Shane Byrne | 14 mins


Petra Byrne, June 2018
Isle of Sheppey, Kent, UK

Whenever Shane is riding and I’m not there, I try to find a quiet spot to watch the live timing app on my phone. With the kids at school and Shane at Snetterton for a one-day test, the house was silent. Just after ten o’clock, the peace was interrupted by my phone.


A text from Shane.

I’m just changing in the back of the van.

I love you, speak to you later.

The session was due to start at ten minutes past, so I put some washing in the machine, made myself a coffee and I was just sitting down at the kitchen table when my phone beeped again. Another text. This time from a friend who works in the British Superbike paddock.

Is he OK?

What is she on about?

Is who okay?

Shakey. I’ve just seen he crashed.

How can he have crashed? The session has literally only just started . . . I refreshed the live timing page and saw the red flag icon in the top corner of the screen. My heart sank through my chest.

I flicked the app closed with my thumb and rang Shane’s crew chief. Giovanni would know exactly what was going on. It rang and rang and eventually went to his voicemail. I tried Stuart Higgs, the race director . . . no answer. I rang everybody in the team, anybody I knew that might be there at Snetterton, but not one single person picked up. Nobody.

Normally if Shane has crashed and there’s a red flag somebody would answer straight away. They would know I was watching and would probably be panicking. ‘Don’t worry, he’s OK.’ I’d heard those words so many times. But not this time. Not for forty-five minutes.

I sat at my kitchen table going absolutely crazy. I don’t know how many times I must have tried Stuart but he ignored every call. I was shivering, feeling sick. It was the longest forty-five minutes of my life. Eventually, I ran to the kitchen sink and threw up. I had a really bad feeling.

Then, finally, my phone rang.

‘He’s fine,’ said Stuart dismissively.

‘Really? So why did it take so long?’

‘Sorry, it was a bit busy here but he’s fine. He’s talking to the medics, he looks OK but he has suspected broken ribs.’

I can never forget how cold his words sounded, but still I breathed a big sigh of relief.

‘So . . . I guess they’re going to take him to hospital for the broken ribs then?’

‘Yes, I think they’re going to take him to the medical centre first.’

He sounded vague. The medical centre? This was forty-five minutes after the crash. Forty-five minutes, nobody has answered my calls, and he’s only just going to the circuit medical centre? The last time Shane had a crash and was taken to hospital he called me from the helicopter on the way there. The guy is superglued to his phone. Something wasn’t right. I packed a bag of Shane’s clothes and called the kids’ school to tell them I would be picking them up early.

I must have been in a panic, because all I could think was, ‘I need to take his socks and shoes.’ I remember tucking his socks inside his shoes and making a conscious effort to pack some pants, because that’s the one thing I normally forget. I was talking to myself, trying to think of anything but what might have happened to my husband.

The kids came running out of the school gates and jumped in the car.

‘What’s happened, Mum?’

‘Nothing,’ I replied, trying to sound relaxed. ‘We’re just going to have a road trip.’

‘A road trip to where?’

‘To Snetterton.’

‘Yay! We’re going to see Daddy! But why are we going in our school uniforms?’

‘I don’t know, I thought we’d just go as a surprise.’

I didn’t want to tell them. I didn’t know what to tell them. So I just drove.

I was halfway up the A11 when Giovanni finally called me back. All he would tell me was that he had been with Shane the whole time and they were at Norwich and Norfolk University Hospital.

‘Are you coming quickly?’ he asked. I could sense something urgent in his voice.

‘I’m coming as quickly as I can. If he’s just got broken ribs, I’m sure he can wait, can’t he?’

‘Just try to get here quickly.’

I tried to imagine Shane at Giovanni’s side, impatient for me to get there, wanting only to go home. Was that too much to wish for?

An hour later Giovanni met me at the door of the accident and emergency department. He was alone. ‘Where is he?’ I asked, looking over his shoulder.

My eyes met with Giovanni’s and from the look of them, it was like he knew Shane’s career – or worse, Shane’s mobility – could be over. I quickly rushed through things in my head. Surely they wouldn’t have sent Giovanni to give me this news, would they? Where was the doctor? Stuart had been so calm on the phone. Maybe he was just trying to make sure I didn’t panic?

