This week we caught up with former Olympic runner and TV presenter Iwan Thomas to talk sports bikes, customized Harleys, and hiding his bikes from his parents.
Hi Iwan, how you doing?
“Good, thank you.”
Where did it all start for you with two wheels?
“I used to do BMX racing, so I was always into danger and going quick, I suppose. I was quite good at BMX racing – came fourth at the European championships, fell off at a couple of world championship rounds – and then decided to quit. I had an off-road bike when I was about 10 years old I think.”
You started young, then?
“Yeah, really young. My dad was always into bikes and he used to take me on the back to watch Spurs at White Hart Lane every second weekend. I think he had a Yamaha 250. I remember the pistons blowing on it and having to ride home at 30mph. Then he got a Kawasaki GPz305. So I grew up going on the back of my dad and as soon as I was old enough I saved up and bought a 50cc Aprilia. It looked really good and everyone at school thought it was awesome. I came off that messing about with a mate and had to go to hospital. After that I got a TZR125 and a local guy told me to put on a YPVS powervalve on it and a load of other stuff. I gave it to him and told him to do what he could so it used to go quite quick – it went off the clock! Then my parents moved to Germany and I went to boarding school in Lincolnshire. The housemaster let me keep the bike in the shed, so every weekend I’d travel to see my girlfriend on the TZR. That’s the bike I passed my test on.
“I didn’t have a bike for years when I became an athlete, so my next bike was an R1! That was quite a big step up! I had two R1s – I absolutely loved them. The second one – I think it was a 2005 model – was quick. It was an absolute weapon of a bike. It did about 92mph in first gear. I got a Ducati 1098 after that and I really liked that. I spent loads of money putting carbon bits on it and speccing it up. My biggest regret is selling that bike because I got a Harley after that. I felt I needed to slow down – sportsbikes are so quick – so I thought I’d try a Harley for a bit. I really wish I’d kept it because I want to get a sportsbike again.”
Is that the same Harley that you’ve got now?
“Yeah, but I’ve changed the look of it twice now. Originally it was matt black. Now I’ve changed the paint work and a few other bits and pieces – it’s never ending really. I just wanted to go for that patina rat rod look. It was brave doing it because it’s quite a new bike, but I just saw all these cool looking bikes on Instagram, so I stripped it back to bare metal and let it rust a bit. There are quite a few nice touches – I’ve got little bullet casings covering all the bolts at the minute and the start button is hidden in the grip. I’m guilty of not using it enough, which is why I changed the look – to give me some inspiration. I’ve maybe ridden it twice in a year. I think I’ll keep the Harley forever because it looks great. I am on the look out for a sportsbike, though.”
What model is the Harley?
“It’s a Softail Crossbones. I don’t think they make them anymore.”
Which sportsbikes have caught your eye?
“I don’t know – I did love my Ducati, so I don’t know whether to go and look at another one. I’ve never had a GSX-R and they’re supposed to be brilliant. I’m not looking right now, but it’s just in my mind for the summer. I also like the look of all the café racers as well. A sportsbike is good but it’s only going to get me in trouble, so maybe I should go for a café racer, because there are some really cool ones out there. The Bike Shed have loads of cool bikes on their website and they’re relatively cheap.”
What do you think to Ducati switching to a V4?
Yeah, next year’s Panigale will be a V4.
“I’m not very good with mechanics, what difference will that make?”
I think it’s because they got as far as they could with a V-twin engine in terms of power. The new engine is based off the MotoGP engine roughly.
“I don’t imagine it’ll be cheap! They’re such lovely bikes though, Ducatis – I’d be tempted to get another one, for sure, but like I say, I do need to slow down. I know quite a few people are getting bikes just for track days, so maybe I’ll just do that. What do you ride?”
We’re lucky in that we get long term test bikes for most of the year.
“Do you ride all year round?”
Yeah, this is the first winter in 10 years that I’ve not ridden through.
“Really? I’m a soft southerner. I’m a summer rider, really.”
