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Home > Popped Clogs

Popped Clog: Barry Sheene

Barry Sheene - motorcycle racer, womaniser, accident victim - has died. He was 53.

12 April 2003

"Barry was not only one of the most brilliant motor-racing cyclists who has ever lived, but a lovely cheerful man with a core of steel."

- Murray Walker


Barry Sheene was a man's man. And a ladies' man. In other words, he was a man's ladies' man, and a lady's man's man. A complicated fellow, all told. The women loved him because he was cool and dangerous and almost certainly good in bed. The men loved him because he was cool and dangerous and almost certainly good in pub. And Sheene loved himself because he was so damned cool. And he had every right to.

Sheene was one of the most self-confident men ever to straddle a Yamaha. His confidence blossomed early. This is him, having just left school:

'I was out and about all day long and my wage rocketed to £12 a week, with a spanking BSA Bantam machine thrown in. There was a nice lot of delectable 25-year-old dollies there who would teasingly say to me: ‘if you were a bit older I'd fancy you'. To which I would reply, ‘Well, I'm still big enough'.'

The quotation is from Barry Sheene's wonderful autobiography - ‘Barry Sheene: The Story So Far' - published in Ipswich in 1976. The book explains a lot. Perhaps no episode is more revealing than the loss of the young Barry's virginity:

'I'd take girls out from school or else I'd go dancing on a Saturday night at the Empire Leicester Square, just down the road from home. I may have been only about 14 but I could dance really well and had no difficulty in getting along with young ladies. At that age I found out what it was all about over a snooker table in the crypt of a local church. Her name escapes me.'

He can't even remember the name of the girl to whom he lost his virginity on a snooker table in the crypt of a church. That's how much he took it in his stride. He clearly inherited a fair share of self-confidence from his father, whose first words after Barry's birth were: 'I've just been presented with the winner of the 1970 TT'.

Confidence and sex: the keywords of Barry's life. Even when he describes his first major crash he can't help but make the experience sound a) no big deal; and b) strangely sexual:

'I was banged about the head, cut my lip, I lost some skin off my hands, but certainly wasn't bad enough to warrant the attentions of St John Ambulance officials and the meat wagon into which I was gently eased.'

Sheene, as we know, grew into a fearless rider. One is tempted to attribute his fearlessness to the incident which happened while he was still in the womb:

'A couple of months before I was born, Mum had a severe fright when a child stepped out into the road in front of the car her and Frank were in near home. Apparently the shock, according to the gynaecologist, caused a birthmark on my head, and since then it has always sprouted much lighter hair than my normal dark brownish crop. But I digress...'

It is as if he got his fear over and done with before he was born. As if his fear had been forever externalised, and would only be displayed as a light-tinted tuft of hair. (And of course, it had a secondary benefit: natural highlights. Women adore world champion motor racers with highlights, it's a known fact).

In the end, Barry shied away from chemotherapy, and embraced alternative cures. Perhaps he simply wasn't afraid of the disease - perhaps, with his unimpeachable self-confidence, he thought he could handle it. Cancer? Pah! Bring it on. After all, he'd cheated death enough times already. Why stop now?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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