“You never think of the danger, you only think about it when you’re in the hospital bed, thinking, ‘Why do I do this?’
“And then the pain goes away and you can’t wait to get back on the bike. And you never think it’s going to happen to you.”
Robert Dunlop with sons Michael and William - road motorcycle racers all
There are two reasons why this conversation with William Dunlop is particularly striking. The first is that he is sitting with me, with his leg – broken in two places – still in plaster, crutches to the side, following a crash at the TT only a week ago, an incident he plays down – “it sounds more dramatic than it was.” But he was airlifted from the road? “Ah, there’s always a helicopter, so the race can carry on.”
‘Road’ is a film that attempts to capture the thrill, the speed, the power and the difficulty of racing a bike around normal corners at speeds up to 150 miles per hour.
That was William Dunlop’s intention, anyway, in taking part in the film… “It’d be nice for people to see how hard it is to get where we’ve got to, with no rewards,” he says, reasonably enough.
“It’s sickening to see the likes of Rory McIlrory swinging a golf club about, and I’m in a rented house because I can’t afford to buy.”
Robert Dunlop with his brother, TT legend Joey Dunlop
But any film about the Dunlops is necessarily not just tinged, but saturated, with tragedy – telling the story of how first Joey, then Robert, mastered their sport but gave their lives for it in turn.
The film’s most telling moment is 2008, when Robert Dunlop crashed in practice at the North West 200 and succumbed to his injuries. His sons were both racing with him that Thursday, and both were told to retire from the competition – “unfit to race”, which would have been a fair assessment by any race director.
Come the Saturday, and both boys were lined up on the track, determined to finish. And it was Michael who pulled off a victory that was as emotional as daring, and rapturously received by the crowd.
William Dunlop, the more laid-back of the two brothers, was initially less sure of his place in the family business. As a teenager, he was busy “failing to be a footballer” and it was only the reaction – national grief, local heroism - to his uncle Joey’s death that caused him to think about getting on a bike.
Two days after their father's death, Michael and William Dunlop were back on the road
“I didn’t even know Joey, I’d never spoken to him or seen him,” he tells me. “I still don’t know to this day why I tried it. Everyone thinks we were born into it, but we weren’t.”
While his brother climbs to ever greater glory in the sport, William clearly remains ambivalent about his chosen profession.
“I don’t know what I get from it to be honest,” he admits.
“I quite enjoyed it at the start, there was no pressure. But now I’m quite high up, the fun’s not there, it’s a job.” He shrugs. “I’m at the stage now, I couldn’t do anything else.
“I can see myself doing it for a long time. You get to a certain age, you go downhill, and I think I’ll get more enjoyment again then. Winning’s good but it comes at a price.”
For William, this price seems to be at the expense of friends and a social life that should be the bloodline of any good-humoured Irish lad – “it’s just my brother and me, so if we fall out, I actually do have nobody” – but his words do have a jarring ring, bearing in mind what went before.
Evidently not given to too much introspection on the burden of the legacy on his and his brother’s shoulders, William’s sporting heroes, it turns out, are actually footballers, David Ginola, Teddy Sheringham, team players all.
And his own father, he mentions in passing, on the subject of Robert’s terrible injuries sustained early in his career – a leg that nearly had to go, an arm whose nerve endings were all smashed – but only strengthened his determination to get back on the bike.
“Now when I look at it, it’s more likely to be my dad,” says William. “Now I’ve had a taste of what he went through, and how hard it is.
“People are saying I’m unbelievable because I’m knocking about with a broken leg, and that’s nothing compared with what he went through. And now I’m more aware than I ever was.”
'Road' is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer above...