I’m quite happy to not be riding at the moment! It’s nice to have air con and be warm.
“Yeah, absolutely. I think biking is brilliant, though. I love putting the crash helmet on and being anonymous – there’s nothing like it. I’ve owned convertible cars and things like that, but nothing gets close to a bike in terms of the enjoyment factor. I also enjoy the brotherhood of it as well, you know, other bikers nodding to you and stuff, it’s got a nice community feel to it. I feel bad that I’ve hardly ridden this year.”
I’m sure there are plenty of other people in the same boat, people are very busy.
“Yeah. The place where I got my bike done they organise rides all the time. I sued to live in Derbyshire and my mate had an R1 and there are some amazing roads around there. Down here in Southampton none of my mates are into bikes. I need to get involved a bit more and get out there. It is special when you’re out on a bike.”
Even when the weather’s like this it’s still special.
“I’m not so sure about that! I’d be slipping all over the place today. I don’t know what the weather’s like where you are but it’s freezing down here.”
It’s not too bad. There’s still a bit of snow and ice but the roads are okay. A few people rode in today.
“Yeah, I see people on bikes all the time, so fair play to them. I think I’d need some heated grips.”
When your athletics career took off were you not allowed to ride?
“It wasn’t a case of not being allowed, but I knew my coach would disapproved of it. And obviously biking is dangerous so I couldn’t afford to have a mishap that would put me out of training for ages. I just put it out of my head and thought I’d come back to them later on in life. I did get my R1 while I was still an athlete, though. I’d had a few injuries and realised how much I missed having a bike. I think it was 2004 and I hid it from my coach and parents!
“Whenever my mum and dad came round I had to hide the bike in a mate’s garage and hide all my kit. One day my dad stumbled across my helmet and asked ‘why have you got a motorbike helmet?’ I thought he was going to cray. I told him about the bike and he just wanted a go on it! My dad only just got rid of his bike four or five years ago and he’s an old man – it’s his fault I’m into bikes! So once I got the R1 I’ve had the bug again.”
I seem to remember seeing a picture somewhere of you and Ben Challenger.
“Yeah, we both had an R1 at the same time. Yamaha lent us bikes for a year I think. That’s how I got introduced back into biking really. Once the R1s went back to Yamaha I went out and got the 1098. I think I’ll always have bikes in my life. I used to say this to the missus – nobody really understands – the thrill on a sportsbike for me was knowing that I would be in trouble if I came off because they’re so powerful. It sounds really sadistic and I don’t know if it’s just me. I think the danger aspect of it is part of the thrill. I don’t want to crash or get hurt, but you know with a bike that powerful if it does go wrong then it’s going to hurt and that forces you to concentrate more.”
You said you started BMX racing, was there ever any thought to pursue racing?
“No, and that’s another regret of mine. A few years ago I presented Arenacross for Channel 4 and I had a go in Wembley. I was only going really slow but I absolutely loved it and I think that would have been a natural progression from BMX racing but I never really tried it. I had a mate growing up who had a 250 on his farm and I loved just ripping around on that. I suppose it’s never too late, though! If somebody wants to lend me a bike I’ll go and have a go, although I don’t think I’ll be too competitive. It’s such hard work as well, you have to be so fit. I know all athletes are fit for what they do, but I think motocross and supercross is a totally different skill set.”
Yeah, motocross is incredibly hard and scary.
“Just any off-road riding. I’m quite friendly with Ross Noble and he keeps inviting me up to his to ride trials bikes. I should take him up on that next year.”
Talking about slowing down, can you see yourself on an adventure bike?
“Maybe. I’ve pitched to a few TV channels before. I wanted to do a show that was me on my Harley, with just £100 in my pocket and my passport, to see how far I could get blagging it, using people’s kindness and social media. I love watching Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. I’d definitely love to try an adventure like that, but I’d have to have a purpose to do it. I don’t know if I’d have one as my everyday bike.
