TRUE GRIT: ALLERGIES AND ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS
“It’s like the best place in the world or the worst place in the world” explains Lee Johnston as I sit next to him on the way to the garage in his works van. His diary is busy, we’ve had to conduct our interview as he runs errands around Yorkshire, where he lives with his fiancée Christie and son Jesse. I’ve just asked how mentally tough riding at the TT can be and his answer is wonderfully frank. “I’ve struggled like f*ck, maybe I’ve been hurt, or just had a shit TT and you’re thinking ‘f*ck me, I’m stuck here for two weeks’, riding like this.”
These were his thoughts before last year’s TT, and I suspect they’re just as strong in his mind now after the troublesome fortnight on the Island.
TT 2022 turned out to be a mixed bag for Johnston. He secured a 4th in the first of two Monster Energy Supersport Races and a 2nd in the Bennetts Supertwin Race, just 2 seconds behind Peter Hickman, who went on to dominate last year’s TT. However, those were the only races he completed. An unexpected issue with his eyesight which seemed like an allergy meant that at times his sight was severely limited.
“Frustrating is the best word” says Johnston openly. “Of all the bloody excuses you could’ve had – not being fit to see is probably bottom of the list. Most things you can sort of ride around but as I figured out, you can’t. It seemed like some sort of reaction to whatever was on the Island at that time and something that I couldn’t do anything about; I’ve never had it before” he says with exasperation ringing clearly in his voice.
It was a frustrating 2022 for Lee, given the success he had previously had in 2019…
“It’s something so little but it can ruin your TT. When I finished 4th in the Supersport I couldn’t really see then, that was the start of it. When Michael [Dunlop] passed me I could fixate on him. I was already struggling at that point. There was not much else I could do about it. Frustrating is probably the best word for it I suppose.”
Anyone can understand the level of disappointment Johnston must feel from having his chances dashed due to an unforeseen and sudden issue. But he seems overly hard on himself. He walked away with a 2nd and a 4th - good results.
Despite having competed on the Isle of Man since 2012, last year’s event was almost like stepping into the unknown for him. In 2021 Johnston announced he had been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis – AS. A long-term condition that causes fatigue, inflammation and severe pain in the spine. It sounds like something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
“I’ve broken my back, tailbone and jaw at the TT once and this is loads worse than that” says Johnston when I try to gauge how unpleasant it is. “I’ve been in some bad situations and this is worse than all of them. It’s just constant pain. If you move it’s like someone sticking a knife into you.”
Johnston had to find a way to deal with the pain and build the stamina to race. Through a regular course of injections and keeping in good shape, Johnston managed to stay at the top level throughout the TT, albeit until his eyesight suffered. “It was hard because I struggled with being tired all the time. I was doing 3 or 4 laps a night, maximum. I think I managed it ok, I just had to sleep for 2 or 3 hours in the middle of the day and stay on top of it. I just had to remember to keep resting.”
It's a testament to his determination and level of fitness. As anyone with the merest knowledge of road racing will know, it’s a bloody tough sport. Mentally you have to be capable of keeping focus for close to 2 hours at a time whilst holding your nerve. Physically you have to be strong enough to control a bike weighing over 160kg at speeds knocking on the door of 200mph. Throw in a condition like AS and I’m not sure how many riders would keep going and, to be honest, who could blame them if they threw in the towel altogether.
Despite the physical setbacks he’s suffered over recent years Johnston, is clearly very strong and motivated. When I first meet him, one of the first things I pick up on is how lean and trim he looks. I’d go as far as to say he looks more of an athlete than possibly any other rider on the grid. A very keen cyclist, he spends much of his time training on his mountain bike or road bike, occasionally joining the likes of Jamie Whitham for bike rides in the stunning Yorkshire scenery, which sits virtually on his front doorstep.
Lee jokes that he is a ‘T’ winner rather than a ‘TT’ winner, given the shortened distance in 2019 - but it takes true grit to get on the top step.
Johnston grew up in Maguiresbridge in Northern Ireland. Compared to many other riders he was a bit of a late starter when it came to riding bikes and racing. Into his teens he’d been a promising football player, playing for his county but ultimately found the lack of enthusiasm and motivation in his teammates a constant irritation.
“I was super competitive, I’d fall out with my own team mates more than the other team. I’d be like, I want to win and then I said I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was then that he discovered racing motorbikes. “I sort of accidentally started racing, I went to watch a friend racing mini motos and then I had a go and was quite good at it. Got a bike and then won everything on it.”
Johnston was a natural racer and moved to England when he was just 18. “I won the British Superstock 600 Championship in my first year, with my dad. A year after that I signed a contract and moved to Blackpool and I couldn’t even make a pot noodle, I had to figure life out pretty fast.”
Johnston regularly refers to his late father, throughout our interview, a man that still has a strong influence in his life. “My dad never told me how to ride a motorbike but he told me how to act”, says Johnston looking back. “He was like ‘as long as you don’t get beat because you’re not fit enough, because that’s just unacceptable, and if you do get beat, well if you’ve put absolutely everything into it - then he was better than you and that’s the way life is’”. You can see where Johnston’s sense of dogged determination stems from.
Keen to see who else inspires him, I ask who his sporting heroes are – who does he look up to? He deliberates out loud, weighing up the question. The British cyclists Jason Kenny and Mark Cavendish are two names that he draws from his train of thought. “I’ve just got that much respect for cyclists because they suffer man, they are hard people. I met Jason Kenny at a bike show and I got that excited I could hardly talk. I was just stood there like an absolute melon and Jamie [Whitham - with him at the time] goes ‘what’s wrong with you?!’ And I said ‘ah sorry mate I’m just a bit star struck’”, he says giggling.
Amongst his peers and rivals there is one rider that stands high above the rest “Bruce Anstey, there’s just something about him” says Johnston emphatically. “He’s such a nice, warm, dude, he races really clean. I’ve been behind him sometimes when he’s passed me at the Ulster GP, and if I hadn’t been doing 160mph I would have started clapping. When you’re on the limit and someone comes past you with both wheels sliding you’re thinking how is that possible?”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard riders praise Anstey, he has a lot of love and respect on the grid. “I remember once, I was leading at the Ulster and I’d come back from being hurt after a crash at the TT beforehand. I think Hickman passed me and Bruce came past and he said to me after ‘I was so happy for you when you were in the lead’ because he knew I’d be through a load of shit. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him.”
As our trip, running errands, winds to a close I steer back to the TT for one last question. Can he remember what it felt like the first time he rode the TT? He answers immediately, the sensation still palpable. “Amazing, I thought ‘f*ck me, I can’t believe I’m getting to ride around here’. I remember coming down over the Mountain, you’re doing 170mph and I just thought someone’s gonna step out and go ‘sorry lad, this is illegal, you’re not allowed to do this’, and I still think that all the time now”.
“Someone said to me the other day, there’s more people that have climbed Everest than have done the TT. That’s insane. Anybody can pay to get to Everest, you cannot get to the TT unless you’re picked.”
For now though, in the midst of the winter break when we last spoke, his focus is on family and recovery. “I’m gonna take a month off, doing absolutely anything because my body’s about done I think. I’m going to try and recharge a bit.”
He’ll be back and – knowing Lee – probably stronger and faster than before…