LOCAL HERO

LOCAL HERO

‘Conor, that Parisian was great’, beamed the man paying at the counter. ‘You should put it on the menu every day!’ Clearly in a jovial mood - and recognising Conor Cummins as the accessible TT star he is - the man goes on to share a joke about culinary expertise and pizza toppings before striding off to his car, amused with the exchange.

Conor looks pleased too - he likes to see a happy customer. ‘Great feedback,’ he says, nodding to the young man in the kitchen. Today’s chef looks like he isn’t that long out of college, but Conor is a man who has created numerous opportunities for the local workforce in recent times, with the young, in particular, finding pay and experience in one of Conor’s two Ramsey venues.

Today we’re sat inside The Boathouse, a long-standing building that now proudly displays the bright yellow signs of ‘Conrod’s Pizzeria’. Situated on the south edge of Mooragh Park - a visitor attraction since the Victorian era - the friendly eatery is the latest venture in Conor’s blossoming business. As two people who still live and work in the town, it’s pleasing to both of us to see the venue grow in popularity after the challenges presented by the pandemic.

ADAPTING

‘It was supposed to look like this when we opened last year,’ Conor says, nodding towards the newly fitted kitchen. ‘We’ve now got a second oven, the fryer… new extraction. That’s allowed us to do evening meals, which has been a godsend.

‘A pizzeria wasn’t really the plan; we just had to open and get money through the door. I was totally committed to this place when we went into lockdown last year,’ he says, wincing at the memory. ‘We had a team of workmen about a third of the way through the renovation when Covid hit. We were told to send them home and close the doors. We had no income, of course, but still had bills to pay while we remained closed.

‘Don’t get me wrong, the support from (Isle of Man) Government has been incredible, but it’s been touch and go. We were able to open last summer in time for the school holidays, but with only a pizza oven installed, Conrod’s Pizzeria became ‘Plan A’. You’ve got to be adaptable, and that’s been key. But it’s been hard. Real hard.’

“I never said ‘I want to do this’. In fact, I used to say the opposite!”

CROSSROADS

Conor’s willingness at work to adapt and change his plans is something echoed in his racing. In fact, Conor - with ten TT podiums to his name - never planned to race in his local event at all, despite attending the very school that inspires the name of ‘School House Corner’ in Ramsey.

‘I was a massive fan of the TT, but it was just me in pure fan mode,’ he says with some enthusiasm. ‘I remember taking a GSCE exam - Religious Education - and hearing the first bikes come past the end of the school drive. It was the Junior race in 2002, I think. I just wrote off the exam to go and watch because I loved the TT. But I never said “I want to do this.” In fact, I used to say just the opposite!’

Conor is hardly the first or last pupil from Ramsey Grammar to purposefully flunk an exam to watch the racing (TT is a religion to many), but four years later, having only just turned 20-years old, Conor was doing the very thing he said he wouldn’t.

‘I was at a massive crossroads at that stage in my racing career. For me, it was all about racing the short circuits. I was wanting to do that full time and win whatever, in whatever series. I had raced the circuits for a few years, but then, aged 19, I had a bombshell moment. I thought to myself, I need real money to do this. I’d only got as far as I did with the help of a few great sponsors, but to do things on a bigger scale is really expensive.

‘I was naïve when I started, thinking the money would just come, but who has that sort of cash? I don’t. I remember - and this is how desperate I was - I remember phoning businesses on my lunch break, introducing myself and asking about sponsorship. Of course, no one knew me, or cared that much. I thought, this is the end of the road for me, the end of the dream.’

“It’s hard to explain, but as a motorcycle racer, it just felt like I’d arrived home.”

THE WEIGHT

‘I went through a period of a few months where I really felt down. Short circuit racing was all I wanted to do with my life. Eventually I gave myself a wake-up call. I asked myself, what can I do? I can ride a bike, but what boxes can I tick now? Then I thought about the North West 200 and that was the lightbulb moment.