‘He’s having a CT scan,’ Giovanni said. ‘That’s all I know.’

‘OK. Sit down, kids, we’ll have to wait for Daddy.’

A little while later some nurses came out to Giovanni and me, but said nothing other than that they just needed more time with Shane, to do some more tests. Then they turned to the children and offered them a picnic. The kids had been as good as gold, but the waiting was torture. Was it a broken leg? A femur maybe? An open fracture? Shane had told me before how bad an injury like that could be. I just didn’t know and nobody seemed to want to tell me.

We had been sitting there for an hour when, finally, a smiling face came over and introduced himself as Dr Andrew Cook. I guess I was expecting somebody older – he was around Shane’s age – but he came across looking really happy and confident. I took this as a positive sign and I felt much calmer as he instructed some nurses to clear another area and took me away from Giovanni and the kids to deliver his prognosis. Dr Cook slotted a memory stick into the computer and loads of images popped up. I had no idea what I was looking at. ‘Right, let’s start with the easy bits,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘As it stands at the minute, Shane has broken a lot of ribs.’ It was just over a week until the next race at Snetterton, and my immediate thought was that there was no way he was going to make it with broken ribs.

Dr Cook continued. ‘He’s also fractured his left collarbone and his sternum.’ I didn’t know what a sternum was in English, so I had to interrupt him to ask. It seemed that with each injury, the severity was getting worse. I hoped he was getting towards the end of his list when he took a deep breath and swung back to his computer. ‘And I’m afraid those are the least of your husband’s problems.’

On the screen there was an image of Shane’s spine and, with a pen in his hand, Dr Cook started tapping the screen from the bottom and working his way up, all the way into his neck. ‘This vertebra is fractured, this one is broken, that one is completely crushed. His broken ribs have punctured his lung and the swelling in his neck is making it very difficult for him to breathe.’ He turned back to face me. ‘In the next twenty-four hours we need to prioritize, so let’s concentrate more on his injuries after we’ve settled him down a bit. The first thing we need to do today is to save your husband’s life.’


The Maze

You know when you’re a kid and you do one of those mazes in your puzzle book? You have to take a pen and trace the correct line from point A to point B? Well, I believe that’s how life is. Imagine if every human being, on the day of their birth, gets given a piece of paper with one of those puzzles on it. Point A is where you’re born and point B is your ultimate destiny. At first glance the maze seems like pure chaos but, ultimately, there is always a way to the other side. All you have to do is stay on the right path and keep moving forward, even if you do take the odd wrong turn along the way.

I have always been convinced that my ultimate destiny was to be a champion motorcycle racer. I don’t know why, I had no reason to believe it, but I never dreamed of anything else. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was good fortune. Maybe it was all down to genetics, although I will never know that for sure. Because the route to that destiny from point A on my life’s maze was more complicated than most.

I was born in London, on the south bank of the River Thames, in Lambeth Hospital. It was two weeks before Christmas, but I was an unwanted early gift for my biological parents. All I know about them is that they were both Irish; my father was apparently a folk singer in his forties who seemingly had his wicked way with an underage checkout girl from the local supermarket. It must have been a bit of a scandal.

Actually, I do know one more thing about one of my birth parents: their surname. And I know it because for the first six weeks of my life, my name was Steven Price.

Baby Steven spent his first Christmas being passed around between foster homes until, one day early in the February of 1976, a lady in Sittingbourne, Kent, received a letter she’d been desperately hoping for. It had been two years since Janet Byrne and her husband Peter had suffered a terrible tragedy, when their only son Stuart fell into a cesspit at Janet’s brother’s farm and suffered a heart attack. Stuey was just four years old when he died, and the days and months that had passed since then had been horrendous for them both. They had even tried for another baby, but it just wasn’t happening.

They were so traumatized, the doctor told them, that they’d probably never be able to have any more children. They applied to adopt, through Dr Barnardo’s and a few other centres in and around London, and even though the police and the other authorities had been to visit them to complete all the necessary background checks and assessments, they hadn’t heard back. The weeks and the months passed until, finally, a letter came through from an adoption centre in Lambeth to tell them they had a six-week-old child who matched their profile.

