Winning a TT again. That was the dream, but there are images from which Ian Hutchinson can never escape. The 35-year-old whose TT hat-trick has been hailed as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the event remains haunted by five years of agony.
His amazing tenacity and the unbelievable courage which took him from the near-loss of his left leg in a Coventry hospital to the Glencrutchery Road podium is the stuff of legends.
The story is well known. A record-breaking five TT wins in 2010 was followed by a horror crash in a BSB Supersport race at Silverstone where he was hit by two other bikes. From there he was rushed to Coventry with the prospect of amputation the most likely outcome.
“When I got to hospital I was heavily sedated but coming round I was told my leg was going to be taken off and I started screaming that no matter what happens don’t take my leg off. Then I was taken down for an operation to try and brace it. They put some rods on and other stuff as a temporary measure. From that point on I was in ga-ga land for about a week,” Hutchinson told Bikesport News.
“There are three arteries that feed blood to your foot, two of them had got severed or trapped and when they stop they can never be repaired or brought back. There was no pulse where they were checking but one of them was still intact so once they got my leg straightened out they found my foot was still alive.”
It was just three months after being acclaimed a TT hero having won five races in one week, a feat never achieved before. Now he was lying drugged up, his left leg mangled beyond belief and his dreams shattered. What kept his hopes alive?
“The thought of how happy I had been racing and how hard I had worked to get there. I didn’t start racing until I was 21. I started for enjoyment but when I began to be successful I tried hard to be the best I possibly could. It took an awful lot to achieve what I had. I felt I hadn’t had enough back out of the sport that I had put so much into so I was never going to give in at that stage.”
But going back to the Isle of Man and winning again was surely the impossible dream. Not for Hutchinson. “I always knew that I had it in me to do it. Once I got over the fact that my foot had been saved my biggest concern was the gearshift. I had massive concerns that I could ever be as good as I had been with a right hand gear shift. As for the rest of it I always knew there was no reason why I couldn’t ride as well again.”
But while people were saying nice things and making encouraging statements, few, if any, believed he would mount that rostrum again. Didn’t he ever have doubts? What kept him going?
“No, never,” he affirmed. “People were still giving me equipment and bikes. I think I was fortunate. They weren’t always there because people believed in me. They were getting something out of my publicity as well.
“Winning five in a week created so much buzz it gave me a few shouts and a ride with my leg still broken in 2012 which got my eye in. And I know for a fact that when Paul Bird was thinking of going back to the TT he thought of running me because no one else had won five in a week. It has definitely played a big part in getting the right equipment and being able to win again.
“Paul understood because he used to race motocross (Bird’s career as a motcrosser was brought to a premature end by a badly broken leg). I had won Macau, been to the North West. He knew that, given enough time on the bikes with testing, I could be competitive.”
It would have been easy for Hutchinson to be an embittered man. He is certainly his own man living alone in Bingley but not too far from his parents who, while not being motorcycle enthusiasts, eventually gave in to the youngster begging for a bike. When he got to 15 his Mum suggested a trials bike to keep him off the road. His Dad bought one to go with him. But at 17 he had a road bike after starting an apprenticeship with Colin Appleyard. Four years later came club events.
And five years of hell, a second leg break and countless operations, could not dilute a will stronger than the steel surrounding his leg. What about that second break?
“That was before my win at Macau,” he told BSN. “It was at a show at Excel but actually nothing to do with falling off a mini-bike. The bone was infected and had never healed properly. But no one was to know and, to be honest, my leg had felt really weak but nothing was showing. I had a little slip and it snapped right away. That then ignited the infection and it all became apparent that it hadn’t healed properly.
“In some ways I was very lucky that it happened when it did because if I had crashed a Superbike with that infection it might have ripped my leg clean off.”
But then came victory at Macau. And the knowledge that he could win again. It was an extremely emotional time for a quiet Yorkshireman whose feelings are rarely on display.
“I’ve never been that emotional in racing, even when I won five TTs. I just work hard for what I get and I expect the results. But to win Macau and the races in the Isle of Man this year has brought back the knowledge that nobody has any idea what I went through. So it has been more emotional thinking of the pain, torture and worry that I have been through.
“I’ve seen my leg in states that you should never see your own body in. I have been sat on my sofa at home, my leg in a frame and seen the bone hanging out of the back of the leg fully exposed. All those images never leave you, they stick with you for life. So when I won Macau and the TT they all flashed through - but I knew it was worth it.
“To just sit on your arse and go through everything I did to heal my leg was massive. But I never did sit on my arse. I went training, I went abroad to swim with my trainer so I could get off my crutches quicker. I was weight-bearing at the earliest possible time I could. I adapted a bike so I could go cycling. All these things were not for fun. It was get my fitness back and my leg stronger as soon as I could. And I still go to the gym every day.”
However, despite the endless antidotes to get himself and his body back in shape, that left leg will never return to normal.
“Unfortunately the leg was in a frame for such a long time the tendons got glued down and my ankle has very little movement in it,” explained the Bingley man. “The main tendon that lifts your foot got eaten away by infection and is pretty well unrepairable. So rather than go in and have another mass destruction I had to go to a right hand gear change. I have a thumb brake for the rear.
“Strangely enough, I seem to be riding better than before the accident which seems a bit of a weird thing, perhaps it’s all the experience of watching other people racing and learning.”
It is often said, rather foolishly, that big boys don’t cry. But despair did get the better of this man of iron, and tears did flow, as he attests: “Yes, (I cried) lots. A lot of the time was the morphine, which does funny things to you. But there were definitely some dark times when you are going through all that.”
To hell and back is James Whitham’s description of Hutchinson’s five-year struggle. He says of his fellow Yorkshireman: “I wouldn’t say he is shy but he doesn’t see the need to tell everything to everybody. What I would say is, from someone who saw him a bit during the shit he was going through, he was normal although almost every week he had an operation which might be leg-losing. Of the fifty or so operations he had, he was told before half of them he might wake up with a shoe too many. And I just can’t imagine that.
“The thing that sticks out above all else is just how focussed he has been in getting back to the TT. I don’t know anybody else who could have done it. He is the most determined man I have ever met.
“When he came round to my house and said he couldn’t change gear with his left foot but was going switch over to the right I thought he was mad. I didn’t say so but although we said nice things I don’t believe anybody thought he could do something like this. And even after Macau when he came back and had a so-so year it made everybody think he wasn’t going to do it. Now I hate myself for even thinking that.”
Whitham is no stranger to dark days having faced up to, and beaten, cancer: “It is different. You think you are actually going to die because that is what your brain is telling you. Your whole attitude changes. But you do find yourself and say, ‘F**k it I am just gonna get on with this and enjoy myself’ and you do.”
Those historic five wins in TT Week 2010 were on bikes entered by Padgett’s of Batley. The previous year he had won two on their machines - seven wins from 10 races. And it was on their Supersport Honda at Silverstone three months later that Hutchinson was hit by riders in a multiple crash.
Clive Padgett recalled: “We got to the incident room and Ian was lying there. He said ‘give me a hug Clive’ and then ‘I’m not gonna lose my leg am I mate?’ At that point I knew Hutchy had no pulse to his foot.”
A decision was made to take him to the serious trauma department at Coventry Hospital.
A rod was put down his leg to straighten it and a pulse returned. Now Ian Hutchinson looks forward to the Ulster Grand Prix, preceded by a training run at BSB Thruxton. Who would bet against him cleaning up at Dundrod?