“I don’t mind saying it – I’m not a flash Harry – but I like to look cool and I’m not sure an adventure bike is the image for me yet. All my mates take the piss out of the Harley, calling it an old man’s bike, but now I’ve done it up they think it looks mega. I quite like a bike that’s got a bit of presence and sounds good. That’s probably ver vain of me, but I take pride in what I’ve got and I’m really proud of my bike so I’m not sure if a tourer or adventure bike is right for me yet.”
You presented on BT Sport, what’s your take on the last MotoGP season?
“I loved working on that so I always watch it and keep up to date. It was amazing to be a part of it and I miss it. I think BT have only got one more year so I”m not sure what will happen. It’s a sport I love and I’ll always watch it, no matter the channel it’s on. I wish Rossi had won it a couple of seasons ago because I think that was his last chance.”
You don’t think he can win it next year?
“Well, I hope so. I know he’s a lot older than the other’s but he’s certainly unique. It would be good to see him win one more title before he retires. It must get tougher every year for him, surely.”
I think this year was the most exciting season in a while.
“Yeah, this year was really good and exciting not having Marquez running away with it.
Do you watch WSB and BSB as well?
“A little bit, but I’m more interested in MotoGP if I’m honest.”
You said you considered buying a track bike. Have you done much track riding?
“I did a few track days. Back in the day I did the California Superbike School and some Ducati track days. I really enjoyed it and I think it’s a good way to learn and improve. I learnt loads on the California Superbike School. I thought I was quite good on a bike but I didn’t think me or the bike would be able to do what they were telling me. The machines are far better than my skill level. I always think it might be safer for me to ride on track as well. You’re definitely safer on the track, I think. There are so many obstacle on the road like trees and curbs, and other people to contend with.”
You want to ride a bit more next year, is there anything else you’re planning in the near future?
“No, I’ve not got any plans but a mate of mine has just got a bike. He’s one for really living life and going on adventures – he’s just come back from cycling in Nepal – so maybe we’ll go to Europe. My bike’s not that comfortable but it’ll be nice to go somewhere on it other than my parents’ in Cambridgeshire.”
What’s the tank range?
“About 110 miles – you’ve got to plan your journeys a little bit.”
I think you’d enjoy Wheels and Waves in Biarritz.
South west France.
“That would be nice. What time of year’s that?”
I think it’s July. It’s a load of custom bikes and it’s supposed to be really good.
“That sound mega, I’ll look that up. How long will that take to get to the south of France, though? Probably a week on the Harley!”
You can ride all the way or get a ferry to northern Spain and ride across.
“I might ask my mate about that then, I think he’d be into it. That sounds cool – I’ll have to get some padding for my bak side if I’m riding that far, though! That’s the sort of thing I need to find – I need reasons to use it more.”
Have you done much touring?
“No, not at all. I’ve never even done a European road trip in my car. Because I work quite a lot when I’m at hoe I just want to sit around and do nothing. When I’ve got time off I just sit on the sofa watching DVDs. I’m busy, but when I’m not I like to do bugger all.”
Have you got any new year’s resolutions?
“Just the normal ones – get fitter, and eat healthier. I’d just like to enjoy my life a bit more – plan stuff for my days off. I feel like I’ve worked really hard for the last 10 years but I’m quite sensible so I just work, save money and sleep. I think I should live life a bit and treat myself to a new bike, maybe! I’m 44 next year so I need to make the most of it!”
If you can’t for longer trips maybe look at one or two night trips in the. You’ll be surprised what you can find within a days ride in the UK – Scotland is beautiful.
“You’re quite far up north, aren’t you? Where are you based?”
We’re in Peterborough.
“Are you?! That’s where I passed my bike test. My parents live near Huntingdon so I used to go to diving lessons in Peterborough and go to athletics meetings. Me and my mate used to get the train to Peterborough and struggle to spend a fiver on food. It used to be a really big deal spending £5 at McDonalds. That used to be my little treat – very rock and roll!”