|From an Aussie paper last
year....in retrospect, Barry did it his way, sadly he lost the
battle 9 March 2003
Bazza's biggest race
September 15 2002
For Barry Sheene, cancer is just another opponent to thrash.
Sue Mott reports. (The Age Newspaper)
The last time I had seen Barry Sheene he was selling Brut
aftershave to the masses on television in the early 1980s. I know.
I bought some. "Pungent", my mother called it with visible
restraint. The world 500cc motorcycling champion (twice) was the
perfect advertising vehicle. Machismo on hot wheels with
irresistible cheek. Men loved him for his sprockets (etc) and
travelling at 200 mph. Women loved him, often going beyond the
metaphysical boundary to prove it. He lost his virginity, he once
claimed, at the age of 14 on a snooker table in the crypt of St
Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
This time I am seeing Barry Sheene as a cancer patient. Not
that "patient" is the word. He was 52 on September 11. You
wouldn't think so. He looks exactly the same, chirpiness
personified on two oft-reassembled legs. Only thinner, due to a
recent diet that consisted entirely of beetroot, Chinese cabbage,
carrot and radish juice. He is fighting this disease the "natural"
"I don't want to have chemotherapy. Anybody I've ever known
who's had it has been, basically, completely destroyed. I can't
let someone put an IV drip in my arm and inject me with poison.
I've seen friends of mine after chemo. They look like dead people
who can still talk."
He is saying this amicably, reasonably, vehemently in the car
taking him to Heathrow. Back to his home in Australia, via Los
Angeles, with his wife, Stephanie, to continue the fight he has no
intention of losing. "I am not prepared to entertain the thought
that it's going to kill me."
Typical of a man who danced with danger on two wheels and
broke, famously, almost every bone in his skeletal arrangement.
"Nah, I didn't," he said modestly, while telling the driver to
"nip up right, mate, where that little Golf's going" and asking:
"Could you turn the blower down to one, please? Luvly. Thanks
pal." He is not a natural passenger.
All right, he didn't break every bone. There must be the odd
bit of unadulterated calcium in his small, sharp, lively frame.
But in 1975, a blown rear tyre caused him to crash at 280kmh
during practice for the Daytona 200 in Florida, shattering his
left leg, smashing a thigh, breaking six ribs, fracturing a wrist,
and wrecking his collarbone. He woke up in hospital and asked the
nurse for "a fag".
His favourite story is of the properly spoken BBC interviewer
who asked him what was going through his mind at the moment of
impact. "Your arse, if you're going fast enough," said Sheene
delightedly into the microphone.
In 1982, already the double world champion, he crashed at
Silverstone during practice for the British Grand Prix ("Wasn't my
fault; came over a hill and there was a wreck right in front of
me") and turned his legs into a "jigsaw puzzle" for a surgeon to
spend eight hours realigning. Two 18-centimetre pillars of
stainless steel, two 13-centimetre plates and 26 steel screws
later, he had a pair of legs again. They told him it would take
three months to bend his knees to an angle of 90 degrees. It took
him two weeks and four days to manage 110 degrees.
This is the willpower he takes into his forthcoming battle. I
told him that he seemed fearless. "What, me? No. I'm a right old
Mary. But I've no respect for this shitty disease. I'm not going
to give it any space in my life. I am going to do everything in my
power to get rid of it the natural way.
"I've refused the operation. I don't want to be opened up and
have the best part of my stomach cut away and my oesophagus
removed so that forever more, if ever I bent over to tie my
shoelaces, everything I'd just eaten would end up all over the
floor. That's not quality of life. I don't want my children to see
me in that state."
His two children, Sidonie, 17, and Freddie, 13, are at boarding
school in Melbourne. Telling them about the disease was the
hardest part. "I took them out of school and they bounced in
saying, 'How great is this, Dad!' Then I had to sit down and tell
them. It was horrible. I was a little economical with the truth
but I did tell them basically what was happening. At times like
this, you suddenly realise how much you mean to your children.
Usually it's, 'Oh, Dad, you're such a dork!' It was terrible and
incredibly touching at the same time."
Sheene discovered he had cancer of the stomach and the
oesophagus earlier this year, after the British Grand Prix at
Donington Park (where he won previously), when he had trouble
swallowing his food. "I got home to Australia and my mate sent me
to a doctor. I had an endoscopy. I came round from the anaesthetic,
got dressed and then Steph and I went into the doctor's office.
