Brothers Ryan and Oisin Maher from Boherlahan, getting ready to race once again at Mondello Park in County Kildare. Pics credit: Joe Connolly
The Olympic Games currently playing out on the other side of the world in Japan, feature, we are told, no less than 33 different sports. The choices that people pursue in the world for their favourite activities are many and varied.
When arriving in Boherlahan last week to cover a different kind of sport, one could easily be forgiven in thinking that it would have to be hurling considering that village’s famed synonymity with the camán agus sliotar. But it wasn’t quite so.
If the legendary Mahers of Tubberadora 100+ years ago lived for hurling, today’s Mahers in Boherlahan village live just as much for the sport that they love.
As the Olympic motto goes, Citius, Altius, Fortius, yes, sport means different things to everyone, but for the Maher brothers in Boherlahan, Ryan and Oisin, and their father Willie, it means only one thing … motorcycle racing.
Some outlier sports, like cricket or synchronised swimming, I know little or nothing about, nor do I want to. Motor bike racing was another in that category before I met the Mahers. To many outsiders the sport seems to be no more than two wheels with a rider on top, plenty of noise and even more speed. But when I sat down and spoke to Willie and Ryan last week I soon discovered that it is so much more than that, both on and off the bike. Motorcycle racing is a deadly serious sport, not for the faint-hearted, and not for shallow pockets either.
Whether it’s because of nature or nurture, and in this case it’s probably a bit of both, Ryan (23) and Oisin (18) Maher are today literally following along the same tracks that their father made back in the 1980s when he raced bikes all over Ireland and the UK. If it’s in the blood to begin with, and then if you find yourself up on your first mini bike at the age of five, there’s always only going to be one end result.
Older brother Ryan gave a good insight into his passion and how he now lives for racing. “You can’t help it, it’s the last thing you think of when you go to sleep at night,” aptly summing up what it means to him.
Ryan, now serving his time as an electrician with the Clonmel-based Jer Ryan Electrical company, began by telling me how he became involved in the sport.
“I had mini bikes since I was five years of age and I started racing when I was 13, big race track bikes at 13. We grew up with it, I guess, just from going to Mondello with Dad when we were younger and when he was racing in,” he said.
Willie himself - proud of his adopted Boherlahan but who still shouts for his native Clonoulty when there’s hurling to be done - raced all over Ireland and the UK in his younger days, both on the roads and on the circuits. Indeed at one time, at the height of it, he had four or five bikes on the go and often raced in four different classes on the one day at the County Kildare venue, something no longer allowed for safety reasons.
Ryan Maher in action at Mondello Park
Hearing talk of the brothers hitting speeds of 190 MILES per hour (not kph) on the track, one would be forgiven for thinking you’d need to be crazy to get up on one of these machines, but listening to Ryan you quickly understand that the opposite is the case.
“To be a good racer you need a lot of things, you need hunger for a start, but you have to be smart and clever always, it doesn’t work otherwise. And you need lots and lots of dedication. Sometimes I am finishing up work on a Friday evening, having trained all week on my own with weights and cardio, and then heading up to Mondello on a Friday night. Up at 6.30 or 7 am on the Saturday and Sunday morning for racing. And then back to work on Monday.
“That’s the dedication that’s needed to compete. If you want to win you have to be on the bike every weekend, the whole weekend,” he added.
And that dedication has brought him some notable successes over his years of competing.
“I have been runner-up twice in the 400cc, and I was 5th in my first year going to 500cc, and I was in the top 10 in my first year on the Supersport and I ran top three towards the end of it. That’s with a serious field of riders.
“I then stopped racing for two years and I went to motocross instead because I didn’t have the money since the first year of competing. I was working down in Limerick, staying down there. I was doing 12-hour shifts at work, so when I finished on a Friday at 4.30, I would go up to Mondello and after that go back down to Limerick and stay there for the week. It soon became a chore. And I just wasn’t mentally there for it. It was just too much, I was just worn down, I couldn’t train or anything, so I stopped for two years then,” pointed out Ryan, giving a clear insight into what it really takes to compete in this sport at the level the Maher siblings aspire to.
Thankfully, Ryan is back in the saddle again though, each brother with a Supersport bike of his own.
