Would you quit your job and tap your life savings to pursue a life-long dream? That’s just what journalist Mark Gardiner did when he raced the legendary Isle of Man TT, chronicled in his biographical book Riding Man.
How much would you risk to pursue a life-long ambition? Motojournalist Mark Gardiner answered that question for himself, when in middle age he quit his job and sunk his life savings into racing the legendary Isle of Man TT. It is an interesting story which Gardiner chronicles in the well-written autobiographical paperback Riding Man.
We met Gardiner while covering last year’s three-way streamliner battle on the Bonneville Salt Flats, where as journalists both of us were treated to an epic fight (and great story) for the title of world’s fastest motorcycle. It was there that we saw first-hand Gardiner’s enthusiasm and obvious love of motorcycles. Still, we were a bit hesitant reviewing a book written by a fellow journalist, because it would be a shame to deliver a hatchet job review on our Bonneville brother.
Our fears proved groundless, however, as Gardiner’s prose is well-constructed and pitch perfect. Riding Man sucks you into Gardiner’s personal journey. The story begins straight at the source of the Canadian writer’s motorcycle obsession, when as a child he looked in an illustrated encyclopedia and under the British Isles he noticed a little island stuck between Ireland and Great Britain which had a picture of a motorcycle next to it. The island, of course, was the Isle of Man and the curiosity and fascination of that chance experience led to a lifelong interest in motorcycles – an interest which culminated in Gardiner’s eventual pursuit of an amateur racing career and the acquisition of CMA and AMA racing licenses.
The story continues with Gardiner stuck in an advertising job which he has grown to dislike, where he decides to ditch it all, cash out and follow through on a lifelong dream – racing the Isle of Man TT. A freak outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and subsequent travel restrictions spoil his 2001 plans, but when 2002 rolls around the story picks up with Gardiner renting a house on the famed Island and preparing his TT attempt.
In the book Gardiner explains the unique character and peculiarity of the Isle of Man TT. He incorporates the history and mystique of past events, as well as addressing the inherent danger involved in the endeavor, pointing out that opposition to the TT has been around since the race’s 1907 inception. In one particular passage Gardiner talks about the monuments for fallen riders which are scattered throughout the treacherous course and how he noticed more and more of them with each practice lap he took learning the 37.73-mile circuit.
The plaques and memorials are a bittersweet manifestation of the double-edged risk/reward sword that accompanies racing the Island. After all, the danger involved is in part what imbues the hazardous event with such mystique and prestige. After expressing his desire to not have his own name to appear on one of these monuments, Gardiner acknowledges this duality when he admits that “… I can not think of any place I’d rather have one.”
The author conveys the nature of the racing and preparation as only a participant can, but Gardiner’s take on the Isle is through the eyes of a writer. We don’t just get a blanket description of the turns and famous monuments, he is able to paint a more vivid picture. Ballaugh Bridge, Bray Hill, Glen Helen… all these landmarks become part of a mental geography that Gardiner incorporates into the narrative.
Of course the Isle of Man TT is more than just motorcycles and roads, it’s about people and the local populace comes to life on the page. The Manx population’s unique relationship to motorcycles is explored, with the Isle coming across as a sort of motorcycle utopia. Gardiner finds relative strangers opening their doors and offering their talents to aid in his cause once he explains that he’s dropped everything in his life to cross the Atlantic and race the TT.
Gardiner expresses his passion for all things two-wheeled in a manner that everyone can get. There were a number of moments in the text when as a reader I was pleased and as a writer just a bit jealous at some of Gardiner’s more poetic similes and proverbs.
Motorcycle friend and sometimes test rider, Jimmy Moore, crosses the Ballaugh Bridge. Gardiner incorporates the Isle’s racing landmarks into the narrative.
Since we’re here to critique the book, however, we can’t give it a total free pass. A few of the opening chapters read slow when compared to the bulk of the book, with the more deliberate passages being Gardiner’s description of his dissatisfaction in the advertising industry. It is a fault which the author owns up to in the book’s forward, even giving instructions to readers as how to avoid the slow stuff and advance to the real meat of the story. Many readers, however, will relate to Gardiner’s jaded experience of office politics and admire the riposte rejection he gives his hotshot advertising firm for a vocation more suited to his two-wheeled ambitions.
One thing we like to evaluate in a book or movie review is whether the story will be interesting to both motorcycle enthusiasts and those folks who have no interest with bikes. In this regard Riding Man passes the test. For those who are fans and followers of road-racing and the TT in particular, Riding Man is a must read. For everyone else, the 247-page book is just a great biographical story about one man’s pursuit of living out his dream, which anyone can relate to, whether they know who Joey Dunlop is or not.
There isn’t much chance that Riding Man will dethrone the latest Harry Potter book on the best-seller list, or that Oprah will tap it out as her next book club selection, but Gardiner’s personal story should stand the test as a classic work about the most notorious motorcycle race in the world. Motorcycle aficionados and general readers alike will admire Gardiner’s pluckish spirit and courage to follow his dreams. As a fellow wordsmith I give it a simple but sincere compliment when I say, it is a great read.
Riding Man is available from www.bikewriter.com, along with the feature-length documentary One Man’s Island. The documentary’s creator, Peter Riddihough, chronicled Gardiner’s Isle of Man experience on film, with the movie being screened at Canadian film festivals in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.