Meathman's Diary: Riding on the edge of life and death

In the shadow of the Seven Arches on Academy St, the ear-splitting revs of a high powered motorcycle engine broke through the peaceful calm of a sunny Thursday Navan afternoon. The lone rider was giving the signal for the hearse carrying the remains of Jack Oliver to depart on the long, last journey home to Limavady, Co Derry.

Dozens more bikers joined the cortege providing a poignant guard of honour for 'Wee Jackie' and his family for the saddest of send-offs. Jack - just a tender 22-years-of-age - died competing at the Kells Road Races last Sunday sending shockwaves through the sport and beyond.

It can be hard to comprehend the risks these teak tough competitors take each time they pull the visors down and line up on a starting grid.

How can anyone want to travel at speeds of up to 120mph with just a sliver of rubber connecting 750cc's of machinery with asphalt? Why would anyone want to take part in a 'sport' where one missed apex, one misjudged bend or mistimed corner can hold catastrophic consequences.

For those of us outside the sport, this writer included, those would be reasonable questions, especially in the wake of this latest tragedy last Sunday week..

Ironically, Jack had participated in the Alan Bonner Memorial Race before the one that claimed his life. Talented Stamullen rider Alan, was just 33 in 2017 when he lost his life at the Isle of Man TT, one of three fatalities at the island circuit that year.

In the wake of that triple tragedy and so many others before and since, calls to ban motorcycle road racing were amplified. The simple truth of the matter is, as Jack's brother Robbie stated: they died "doing what they loved".

If ever a story personified just what the sport means to those who live it, look back at the tale of the 2008 North West 200 when a 19-year-old Michael Dunlop, still reeling from the death of his father Robert, less than two days previously on the same circuit during practice, went out and won the race to pay the ultimate tribute to his dad and to his legendary uncle, Joey Dunlop, who died in a crash while competing in a race in Estonia in July 2000.

The tension in the build up to that 2008 North West 200 was palpable. Michael and brother William defied organisers to race and were hustled on to the track by supporters determined to let the grieving boys ride.

William stalled on the grid and never got going, Michael however, went on to stage one of the greatest pieces of sporting theatre ever seen, blistering through the scenic towns of Portrush and Coleraine to come home first to scenes of unbridled joy and outpouring of raw emotion.

Michael dropped to the ground at the finishing line, both he and William locked in a bond of pride, joy, grief and belief that the decisions they took were the absolute right ones.

Ten years later, in July 2018, William would lose his life while competing in the Skerries 100.

Joey, Robert and William Dunlop, Alan Bonner, Wee Jackie Oliver, they all died doing what they loved, it's as simple and as insane and as ordinary as that.

May they all rest in peace.