Sunday May 5, 2019 – my 35th birthday. Craig Melvin and I are sat in my Dad’s kitchen, drinking beers and talking about all things TT related.
The Manx sidecar racer is set for his fifth TT outing, along with passenger Stuie Christian, and is, unusually for him at such a critical stage in the run-up, gloriously hungover. As he swigs from the bottle of ‘hair of the dog’ Budweiser acquired from my Father’s fridge, I do my best to reign in our tendency for childish or raven-black humour. I attempt to guide the conversation towards journalistic terrain like a calm and authoritative policeman directing traffic. Instead, we fall into the familiar pit of hyena cackles and breathless howls of laughter; a trap that presents itself so readily to two people who have, like us, known one another their whole lives. Craig and I are cousins, bearing wildly different dispositions but with a shared fondness for the inappropriate and nonsensical. Two minutes in to the interview and it dawns on me that this may be the very first serious conversation we’ve had. When I ask him about the adrenaline rush of TT, that effervescent fizz and vitality that seems to have such an addictive, consumptive quality;, Craig’s response is everything I could have hoped for.
“Have you ever (slight pause)….had a finger up your ass?”, he asks with deadpan delivery.
“Well, it doesn’t feel like that”.
He’s always been the joker to me and yet, for the majority of our chat, Craig is earnest and focused. It takes me by surprise. Listening to this man who, as a boy, once stabbed my knuckles with a compass in Year 9 Maths, speak of his admiration for psychological mind-management books such as The Chimp Paradox is, I have to say, slightly startling. I remind myself that he is also the man who said he’d only compete in one TT – a ceremonial ticking off the bucket list, a one and done that has now spiralled to five in a row with his obsession only growing with intensity: this humble acorn is now very much a stately oak.
“Once you’ve done the TT your life is never the same again, you’re just counting down the days to have another go”, so said Melvin in an interview with Road Racing News on the eve of TT 2018 – his and Christian’s most successful race yet. He isn’t lying. The Melvin calendar genuinely runs TT to TT rather than January to January. Massive strides forward were made in TT 2018. Personal bests were bested and a highly commendable 15th place finish in Race 1 instilled fresh belief into the duo, just when Melvin in particular, needed it most. He grimaces and states matter-of-factly ““I don’t think you can go there to make up the numbers. It’s not nipping down the park to play tennis. If I don’t make a decent step up, it’s time to call it a day”. Calling it a day has been on the cards since the beginning. For Melvin, if he’s not moving forward, there’s no point competing at all.
A lot can change in five years. He recalls being wracked with nerves as he waited in the paddocks that first year, chain-smoking, pacing manically and heaving over the toilet bowl. This TT fanboy was out there racing against his heroes. At first, he suffered with ‘imposter syndrome’, feeling completely out of place and out of his depth. Lining up next to his idols was “like walking out at Wembley”. There was raw and real emotion behind this for Craig. It was visceral and suffocating; surreal and exciting. It was also something he struggled to control.
“I spent some time helping a local team (Bennett / Cain) just to get a feel for it. I remember the first night of practice and I was more nervous than them. Then when they set off I was blown away. The noise like being fired out of a canon, kicking up dust as they sped off. I started getting emotional”
And yet, the transition to rider has resulted in a very different mindset. He speaks of the wives, the girlfriends, the family, friends and the helping team behind the scenes. You can see the visible strains of worry on their faces, as the focus of preparation melts away on race day, like ice in the winner’s champagne bucket. As the rider, Melvin is cocooned away from fear, blinkered and blind to it. He is the representation of worry for everyone else but is, during the race itself, blissfully unaware of it. He has to be. The stakes couldn’t be higher. An hour or so before the race, Melvin disappears into himself. He switches off to everyone, refusing to indulge in the pre-race banter or japery. He retreats, shuts himself into standby mode and enters a state of quietly intense focus. Does the fear of death come into his head during this period?
“It has to because it’s there…it happens. You can’t pretend it doesn’t. Fear is just an emotion, a chemical reaction in your brain. If you let that take over your body, you’re screwed. I think it’s all about learning how to take that fear and use it in a positive way. The fear is always there but I try to harness it to keep me alert”
Melvin cites his work with Dave Smyth, the local yoga instructor, in helping address the paralysing nerves that plagued his early days. In the last 3 years, he’s noticed a massive difference in his own sense of control, his mental wellbeing, knowing when to switch off that obsessiveness, how to control his breathing and understanding his own triggers. It is here Melvin talks of books such as the aforementioned Chimp Paradox. The warm three beer buzz loosens our tongues and I lose myself for a moment, gripped by a yo-yo-ing conversation, taking in the psychology of the elite sportsperson in one breath followed by the merits of arse-fingering in another.
