I’m standing in somebody’s front garden. Crimson flower petals wave gently in a coastal breeze that’s laced with a delicious blend of fresh sea salt and burnt rubber. This stunning Island, raised up in the middle of the Irish Sea, is home to the most extreme road races in existence. And they’re about to begin.
A ribbon of sleeping road rests three feet below me, flanked either side by stone garden walls and accessorized with white paint, dusty gutters and patchy tarmac. There’s an understated crest in the surface to my right. It’s called Ago’s Leap and it’s why I’m here. It’s why they’re here too. A group of lads in khaki shorts hang hairy legs over the garden wall opposite me, dispensing beer cans from an oversized cooler shaded from the sun’s glare by an equally overgrown evergreen tree. We nod to each other in mutual silence, eyes sparkling with excitement. Anticipation does another lap, stalking the course’s spectators and spraying an invisible mist of motorcycle magic into our lungs. I realize I’m holding my breath.
And then it starts. There’s no sighting lap. No warm up. No time to blink. I look up. Necks are craned, guys are straining to stand on tip toe in heavy biker boots. The scream of a Honda Fireblade pierces reality, the pitch dipping momentarily as John McGuinness shifts up, again and again. He’s heading for Bray Hill at 183 mph along a stretch of road that’s normally castrated with a 50 kmph (31 mph) speed limit. Redundant traffic lights sit wrapped in protective padding at the base of the hill as if to minimize the effects of an impact. Sixty minutes ago this road escorted buses and taxis to their destinations. Now it’s leading three riding gods to podium positions and many more to a lifelong dream. The conversion is complete. The island has become a race track and the only limits are that of the bike and its rider. At this precise moment, nothing else exists. Nothing.
A black and orange blur with a human being onboard hurtles towards my quiet garden wall. I’m frozen in disbelief. My senses are drowning in a tidal wave of madness as the ‘Blade’s front wheel lifts to kiss the air above ‘Ago’s’ before smacking back to the asphalt with a wriggle of the ‘bars. The pilot buries his head behind the screen and I hear him wind the throttle back again as he charges in my direction. I catch my breath as he roars past, the rear tire sucking up the cat’s eyes and spitting them out behind like bitter lemon pips. And as he flashes by me, he sears an image, an emotion and a memory into my soul that has shown no signs of fading… even two years on.
A few days later, I stood in Park Ferme, a TV microphone clenched in my sweaty palm, as I humbly, silently and respectfully watch McGuiness finally collapse over the bike’s fuel tank. His leather-clad shoulders heaving rhythmically as he sobs great swells of relief and pride, of satisfaction and adrenaline behind the privacy of a closed visor. He’s just broken the 130 mph lap record barrier in the TT’s centenary year and clinched his 13th win in doing so. I’m dumbstruck. Not the ideal reaction for a TV presenter.
Now it’s 2009 and I’m back again. But this time, I’m a regular punter (with press perks). No TV commitments means no restrictive schedule. So I can ride the course, explore the Island and experience the week from a new perspective. One of a genuine race fan. The TT festival is pitted with practice sessions and races, which you can watch from almost anywhere around the course. Various grandstands, some of which are permanent structures, house the thousands that flock to the Island every year. Fields, pubs and houses are packed with folks from all walks of life and from all over the globe. For some, it’s a yearly pilgrimage, a tradition that’s woven through generations of their family. For others, it’s all new. And for all of us, it’s special.
So special in fact, that the island welcomed 60,000 visitors for last year’s TT, each forking out an average of £800 according to the DTL (Department of Tourism and Leisure). Apparently, the vast majority of them are men under 50, which leads me to two simple conclusions. First, single ladies could consider the Island as a viable holiday destination with potential bonuses. And secondly, the decision to drastically reduce the entertainment that normally surrounds the event is a big mistake. I’d been describing the atmosphere of Douglas Seafront to the Motorrijder mob for two years now. About how it’s a thick river of bikers, indulging in the evening’s activities of stunt shows, (some organized and performed by professionals, others impromptu and performed by, well, anyone). About how you’d usually struggle to slip a Rizla paper between the eclectic mix of bikes parked along the promenade. About the fairground and huge Ferris wheel that rose above the shoreline and offered a bird’s eye view of the sweeping bay. Of the big screens and bungee jumps. But this year it’s all gone, replaced by tribute rock bands at the Villa Marina.
