The Big Interview: James Toseland

A couple of years ago, James Toseland seemed to have it all.

Having risen effortlessly through the junior ranks, the twice World Superbike champion had a career which allowed him to travel the world and had brought him both lucrative sponsorship deals and an army of adoring fans. Engaged to the singer/songwriter Katie Melua, life was good. Very good.

Even when he came off his bike and broke his wrist during testing at Spain’s Motorland Aragon circuit, it at first seemed like a minor blip, one which could be fixed by a little surgery and a bout of physiotherapy.

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Except it didn’t turn out that way. While he managed to struggle through two more races, it was clear to everyone in Team Toseland that their star was far from firing on all cylinders. The consultant had already warned the injury could be career threatening, but he admits when the prognosis finally came, he wasn’t at all prepared. Toseland’s career, which had gone from riding over the slag heaps near his childhood home in Rotherham to some of the world’s best circuits, was over.

His team tried to persuade him to stay on at least for a few more months in the vain hope they might be able to prove the medics wrong, but Toseland had never been satisfied with second place and last September, just a few weeks before his 31st birthday, he sat down and wrote an open letter to his fans.

“It’s been really hard to admit defeat on this occasion,” he concluded. “But I really have no other option left at this stage. I’ve tried everything possible... but the sad truth is that none of it has worked and my wrist will never fully heal enough for me to operate the throttle properly. You have been amazing in the best and worst times of my career and it’s been almost like having a second family... I hope I have done you proud.”

It’s over a year now since he announced his retirement and he admits it was at once the easiest and the most difficult decision he’d ever made.

“I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to do after my career came to an 
end, because I thought I had at least another eight years, and if I was lucky another 10, before I had to think about life off the circuit. When I got the scans back I had to think hard about why I’d got into the sport in the first place. In short it was to win. My team were keen for me to go back for one more season just to see if the wrist improved, but I knew I couldn’t do that. I rode a bike to to win, not to be at the back of the pack. There was always the danger 
that if I was battling to get ahead of people I’d easily beaten the season before I could end up doing something rash. No matter what anyone else said, in my heart of hearts I knew it was over, but that didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.”

The history of sport is littered with those who struggle to adapt to life away from the team camaraderie, the consistently packed diary and the perks which come with being at the top of their game. Speaking now, Toseland seems as laid back as he ever was, but he admits in the days after he went public with his retirement he did wonder what on earth he was going to do with the next 31 years.

“Honestly? I panicked. All I’d ever really known was motorbikes. I’d travelled around the world never having to give anything else a thought. All sports people who compete at the highest level tend to be cocooned from the real world. Someone tells you which plane to get on, what time to be up in the morning and where to be from one hour to the next. When that rug is suddenly pulled from under you, it’s really scary. The sport controlled my whole life, from how much time I spent at the gym to what I ate and how much sleep I needed. I’d heard people say that sport stars can find it really difficult to adjust when their career comes to an end and I could see why. You go from having every day mapped out for you to having a big blank calendar.”

Toseland did, however, have one advantage. Music. Around the same time he got on his first bike, he also started to learn to play the piano. While still at school he reached grade six and toyed briefly with applying to London College of Music. When his motorcycle racing career took off, any thoughts of pursing music full-time had to be shelved and his piano playing was confined to the odd post race gig with hiw covers band Crash.

“I’ve always had music in my life and for pretty much as long as I can remember I’ve played the piano. After the crash I just thought, ‘Right, now is the time to see if I can do it professionally’.” Fortunately the injury to his wrist hadn’t affected his ability to play and through his Yahama sponsorship, which had involved promoting the company’s pianos alongside their bikes, Toseland found himself being introduced to Toby Jepson, frontman of the Scarborough rock band Little Angels.

To outsiders it might seem like an unlikely pairing. Little Angels were all black leather and big hair, while Toseland was always the eptiome of clean-cut. However, like him, Little Angels, who in their heyday had played with the likes of Bon Jovi and Van Halen, were also also embarking on a new chapter having recently reformed after an 18 year hiatus and Jepson in particular was keen to help.

“Last year they played the Download Festival for the first time since 1996 and me and Toby just seemed to click,” says Toseland, who clearly has very different musical tastes to Melua, whom he married last September. While she has made a fortune from blues and folk inspired albums, Toseland is much more at home in the 1980s. “As far as I’m concerned you can’t beat a bit of Queen or Guns n Roses and I have to confess I love a good power ballad à la Bryan Adams.”

Having spent a chunk of the last 12 months holed up in Jepson’s studio and the result is an out and out rock album set for release some point this year. Steve Harris, who produced the U2 hits Beautiful Day and The Sweetest Thing, has leant a helping hand, as has Melua’s brother who plays guitar on the album. It is, says Toseland, very much a family and friends affair, but while his well-connected wife could have no doubt pulled a few strings to secure the backing of a big label, Toseland insists the album will succeed or fail on its own merits. “I really wanted to do everything myself. I’ve been a bit stubborn,” he says. “I could have probably signed to a label straight after retiring, but I didn’t just want a deal based on my previous success. I know that having a recognisable face might help in getting a little publicity and I would be foolish to turn that down, but at the same time I wanted this record to stand on its own. Katie’s advice has been invaluable but she hasn’t had much actual involvement. The fact that she’s into blues and folk and I’m into rock helps.”

While Toseland may not be be prepared to plunder his wife’s contacts book, he admits that immediately following the crash, her music and intense touring schedule was a welcome distraction.

“We met when I took my mum to one of her concerts at Sheffield City Hall. Her piano player happened to be a massive Super Bike fan and he introduced us. The crash happened not long after we started going out and being dragged along on her tour was probably the best thing that could have happened.

“It’s funny, for my mum, music was what I was always supposed to do, she blames her grey hair on me. When I told her I was never going to able to ride professionally again, she was really upset, but I think one eye was crying for me and the other with relief.

“Now I’m doing the music she couldn’t be happier, but I’m probably more nervous than I ever was riding a bike. When you’re going round a track at 200mph you have a certain anonymity. You could be anyone. When you’re on stage – you have to make people believe in what you are singing.”

While Toseland may currently be keeping home and work separate, don’t rule out a husband and wife duet.

“I don’t think all the money in the world could persuade us to to a Kylie and Jason , but as they say never say never.”