James Toseland, born in Doncaster and brought up in Sheffield, is the youngest ever World Superbike Champion. Taking his first title in 1994 at just 23, three years earlier than the previous youngest world champ, he is well on course of achieving his ambition of five world titles. When not breaking motorcycle records, he’s on stage playing piano and singing with Jools Holland, Queen and his own band Crash, or performing on TV to audiences of 12 million at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show.
We caught up with James when he was taking a well-earned break in the South of France (sadly, it was a telephone interview!) to find out how tragedy spurred him on to success, why being winked at by Queen’s Roger Taylor is one of the best moments in his life, and why in his spare time you’ll find him playing piano in an old people’s home.
You live in the Isle of Man now, but you were born in Doncaster. How long did you live there?
I only lived in Doncaster until I was three or four, we actually lived in a caravan, and then we moved to live with my Gran in Kiverton Park in Sheffield where I lived until five years ago. I went to Wales High School there.
Why did you move to the Isle of Man?
It was mostly to do with my career. The Isle of Man is the home of the TT races [the world famous 37 mile motorcycle race] and a lot of motorcyclists live there, it’s very biker friendly.
How old were you when you first got into motorbikes?
Well, my mum and dad divorced when I was three and we moved in with my gran. My mum met Ken when I was eight or nine, and he had a motorcycle. He took me on the back of his own motorbike quite a few times, and then for Christmas in 1990, when I was 8, he bought me a trials bike of my own, which is the type where you do the balance, control and learn all the skills of riding a motorcycle. I did that for four years, and then a couple of years of motorcross off-road racing, and then onto road racing when I was about 14 or 15.
Was there any particular person who you admired in the sport?
We didn’t really watch the sport avidly, we were much more interested in getting out there and riding ourselves. It was only Ken and me who were really interested in it – my mum didn’t like it because it was dangerous! But I do remember when I first started out, Carl Foggarty was starting to win the World Championships and British interest was really high at that point.
When did you first realise you could be a serious competitor?
It was a strange transition really. In 1996 I was struggling on a private bike we were doing it ourselves, and Ken wasn’t around anymore. It was a tough time and I had to rely on a friend to get me to the races. Then in 1997 Mick Corrigan took me on, and within six months I’d gone from riding around on waste ground at the back of my house to being the best in the UK.
Who’s Mick Corrigan?
Mick already raced competitively in the British Championships, and he just happened to live in the same village as I did.
And did he spot a natural talent in you?
Well, it was incredibly sad in that Ken, my mum’s boyfriend, committed suicide in 1996 and I dealt with it by throwing myself into my motorcycling. I had so much anger and frustration, and having my bike helped me to deal with everything I was going through. Mick knew my situation so he took me on to see what I could do, and I exceeded both our expectations.
With such a tragic event, you could very easily have thrown yourself into drink, or worse. It’s testament to your character that you chose the route you did.
Yes, it did mould me and help me to be the person I am – the person that has the will to go out there and compete. My outlet was motorcycling, it was what I took my frustration out on, and I suppose that’s where the extra speed came from.
Were there facilities in place in Sheffield to help you to train?
There are lots of official motorcross tracks where people can compete – sometimes they’re a little too advanced for beginners, with the high jumps and things, so it can be good to have a field or flat space to learn on. There aren’t too many places like that, but you can find them. You have to remember not to be too noisy though.
How much training was involved when you decided to take part in the sport competitively?
My first full year was 95 when I was 14, and to be honest there wasn’t that much training really. Ken and I just used to go to a big car park on an industrial estate when it was closed and make a big track with some cones. It’s difficult to practice road racing as you have to hire the track and have the medical people on hand, so for the first couple of years when I was with Ken we used to do it ourselves.
How did your mum feel when your motorcycling became competitive?
She realised how much I loved it and how much passion I had for it. Even with all the trouble behind the scenes in the family, I was always on my motorcycle.
I imagine it was quite an expensive sport to be involved in?
Yes, definitely. If I hadn’t got into a team when I did in 1997, then I wouldn’t have been able to race beyond that, and I was prepared for that. But even though I did get into the team, my mum still had to find £15,000 for me to join. It was a massive thing for her to do, and was basically all her savings, and she took me to one side and said this is the last thing I can do for you. But she knew that if she didn’t give me the opportunity I would have regretted it for the rest of my life, so she told me it was the last shot – if it works, fantastic, but if it doesn’t, you have to stop. So I was incredibly thankful, and at that point I wasn’t even winning anything so it was a massive commitment.
And how does she feel now?
Well she’s got her £15,000 back so she’s happy! Like any parent though, she’s very, very proud of my achievements.