We weren’t the only ones who’d traveled some considerable distance to watch the racing and enjoy the festival feeling. So it’s a shame the latter was diluted compared to previous years. I’m assuming the intention was cost-cutting. I’m assuming the result was income-slashing. So I’d expect the majority of festivities to return for 2010.
In the absence of burn-outs, wheelies and bare-chested ladies hiding their mounds of dignity behind borrowed police-man’s helmets, the Island soldiered on doing what it really does best. Taking your breath away with every inch of the 37-¾ mile circuit – which you can ride yourself, as often and sometimes as fast as you like, everyday you’re there, at no extra cost.
It begins at the Grandstand. It’s a hub of activity. Crew chiefs, mechanics and riders all busy themselves in preparation of the day ahead. Race fans swarm through the narrow pathways that slice between the team tents, hoping to catch a glimpse of their heroes, cameras poised and autograph pads at the ready. Close access to the riders is a given. There’s no protective wall of management or PR surrounding these guys, they’re within touching distance, they’re approachable. And although we’re not one of them, we feel they’re like one of us.
I sidle my way through the crowd, past the memorabilia shops touting t-shirts and food stands selling cholesterol, towards my Kawi. As I turn the key in the lock, I swear I can hear it growl ‘thank-you’ in advance, like it knows what’s coming next. A lap. I potter down Bray Hill towards the traffic lights behind a family in a dark blue Fiesta. The numberplate confirms they’re residents of the Island. I can’t help but wonder how they feel about an invasion that significantly swells their population of just over 80,000. We must swarm like large leather clad flies through their daily routines with our race-reps, odd three-wheeled contraptions, old classics and tired looking tourers. Bikes stacked with tents and plastic bags cramped full of goodness-knows-what, lashed down with bungee cords and cargo nets. We’re everywhere.
Amber. Fiesta family just make it through the junction before the light turns to red. I slow to a halt and wait for green. “You touch the belly there.” While my Kawi patiently grumbles in neutral, McGuinness’ words ring through my head as I spot the scrape marks in the road in front of me. The evidence is there. But just how is that possible? How?
Further along, Ago’s Leap feels more like a gentle mound than a wheelie-inducing ramp. It’s easy to miss and the difference between what I’m feeling now and what I’ve seen before is stark. I continue behind the stream of traffic, and slow again for a crowed roundabout, the first of two. Opposite, the Quarter Bridge pub lazily soaks up the day’s stragglers. Tomorrow, it’ll be packed with punters, it’s till packed with cash. Biker’s money. Even the Island’s coins bear embossed images of motorcycles.
Moments later, I’m coasting through a slight kink in the road behind a procession of cars. British rider Guy Martin has to psych himself up to get through this “seriously fast” left. Eh? What? Cambers in the road that threaten to pull riders off line pose about as much danger to me as a chocolate bunny rabbit. But the risks that I regularly face of slippery paint, drain covers and fuel spills at petrol stations and bus stops, matter even more when you’ve just tripled or quadrupled your speed. Not that the races continue in the wet. They don’t. And if the mountain section’s bathed in a foggy mist, the races are also delayed until it clears. It’s no good having doctors and paramedics on standby in a medical helicopter if it can’t see where to land. But if the road is dry, albeit with hidden damp patches in the shaded areas…
You can go all out on some of the public streets, but for the most parts you have to watch the limit and keep to your lane.
I head out into the countryside, taking advantage of overtakes and respecting the speed limits in silent frustration. Gorgeous sweeping bends are lined with bright green trees whose shapes dapple sunlight onto the road. Black and white checkered curbing traces the edge of the asphalt. It’s a beautiful piece of road. And a scary piece of track.
Much of the course is littered with speed limits to accommodate the towns and villages scattered across the Island. Some are even reduced during the TT period to calm McGuiness wannabes. But there are sections of road that have no speed limit at all. Ever. None. The police won’t turn a blind eye to riding dangerously, and they’ll administer bands and fines as they see fit. But theoretically, you could have a copper glued to your tail doing three-figure speeds across the mountain and get a slap on the back instead of the wrist if you’ve done a good job. Not sure I’d try it. But it is tempting.