“This year I am definitely going to push for a top three in Supersport. I will do some rounds in England next year and try to win the Supersport here next year and hopefully the year after I will try and get to England full-time then. I will have a bit more money too because I will be qualified electrician next year as well,” added Ryan, who was grateful to his employer Jer Ryan for some leeway with time off to compete.
Again, it isn’t obviously anyone who can sit on these almost jet-powered racing machines. There’s more to it than just sitting in a saddle, no matter how talented the rider.
Ryan continued: “There is a fitness regime required that needs to be maintained. You have to do a weight programme for the bikes you are on, and you would want to be about 70 kilos in weight if you can manage it. You need to be doing cardio as well as weight training to keep your strength up.”
Both Ryan and Oisin race in a class called Supersport, for mere mortals on the outside as opposed to these racing angels, Supersport bikes are 600cc. There is another bigger category called Superbikes for 1,000cc, but most commentators in the know reckon that it takes more racing talent to succeed in the Supersport category.
I put it to Ryan that you need to be fearless for a start to be involved in this motorcycle racing at all.
“Sure, to an extent you have to be fearless, You would get hurt if you weren’t. But you have to be smart as well. Smart as in not pushing yourself too far outside your own boundaries. Like understanding the conditions of the track on the day. Knowing your tyres, what your bike is doing and can do, how far you can push it. Mental fitness is huge also. Being in the zone. Sometimes at the start you may not be able to push as you would like to or for a long amount of time either, it builds up, being patient. There can be a lot going on all the time in a race,” he added.
Oisin Maher at full throttle at Mondello Park
According to Willie, in motor racing a rider has to work his way into a season.
“At the start of the year you would definitely wear out easier at racing, physically and mentally, and even after only a few sessions you wouldn’t be up to speed. But you do find that your lap times decrease, as the season develops, as you spend more time on the bike. Our season is from March to October. In March you are probably 2-3 seconds a lap slower but that usually comes down as the year progresses, added Willie, who runs a successful metal fabrication operation in the village and is known the length and breadth of the country for his niche specialised craftsmanship.
For a hurler it’s a sliotar bisecting the uprights from 70 metres out, or for a golfer it’s holing a 20 foot putt, but where is the thrill in it for racers, I asked Ryan.
“The buzz, it’s the sketchy moments sometimes,” he euphemistically answered with a huge smile, moments no doubt that would scare the living daylights out of the rest of us.
He continued: “Sometimes you would think to yourself that I am not going to make it this time. It’s battling with people and pushing yourself every weekend. It’s things like that, that’s what I get my thrill from. I try to be faster week in week out. But you have to try to get into the right zone. Naturally you would get kind of anxious beforehand and you would be mad to get going on the day,” he explained.
“You are actually a bag of nerves before you sit on the bike waiting to go on the grid and when you do get going the nerves are all gone,” pointed out Willie, remembering it vividly from his own competitive days. “But there can’t be fear, you can’t ride with fear. Nerves are different, they will all disappear the minute you sit on the saddle,” he said.
Again this sport is different from most others, in that you can’t exactly take the bike out on the public road any evening to touch 150 mph, or to try and do Cashel to Thurles in 10 minutes. So what does Ryan do to hone his skills?
“I can go on a scrambler to Littleton. It’s a different technique but it helps. It’s like sometimes good footballers make good hurlers. It kind of goes hand in hand to an extent. Littleton the Bord na Móna bog, I go there to practice, and the quarries as well. I definitely go up there once a week,” he added.
But there’s an elephant in the room here too when it comes to motorbike racing. It isn’t all based on talent and ability and courage either, these aren’t the only attributes needed to succeed in this sport. Money and financial backing play a huge part also, certainly in opening the door of opportunity to up-and- coming riders.
Together, almost in unison, father and son painted the picture of the costs involved even at entry level to compete at Mondello and elsewhere.
The power of the Supersport 600cc motorcycle plain to see as young Oisin Maher opens up at Mondello Park.
“It’s so expensive to run a bike. It’s crazy really the money and that’s what holds you back the most to be honest with you. It’s €220 for entries, a set of tyres is €380, another €50 on fuel for the weekend and €100 if you are going to do the practice days beforehand. It’s €600-€700 a weekend for one person if you are at the top. And a track day is €150. It’s definitely a sport weighted towards money, it is big time,” echoed the Mahers.
Deep down you can hear where Willie is coming from and the frustration that can hinder the development of pure raw talent in this sport.
