LEE RICHARDSON was a speedway rider you could not help liking.
He had an effortless style on the bike, was a winner at club and individual level and was one of England’s finest.
He shone on the track and off it too. Lee Richardson always had time for people: fellow riders, the fans, the press and, being a family man, always made children feel special when they asked for his autograph or a photograph.
When considering what to right for this column, I took into account views of friends. How would we sum up Lee? Well, ‘classy’ was a word that came back time again. Rico had class – on the bike and off the bike.
His racing style was a joy to watch. Generally fast out of the traps, he had the knack of reeling off four perfect laps with each corner the same as the last time around. You always felt Rico was in total control, even when racing wheel-to-wheel and elbow-to-elbow.
Some riders race on the ragged edge, flirting with the safety fence at nearly every opportunity. That wasn’t Lee Richardson’s style.
Yes, Lee was classy.
It is worth looking back at his record and why he was one of England’s top riders.
World U21 Champion in 1999;
Elite League Riders’ Champion 2003;
League championship winner (Reading) 1997;
KO Cup winner (Reading) 1998, (Eastbourne) 2008 and (Lakeside) 2009.
That’s in the UK but the fact that he made a success of riding in Poland marks him out as something special. The Polish League is the toughest in the world. Racing is in front of packed stadiums and the club owners pay the riders big money but allow no room for failure.
Under such a harsh spotlight, many riders from across Europe have wilted but Richardson was invited back year after year.
He raced with the best in the world, in the world’s toughest league and was not found wanting.
Obviously, Rico’s death has hit the sport hard. It goes without saying that speedway is hazardous: 500cc motorbikes racing around a loose surface, boarded by a safety fence. And those speedway bikes have no brakes.
All the riders accept the dangers as being part and parcel of the sport.
In recent years, safety measures have improved dramatically as they have in all motor sports and track deaths have – thankfully – become fewer and fewer. It makes it all the more a shock when a rider dies – especially one at the very top.
It is worth pointing out that there seems to have been a spate of serious injuries this year: Gary Havelock, Chris Neath, Morten Risager and the Eagles’ Joonas Kylmakorpi were all badly hurt in the opening weeks of the season.
I don’t believe that it’s a trend – perhaps just one of those things – but we did not expect a rider would come to a meeting and never return home to his family.
Speedway fans and riders were united. Of course, we are partisan and ‘big up our team and our favourite riders.
All that was instantly put to one side once the tragic news from Poland came through on Sunday evening.
The speedway family went into mourning with people’s thoughts quite rightly turning to the widow and children who have been left.
Eastbourne fans naturally feel his death all the more – Rico was a son of Sussex and his family had such a close relationship with the Eagles over many years.
He was hero when he led the team to beat Poole for the KO Cup. After that he moved on and a section of the crowd would boo him when he returned for Lakeside.
What you should read into that is this: crowds only boo good riders and he was good (very good) but he was now riding for Lakeside, our nearest rivals.
The booing was all part of that tribal partisanship that goes towards making up team sports. It was not personal. If he came back the following week as a guest for the Eagles, he would be cheered.
Arlington will fall silent tomorrow night in his memory with tears in many eyes and running down the cheeks of some.
Other Eastbourne news in brief
Eastbourne v Swindon, tomorrow (Saturday) at 7.30pm with Scott Nicholls guesting for the Eagles in place off Kyolmakorpi.
TVs in the club room and upstairs bar for any fans wanting to keep an eye on Chelsea in soccer’s Champions League Final.
Fixture changes: Belle Vue v Eastbourne, May 21.
Eastbourne’s hopes of finding a replacement for the injured Kylmakorpi continue to hit a brick wall.
Team manager Trevor Geer said: “Unfortunately, so far we have been turned down. These riders have prior commitments and are unable to change their existing commitments to come to Eastbourne either on a short-term or longer basis.
“I have not given up on trying to bring in someone but it is not easy. We are doing our best but so far we have not had any success.”