Gary Rothwell is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the stunt-riding scene. Twenty years ago he was in his prime, performing all over the world. Ten years ago he had pretty much retired. Well, he’s back.
In 2014, a Dutch plumber named Egbert did a 199mph wheelie, for a kilometre at the World high-speed wheelie championships at Elvington, York. There was a man in a suit there from Guinness world records and everything. Apart from sounding like a stuntman out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Egg is very much the real deal. Like Rothwell, Egbert is happiest on one wheel. Quickly progressing from L-plates to a GSX-R 750 that he could ride in the first three gears on the back wheel the day he bought it. In 2010 he entered the world wheelie championships for the first time as a nobody. He couldn’t cover the required distance and went home empty handed. He came back a year later and won with a 169.4mph mono over the kilometre.
Before the drama of the 2015 world record attempt, we should set the stage with a look back at Gary’s riding career. One that started in a field in Liverpool and would see Gary travelling the world to ply his smoky trade, dropping the odd priest off the back on the way. As a boy, Gary was the one that was always looking to jump his BMX higher, ride his skateboard faster and generally push his luck when it came to speed. His dad knew that there would be no stopping him, but he did slow him down, briefly. “In 1984 my dad bought me my first bike, a DT125. I was 13 at the time. He knew he’d have to teach me how to ride properly, so he took me to a field on it, he put the bike in first and stamped the gear lever off with his boot. With the bike trapped in first gear, I had no option but to learn how to ride properly without going too fast. That poor bike spent a long time flat out in first gear, mind. It blew up in the end, they always did.”
By the time he was 15, Gary could wheelie his Kawasaki Z650 through the gears, ditto the Z1 he had by the time he was 17. Everyone in his local area knew what he was like, including the instructors that Gary used to give lunchtime wheelie classes to while he was getting his licence. Parking his GSX-R1100 outside the test centre and riding a DT50 during his lessons, Gary passed first time.
In 1992 Gary was at the Isle of Man TT races, watching a few lads putting on a bit of a show pulling wheelies. His bike shop boss was stood next to him and challenged Gary to put on a show, offering to pick up the bill should the police issue Gary with any fines. At 23 years old, Gary didn’t realise that his life was about to change. He also didn’t realise that he was about to spend the night behind bars, but the show that Gary put on (and the subsequent chase by the police), put him on the map. He was quickly booked to return the following year, when he would ride with the IOM chief of police on the back of his bike. One wheelie led to another and Rothwell was soon regarded as one of the best stunt riders on the planet. Remember, this is before the days of circle wheelies and bikes built specifically for the job of putting on a show. In his own eyes Gary was just a toe rag, to everyone else, he was a god.
As the stunt riding landscape grew, it was constantly changing shape. Nowadays, you can find one-wheeled heroes in any half decent deserted car park. Slow wheelies and gravity defying wizardry is the YouTube order of the day. We’ve seen sponsorship and marketing masters creep in and change the ‘sport’ into one that can be graded, like freestyle mx, on levels of difficulty number of tricks covered and entertainment level. The one thing that modern stunt shows are missing is speed. Good old-fashioned triple digit numbers that need big turbos and even bigger balls to manage on one wheel. The style of show that Gary used to put on became a crowded scene, new riders were offering to put on a lesser show, but for free, making it hard for Gary to keep riding and so he let it fizzle out. “I’m not massive fan of the modern stunt riding displays. I liked my shows to look close to the edge. Buzzing past people high and fast with them thinking I was about to crash was what I aimed to do every time, the new scene seems to be about more of a slow, trials riding style. It’s good stuff but not really my thing.”
So he went back to Liverpool, settled down on a farm with his wife and slipped off the radar. He did the odd wheelie now and then, his last ‘show’ being a small one years ago in Ireland. All the while a small and dedicated bunch of riders were competing in an annual event to see if they could break the world high-speed wheelie record. Back in 1999, before Gary disappeared, he had a runway head-to-head with Patrik Furstenhoff, otherwise know as Ghostrider. Patrik found his own brand of fame creating DVDs of himself running high-speed rings round the police on the streets of Stockholm. Rothwell ended up sharing Patrik’s turbo Blackbird in a bid to set the highest speed on one wheel, Patrik coming off best with a key stealing 191.1mph wheelie through the traps. The begrudging respect that these two have given each other over the years is clear to see, though we doubt they swap Christmas cards.
I interviewed Gary a couple of years ago. As a spotty wheelie obsessed teenager in the mid nineties, I enjoyed finally getting the chance to speak to the man who I used to skip school to watch on video at home. Gary was as genuine as I’d hoped and was happy to share with me the news that he was having a turbo Hayabusa built with the intention of making a bit of a comeback. Fast forward to August 2015 and Gary, Patrik and last year’s winner Egbert along with around 50 other riders had made their way to Elvington runway, with the sole intention of riding on one wheel for a kilometre faster than everyone else.