‘I’d been to the North West before in 2004 with my dad, my cousin Danny and his Grandad. We flew over in a single seater airplane to watch the racing, which was crazy enough. I thought, wow, this is just awesome; road racing is the best thing. So, in 2006, while struggling in my mind with what to do next, I just said to myself, “Bollocks to it, let’s go do the North West 200!” Once I had made that decision, it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

‘I went there as a 19-year-old newcomer with my dad and Grandad – plus my mate Nigel - in a van with a mashed-up door. We bought an awning, but that was all. The whole trip was a real throwback. It showed me another side of the sport and convinced me that road racing was the way forward. But the thing is, three months prior to that, when I was applying to do the North West, I said to myself, “May as well bang in an entry to the TT too!” And so that’s what I did.’

HOME

‘It was only when I had an entry confirmed that it dawned on me just what a challenge the TT would be. I’ve lived here all my life, yet I suddenly had a lack in confidence where the Course went. I thought, shit, I’ve got to learn this track the same as everyone else!

‘If there’s one advantage to living and racing here, though, it’s learning the course - being able to jump in the car and do some laps. At the time, I was working at Lloyds Bank in Douglas, so I’d go to work in my little Vauxhall Corsa via the Mountain section of the TT Course, then come home via Ballacraine and Kirk Michael - so every day at work was another lap of learning.’

Just three months later, he parked up the Vauxhall Corsa and swapped to a Yamaha R1 to do his first laps at racing speed. ‘It felt so good,’ he says, rewinding the last 15 years. ‘I grew up in an era when the 100mph lap was still considered fast, but the very first newcomers lap I posted was 104mph. I loved it. It was almost strange how nice it felt. It’s hard to explain, but as a motorcycle racer, it just felt like I’d arrived home.’

Conor was only just 20-years-old when he received the TT Newcomers Medal in 2006

PERSPECTIVE

Is it here, then, that we can expect Conor’s outlook on racing to change? Was the old dream simply to be forgotten? He quietly shakes his head weighing up the two things: those early days chasing short circuit glory and his subsequent career as a successful TT racer.

‘There’s no way you could replicate anything close to the TT, elsewhere,’ he says. ‘I do enjoy riding the circuits still, but taking on the TT Course? Fuckin’ hell, you can’t even mention the two in the same sentence. The TT is standout different. Totally. Standout. Different.

‘I still get the same buzz today, but I don’t do it for the buzz. I do it for the love. For the love of racing the TT Course as fast as I possibly can. I’ve got a love of trying to win it as well. I think that’s important, to embrace the challenge.’

With more reason than many to feel that fate has dealt him a cruel hand, it’s heartening to know that his love of racing at the TT remains undiminished. In fact, Conor is quick to point out how badly he still wants that elusive win, which is easy to forget sometimes, given his languid, laid back demeanour. But like every racer, he can be as steely-eyed as the next, and that determination lies at the heart of this TT tale - including as it does, a desperate low point for a young man.

‘Yeah, 2010,’ he says with a wry smile. ‘That’s where it all went tits up!’

Closer to the Edge: Conor racing in the famous McAdoo colours, TT 2010

RACING THROUGH THE DARK

Most TT fans are familiar with the horrifying events of that year’s TT when Conor crashed heavily at the Verandah, eventually coming to rest far below the road. Footage of the accident, famously captured by Helicam, remains as raw and shocking today as it was in 2010. But while it is understandably that this is how some fans first remember Conor’s early rise up through the TT ranks, it was his performances in the 2009 Senior TT and 2010 Superbike TT, in particular, that spoke of his talent and potential.

‘2009 was the year I finished on the Senior TT podium behind Steve Plater,’ he says proudly. ‘It was strange for me, because I quickly went from being a fan to being a rival. I was watching the likes of John McGuinness from the hedges just a few years before. Then, next minute, I’m lining up against him. Then I’m racing Plater and McGuinness on their HM Plant Hondas! It was a crazy turn of events really, to suddenly be dicing for TT wins with them.’

A year later, Conor was showing no signs of slowing down. A string of fast laps at the North West 200 indicated that the Manxman had continued his upwards trajectory with the McAdoo machines, and he headed into his home event in fine form.

‘People just don’t understand how far in the lead I was,’ he says, churning over the events of 2010’s opening Superbike TT. ‘And what they don’t know, is that the clutch started to go on lap two. I pitted at the end of that lap for fuel, then that was it - I had no clutch for the next two laps. The bike didn’t have any fancy auto-blips like they have now, it was all old school riding, trying to nurse it home.