You were also a keen pianist from a young age – where did that influence come from?
It was when we moved to my gran’s house. She plays very well and was always playing in local clubs and at church events. When I was three or four I discovered the piano and started to make a noise on it! I was annoying everyone so much they decided to get me some lessons so I could play it properly, and I carried on with the lessons for years after that.
So you had regular piano lessons, spent hours on your motorcycle and were competing competitively when you were 15, as well as going to schools and doing your exams. How did you fit it all in?
Erm – I’m not sure! I love to play the piano but the thing I realised when Ken came into my life was that piano wasn’t cool. I went to school after that Christmas in 1990 and told the kids I’d got a motorbike for Christmas, and suddenly I had 20 new friends. So piano playing and lessons were something I did quietly and behind the scenes. I kept the lessons up until 1997 though when my racing really started to take off, and I had to give up because I was going off to the World Championships.
What made you decide to pursue racing over music?
I was a little bit better at riding a motorcycle than playing a piano, but I also got more opportunties in motorcycling. When I turned professional at 16 it looked like a promising career, so that’s what I followed. I was motorcycling from an early age and I needed it, with all the issues going on I needed it to have it as an outlet, whereas the piano was more of a relaxation thing.
You’ve also made a huge success of your music in the last few years, so have you ever thought you made the wrong choice?
Not at all. I love riding a motorcycle, and more than 20 years after I started I still look forward to every ride I take. Even the great things that have come from playing the piano, like playing with Jools Holland and Queen, don’t come close to the thrill and buzz I get from riding a motorcycle. And it’s given me a good life – yes, I’ve put in the effort, but I’ve been given a very good life in return. I could have always been different, I was injured early on and if it had been serious then maybe I’d have thought I should have concentrated on my music. But I’ve always concentrated on one thing really well rather than spread myself out, and I’ve never regretted concentrating on motorcycling.
But you have managed to combine the two!
Yes, everyone found out I played the piano in 2003 when my sponsor bought me a 9ft Steinway piano for winning the World Championship. The BBC were covering the event, so of course they asked me to play! Since then I’ve been asked to play everywhere I go, and I’ve improved a lot over the last few years because I’ve had to make sure I practiced.
How did it feel to play in front of your peers?
The next couple of races there was always a piano in the paddock! I rode for Yamaha at that time, and of course they also make pianos, so I went to Japan four times with them to promote their music division. I was playing to mechanics and the whole teams behind the scenes – motorcycling is a big like a travelling circus, it’s all the same people behind the scenes wherever you go – so it was quite nerve-wracking playing for people I’d spent years travelling with.
Yamaha must have been thrilled when they found out their extremely photogenic World Champion Superbiker could also play the piano very well! Did you mind doing their promotion?
Not at all – I enjoy doing both so getting the opportunity to do both at a high level is incredibly fortunate. And I actually got the boss of Yamaha music, which is entirely separate to the motorcycle division, to his first race! He came over to Japan when I was playing and riding and had never been to a race before, so that was quite an achievement!
So, tell me more about Queen and Jools Holland – how did they come about?
Again, through motorcycling. The drummer of Jools’s band is a massive bike fan and they said they’d have to get us together and have a bit of a jam which was amazing, as Jools Holland is one of my heroes. We played in front of 10,000 people at Newmarket Racecourse, him on guitar and me on piano. There was no rehearsal, he just came up to me before the gig and asked if I’d like to join him. Luckily I can read music, so he just asked if I’d prefer to play the 12 bar blues in G or E – I said G, and away we went!
Spike Milligan, Queen’s keyboard player, had a gig called Spike’s Allstars at the Queen. My band, Crash, was doing the warm up before them, and then I was invited to sing We Will Rock You with Queen. I turned around as Roger Taylor was doing the big drum intro and he gave me a wink – that’s one of my favourite moments in music, and comes very close to the buzz of a race.
It must have been nerve-wracking playing to such a huge crowd?
It wasn’t the main arena, but there were still around 2000 people there though. The biggest crowd I’ve ever played to was at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year – there were 3000 in the arena and a 12 million TV audience. I had to ride my bike down the stage, stop and do an interview, then play the piano – all live. Now that was nerve-wracking! When you’ve got all those stars in front of you it’s not the easiest thing to do, to ride a bike down a perspex stage, and I had to make sure all the timings were right. I knew once I’d got the bike bit over with I’d be fine. But it was an amazing night, my gran was in the audience, all my family were there, it was such a memorable night.
You also performed at Sport Relief with Ray Stubbs. How was that?
