In any walk of life which can be boiled down to competition, only a select few will ever rise above the rest to truly elite level.
Ripley’s newest world title holder has endured the struggles of any worthy champion and overcome them all in a race which took years and was won by a whisker.
Michael Wallage, 56, was crowned winner of the natural sideburns category at the 2017 Remington Beard Boss World Beard & Moustache Championships in Austin, Texas, on September 1.
He said: “I know it’s quite a niche thing, but how many people get to take a world title? I’m absolutely made up.
“I nearly fell off the stage when they announced it. I cried. This is what I set out to do when I first started growing it. It’s out of this world.”
Michael’s journey to the top began with a close shave - a road accident 13 years ago which he was lucky to survive, but which left him with serious injuries and confined to long spells in a wheelchair.
He said: “I was a body builder before that, and obviously couldn’t carry on after. It was life-changing, and it wasn’t clear I would walk again.
“I required nine major operations over ten years, at one point they talked about amputating my leg, and I still have a degree of disability.”
Life changed again while Michael was sat watching television about six years ago.
He said: “I saw a programme called Whisker Wars. I’ve had facial hair for most of my life, and I just thought it was something I could do.
“I met the president of the British Beard Club and he suggested sideburns might be my best opportunity. You’ve got to go with what suits your face. After that it takes a lot of patience, and the more involved you get, the more hard work there is.”
Michael spends around 45 minutes every day, washing,treating, combing, brushing, oiling and balming.
But that is not the key ingredient in his success: “My wife Kay can’t get near the mirror, but I wouldn’t be here without her support. All those days when I was in a wheelchair and she had to get me dressed for competitions, she’s been an absolute rock.”
Austin was his third world championship, having placed eighth and sixth in the two previous championships in Germany and Austria.
This year’s event was judged to be the biggest beard and moutstache competition in history by Guinness World Records adjudicators.
Nearly 1,000 people travelled from 37 countries on six continents, plus a satellite link with Antartica, to compete in 27 categories for natural and ‘creative’ hair displays.
Michael, whose trip to the States was funded by his sponsor Beardilizer, said: “The hair is the main thing: length, condition, compliance with the rules; but it’s like Crufts - whatever category you’re competing in, the judges really want you to put on a show. You have to be a bit of an extrovert with it.
“This was the toughest chops categories I’ve ever competed in. When they read out second place before announcing the winner, I thought: ‘That’s me scuppered’.”
In fact, the runner-up was Michael’s nemesis, Patrick Quinn with whom he shares a long-running battle.
Michael said: “I felt sorry for him. It’s a friendly rivalry really. There’s a serious element to it, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
“That’s the beauty of competitive bearding, it’s like an extended family. Race, gender, sexuality, politics, they all go out the window.”
He added: “99 per cent of these events are not for profit, and all the money raised will usually go to charity. That’s what we’re all about.”
The best of British bearding will be in Ripley for an open contest at the Thorn Tree Inn on November 25, in aid of the Beating Bowel Cancer charity’s Decembeard campaign.
Beyond that, Michael has not yet thought what to do with his new status: “The world title was the ultimate goal. I don’t know what’s next, but I’d like to hang on to it if I can.”