Backmarker: Manx TT Postcard Part III

June 26, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

By Tuesday of Race Week, the weather seemed to have finally broken for good; it remained to be seen whether the same could be said for John McGuinness.

Tom wanted to visit the Fairy Bridge, presumably to ask for any help the fairies could offer on his feature film project. I left a note of my own tucked into an empty snail shell that had stuck to the stonework of the bridge when its occupant had shuffled off his mortal coil, and threw a 50p coin into the stream for good measure. It occurred to me that I’d forgotten to say “Hello Fairies” when I rolled slowly across the bridge to park the motorcycle, but I told myself that saying hello didn’t matter if one was actually coming to a complete stop to visit them.

To be honest, the Fairy Bridge is not nearly the most picturesque bridge, nor does it cross anything like the most idyllic stream on the island. Why they chose to officially designate that particular one as ‘the’ Fairy Bridge is not clear.

Maybe it’s just that this particular bridge connects the old capital of Castletown with the biggest city, Douglas. It’s on what was, probably, the biggest road on the island back in the Victorian era, when tourism promoters either latched onto Manx myths or created a few to market the place as a romantic vacation spot. That was, incidentally, about the time promoters also imported and planted all those palm trees; they aren’t native to the Isle of Man. They’re only there so that postcard images would create the impression of a gentle climate. (Hah!)

Still, that is the bridge everyone stops at, to leave notes and wishes for the fairies.

We pressed on, to the south end of the island. I showed them Castletown; the Billown circuit, where the Southern 100 races take place; Port Erin and Port St. Mary. We paused at the Whistle Stop cafe in the little train station. The train chuffed in while we were there, filling the air with coal smoke and steam. I heard another steam sound, too: a cappuccino machine.

“So, is this your first motorcycle trip, then?” “No.”

My friends told me the coffee was good there, but I stuck with my vow to go the whole fortnight without coffee. (It was easily the longest I’ve gone without it since I was 14 years old, when I first picked up the habit in a Swiss hospital after a downhill skiing accident.)

The next day was a race day, and I was scheduled to do a book signing in the Ginger Hall pub, right on the course. I set up my little pile of books under the dart board, and paused to watch the racing from the pub’s doorway whenever the leaders came past.

That’s the last smooth bit before racers enter the long tunnel of trees through Leyzayre Parish, which is so bumpy that I couldn’t even focus my eyes, back when I raced here. All of the top guys connect what are normally three distinct left turns (when the road is open and you can only use half its width) into one long triple-apex left turn when the roads are closed. Michael Dunlop took such a wide line that, once, I saw him quickly tuck his knee up to prevent hooking the low stone wall, topped by cast iron pickets, that marks the final apex. His exit marker was the white line painted right on the edge of the road.

Just by eyeballing the gaps at the front of the field, I knew that Dunlop had won that race, too. McGuinness finished third; it was small consolation that by doing so he raised his own record for the number of TT podiums. Dunlop’s 128+ mph record lap on the 600 was faster than the lap record McGuinness set just eight years ago in the Senior!

Worth noting: the glorious sound of the MV Agusta Triple; louder, nastier, and far more distinctive than any of the bland fours, no matter how much faster they were.

During the intermission, the TT Zero racers came by, just once. That was the only time that the TV helicopter actually drowned out the sound of the bikes. Rutter came through first on the Czysz bike. The team’s sponsored by Segway, which is not something calculated to make anyone take electric two-wheelers seriously. But, the race budget has to come from somewhere, I guess.

Up close, the bikes make a kind of cool, angry-robot sound. Both Rutter on the Oregonian machine and McGuinness on the Mugen entry were as fast through that left turn on the e-bikes as most of the Supersport riders had been. But this race was, mostly, a joke; Miller broke down on the second Czysz, making it a two-bike race. There was a minutes-long gap that made a laughingstock of the rest of the field. Chris McGahan rode past waving and tooting the horn on his bike.

It. Had. A horn.

The feeling in practice was that the Mugen was untouchable; McGuinness was guaranteed this win, at least. I think he was still in the lead on corrected time when he passed me. But, the insults to McGuinness kept coming when the Mugen slowed ever so slightly on the mountain, allowing Rutter to claw back a very small lead, and earn a second consecutive win for MotoCzysz.

At the post-race press conference, McGuinness seemed on the verge of tears. He told one TV reporter, “No one could have ridden that bike faster around here than I did. It’s not fair.” But with lap times still 20% slower than ICE bikes, this race is not a battle between riders, it’s a battle between engineers. It was exactly fair.