‘I came in for my second pit stop with a 23 second lead, but didn’t know how I’d get going again. I stalled the bike, of course, so the boys had to rock it back and forth to get it back into neutral. Then we bump-started the bike and away I went. Even after the time lost in the pits, I still held the lead and I was still pulling away when the bike eventually let go.’

Of all his races on the TT Mountain Course, does he see it as the one that got away? ‘Yeah, absolutely! It makes me angry even now,’ he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

It’s understandable, considering what followed; a freakish accident that threatened to end a blossoming career and cut down a young man’s potential. If he was ever to fulfil that potential, first Conor would have to recover from the serious injuries he sustained. But coming back is different to coming back and winning - and winning is never a given when the TT Course can be such a cruel and fickle mistress.

Conor battled back to be on the start line in 2011, but only a torrid three years followed

RENEWAL

Genuine misfortune and newly broken bones littered the next three years that followed his return to racing, but the Ramsey man has been revitalised in recent times. Ultimately, Conor’s story is one of renewed opportunity, with the popular Manxman again experiencing his best years at the TT.

Indeed, with Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison hogging the headlines, one could be forgiven for not noticing Conor’s incredible run of results on the big Honda, collecting a full house of four Superbike and Senior podium finishes in the last two editions of the TT. But what of that final step? Conor, for one, believes the new Honda Fireblade could aid his mission:

‘It’s a real missile,’ he says, grinning. ‘I did a test on one at Brands Hatch. I hadn’t ridden at that speed for 14 months and it scared me! But it’s not been on the roads yet, and you can’t make any comparison with what Glenn Irwin is doing, fantastic as that is. I think there’s going to be a lot of learning to do at the TT – and for everyone - but this is where my team are very good. What Padgett’s don’t understand about motorbikes and racing motorbikes isn’t worth knowing. They give me real belief in the bike I have under me, and I just know it’s going to be awesome.’

As well as meticulously prepared motorcycles, the team at Padgett’s Honda provide Conor with an environment in which he clearly flourishes. Conor is also a man who cherishes family values and displays an enviable work ethic, making Conor and Clive (Padgett) a marriage made for the TT.

‘The last two TT’s have been down to my environment,’ he agrees. ‘If I feel things are stacked against me – at any race meeting – it’s very difficult to overcome that, there’s only so much you can physically do. But I have a brilliant team in Padgett’s, from the people to the machinery. That package is what makes me happy, and if you’re happy, everything else is more likely to follow.’

It’s an interesting thought, especially if we factor in Conor’s home life and work life. If a happy rider makes for a fast rider, can that happiness come from outside the paddock too? ‘I think there’s something in that,’ Conor says. ‘I’ve a fantastic little family, I’m just in a very happy spot.’

“What Padgett’s don’t understand about motorbikes and racing motorbikes isn’t worth knowing!”

LAYING NEW FOUNDATIONS

Conor laughs at the idea he’s slowly morphing into his team mate, Bruce Anstey - the Kiwi rider famous for ensuring his off-season is both quiet and lengthy. ‘Yeah, I’ll have to watch it working here over winter, I don’t want to be putting on too much weight,’ he says.

But with two years away from the Mountain Course, Conor – like many of his peers – is already conscious that TT 2022 will require more work in the off-season than usual.

‘I have started training. That’s when I think about my racing. I do a lot of motocross, first because it’s something where I get to twist a throttle, but fitness also comes naturally from that. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about my body and how to get fit for the TT. It doesn’t have to be slogging away in the gym if you know what other activities target the muscles groups you’re going to need. I will add some strength and conditioning later, but riding a motocross bike over winter gives me a really good starting point.’

Along with the new Fireblade, the Manxman is also conscious that key to making that final step is the need to travel more often to the UK to race: ‘I don’t want to be rocking up at the TT next year and contemplating Bray Hill in my first properly competitive race,’ he exclaims. When I think of when I’ve been at my best at the TT, it was when I was racing in British Superstock. I should be doing a lot more racing… I need to.