Janet and Peter Byrne jumped on the next train to London, and later that very same day they were making the return trip, bringing their new son home to their little two-bedroomed house on the Snipeshill estate, a short walk from Sittingbourne station. The following morning, they dropped me round at my new nan’s house while they went out to shop for new baby clothes, a cot and a pram. ‘He’s a gift from God,’ my nan whispered to my mum when she saw me for the first time.

Mum had to agree. She always said that from the first moment she saw me, she felt like she was looking back at her Stuey as a baby. In fact, I looked so much like him that in years to come, Mum and Dad would look at old photos of me and Stuey at the same age and argue which one was which. Nan was convinced it was God’s way of saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right.’

My new parents gave me a new start and a new name. They would have to allow an appeal period of six months before they could make it official, but from that first train journey home to Kent from London, I became known as Shane Daniel Byrne.

Just like my biological father, Dad was from an Irish family – it was one of the reasons they matched us – with thirteen brothers and sisters, all of whom had plenty of kids of their own. Mum says she picked the name Shane because it was pretty much the first one she could think of that hadn’t already been taken by one of my cousins, and Daniel just because she liked it. Six months later, with no appeal lodged by my biological parents, I was formally renamed at the Swale Borough Council offices.

Mum and Dad told me everything; I knew from the word go that I was adopted. They always said that if I ever wanted to find my biological parents, it was no problem for them, but I never wanted to. I loved Mum and Dad to bits and they did so much for me growing up that I always felt it would be hurtful to them to go and look for somebody else, just because of a genetic bond. To me it was never an issue and, honestly, I never gave it much thought.

More recently there has been the odd occasion when I have wondered if my biological parents might know who I am and who I became. It doesn’t happen often, but once or twice I have looked up into the thousands of people in the crowd on the banking at Brands Hatch before a Superbike race and thought, ‘For all I know, the woman who gave birth to me could be sitting up there.’ She could even be sitting up there and not have a clue who she was looking at.

As anybody would be, my mum had been in a real dark place – almost suicidal – when she lost Stuey. I honestly don’t know whether it was because my introduction to my parents’ lives had helped ease their grief but, despite what the doctors had told them, two years later they did conceive again and they had a little girl, my younger sister Kelly.

Kelly was definitely the brighter of the two of us, and she studied hard. Like a lot of brothers and sisters, we had different interests and plenty of fallouts along the way. I think I can say for both of us that we loved each other and irritated each other in equal measures. There were times when we pleaded with our mum and dad to leave the two of us together in a room for just one minute so that we could sort out our differences in the old-fashioned way. Needless to say, they never let us do it, but sometimes we both had so much anger and frustration with each other bottled up inside that it seemed like the only option.

I don’t think that’s any different to any other family but I can look back now and see that there were times when perhaps I felt a little jealous that Kelly biologically belonged to my mum and dad. I might hear them all giggling together in another room and wish it was me in there, purely because I loved them all so much and wanted to be involved. On the flip side, Kelly would argue that I got more attention because I was adopted, and if I’m honest she was probably right – I think I did get spoiled a bit more at Christmas and on birthdays.

Whenever one of us caused trouble, if neither of us owned up to something then we both got a clump. Mum had a fierce temper, and the smallest thing could spark off a massive eruption. She used to wear these furry, flip-flop type slippers with the hard, plastic soles, and if I ever did something a bit naughty, no matter how trivial it was, she would pin me down and belt me with it – once for each word of the bollocking, with some extra ones thrown in. ‘You won’t, won’t, won’t . . . break, break, break . . . anything, anything, anything . . . in this room, room, room . . . ever . . . again!’ – finishing with a big whack at the end. I swear I’ve still got ‘Made in Taiwan’ imprinted on my legs from some of those hidings!

There was one day when Kelly had done something and I got clumped for it, so I was not happy at all. I would only have been ten or eleven years old. I turned to my mum and said, ‘Do you know what? If you keep treating me like this, I’m going to go and find my real mum.’ I’m still gutted I ever said it, but I was just so angry that I’d got the slipper for nothing, I came out with the most awful thing I could think of.