I read rumors that he’d been offered a bonus of 25 thousand quid for a win, adding financial injury to the insult of unmet expectations. Maybe that’s why he seemed so sad. In the pub, there was speculation: would he retire?

The Tynwald Inn is a pub about a mile west of Ballacraine, so
it’s off the current course, but only about 20 yards from the start
line of the course used for the first few years of the TT. Tom and
I wandered in there, and chose the room where this traditional
Celtic music group met, instead of the room where, in typical
TT fashion, they were pounding out ’80’s rock music.

Since the roads were closed and I was trapped inside the track, I couldn’t have left Ginger Hall even if I’d wanted to, until after the second sidecar race. It was sunny and so hot that I was happy to sit in there and sell books. Through the window, I could see quite a bit of English skin exposed that would have been best left covered, both for aesthetic reasons and in aid of cancer prevention. I saw one guy leave the pub with a pint of lager in each hand, and a third plastic cup clenched in his teeth.

One of the coolest things about the Isle of Man is that there are miles of ‘green lanes’ for off-road riders to explore, and that you can get to them, and connect them, by riding enduro bikes on the public roads. If I lived here and could only have one bike, I’d pick a dual sport, since a lot of the paved roads are narrow, winding, and frequently either wet or covered in mud or sheep poo anyway. On Thursday evening, I walked down to the Waterfall pub again, and saw several full-on trials bikes in the parking lot.

On Friday morning, the day of the Senior TT, I learned that Michael Dunlop had pulled out of the Lightweight TT, which is now a class for 650 Twins dominated by Kawasakis. I never heard why. By withdrawing his entry, he eliminated all possibility of becoming the first person to win six TT races in a fortnight. I presume that either he didn’t want the distraction prior to the big final that afternoon, or he simply felt that he wouldn’t win on the smaller bike. That left James Hillier, who had been starting first all week, clear at the head of the field; he rode a lonely but faultless race for the win.

The Senior started with a bang, a fart, and some serious $#!+.

McGuinness was possessed, and pulled out a gap of several seconds over Dunlop by Glen Helen. Meanwhile, the back of the field was still starting one-by-one at ten-second intervals when there was sudden silence on the startline. A ping came over the PA system, and the announcement that the race had been red-flagged due to an incident at the bottom of Bray Hill.

That, I thought, couldn’t be good. Then, incredibly considering the speed and hard surfaces that abound there, rumor circulated that the rider was okay.

Out on the course, miles from Race Control, the first 40 or so riders had been stopped; they waited to be led back to the paddock at controlled speed by traveling marshals. In the packed media center, we looked at each other and quietly speculated. If the rider was okay, why had there been no suggestion that a restart was imminent?

One veteran journalist told me, “The police have gone down the course. That means a spectator or a marshal has snuffed it.”

He was wrong, it turned out, barely. A Newcomer, Jonathan Howarth, had lost control of his ZX-10 on the descent of Bray Hill, and the shrapnel from the crash had carried into the crowd of spectators there. Eleven of them were injured, some seriously. Photos showed Howarth, sat on an overturned bucket at the crash site, looking as if at that moment he wished that he’d merely been killed.

At Nobles Hospital, the sudden influx of injured spectators meant that there was, temporarily, not enough capacity to handle potential injuries to racers. We had to wait for them to stabilize the spectators before the race could restart. That took hours, and for a while it seemed possible it would be delayed until Saturday.

The Grandstand emptied into the beer tent. Tar melted on road seams, presenting veteran riders with a problem they’d never encountered. Brits even applied sunscreen; normally, they revel in a good sunburn.

The rules specify that, after a race has been cleared for a restart, racers and teams must be given 45 minutes to refuel, etc. McGuinness, in an unguarded moment that aptly illustrates the difference between the still-earthy TT and sanitized, corporate GP racing, told reporters that he was glad of the delay. Just before the first start he had, he said, “farted and followed through”. He took the opportunity to grab a quick shower and change his underwear.

Yes, even the greatest living TT rider actually $#@+ himself on the start line.

A well-informed friend who should probably remain anonymous speculated on McGuinness’ return to form on that aborted out lap. There had long been rumors that Dunlop had extra-special tires for John. There was a story about some racer at a previous TT who’d taken his wheels in for new rubber at the Dunlop tent, and accidentally got tires intended for champ. Apparently the difference had been shocking, but when the unnamed rider asked for more like those last ones, he was told they weren’t available. At least, not to him.