'Bloody 'ell, Baz, it's cancer,' he said. Best way to tell me.
Straight out with it," Sheene said.
"He can't do anything simple. He has to go the full monty,"
observed Stephanie, a former model, with affectionate exasperation
from the front seat. She met him when he was on crutches in 1975.
She was with her first husband at the time, ironically a huge
Sheene fan. "He wasn't too impressed, actually," she said.
She and Sheene had a trial separation once, about five years
ago. But it was hopeless. She only moved round the corner from the
home they had built together in Surfers Paradise. Going back to
one of nature's charismatics wasn't that difficult a decision.
At every age Sheene seems to have been blessed with courage,
audacity and the humility to see through the distorting veil of
fame. "All I was doing was racing a bloody motorbike," he said. "I
can't stand people who are legends in their own lunchtime. I'm the
sort of bloke who, if you've got time for me, I've got time for
you. I remember in the old days, after I'd won the world title,
I'd sit on the end of a lorry at some race meeting talking for an
hour to a 10-year-old if he wanted to."
He loved that life. Racing, winning, clubbing, drinking,
smoking, especially Gauloises. "And before I met Steph, it was
great for crumpet."
He was friends with James Hunt, Ringo Starr and George
Harrison, who persuaded him to try Australia, a place he had never
countenanced on the grounds that it was where his mechanics came
from, "and I never wanted to go near the place that made them".
Sheene saw through the gimmick of status before he was old
enough for secondary school. His father Frank was an engineer at
the Royal College of Surgeons in London and, as young as 10,
little Barry was parking the Jaguars and Rolls-Royces of the
eminent consultants. He remembers the one old curmudgeon who
wouldn't let a mere kid near his expensive machine - then promptly
tore off its wing mirror himself.
"Sir Somebody-or-other walked up to him and said, 'That kid's
been parking my car for years,' " Sheene grinned. Demolishing
pomposity has been the sub-plot of his life.
Sheene's father was a fine mechanic who dabbled in racing
himself and gave Barry a Ducati 50cc bike when he was just five.
Sheene entered his first race at 17 at Brands Hatch. Crashed.
Entered again the next weekend. And won. The pattern was set.
Contrary to his image (and X-rays), he has always considered
himself a careful driver. I must admit I cracked up at that one as
we proceeded in a stately fashion down the M4. He looked puzzled.
How could I doubt him? Well, it must be the noise he makes when
you shake him. All clanking plates and loosened joints, he must
rattle like a tin of ball bearings.
"No," he said impatiently. "I just broke a lot of bones all in
a big hurry. My problem was, I had the fastest crashes in the
history of motorbike racing. It made it look worse than it was. I
once went three years and never fell off at all. And I used to
race about 50 times a year." He paused for dramatic effect.
"Actually, I am a very safe driver."
He told me what he drives these days. A Mercedes when he is in
London. And this year, he achieved a lifetime ambition, of buying
himself an Agusta 109C eight-seater helicopter, which he pilots
"It's lovely," he said with the same misty-eyed wistfulness
that mothers reserve for their newborn babies.
His mood alters when he remembers alleged injustice. At his
sudden discovery of cancer. That, he acknowledges, could be
anyone's fate. His ire is currently focused on the Royal Bank of
Scotland, which, he alleges, has cost him £50,000 ($140,000) in
missing interest after a money transfer that took over-long to
take place between Britain and Australia. He is after the culprits
and keen for them to know that his current illness will have no
bearing on his effectiveness. As yet, they have not returned his
His positive attitude imbues every thought and every sinew. His
weight has dropped from nearly 70 kilograms to 62 kilograms. Ten
centimetres have gone from his chest measurement, such was his
devotion to his vegetable juice diet to boost his immune system.
Despite that, when he rode at the Goodwood Festival last weekend,
he won one race and finished second to Wayne Gardner. "By," he
told me with vehemence, "one one-thousandth of a second."
I am looking at an indefatigable winner with a '70s haircut. He
believes he will survive this illness. "I don't wave a Bible
around but I've always believed in God. He's looked after me in
the past, I reckon he'll look after me again. I'm not ready to go.
I'm afraid I might miss something. And when I do get better I'm
going to spend my money going round the world telling people there
is an alternative way to recover. You don't have to be cut open or
poisoned to survive."
He walked through departures at Heathrow, with a smile and a
jaunty wave. It made you think of the line the Queen used when she
presented him with his MBE in 1978. "Now you be careful, young
man," she said.