Yes, we did Everybody Needs Somebody by the Blues Brothers. It was cool, Ray Stubbs is a really nice guy and actually looked like a Blues Brother!
Who are your musical influences?
I enjoy rock, I’m definitely a bit of an old rocker. Motorcycling and rock and roll go together, most bike fans are into Guns n Roses and ACDC.
Growing up I was a big Queen fan, I’d listen on the way to races. I also write music myself but my own tunes are much more melodic, I don’t know why that comes naturally to me, but it’s a lot of fun.
You have a band, Crash. How much time do you spend with them and performing?
Our performances are nearly always to do with racing. We do events for sponsors, which is good for me to be able to give them something back, and other sporting events. We’re travelling to the Moto GP in Indianapolis to play there – unfortunately I can’t compete this year as I broke my hand at the beginning of the season, but it’ll be good to be there with the band as a performer.
So, back to the motorcycling. When did you first realise that you were world class.
When I started beating the guys in the UK in 97, and then went to the World Championships in 98 and qualified fifth. That was when I really thought, I can do this.
Did things change for you at that point?
Yes, it went to another level then. I was working for a world championship team and it was very different to what I was used to. There was all the PR and appearances, I was travelling around the world, I was homework – there are a lot of emotions that come with being part of a world championship team.
How did you find being away from home?
It was tough, but you get used to your own company. It’s an adult environment, the mechanics and people that work there are quite a bit older so have to grow up fast.
How did it feel to become the youngest World Superbike Champion?
When you’ve dreamed of doing something as a child and had posters of Carl Foggarty on wall, you think these people are inhuman. To then have the opportunity to work for great teams and having that accolade… It’s crossing the finishing line when it hits you – no-one can take it away, once you lift that trophy – amazing.
Did the offers start flooding in after that?
Yes, the better you do and the more TV coverage you get, then the more sponsors become interested. I’ve been very lucky though, I’ve had two very loyal sponsors in my career – an insurance company and a care home. They’ve become friends and we have really good relationships.
I can understand the insurance link, but the care home?
Yes, Roger comes to my races, and I go around the country and play piano to his residents! I give them an evening of entertainment, or perform at his openings – we complement each other quite nicely!
How did you feel about the increase in attention resulting from becoming World Champion?
I’ve always been quite shy so it did take some getting used to, and all the fan attention that came from success, but you adapt to it all and whatever difference comes in life you adapt and go along with it. All the extras are a show at the end of the day; you’re the showman and have to do what’s expected of you.
Why do you think the Superbike Chamionship doesn’t get as much media attention as F1?
It never has done compared to F1. Barry Sheen put it on the map back in the 80s, but since then it hasn’t got any back page coverage unfortunately. For me, it’s better racing; there’s a lot more overtaking and position changes and actual raw racing. It’s got its diehard fans and there’ll always be 100,000 people at Brands Hatch or 80,000 people at Silverstone so it’s popular to its fans, and you don’t need the publicity as there are the die-hard fans. That’s the great thing about the fans, they’re fanatical about it. Most of them ride themselves and they have a great connection with the sport. It’s much more accessible than, say, F1, as it’s something they can do themselves without millions of pounds to spare – you can buy the superbikes we race on in the shops.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career?
Both World Championships for sure. Probably the first one just a little bit more because I never actually took in what it would feel like to win the World Championship, I just really wanted to do it. To actually wake up on Monday after the race and see the trophy by my side was just fantastic. The second time around, I’d already won one and was hungry to do it again.
You have an ‘Ask James’ section on your website – what’s your most frequently asked question?
Girls usually ask if I’m single! Guys ask me how to do things on their bikes, tips on how to take a corner and things like that. I don’t usually get into that though because if I advise someone to do something in a certain way and they come off their bike I’d feel responsible. I work in a controlled environment with medical teams seconds away, so I’d never advise anyone to go out and do something I do on an open road.
So when you’re not busy being a World Champion, playing to 12 million people or composing songs, how do you relax?
I’ve got a house in the South of France, which is where I am at the moment, and all my family are coming later today – all 12 of them. I don’t get to see my family so much, so it’s really good when we can all get together.
There are huge benefits to what I’ve done, and it’s amazing to look at my house in the South of France and know that it’s from money I’ve earned from racing. I’m very fortunate – it’s not been given to me, I’ve worked hard and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved – but at the same time I am very much aware of how fortunate I am.
So is there anything left to achieve? What’s your ultimate ambition?
Carl Foggarty won four World Championships and is the most successful Superbike racer ever. I’ve got two so far, and I started when I was 23 and Carl started when he was 30, so hopefully I’ve plenty of time left yet to match his four titles, and ultimately go on to win five.