During the TT fortnight  ex-TT racers can always wander in to the 38th Milestone  for a cup of tea  a cookie  and soft chair out of the wind  cold  rain  or  as was the case on Senior day  out of the sun .
During the TT fortnight, ex-TT racers can always wander in to the 38th Milestone, for a cup of tea, a cookie, and soft chair out of the wind, cold, rain (or, as was the case on Senior day, out of the sun).

In search of shade and cup of tea, I entered the tiny ’38th milestone’ shack in the paddock. That’s the TT Riders Association clubhouse. A 70-something lady, quietly intercepted me and asked, “Um, are you?..” Then her voice trailed off as she searched for a polite way to ask who I was. When I told her, she apologized and introduced herself.

Frances told me, “Some people who aren’t ex-riders come in without realizing. Of course, I’d never deny anyone a cup of tea.” Then, she told me that they’d asked, in the TTRA newsletter, whether anyone was aware of my address. They’d lost track of me. I told her that I lived in Kansas City now.

“Well,” she sounded crestfallen, “I suppose you won’t be able to attend our banquet in Birmingham this November.”

“You never know,” I replied. “My sister lives in London. Perhaps I’ll come visit her and make a trip of it.”

“She could come with you,” Frances brightened. “The luncheon used to be for gentlemen only, but now, we have some lady riders.”

When they finally restarted the race, Dunlop threw down a fast first lap, but McGuinness responded on the second, taking nearly four seconds out of him, which put him ahead on corrected time.

Dunlop upped his pace for the third lap, cutting McGuinness’ lead, but McGuinness responded with a 131 mph lap to, again, extend it. He came into the final pit stop six seconds ahead.

From where I sat in the media center, the Grandstand’s cheers for John and Michael sounded about equal when each pulled in. In a moment of karmic redemption for the McGuinness fuel-cap/pit lane speeding problem that had set the tone at the beginning of Race Week — that seemed so long ago — Dunlop’s crew ever so slightly fumbled his wheel change, and the Irishman rode down pit lane shaking his head. It was Dunlop’s spirit, not McGuinness’, that had been broken.

McGuinness had about a 10-second lead when the Manx Radio announcers said he was “safely through” Glen Helen. He cruised (by his standards) through the last half of the final lap. But he still put in a final lap of over 131 miles an hour.

The entire island buzzed. My friend Steve thought it was the best TT race since Steve Hislop versus Carl Fogarty, in the 1992 Senior.

Note should be made of James Hillier, again. After serving a five-year apprenticeship here, he got a great final lesson from John McGuinness, who passed him on the road; I think it was early in the second lap. Then, Hillier hung on to him for the entire remainder of the race, and nearly finished on the podium.

We were still on that high, on Saturday shopping for a few souvenirs, and Sunday, which we devoted to cleaning our borrowed bikes, and packing for a return home. I sorted through the pile of Manx and British change that I’d accumulated over the fortnight, and separated out the copper pennies and tuppence.

My friend Steve lives in the hamlet of Glen Maye, near Peel on the west side of the island. The local pub is The Waterfall, named for an actual waterfall right nearby. The path to it is inauspicious, beginning as it does between a small concrete public toilet building, and the pub’s beer garden. But as soon as you step into the forest, that’s forgotten.

A few days earlier, Steve and I brought our guests to see it. Steep, rustic stairs lead down to a series of wooden bridges that criss-cross the stream, first high above waterfall that plunges into a deep, dark pool and then lower, close enough to the gin-clear water to see small trout swim in the shallows; they don’t dare venture too close to the deeper water and overhanging banks, where bigger fish lurk. Every time I walk down there, I think, Someday I’ll come back with a fly rod.

The tiny glen is so narrow that it is completely roofed over by trees. The sun rarely reaches the bottom, thick with moss and shade-loving fiddleheads.

Looking up towards the waterfall from the lower bridge, one of the Americans said, “That should be the Fairy Bridge.”

I gathered the small coins in my bedroom, and walked back there, alone.

It was, by then, late Sunday afternoon. But at that latitude in mid-June the sun was still high and aligned with the glen on its drop towards the Irish Sea. The upper canopy, was occupied, as always, by a boisterous mixed flock of carrion crows, hooded crows, and their hybrid offspring. They littered the path with their black feathers.

One by one, I pitched my pennies into the pool, trying to thread the coins through gaps in the understory, watching for the glint as they spun down through narrow shafts of sunlight. The pool was so small and far below, that sometimes the coins bounced off the rocks and I lost sight of them before they hit the water.

I didn’t make any particular wish that time. As I walked back up into civilization, I thought, okay fairies, now you owe me one.

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