When the former Formula One world champion Nigel Mansell retired in 1995, he was putting behind him a career that had brought him injuries ranging from a broken neck and spinal concussion to fractured vertebrae and burnt buttocks. So it’s a surprise to hear him say that distance cycling, his new passion, is “the toughest sport I have ever known”.
Mansell is talking as we prepare to head off for a ride near his home in Jersey, where he has lived for 15 years. “It’s tougher from the point of view of the hurt locker [injuries] and the hours of sitting in agony on a bike, just churning the speed and staying out of trouble,” he says. “There are very few moments you can properly relax. Motor racing is intense, but you know in two hours that you’re going to get the chequered flag.”
Indeed, the ambitions for our trip have had to be curtailed because of lingering pain from yet another Mansell injury: a fractured collarbone picked up less than two weeks before he went ahead and cycled 1,320 miles from John O’Groats to Paris. In 11 days. So my sense of looming shame at failing to match such powerful legs evaporates when he suggests we shorten our ride. I happily agree. “Perfect,” he says. “You’re my hero now.”
Rather than tackle the island’s steep hills, we set off along a gentler coastal path. But Mansell, who is 59, still shows flashes of the pace required for competitive distance cycling, as I wobble around trying to find some stability on a bike that is so light I can almost lift it with two fingers. It’s clear he’s in pain – even the pressure from the shoulder strap of his Lycra cycling dungarees causes him to wince.
“The doctors said there was no way I should have done it,” he says of the John O’Groats-Paris ride, which was in aid of UK Youth, the charity of which he is president. “After a few days I stopped taking the painkillers because they upset my stomach, and, although it was dangerous, I rode a long way with just one arm.
“One of the worst moments was when we came up over Shap [the notorious Cumbrian pass], at 4C with the rain coming sideways. It was horrendous. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. We were braking – full brakes – and the slowest we could slow down to was 40 kmph. How we didn’t die that day I don’t know.”
Mansell says that it takes five years for professional road cyclists to build their legs up to strength. The high-tech kit is both expensive and fiendishly uncomfortable. While Mansell, who holds the record for the most Grand Prix wins by a British driver, glides along, I cannot get to grips with a seat that feels as though it was designed with torture in mind.
In 2010, Mansell set up a professional cycle racing squad for UK Youth. He doesn’t compete – “Absolutely not! Maybe for 10 seconds, then I’d die!” – but undertakes one-off rides to raise money for the charity, which promotes non-formal learning among disadvantaged children. “I do it for all the great kids in the country who are not in employment or education, who need a leg up,” he says. “I was one of these children years ago … I didn’t have opportunity. I have really quite dreadful memories of school, from bullying to all sorts of things I don’t wish to even think about.”
Having fought his way into Formula One, Mansell says his career was dogged by senior figures within the sport who believed he would never win. “They were saying, ‘you might as well pack up now, you’ll never come to anything.’” This only increased his determination – he once fainted as he pushed his broken car over the finish line to salvage a point – and he won the world championship at his 12th attempt, in 1992. However, he fell out with his team and moved to America, winning the prestigious IndyCar title at his first try the following year. As the Formula One season had yet to finish, it meant he made history by holding two world titles simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The only disappointment I have is not having had the opportunity to defend the Formula One world championship in the manner I won it,” he says. “But it opened another door in America, and I made history that probably will never be broken. It was an extraordinary lifestyle and career. I was very blessed driving for Lotus, then Williams and Ferrari and, for a short time, McLaren; such a wonderful cross-section of teams.”
Twice a winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, his popularity is still such that during our ride, a tourist bus slows down as it passes – Mansell waves to the faces pressed at the window. Five minutes later it swings past again, this time the faces replaced by cameras.
Although Mansell can occasionally be found in the Formula One paddock acting as chief steward, what he likes to talk about most is how to create the perfect cycling team. “To have a fantastic cycling team you have to have climbers, sprinters and what I call workhorses with strong engines to pull the team along,” he says. So how would he describe himself? “Me? Well, erm, I’m a powerhouse on the flat. And downhill I’m dangerous,” he laughs, “because with the extra weight I’ve got I fly down!”
So will he be tackling another epic? “I’d love to,” he says. “I have a big birthday this year and friends are saying we need to ride to the four highest mountains in England and Scotland and climb them. It would be four to six days, nonstop. I’m saying to them, ‘are you trying to kill me? I don’t want an epitaph!’”
For more information visit www.teamukyouth.co.uk