World Superbike will be the first FIM World Championship to lay rubber on asphalt as the calendar flicks pages onto 2017, and the opening round at Phillip Island in Australia on February 25th-26th will stride up quickly for the globe’s quickest production bike racing athletes. 2016 runner-up and former title holder Tom Sykes will use the period of weeks and days before the trip to the southern hemisphere as prime time for rest, recuperation, race reflection and training for another twenty-six sprint series.
The Englishman was one of three riders from the United Kingdom to lay siege to the WorldSBK results books in 2016 (20 podiums from 26, including 5 wins and 8 Pole Positions), even if his physical and bustling style on the Kawasaki Racing Team ZX-10R was not enough to eventually dethrone teammate Jonathan Rea.
Straight-shooting Sykes has been at the pinnacle of the championship for half a decade and after completing chilly winter tests at the Jerez circuit in Spain was in a relaxed mood to talk off-season prep as road racing heads into hibernation and his victorious team finally downs tools after another remarkable campaign.
Tom, what happens now? A break and then a strict winter programme?
The season finishes, we get into testing and then I’ll have a steady couple of weeks where I won’t do much! I’ll still be active but not at a great level, just [exercise] to tick over. Most of my training revolves around running and cycling. I don’t do any flat track or motocross like many of the others. My hobbies are karting…which is pretty much it!
Any reason for not using other forms of motorcycle riding?
Yes and no…you see many riders having problems with injury. I stick to karting because you have a lot more margin for error. I don’t have such a big desire to ride other bikes. I used to do trials and motocross and I still love those sports…but I don’t really get around to doing it anymore.
Running and cycling is quite cardio heavy: do you have a detailed plan for getting and keeping fit?
Not something that is over-stressed. I know what I have to do. I cycle more when my mate back home is around because he tends to put me in the weeds! He’s a strong guy. A lot of my stuff is about base conditioning and as long as I feel that I can get off the bike after Race2 on a Sunday and still feel like I could do a couple more races then that’s enough. With testing then you’ll be in leathers all day and doing 70-80 laps, which is four races and we’ll do that day after day for five days. Your muscles get sore but you learn and adapt to work through that.
Does fitness ever lead to confidence for you? Especially when things might not be going so well…
Personally speaking I would say my fitness, resting heart rate and so on, is at a good level. If I am being honest I probably don’t have the ‘gym body’ of some guys…but on the bike I know I have the batteries and power to go the distance, so it isn’t a big issue for me. I can see how for some riders ‘image’ is a bit more psychological but for me as long as I know I have the engine and performance inside then any kind of cosmetics is not essential.
Where are you normally based through an off-season?
In the UK, just outside of Leamington Spa; I love the place, really nice. My wife is from that area and for doing what I do – airports and motorway links – it works. OK, I pay my extra tax but it’s worth it for me because it’s all about the convenience; of being near family, friends. It is priceless to be able to jump in the car and go and see my family whenever I want. It doesn’t matter what people say about it [the UK] there are some really beautiful areas…plus I get to travel the world and see a lot of it anyway.
“We do an adrenaline sport and you are spending a long time with a high heart rate and you are physically ‘switched on’ with every single muscle. You are dancing on the bike.”
You mentioned cycling. Is that mountain bike or road?
Well, again, maybe I’m a bit of a pussy if I’m honest! Or maybe better to say I’m a bit smart. I’m very lucky with what I do [his job] and I love mountain biking but silly little things can happen. I remember going out once with a group of mates and had a small crash by not getting my foot out of the clip-on in time and twisted my ankle. It could have been a knee and if you are not careful you are out for a few weeks. It’s not worth it. I love mountain biking and it is really great to be out with mates….but I’m used to making sacrifices and because of what I do I’m used to compromises.
Not wish to label you old at 31 but as the seasons roll on and the long haul travel continue and racing happens in hot conditions like Thailand, USA and Malaysia does it become more important to, say, resist that extra slice of pizza?
I’ll pretty much eat what I want and I might not be the prettiest to look at but because I have put the miles and hours in with regards to that kind of training I know I have the engine when called upon. I enjoy desserts but I don’t have a sweet tooth. I can eat a lot and my diet is general good. Like with anything moderation is good.
Do you think you have to be a finely tuned athlete to achieve at this level?
I think you have to be fit and I would say that all motorcycle racers – and especially the top ones – they would surprise a lot of people if you would compare them against ‘professional athletes’ so to speak. We do an adrenaline sport and you are spending a long time with a high heart rate and you are physically ‘switched on’ with every single muscle. You are dancing on the bike. You have to manhandle it left and right because really it just wants to go straight. I think the majority of riders are at a great level. You see some people and you think ‘they look good’ in terms of lean body fat…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the ‘engine’. It all depends what is underneath. It is like the bike: I’d rather it didn’t look exciting because as long as the engine and the chassis are good then this is the main issue. Your priority has to be your heart, lungs and mind. Then things like flexibility come after.
What about the mental side? Have you explored that aspect to unearth a few extra tenths?
I looked at it a few years ago but I would say that mentally I’m at a good level. I think it comes from being down-to-earth and appreciating simple values of life…as well as really understanding what is needed on the track. That is the key to success and the development of the Kawasaki ZX-10R. I have understood what is needed to go faster…and I’ve had difficult years; seasons when I’ve had strong teammates and situations where I feel I wasn’t necessarily given an equal chance. I knew I could be further up the field but I wasn’t for a number of reasons. So I had to learn how to deal with that and react. It’s the same now. There is a bike I have developed and Jonathan is riding it but it is a long way from a bike that I would consider having a racing pedigree. I have to learn a lot because it is quite far from what we had in the past. It has really suited Jonathan’s style and he is riding it well. He has beaten me for two years running but I can go to bed at night, put my head on the pillow and sleep knowing that I have been beaten fair. A lot of riders will make excuses and they are just trying to make themselves feel better. Yes, we can probably improve in ‘this’ and ‘that’ area but I can accept the situation. I know I need to change my style because at the moment the character of the ‘beast’ so to speak doesn’t compliment my style and we are not in harmony. If my mind wasn’t strong then I could have been completely destroyed in the last two years but I think we are doing alright.
It doesn’t help to get hysterical…
Correct. Keep level-headed and in racing if you don’t win then you have to try and understand why. You are always chasing perfection and unfortunately it sometimes rubs-off on your personal life but you have to understand that and react. You have to try and keep strong, that’s for sure.