“When you see the likes of Oisin when he started on the 300s (300cc bikes) he was racing a lot of guys from England and from the North, who had the top of the top in bikes and we hadn’t, but we could still beat them,” he said, pointing to his 18 year-old’s undoubted potential in the sport.
“We have seen loads of lads come up that wouldn’t be as good as us on bikes, and they are racing professionally now in England simply because they have more money than us,” added Ryan.
Agreeing with his son’s sentiments, Willie added. “They have that backing behind them. It breaks your heart to see lads that they beat all up through their career, now over in England and being on Eurosport and Sky Sport and all that, being televised at what they do, when you know there’s better lads not getting that chance,
“That said, it is what it is now, and to my boys it’s a drug and they are hooked on it. They can’t wait to go from one weekend to another,” said Willie.
“That’s it,” nodded Ryan nonchalantly. “You can’t help it, it’s the last thing you think of when you go to sleep at night,” summing up his dream precisely in a few words as to what this sport means to him.
“That’s all I think about all week. I think about the little areas of the race the previous weekend, where I could have made up time. And I will watch back on ‘Onboard’ (a video of the race). I also look back and think, Jesus I had a great battle there, thinking whether we touched at that point, thinking it was great craic as well. You would be constantly going over in your head how you could get faster. That’s what I do all the time,” said Ryan.
It was Ryan’s break from competing a few years back that gave younger brother Oisin his first chance, and it seems he has taken it magnificently, the current Leaving Cert student at Coláiste Dun Iascaigh in Cahir, was crowned Young Rider of the Year in 2019.
Reflecting back on that super season for the then 16-year-old, Willie said:
“He was only starting out then and we couldn’t afford the two of them on bikes at the time at the sort of level he needed to be at. He was getting really quick as well. Fair play to him, he got the break and he did well. He even set the lap record the first time he was over in Brands Hatch,” added the proud father.
“Oisin is also the youngest pro rider (the highest standard of competition) in Ireland. He is the youngest rider to ever finish in a pro race and beat pro riders and cup riders,” explained Willie.
The eyes have it! Ryan Maher cornering at Mondello with eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.
Ryan acknowledges also that latent ability that his younger sibling possesses.
“He’s really talented and he is determined to go pro, to get paid professionally, to make his career out of it. And he has had wild cards already (offers of rides with professional teams).
And this is the crux of the matter in motorbike racing. To get to the top you need to get onto the professional teams, but “offers” to join these outfits are hugely expensive. It could be almost compared to bringing a dowry to a marriage.
According to Willie: “Oisin has been offered World Superbike rides but we just couldn’t afford to do it. While you are given the chance, you still have to pay for that chance to compete.
“The cheapest ride for him with a team in England - because they really wanted him and they weren’t that good a team - they said they would do it for €12,500 for nine races. And it would go from there up to €30,000 to be part of a good team. The Superbikes would cost €75,000. It’s all mad money,” said Willie.
Ryan explained: “You have to pay for the chance because you don’t have a contract for the first year. The second year you might get it for free, that’s if you meet their expectations. Then the third year they will pay you,” he said.
Finally, as a parent, I put it to Willie as to how it must feel like watching his sons participating in what is undoubtedly a highly dangerous sport.Weighing it up he replied:
“You can do tracks and roads in this sport. I wouldn’t let them do roads. My opinion of that is if you go back 70 years ago they were racing bikes on roads. Go back 20 years they were racing fast bikes on the same roads. And you go to today and they are racing ‘missiles’ on the same roads. There are no sons of mine doing that, racing missiles. That’s why the fatalities are there on roads. So I don’t agree with it even if I did it myself back in the day,” he said.
“There is no doubt racing is dangerous. At 140, or 150, or it could be up to 170 mph at Bishopscourt (Downpatrick) which is really fast. It could even be 180 or 190 mph down the straight there. It’s fast for sure. Yeah, when you are sitting on that wall, wherever, watching, fingers crossed, that they will finish and being so relieved when they safely do.”
“But I have never pushed them once, I don’t think I did anyway. I always say to them, take it easy out there, just enjoy it. Have fun.” concluded Willie.
Regardless of anything else that these talented motorcyclists might ever achieve, podiums, contracts, fame or fortune, please God may Ryan and Oisin always fly safely through that finishing line, and if there’s a chequered flag there to greet them, all the better still.
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