‘MY MUM AND DAD TRIED TO STOP ME FROM RACING’
Leon talks youth motocross, injuries, racing, NSR500S and touring on Harleys
Can you recall a time before bikes?
No, I can’t remember anything other than being around racing! I was six weeks old when I was taken to my first Grand Prix. I got my first bike when I was four – a little Honda QR50 that I rode round the paddock on.
When did you first start competing?
When my dad came back to race in the UK in 1990 I started doing schoolboy motocross on a Kawasaki KX60. I lost two British championships because of broken legs but I finally became British Youth Motocross Champion in 1996 before moving to tarmac and winning the Gilera Scooter National Championship the following year. I still hold the scooter lap record at Mallory with an average speed of over 90mph!
Did your mum ever worry about you racing?
She still does! Both my mum and dad tried to stop me from racing when I was doing motocross because I broke my leg two years running and very nearly lost my leg the second time. Dad told me he couldn’t afford to fund my racing any longer and I got so upset – despite lying in a hospital bed with pins and plates in my leg – that my parents finally realised that I really wanted it badly. Since then, they’ve both been behind me 100%.
What was your first road bike?
As soon as I was 16 I signed a deal to race in 125cc Grand Prix for Italjet but I was also attending night college to study sports, science and psychology, and I sat my CBT on a 50cc Honda – I can’t remember exactly what model it was – and used that to ride to college on. But it only lasted six months because I moved to Italy to be closer to the team. I didn’t actually sit my full licence until I came back from doing Grand Prix racing in 2004.
Do racers ride much on the road while they’re still racing?
Between racing and testing and doing my dad’s race school, I didn’t feel the need to ride on the road so much in the early years, but now I always have a bike for summer and really enjoy riding with friends, touring around Italy or Ireland. I’m actually very sensible on the road. I’ve just picked up a ZX-10R road bike from Kawasaki but I’ve ridden every kind of bike on the road. I used to rent a big two-ton Harley-davidson when I was living in Italy. I like my touring bikes too. When I was with BMW I had an R1200GS and when I was at Ducati I picked a Monster rather than a sportsbike.
What bikes do you currently have?
I’ve got my Kawasaki ZX-10R, a Kawasaki KX250 motocrosser that I use for training, I’ve also got a 450 Honda hybrid thing that I’ve turned into a flat-tracker – a CRF450 Honda engine with a Yamaha R1 front end. I’ve got a couple of trials bikes, a Gas Gas and a Montesa, I’ve got two Kawasaki KLX110S, one for the dirt and one that I’ve turned into a Supermotard bike that I use a lot for training.
Any bike you’d really love to own above all others?
One of the latest Motogp bikes would be the ultimate, but that’s just from a performance point of view. You’ve got to consider history too. I got to ride my dad’s 1985 Rothmans Honda NSR500 at Goodwood one year and I’d really love to own one of those.
What’s the best biking experience you’ve had?
I did a three-day tour with Troy Corser on my BMW GS in Australia in 2011. We did over 1000km, on and off-road, and it actually shocked me how good the bike was. I was getting my knee down on the road, Troy was pulling wheelies for about five miles at a time, then we’d be in the mountains and in the snow – places where I’d normally only take an enduro bike, but the GS was up to it all. I’m good at my motocross, I’m good at enduro, and I’m good at road racing and that bike could do the lot. For me, that was a real eye-opener.