James Toseland was a two-time Superbike World Champion when a wrist injury forced his retirement. He spoke with Chris Broom about how it enabled him to return to his first love – music.
For years, in between winning races on the international motorcycle racing circuit, James Toseland was often found entertaining his fellow riders and the public on site by playing piano with his band.
He even tinkled the ivories live on TV during the 2007 BBC Sports Personality of the Year show.
However, as the result of a crash during a race in Aragon, Spain, in 2011, he was forced to retire from the sport he loved and had been competing in professionally since he was just 16.
He recalls: ‘It was devastating, it wasn’t very nice at all.
‘The initial crash that I sustained the wrist injury in was nothing compared to other crashes I had had in my career. But unfortunately the injury meant that I couldn’t bend my wrist so I couldn’t twist the throttle, and that made the decision for me, unfortunately.
‘I had a couple of dark weeks after that when it sank in that I couldn’t ride competitively, and then that sat me at my piano, because that was always what I did for relief.
‘So then it became: why don’t I go back to trying to be a professional musician? I made the decision pretty quickly because it was a lonely time not having anything else to wake up for.
‘It was bit of a curveball, but as soon as I couldn’t ride any more, I knew it was the only thing I wanted to do.’
Toseland has since written his debut album, Renegade, pulled together a hard-rocking band that takes his surname and, after playing at numerous festivals and in several high-profile support slots (Status Quo, Aerosmith), is about to embark on his first headlining tour – which starts at the Wedgewood Rooms in Southsea on September 21.
But his love of music came long before the bikes. He explains: ‘My mum and dad divorced when I was young and I lived with my grandparents. My gran plays the piano, so I was studying from around the age of six or seven, and I started having private lessons at about eight.
‘A couple of years later my mum had a new boyfriend and he had a motorbike – and it all went a bit pear-shaped from there on in,’ he laughs at the memory.
‘But I kept up the lessons until I was about 16 – I did all the grades and all that. Then at 16 I got a contract to ride a motorbike around the world at a world championship level.
‘I had a good career out of it – 17 years. I was dedicated to the piano though up until when this guy turned up. I didn’t even know what a motorbike was before then.’
Speaking with Toseland, while he’s perfectly friendly, you can feel the steely determination that steered him to his two Superbike titles in 2004 and 2007, and which he is now applying to his music.
‘Because I did the racing at such a high level,’ he explains, ‘you either do two things good, or one thing bloody good, and that was the decision I made.
‘But luckily because of all the practice I had put in before, I had got to a certain level of piano playing that I wasn’t going to forget.
‘And then I had a covers band for about 10 years as I was riding. And it was pretty much just an extra part of the show to the motorcycle events. We would play on Friday and Saturday nights to the riders and campers.’
When it came to writing and recording his debut album, Toseland was mentored by Toby Jepson, the former frontman of successful ’80s and ’90s UK rock band Little Angels.
But the two were unfamiliar with each other’s work before a mutual friend brought them together: ‘I had a phone call that I was making to a vocal coach I know in London. He asked me what I was doing now, and I said I was retired and wanted to make a rock album, so he put me in touch with Toby – we jumped on a train together and went up there, and he introduced me.
‘It took a little while for us to click. He didn’t get the concept at first, like most people – going from being a motorcycle rider to a rock singer. He knows first-hand how difficult it is, even when you get your stripes because he’s been right at the top.
‘He gave me a song, said to go away and learn to play that on piano and sing it, and we’ll see if we can work together.
‘And that’s what happened, I took it away and learned it and he said: “Oh, we’ve got something there...”’
Even though Toseland was used to high pressure situations on the race track, his new career still gives him nerves.
‘It was actually less daunting on the track,’ he says. ‘Because I was the only British guy in the world championship at that point, everyone was looking at me on the grid and expecting. But when you’re going past at 200mph, they’re just a blur.
‘But going out on stage in front of thousands of people and seeing the whites of their eyes is much more daunting.
‘The nerves I had before racing, the stakes were that you have the chance to become the best in the world, it would be difficult to describe. But performing is up there, and to have the similar feeling backstage, it’s a real privilege to do a job that I enjoy as much as the racing. It’s a real buzz.’
And he has even got his brother-in-law, Zurab Melua, in his band on guitar – he married singer-songwriter Katie Melua in 2012 .
‘I took my mum to Katie’s concert in Sheffield, because she’s a big fan, and that’s where I’m from originally.
‘Katie’s piano player is a massive bike fan. He saw me in the crowd, so he e-mailed me and invited me to come and meet the band. I met my wife and got my lead guitarist out of it, so that worked out nicely.’
...Toby’s band, Little Angels.
I was on stage with them at Download when they reformed in 2012, and then I toured with them on their final tour – we’re very close now.
...playing music with Katie.
The genres we play are really different, so that will never cross over. But just at home when she’s writing and I’m writing, because I’m a piano player and she’s a guitarist, it’s nice to experiment with each other.
...attempting the motorcycle landspeed record.
We start testing soon. I’m going to try to be the first person to go over 400mph. I don’t need my wrist – I can do it on my foot. And it’s another chance to be the best in the world.