Memorable Motorcycles Riding the TT

June 20, 2008
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

At speed on the TT course  our man Melling soaks in the experience.
Our man Melling experienced the thrill of racing the famed 37 3/4-mile Isle of Man TT course aboard the Ducati Sport Classic.

My heart is pounding through my leathers and my hands itch. I grip the handlebars, too tightly maybe, to stop my hands shaking. It is difficult to be calm and objective about what I am about to do. I never raced in the TT when I should have done as a young man but the 37 3/4 miles of twisting, climbing, irregular road which comprises the legendary Mountain circuit has been a constant thread running through my motorcycling life.

At the bottom of the Creg, I sat with my Mum and ate sandwiches as we watched Surtees howl down from Kate’s Cottage on the near mythical MV.

Later, I saw Giacomo Agostini hurl the MV “3” through the blind left/right chicane of Bradden Bridge and determined that I would, somehow, get out of the stultifying greyness of my Council sink estate and make a life with bikes.

And in 1978, I cheered – and cried – with the crowd at Glen Helen as Mike Hailwood won the 1978 F1TT on the thundering Ducati V-Twin.

Now, I am edging my way forward up the Glencutchery Road towards the same start line which has launched a thousand legends – and over 200 deaths during its 101 year history.

MCUSA Memorable Motorcycles correspondent Frank Melling hangs with friend and racing legend Sammy Miller.
MCUSA Memorable Motorcycles correspondent Frank Melling hangs with friend and racing legend Sammy Miller.

To my right are the same giant scoreboards which have been a part of TT history almost since the start of the event. These are the scoreboards which recorded Bob McIntyre’s historic “ton up” 101.03 mph lap in 1957 and John McGuinness’ epic absolute lap record of 130mph last year.

To my left are the grandstands packed with spectators waiting for the start of the Senior TT and anxious to see TT legends like Carl Fogarty, Michael Rutter and Paul Smart leave for their lap celebrating 50 years of Ducati racing and 30 years since Mike Hailwood gave the Bologna factory TT glory.

To say the least, I feel deeply humbled to be part of this celebration.

Like all these nostalgia events, there have been machine problems. The 1960s Ducati GP bike I was supposed to be riding has been taken sick, so I have one of Ducati’s GT Classics – the Bologna factory’s bang up to date take on the classic theme. To be honest, this suits me down to the ground. I love the Ducati Classic which really does feel like a true classic motorcycle – but with modern brakes, handling and an engine which doesn’t fly apart the moment it is started.

TT star Paul Smart heads down the Glencutchery Road and my stomach churns as I bring the Ducati under the TT arch. A tap on the shoulder and I am away – perhaps a little too briskly as the “Classic’s” front wheel paws the air in anticipation of nearly 40 miles of open, unrestricted road ahead.

Almost immediately I am faced with Bray Hill. It is unbelievably steep and narrow dropping down the twisting descent and I back off, out of fear and respect for the course. Current TT racers go down here at 140mph. I’m struggling at half that speed.

Over “Ago’s Leap”, and down into Quarter Bridge. The massed crowds are cheering and waving – no doubt confusing me with a real TT star.

The biggest name in the Ducati TT lap was WSB legend Carl Fogarty.
The headliner racing the vintage Ducati TT lap was none other than World Superbike legend Carl Fogarty aboard the Desmosedici.

I’m torn between wanting to look half competent and the overwhelming fear of dropping the Classic. “Well known journalistic numpty and plonker Frank Melling manages to crash the Ducati whilst showing off to TT crowd!” It doesn’t bear thinking about…

Then it’s into Bradden. I have ridden this stretch of road so many times in the last 40 years, sat on Agostini’s shoulder, that I can do it blindfolded. Dab the brakes and the Classic flicks in and over the bridge with the stone wall just a few inches from my right shoulder. What a thrill! What must it be like to go through here at racing speeds?

Down along the Highlander straight and the Classic is weaving about. It’s a naked sports tourer with high `bars and at 120mph it is very lively simply because I have nowhere to tuck in when flat out. And that’s the thing you can never appreciate until you have ridden the TT course: it is awfully fast everywhere.

All the way from Crosby to Ballacraine the speedo is stuck at over 100mph – and I am virtually static by TT standards. The course is also rough. Don’t believe what you read about the road now being racetrack smooth. It isn’t. The Ducati’s front wheel is constantly pawing the air and the one thing I long for is a steering damper as the handlebars flap about everywhere.

Now to Glen Helen. Thirty years on, I can still remember precisely where the immortal Mike Hailwood placed the fabulous Ducati and I imitate it. I look to the banking and see me, long hair and beanie hat, cheering on my hero – and then pitch my Ducati into the climb to “Sarah’s Cottage”. This is as serious as nostalgia gets.

Our man Melling jumps off the line aboard the Ducati Sport Classic.
His 87mph lap may not get him a factory-supported ride, but Melling’s circuit on the Ducati Sport Classic was memorable.

Careful over Ballaugh Bridge. I desperately want to do a giant jump but the thought of getting it wrong in such a very public place reduces my efforts to a modest wheelie.

Flat out down Sulby Straight and the only real “moment”. The Ducati’s mirror unscrews itself. So, at 120mph I am getting ready to brake and tightening the mirror at the same time. My line round Sulby Bridge is not a piece of racing art, and the right hand silencer of the Classic graunches purposefully on the exit, but the “Classic” shrugs off the clumsiness and we accelerate round Ginger Hall.

Ramsey with the cheering crowds, the Gooseneck, Mountain Mile and Verandah – every name which can tell a TT legend. Then, it’s down to the Creg where I watched my first ever TT. The front wheel lifts as I pass Kate’s Cottage and I am riding with the ghosts of the many TT heroes who put their wheels exactly where I am riding. I feel both humbled and deeply privileged.

I know this part of the track intimately and so I take Creg Ny Baa well and then it’s flat out down the straight. The throttle is tight, downhill, in top and the rev limiter cuts in. That’s maybe 130mph – I’m concentrating too much to look – and the “Classic” is loving every second of the journey.

Ducati knows how to get the photographers taking a lot of shots.
The Ducati brolly dollies bring some sunshine to the Isle of Man circuit.

Round Signpost and back on to the Glencutchery Road to the finish. I’m panting and wet with sweat. I pass under the checkered flag both relieved to have the Classic back in one piece and longing for another 20 laps.

A lap time of around 86 mph is pathetically slow by TT race standards but I have a grin from ear to ear. I’m also full of admiration for the “Classic”. Despite being the most modest of Ducati’s sportbikes, it has cruised round the TT course with 100mph on the speedo everywhere – and brought its pilot back in one piece. What a bike!

My thanks to Ducati (www.ducatiuk.com) for inviting me to join such an elite group of riders, the ACU for running the cavalcade impeccably and, most of all, the Isle of Man for allowing the event to take place.

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