“The patio in my back garden is about 3m x 3m. I was out there doing turns on the bike just to prove I could do it. There’s no-one else there, I was on my own. That’s how it is, you have to push yourself.”
From 1996 to 1998, Paul Hanks, from Brandon, was UK number one in cross country mountain biking. He was 19, a professional athlete training with Olympic Gold medallist Chris Boardman and preparing for the Sydney Olympics at the turn of the millennium.
But before that dream could be fulfilled his hopes were shattered when, in 1999, he was hit by a car while training in Thetford and his back was broken.
An aborted comeback attempt only served to prove that his mountain biking career was over. In 2003, his obsessive personality found a new vice: Motorbikes.
A few track days in and he was addicted, only for reality to intervene again.
“In 2004 I bought a new motorbike and took it out to a mate’s in Lavenham. I knew the roads like the back of my hand and because it was so new, you couldn’t take it above certain speeds. It was only three hours old when I got hit head on.”
This time was worse – a metal plate in the wrist, a broken sternum and four cracked vertebrae. He spent two weeks in West Suffolk Hospital,in Bury St Edmunds, and two months in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
Paul, now 32, looks back on those experiences with the sanguine attitude you would expect from someone who is now one of the world’s top motorbike stunt riders. Once you have broken your back twice, what left is there to worry you?
As we talk he mentions that
doctors think he might currently have a broken sternum. The night before he was doing forward flips off the front of his bike.
From topping the mountain biking scene, Paul is now quickly ascending to the top of the stunt riding world. He uses a 600cc Triumph Street Triple R; a slightly less powerful version of the types of bike seen snaking their way joyfully through Suffolk roads on bank holiday weekends like this one.
Spurred on by friends’ success and his own competitive spirit, Paul took up stunt riding at the beginning of 2008. The obsessive sportsman in him came out. Incessant practice, scores of shows and a seeming absence of fear have put him at the vanguard of the profession.
It has not taken long for him to be noticed. In June, Paul makes his movie debut in the Hollywood blockbuster, Captain America.
At audition, the producers liked what they saw:
“I don’t think they were expecting too much. The director, Joe Johnston, was there. They said they had never seen anything like it, they were just blown away.”
Paul’s complete control over the bike is certainly impressive. His array of tricks includes a variety of wheelies – with legs over the handlebars, while spinning backwards, with one hand in the air and even with a passenger on board. But he confesses that he could now do those tricks blindfold – literally, you have to assume – and he now wants the world record for ‘the stoppie’, a trick he describes as ‘the riskiest a rider can do’.
The stoppie looks like an inverted wheelie. The rider, from a standing start, builds up speed – they tend to hit around 120mph – before applying the front brake, forcing the back wheel to leave the road.
The aim is to get the bike to travel as far as possible on the front wheel alone, with the current record standing at more than 1,000ft.
Anyone who has accidentally pulled the front brake at speed on a bicycle can imagine the dangers.
The stoppie is the one trick that Paul admits holding fears over, but facing challenges is what he is all about. Breaking Hollywood must seem tame in comparison.
“Riding is what I live for at the moment, I love it, I love the fact that I am able to push myself all the time. It’s a good job to be in.”