Gary’s Jack Frost prepared bike looked trick but was largely untested. Egbert was confident coming in with the number one spot from last year and Patrik was looking to rock the boat. Not one to hold back in the online battle of words before the event, Patrik had branded Gary a crybaby. Gary wasn’t expecting to be particularly competitive thanks to the lack of time on the bike, but that didn’t stop him engaging in some lighthearted banter. “I got under Patrik’s skin. He’d been telling people he’d done 212mph on the bike before the event. I told him he looks down on people. I wound him up online when he tried to be a smart ass. I’ve laughed at him with everyone else”. Patrik refused to shake Gary’s hand during signing on for the event, it looked like the online banter would continue for the weekend.
Egbert got his head down and his front wheel up, his very first run bagged him a 195mph pass that was verified by the event officials. Gary was next in line to ride after Egg’s 195 run. “When I heard what speed he’d managed I thought, fuck me, he’s going to piss it!” Egbert went on to a run of 207mph but it was disallowed after officials declared that the front wheel wasn’t in the air for the entire run. Patrik had his own problems, failing to cover the full kilometre on one wheel and having problems with boost. Gary had issues with his bike losing power towards the end of each run. Inlet rubbers blowing off in fifth and sixth gear is not good for business and both Jack Frost (who built the bike) and Gary were looking for the cause of the problem in between runs. “Eventually we found that the air inlet pressure was too high, which was retarding the ignition by eight degrees and robbing me of precious top end boost at the end of the kilo”. Once the fault had been found, Gary was determined to just nail a full kilometre on the back wheel. As he was queuing up to run, Becci Ellis (the world’s fastest woman on two wheels) crashed and was airlifted to hospital. The rest of the day was canceled.
Day two of two dawned, everyone expected big things from Egbert after his disallowed 207mph run. It wasn’t to be Egg’s day, with his bike not able to get anywhere near the 195mph run he’d logged on his first run the day before. Patrik ended up trying three different bikes, including the Blackbird turbo that he’d ridden back in 1999. Unable to ride the full kilo on one wheel, the Ghostrider started to cop some flack for not being up to the job, most of which focused on his €10k Gofundme page and an unsold turbo bike raffle that had raised a few eyebrows and almost a few fists the night before.
Gary picks up the words at the start of day two. “This trip to Elvington was the first time I’d actually tried to cover the kilometre on one wheel. We’d had good tailwinds the day before, which is why Egg had managed that 207mph run. My runs on the Saturday were pretty poor, I needed to log some good ones. On my first run, everything was mint, but a strong gust of wind from one side forced me to put the front down before the kilometre mark. I rode back thorough the pits and told the lads that the bike felt much better than the day before, in fact it felt like a missile. I just needed to pull my finger out. My second run was the one that won me the event. I picked the front up in sixth before the cones that signal the start of the kilometre to stop me from dropping the front wheel changing gear mid run. I lifted the wheel at 160mph and planned to carry it for about eight seconds, at these speeds that’s how long it takes to cover 1000m. The wind gets all over it, at 190mph it puts the shits up you. On these the front wheel doesn’t need to go high and you’re always accelerating. It’s a wheelie, but not sky high like I used to do them. As the front wheel doesn’t get time to stop spinning, I just rolled off the gas slightly and allowed the front to come down once I knew that I was clear of the cones that marked the end of the kilometre”. It turned out that the 46 year old ‘lad’ had just made the mother of all come back runs, hitting 197.8mph, the fastest run of the weekend and the one that put Gary back on the top step after so many years away.
Never one for self-promotion, Gary told us after that he just got lucky. “It was a bummer that Egbert didn’t get the win. He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever seen on one wheel and I have no doubt that he’ll take this spot back off me eventually. It’s been so long since I‘d done well on a bike that I’d pretty much forgotten how good it feels. I feel like the Last of the Mohicans, I shouldn’t be mixing it with these kids but I am and I’m happy. My bike was mint, this is a bike from the future and one day all bikes will be like this. You open the throttle in top gear and it just floats up. When it’s running right, it’s such a good feeling. At 200mph I can bring the front up, with no fairing on. I tried to do a normal speed run and with no wheelie it went through the lights at 212mph and was still trying to lift the front. I offered Patrik a day on my bike the following day but he said no. Egbert offered to swap bikes with him but he said no. Patrik has ridden three bikes this weekend and still hasn’t actually wheelied the full kilometre. He showed his true colours to us all this weekend, I have no time for him. I made a few more runs after the one that won it for me, but a lost wastegate spring meant borrowing one from a different bike. With some tweaks, I’m hoping this bike is good for the 200mph wheelie everyone is waiting for.”
After a decade away from competitive riding, 46-year-old Gary Rothwell is showing absolutely no sign of growing up or slowing down anytime soon. I’ll leave the last line in the hands of 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed”. Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Just a couple of weeks after we wrote this feature, Gary went back and had another crack at the 200mph mark. He ended up setting a new world record at 209.822mph, check the video out below.
Words: John Hogan Images Aron Vickers and Mark Nightingale from the Startline Media Crew. These guys worked flat out to get these amazing images to us. They own the copyright, stealing them would be bad.