Mum was really upset, as you would be, although unusually for her on this occasion, she didn’t really react. Then when my dad came home he pulled me to one side. I knew what it was going to be about and I thought I was really in for it. I have to say there weren’t many times that my dad gave me a hiding; he was always really fair. If I ever stepped out of line, my mum was happy to give me the slipper or a smack, but if that didn’t solve it and Dad had to get involved, I knew it was serious.

Dad was short and powerful, a former boxer in the army, where they’d given him the nickname ‘Popeye’, which I used to love calling him. When he came home I was bracing myself for the mother of all hidings but it never came. Instead, he stayed completely cool and calm.

‘I’m not going to tell you off,’ he said. ‘I just need to explain something to you. One day you will understand that words are powerful, and that what you said to your mum, you could have punched her, kicked her, stabbed her or shot her in the chest, but nothing you could ever do to her will hurt her as much as that one comment.’ His words really hit home, so much so that they still come back to me every now and again. And whenever they do, I always think to myself, ‘You horrible little so-and-so, why did you ever even say that?’

The truth is, I love my mum to bits and I was always made to feel special, so the occasional encounter with the sole of her slipper did nothing to change that. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that she was carrying a lot of anger around with her. My dad used to excuse it sometimes, if it was around the anniversary of when Stuey died, or coming up to his birthday. She would go a bit quiet then, but generally, I think she had a short fuse and nine times out of ten she was just on the warpath anyway.

Sittingbourne is a small, ordinary industrial town in Kent, about forty-five miles east of London and twenty-five miles down the road from the famous Brands Hatch circuit where, one day, my dream of becoming a professional motorcycle racer would come true. It might only have been twenty-five miles in distance but, back then, as far as I was concerned, it might as well have been a million. Until I was sixteen years old, the estate was pretty much all I knew.

The first house we lived at was number 61 Prince Charles Avenue, an unremarkable two-bedroomed house on an unremarkable council estate that is split in half by the busy A2 that runs from Rochester to Dover. On one side is Snipeshill, where we lived, and on the other is Murston. Snipeshill was much like any other council estate in the Eighties: lots of kids out playing on the street while their mums hung the washing out and chatted over the garden fence, older boys roaring around in flash cars trying to impress the groups of girls that huddled around in groups on the benches and walls. For me it was a happy place, and it was home.

When Kelly came along we needed an extra room and we swapped houses with my nan and grandad, who lived directly across the road. Number 104 was a three-bedroomed semi, meaning me and Kelly got a bedroom each. Of course, poor Kelly got the box room and, me being the golden boy in the eyes of my parents, I got the biggest bedroom in the house – even bigger than Mum and Dad’s. The best thing about that house, though, was that it was right next door to the Goldsmiths.

There were three Goldsmith brothers: Steven, who was the eldest, Terry who was a year older than me, and Gary, the youngest. I got on well with the three of them, mainly because they raced BMXs and they always had the trickest bikes for miles around. Their dad Glenn kept them in tiptop shape and it was him who first taught me to ride one.

Glenn was brilliant, a proper wide boy, a real-life Del Trotter. You couldn’t help but like him, and I’d have done whatever he told me to do. My dad had been trying to teach me to ride for a bit on my own little first pushbike – we’d taken the stabilizers off but I kept crashing and getting the hump, so Glenn offered to have a go with me instead.

At the bottom of Prince Charles Avenue there was a long path that ran alongside the green, all the way down to the A2, so Glenn took me down there one day with the other lads. ‘Right, Shane,’ he said in his broad Kent accent. ‘I’m gonna teach ya how to ride this bike. What I’m gonna do is run along with ya, you just keep pedalling and I’ll be right behind ya!’

I put my head down and started pedalling with all my might, not looking back. Pretty soon the end of the path was approaching, so I panicked and put my feet down. I turned around, expecting to see Glenn, but he was miles away. My first thought was, ‘How did he run back there so quick?’ Then I realized I’d done it all myself, and I pedalled all the way back feeling absolutely made up with life. Learning to ride a bike is a big moment in any kid’s life, but to me it was absolutely everything.

I’ve been on two wheels ever since.