‘Having said that, we’ve all been hammered by the pandemic and it’s a two-way street with my team. I’ll have to ask the boss how we’re all doing, but when he says the time is right to go racing, we’ll go racing.

‘My concern is that Peter and Dean - all the lads who are doing BSB - have been going flat out for the last year or so. That’s going to be two years, or the best part of three years come next year’s TT. It’s going to make for a tougher event. It makes me nervous just thinking about it now! But I love that. I really am looking forward to it.’

“The last two TT’s have been down to my environment. I’m just in a very happy spot.”

SUPPORT

Looking around the Boathouse, it’s clear that Conor has been doing more forward planning with his business also. He nods towards his new ground coffee that is on display above the counter and says, “That’s the new blend… Gulf colours!”

Indeed, motorsport heritage is never far from Conor’s business brand, and his links to the island’s famous races has gifted him a global reach that goes far beyond these shores.

‘We get messages from all around the world - TT fans in the US, Australia, everywhere. Its amazing. In fact, the support both here on the island and further afield has been phenomenal. We receive regular requests asking us to post out our coffee to the US and places like that. Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to, but I’m looking forward to welcoming some of those people to Conrod’s come next year’s TT.’

Meanwhile, Conor has noticed how well the local community has backed the shops and businesses in Ramsey following the three lockdowns on the Isle of Man. His is not the only business to benefit from a renewed sense of pride in the town, but he’s quick to acknowledge it.

‘It’s been incredible, business has never been better, especially over there,’ he says, gesturing towards the shopping street where Conrod’s Coffee Shop can be found.

Conor is someone who really understands the importance of his local community. Often seen supporting local causes, he’s more than willing to help those around him. Indeed, his business has supported a number of island charities, including the children’s hospice, Rebecca House, and the Joey Dunlop Foundation. Conor has also kept his link to Ramsey Grammar School - despite what he thought of his R.E. exam! But now he’s feeling some of that love himself.

‘We really need that support. The third lockdown was horrendous. I had to let people go, which was the last thing I wanted. I was making a lot of the coffee myself just to get some money coming in. We tried takeaways, but people were hiding away. Coffee saved the day!’

Conor’s wife, Danielle, with baby Connie, enjoying another visit to the Winners Enclosure

A COFFEE MAN

Conor’s love of coffee has helped bring him to his ‘happy place’. His first venture, CoffeeMann, came about by chance, despite carrying around an acorn of an idea for years.

‘I was racing at Philip Island in Australia when I was taken by the local coffee culture. That was my eureka moment. I knew how much coffee I drunk, so I thought, this could be for me! Shortly after, at a bike show in Belfast, I got chatting to this guy, Pete, who was into outdoor events. He told me of a Piaggio Ape barista van that was available. I went to see it in Ballycastle, and just like that, I bought it. I was clueless, but that’s where it all started.’

To give him more of a steer, the regulators (DEFA) here on the Island provided Conor with some marketing advice – along with the relevant paperwork and permissions. In a throwback to his school days, Conor was only really keen to leave the classroom and get going. Getting going, though, meant long days parked up by the local Rugby Club, or positioned in the supermarket car park. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of… err, tea!

THE OAK SLEEPS IN THE ACORN

The greatest achievement is first and for a time just a dream. The acorn does not know that it will become a sapling; the sapling only senses that it will become a mighty oak. Conor’s love of coffee was certainly the acorn, but if Conrod’s Coffee Shop and Conrod’s Pizzeria are merely saplings, are we yet to see the oak?

‘I have big plans,’ Conor says. ‘I want the next thing I do to be really big. I don’t want to give away my ideas, but I know where I’m going now.’

Back on the racetrack, Conor has known what ‘Plan A’ has looked like for a full 15 years. He’s come close - incredibly close - but takes nothing for granted. He accepts the TT doesn’t always give you what you want, nor what you deserve.

But success comes in many forms, and Conor’s story is no longer confined to the TT Course. A family man with a thriving business, Conor is creating job opportunities by investing in the town he loves, gifting Ramsey two new venues along the way in which we can all spend quality time with friends and family.

Conor is no doubt too modest to think of himself as either a local hero or role model, but it’s hard to see that the former Ramsey Grammar School pupil is anything but.

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