When we catch up, TT is three weeks away. Craig admits, ideally, he could “do with another month”. Between now and TT will, he says, be an incredibly trying and stressful period. For Melvin Racing, the banner is merely a mirage in the desert; an illusionary lie. This is no corporate team. Melvin Racing is a small, DIY operation. He estimates he’s behind 80% of the maintenance and upkeep of the bike, spending hours at a time in his garage. The chassis has been built by sidecar world champions the Birchall Brothers while this year, another legend, arguably the greatest of all time, Dave Molyneux has given the team some much needed help with the fine tuning.
“The lead up is pretty intense. I am controlling, incredibly so. Everything has to be done to my exact standards. If anything goes wrong, it’s on me. There’s so much to do and never enough time. Stripping the bike down, cleaning every thread on every bolt. The geometry of the sidecar is weird. It’s got 3 wheels, it shouldn’t work in practice. It’s entirely up to me to ensure that bike is in mint condition. The pressure is on”.
No sidecar racer can achieve success without a trusted passenger, the role of which is underestimated by the general public. As Melvin illustrates, he controls the speed at which they travel but it is Stuie Christian who has the responsibility of controlling the corners, guiding the temperamental three-wheeled machines over unexpected bumps and intuitively moving where the driver needs them to. It’s this fascinating co-dependence, this symbiotic relationship, that adds extra allure to sidecar racing. Melvin does not underestimate the significance of his partner’s contribution.
“It comes down to trust and it’s mostly unspoken. I know exactly what Stuie is doing and he knows exactly what I’m doing. It didn’t work for me with other passengers”
Melvin suggested the idea of Christian a few years back, after the neighbours both retired from football duties with RYCOB. “What are you doing with your time? It won’t cost you much, give it a go” suggested Melvin, with a nonchalant air. Christian likened his future racing partner to a heroin dealer preying upon his vulnerability. He’s now a “complete smackhead” according to Melvin. Their shared addiction seems stronger than ever. An upcoming trip to the Betty Ford clinic seems unlikely.
His wife, Sarah, has been very supportive and understanding throughout the years spent slaving away in the garage, the holidays sacrificed, the time spent away from their son, Toby. Melvin is aware he has a limited shelf life in this game and hopes to make up for lost time when he eventually hangs up the leathers. He admits himself he has tried to steer his son away from a career in motorsport because he knows how expensive it is. He may have no say in such matters as it appears to run in the blood.
“I remember when I was little sitting out in my Dad’s shitty old shed. He’d have trials bikes out. I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, I’d just have to sit there and watch. If I were to touch something he’d shout ‘get off that! That’s not yours, it’s mine!’. Now, weirdly I do exactly the same thing with Toby”
It’s clearly not about the money – even if he won the TT he wouldn’t make back what he’s put in over the past 6 months alone – and it’s not glamorous. It is slog, toil, graft and, to many of us from the outside, complete lunacy. He runs me through his schedule, the diet that kicks in after a post-TT comedown diet of booze and junk food (he gains about 2 stone whilst mourning the end of TT) and his endless array of spreadsheets. They track his bike mileage, yoga, calorie intake, running times and distances. The elite sports concept of ‘marginal gains’ – that being any minimal advantage that you have control of to help influence your performance. It’s admirably militaristic in its precision. Thankfully, the dic*head cousin I know is still in there, somewhere:
“What’s the point in spending four grand on an engine when you could just eat a couple less pies a week?”
His initial target was simply to compete in the Isle of Man TT. It was a dream that his Father carried but never fulfilled. And then, once his Dad passed away, his desire to achieve it grew to the point of obsession. He continues to surpass his targets and the day he stops doing that, he tells me, is the day he retires. I’m not entirely convinced the fires will ever burn down to embers. I only see the passing of those fifty weeks each year fanning the flames further still; a triumphal and blazing inferno borne from obsession and love. The sheer thrill of staring death down and racing against it, only to leave the reaper chewing dust: The Isle of Man TT.