man the young Ballyclare rider lost control of his Suzuki superbike at 170mph and crashed into a line of trees.
Less than a year later his former mentor suffered a similar fate when he slid off his Kawasaki during the Supertwins race at the 2016 North West 200 in Ireland. The former master and pupil have both suffered and survived life-threatening injuries and have fought their way back from the brink.
Farquhar remembers every split second of the crash that brought his road racing career to an end.
“From when you feel the front wheel sliding away until you hit the road seems like 30 seconds but in reality it’s only a split second,” he recalls.
The former TT winner had broken six ribs and smashed two bones in one foot and three in the other. More seriously, his lung had been punctured and his liver lacerated by his broken ribs. Only the speed with which he was transported to a Belfast hospital by police helicopter saved his life as doctors stemmed the internal bleeding.
Hamilton had also been ferried to hospital by helicopter after his horrific smash during the opening lap of the Senior TT almost a year earlier. The brain injury he suffered in the 170mph impact ensured he remembers nothing of the crash.
“I remember waking up in hospital and trying to move all the parts of my body but I couldn’t move my arm or leg,” the young Ballyclare racer explains.
“I looked up and saw my mum at the end of the bed.”
That was three weeks after the accident and Hamilton’s mother, Helen, was to continue her unbroken bedside vigil for another six weeks.
“She came in at 9.30am and wouldn’t leave until 10pm at night,” her son says. “At the start she had to do everything for me, I couldn’t even eat my own dinner.”
The 25-year-old suffered appalling injuries to his right arm and leg.
“Both my tibia and fibula were smashed,” he says.
“My fibula will never join again and I had 63cm smashed out of my tibia, but that has grown back again now. I also broke two ribs and I did my humerus bone in my upper arm as well.”
The leg injury was so severe that Jamie is still wearing a cage over a year and a half after the accident. So far he has endured nine operations and faced numerous setbacks as doctors try to piece his shattered limbs back together again.
“There were plates and a bone graft put in my arm,” he explains.
“The bone graft was from someone who had died and I have no feeling in my fingers because of nerve damage in my arm.”
Hamilton’s right foot remains horribly contorted and he says the doctors have told him he will have to have his foot and ankle fused together.
His continued memory loss is proving the most frustrating issue.
“At the start I could remember nothing at all; I was calling my mum my dog’s name!” he smiles.
“It has come round slowly but surely and I have found that the more I come back to normality, the better it gets. But if I get very stressed or if I am in a lot of pain for a few days my memory is terrible. It’s annoying because people don’t see it. It’s not like the cage on my leg.”
In spite of their suffering, both men try to play it down with black humour.
Farquhar teases Jamie that his memory loss could be useful in some circumstances and his former protege retorts that Ryan’s snooker skills are only improving because he has so much time to practise.
But the restrictions their injuries impose on their day-to-day lives are beginning to grate.
“I have been in theatre four times and they are going to do something with my ankle, so by the time they have me sorted it will be five operations,” Farquhar says.
“The pain over the last year has been unreal. I struggle to sleep and I have absolutely no stamina. It has just taken so much out of me.”
“I’m struggling a bit with the leg at the minute because the cage has been on a year and seven months,” Hamilton says.
“I got it off in July for two days and then the leg broke again. I just really want to get back to normality, to get up every day and go to work.”
The psychological impact of life-changing injuries on two men who have spent their lives competing and winning in racing has been traumatic.
“Definitely there have been times when I have been really down,” Farquhar admits.
“Initially when I got out of hospital I was so dependent on my wife Karen to do everything for me. I wasn’t able to walk to the bathroom or turn around in bed. There are times when, if it hadn’t been for her and my two girls, Keeley and Mya, I was so low I almost wished I had died.”
It was when they were at their lowest ebb that both Hamilton and Farquhar say they began to realise how fortunate they were to have escaped with their lives and have their families and friends around them.
“It’s whenever things like this happen that you realise who your true friends are,” Hamilton says.
“Who the people are that don’t just care about you because you are a motorbike racer and because they get to stand beside you when you are on the podium.”
“You learn how important it is to have people like that in your life,” Farquhar agrees.
“When I started to get a bit stronger there were things that I started to look forward to and I thought to myself ‘I am so lucky to be here.’”
"Before, everything revolved around motorbikes,” Hamilton reflects.
“When I got up in the morning I was only thinking about what I had to do to win a race. I appreciate what I have a lot more now. I appreciate the good times, laughing and going out and having a bit of fun.”