That’s the bizarre thing about this place. While I can potter round, kissing speed limits and nailing my Ninja where appropriate, you can’t truly comprehend what the racers do because you’re restricted to using just the left side of the road. So the only way to learn the lines before competing is with a little imagination and a road license, or YouTube videos. First practice really is first practice.
I slow again for a village lined with pastel colored houses perched a gnat’s whisker away from the road. This is “proper TT”. This is a plated zone that morphs within an hour to a flat-stick, pinned-on-a-superbike section of race track. Further along, just before the next stretch of terraced homes, there’s a junction of hidden crossroads which lay at the foot of a small bridge. Its crest is enough to flick a superbike skywards like a toddler on a trampoline. I roll over the top of it, and turn around to give it another go. I figure I’ve never jumped a ZX-6R before and it’d be rude not to try.
Out on the straight, where the superbikes hit 200 mph, I settle for considerably less as the road beneath me starts to ripple like a badly fitted carpet. It’s a notoriously bumpy section and I’m grateful for my steering damper. But I’m starting to wonder. How on earth these guys can absorb and concentrate on all this information. Lumps and bumps, walls and houses, apexes, markers, pit boards, for more than 17 minutes a lap, for six laps, on a superbike. How? Why?
One way traffic and no speed limit is the closest you are going to get to IOM TT racing short of actually racing it.
The Kawasaki is floating easily through the countryside now. A tree wearing a padded skirt with the letter K painted in black glides past to my right. It’s a reminder. The curb juts out there. For a road rider it’s hardly an issue, but for a racer it’s sharp enough to pose a serious problem if you misjudge it. I slide back though the box to potter through the next town. It’s called Ramsey. I notice black lines on the road leading towards a pedestrian crossing. I’m getting used to such contradictions of terms, but I’m about to face the most extreme one yet, a wide public road that winds across Snaefell Mountain, 1385 feet above sea level with no speed limit and one way traffic. A. Public. Road. A flashing sign warns me. “One way traffic ahead.” I’m almost there. I negotiate the tight hairpin signaling the foot of the climb and follow the string of orange cones and the single file-route to my freedom. The usual two-way traffic over Snaefell Mountain is restricted to one way during the TT fortnight to reduce the chances of head-on collisions and it begins and ends with a single lane.
As soon as the cones disappear, I nail it. It’s fast. At my pace, with one eye on my mirrors for approaching-nutjobs and the other on the swooping bends ahead, it is fast. Fast as hell. I tuck in and keep the throttle as open as I dare. I’m searching for clues, trying to look to the distance, letting the vanishing point guide me. Jenny Tinmouth told me you don’t need to brake for the bends, just roll the throttle off and wait for them to open up. But that’s coming from the fastest female to ever lap the TT course. So I decide to brake. I talk my brain into using the Belgian side of the road too, my front tire skips over the raised road markings as I cut across from left to right like I’m on a real race track. Oh yeah, it is a real race track. Delay your return trip and you’ll have more room to play as most bikers head home as soon as the racing’s done. The downside is you’ll also share the road with regular traffic. And they won’t all be going the same way. And there’s still no speed limit.
Taking the corner passing Creg-ny-baa, don’t be suprised if random folks in leathers suddenly appear to cheer you on.
Then it’s over. The cones force me back into the single- file bottleneck. The throttle’s back on half-chat as I try hard to ride at 95 kmph (60 mph). It feels ridiculously slow, but it’s an enforced limit for the TT fortnight only. A large cream pub called Creg-ny-baa cradles the next right hand bend which leads to a mini straight and two open bends. At the second, the restriction’s even lower so I drop my pace and notice a small white line painted on the road to my left. After hugging a stone wall at an arm’s length from the crowd, the racers use this line as a tipping in point before they drag their right knee at the apex.
Again, I’m stumped for words and I remain so for the remaining few miles back to the Grandstand. It’s taken me about 50 minutes to do a complete lap sticking to speed limits and obeying red lights. It’s been 50 minutes of fun, and there’s more to come. The Island is so beautiful, so enticing you could ride all day far away from the historical TT course and still come home satisfied.
If you’re reading this feature, you’re obviously into bikes, therefore you will love the Isle Of Man, whether is race week or not.