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Ralph Bryans

Former World Motor-Cycling Champion

Former World Motor-Cycling Champion

Born: March 7, 1941; Died: August 6, 2014

RALPH Bryans, who has died aged 73 from cancer at his Ayrshire home, was the only Ulsterman ever to be a motor-cycling, road-racing World Champion.

His father was one of the Bomber Command airmen who died on a raid over Germany, while Ralph was very young. Growing up in 1950s Belfast, the teenage Bryans became fascinated with motorbikes On leaving school, he obtained an apprenticeship as a fitter with Chambers Motors in Belfast. He was a natural mechanic and, almost as soon as he could legally ride, he sought to compete.

Still in his teens, in 1959, he forged his mother's signature on the entry form, entered the 1959 Tandragee 100 on a borrowed 200cc bike and, despite receiving a painful punishment when his mother found out, he was set on his course to greatness.

He was Irish 200cc champion in 1960, a result that marked him out as one to watch. He weighed just a little over nine stones, which made him ideal when the Italian-inspired 50cc class was granted world championship status in 1962.

Ralph entered that 1962 Isle of Man TT - the first time lightweight bikes had been allowed to ride the legendary mountain circuit - in a Benelli, prepared by the works, but entered by Irish distributor Joe Arnold. Bryans finished a creditable 15th, in what was a souped-up road bike, beating several of the 21 full works riders along the way.

In 1963, riding Nortons, he had top 10 finishes in the 350 and 500cc classes at the Ulster Grand Prix, which meant he was now "hot property", sealing a full Honda works drive in the 1964 World Championship.

With works backing, Bryans could at last show his talent as a lightweight rider. Wins in the Dutch, Belgian and German Grand Prix, plus a second place in the Isle of Man TT, earned him second place in the 1964 World Championship.

The following year was to be his best year on the world stage. He won in Germany, France and Holland, took second places in Spain and Japan and a fifth place in Belgium to ensure he would be crowned 1965 World 50cc lightweight Champion. He also finished eighth in the 125cc World Championship that year.

The following season, 1966, saw him finally stand on top of the podium on the Isle of Man, but that was his only win of the year, which he finished in second place in the 50cc World Championship. Bryans raced 250cc works Hondas in 1967, winning in Germany and in Japan, his final World Championship race. He was fourth in the World Championship that season.

One of the enduring legacies of his Honda years was a firm friendship with the legendary Mike "The Bike" Hailwood, which lasted until Hailwood's death in a road accident.

Bryans hung up his racing leathers in 1970 after 10 wins, 40 podium finishes in his 60 GPs, seven fastest laps and that World Championship.

He moved to Ayrshire, where he established Pop-On Body Panels, manufacturing, importing and distributing body panels for cars the length and breadth of the UK. As with everything he did, Ralph went full-throttle into the business, which he built into a very profitable one, operating from premises in a converted mill beside the River Doon.

However, by the early 1990s, advances in car rust-proofing, plus the difficulties in running a nationwide operation, in which the margins were closing, from the West of Scotland, forced Ralph to, reluctantly, close the business and move on to the third stage of an eventful life.

Golden Oldies racing was starting up at this time and Ralph happily globe-trotted to strut his stuff on his vintage works machines, mixing the buzz of racing with chewing the fat with old adversaries, and talking to the fans.

He was essentially a very quiet, humble man, in some ways surprised the fans still wanted to talk about the old days with him. He was never one to seek the limelight, but he always had time for the fans, although his attitude was one of: "Who's interested in me"?

Son Jason tells a great tale which demonstrates his father's natural mechanical talent. Ralph was receiving some disapproving looks at the Goodwood Speed event, as he repeatedly revved-up a rare 125cc racing bike, before switching it off and telling the increasingly concerned mechanic: "One of the valves is sticking."

The engine was stripped down and, sure enough, the sticking valve was spotted and sorted.

Away from the track, back in his adopted Ayrshire home, he enjoyed golf, curling, lawn bowling and sea angling.

He had married childhood sweetheart Sally but, as often happens, over the years they drifted apart, before divorcing in the mid-1980s. He went on to find love again with Jean, but, following her death in 2010, things went downhill.

He was diagnosed with throat cancer, which he fought heroically, before secondary lung cancer made his final few months extremely difficult. However, as in everything he did, he faced this final illness with true courage and quiet dignity. Ralph Bryans never complained.

He had joined Opportunities In Retirement in Ayr, and enjoyed his weekly ten-pin bowling with the Lane Five A Team at Ayr's LA Bowl every Wednesday morning.

The competitive juices were still flowing among a group of friends, of whom it was said: "The mind games are so full-on with that lot, Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't compete". However, latterly, as his cancer claimed him, he had to swap from his own 15lb bowl to a lighter "stock" one.

On his final ten-pin outing, by now worryingly thin, Ralph finished strike, strike, nine, spare - he was competitive right to the end.

He is survived by Sally and his children Jason and Denise.

Only 12 riders from the British Isles have ever been crowned World Champion on a road-racing motorbike; of these, Bryans is unique - as the only one to have been born in Ireland, rather than on mainland Great Britain.

Bryans was cremated at Ayr's Masonhill Crematorium on August 21. The service was followed by a traditional Irish-style wake in an Ayr hotel.

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