Ryan and Jamie say the death of Malachi Mitchell Thomas had a profound effect on both of them. The fatal crash of the charismatic 21-year-old English newcomer at the same spot on the North West 200 course where Farquhar had fallen in a race just two days earlier sent shockwaves through a sport that is only too familiar with danger and death.
“Malachi crashed and he didn’t make it,” Farquhar says quietly.
“He would love to be in my situation. I just kept telling myself that over and over again.”
Hamilton grew close to Malachi as the young Englishman replaced him in the Burrows Engineering race squad after his TT crash. Hamilton tried to offer the young newcomer the benefit of his circuit knowledge when he first came to Ireland.
“We were going out driving round race tracks and I was trying to tell Malachi what I remembered,” Hamilton explains.
“I thought at the start that I wouldn’t be able to tell him anything but then when we got to the track things started coming back.”
Offering his guidance to the young newcomer lifted Hamilton’s spirits, and that made Malachi’s death especially traumatic for the Ballyclare rider.
“After Malachi was killed and I went to a race I felt there was no reason to be there,” he says.
“I wasn’t fit to push a motorbike to the start line, I wasn’t fit to put tyre warmers on. When I was racing I always talked about hangers on, someone who just came and stood around the awning to be seen and that’s exactly how I felt, like I was only there to get some glory. I hated that.”
Despite this, both Hamilton and Farquhar see motorbikes as a major part of their futures.
“If I do go to races I want to muck in and get my hands dirty again,” Hamilton says.
Will he consider racing again himself?
“I haven’t ruled anything out,” he smiles.
“I have no feeling in a couple of my fingers but the feeling might come back. But if I do race again I am not going back to make up the numbers. I have won Irish championships, Ulster championships, British championships. Whenever I was having a good day and everyone else was having a bad day I beat the best there was, so I’m not going back unless I can be on the podium at the TT.”
Farquhar has already made a quiet return to the sport, running other riders on his race bikes last year. He admits he is still too weak to compete himself but the Dungannon man says he has other ambitions outside motorcycle racing.
“I would love to get on to the Northern Ireland shooting team,” he explains.
“I like shooting clay birds. After the crash a friend took me shooting again. I had to be carried from the car because I wasn’t fit to walk or stand but they brought the gun and I was fit to shoot. Once I did that and sat down again the relief was like a big weight lifted off my shoulders. I was fit to do something that I enjoyed doing.”
As the rider with more race wins than any other Irishman in the history of road racing, Farquhar is trying to refocus his fierce competitive nature.
“I think a lot of road racers struggle with retiring,” he says.
“They are used to being competitive and if that’s taken away then you need something to fill that big hole. Shooting clay targets is a completely different thing from road racing but it gets that competitive thing out of my system and it has helped me a lot.”
Farquhar has a new appreciation of his road racing achievements now retirement has been forced upon him.
“Racing will be a part of my future but in a small way,” he says.
“My life and the lives of my wife and daughters have revolved around motorbikes but that’s not going to be the case anymore.”
Farquhar takes comfort from being able to reflect on his success in a way that other riders who have lost their lives in this most unforgiving of sports have not been able to do.
“I feel great riders like Robert and Joey Dunlop have been robbed in a way because they never got to sit down and look back and say they had done this or that in their careers and it had been great. They were always racing and while you are racing you are always thinking of the next race. You can never rest on your laurels. Once you get hurt and you think ‘This isn’t going to happen for me any more,’ you can look back and appreciate what you have achieved.”
Jamie Hamilton may not have reached the heights in his racing career that Farquhar did but he still maintains there are no regrets.
“You regret more the things you didn’t try than the things you tried and failed,” he smiles.
“I’m glad I raced motorbikes. I played football before for Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers. I was good but my heart wasn’t in it. My heart was in motorbike racing and it’s taken me a long way.”
After all he has been through, and still has in front of him, Hamilton says he has no bitterness towards the sport and remains extremely upbeat.
“There’s no bitterness towards road racing whatsoever,” he says.
“I knew how dangerous it was and what to expect if it all went wrong. Somebody said ‘A man’s toughness is not defined by how hard he can hit but about how hard he can get hit and keep moving on.’ How many people can come off a motorbike at 170mph and still be here to talk about it?
“I still have plans for the future, things I want to do, so how bad is it really?”
* Stephen Davison is a journalist and photographer who has covered motorcycle road racing for three decades. He is a close friend of Ryan Farquhar and Jamie Hamilton