Leaning the booming bevel-drive Ducati 900 hard into the corner, I let the bike drift over into the opposing lane, fearless of oncoming traffic. I’m racing the clock on the infamous Isle of Man TT course, so I’m not worried about any four-wheeled interference. Rough-hewn stone walls blur past inches from my helmet as the rear tire wiggles along the slippery, off-camber surface. Thousands of people cheer along the roadside, but I don’t have time to wave as I set up for the next corner, which is heading towards me scary-fast ...
“Wake up, Mr. Roberts,” says the nurse at the side of my hospital bed. Time for another needle. Great. (Why do they always stick you at 2 a.m.?) Well, it was a nice dream while it lasted. And Lord knows, I needed my dreams.
A month in hospital and rehab facilities gives you plenty of time to ponder life. I was there thanks to a bad motorcycle accident, and it looked like I’d done some serious damage to my right foot, not to mention my busted-up right shoulder and upper arm. But more importantly, things were looking grim for my long-awaited trip to the famed Isle of Man TT in England, which was only six months away. I’d been planning for the 2007 Isle of Man TT for years, asking friends as far back as 1999, “Hey, whatcha up to in June 2007? The 100th anniversary of the Isle of Man TT is coming, wanna go?” Now, it looked like I might have to pass. Who’d want to travel to a bike race in a wheelchair?
A bit of Isle of Man TT background
If you don’t know the Isle of Man TT (for “Tourist Trophy”), you should. As Mecca is to Muslims, as the Vatican is to Catholics, so is the TT to motorcyclists worldwide: It’s a place of pilgrimage and worship, holy in the annals of road racing, sacred in the Scriptures of Speed. To visit the Isle of Man for the TT is to be immersed in 100 years of two-wheeled speed-freak history, and to be surrounded by the most hard-core of racers and fans. Until it was taken off the Grand Prix circuit by the international racing body FIM in 1976, the TT had been another stop in the motorcycle GP world tour for years. Racers such as Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Joey Dunlop and Phil Read built their heroic reputations screaming around the island’s 37-3/4 mile-long course.
The time had come for my own Isle of Man TT hajj, so I made up my mind: If the doc said I was OK to use crutches and get outta the #*@! wheelchair at least two months before the June TT, I’d go no matter what. I was liberated from The Chair at the end of March, and after twice-weekly physical therapy sessions I managed to strengthen my right arm enough to crutch around like any healthy 90-year-old ...
There were, however, a few, er, logistical problems I’d have to deal with on my trip, mainly the fact I couldn’t carry gear in my usual duffle bag as my hands would be full of crutches. I decided to use a backpack, something I’d always associated with the grungy young touristas I’d hung with during my years living in Southeast Asia. How to carry a heavy pack on a busted shoulder? No worries, I’d work that out on arrival.
Arriving in Liverpool on England’s west coast off the train from London, it was obvious that something big was happening in the motorcycle world. The Steam Packet ferry that travels to the Isle of Man from Liverpool was absolutely packed with bikes, and more were streaming in every second. The berths had been booked years in advance (good thing I got mine in 2006) and although the ferry company chartered three huge ships from France to bolster their fleet, thousands of TT-ers were left stranded or re-routed to different ports north of Liverpool for crossings in the wee hours of the morning. All told, an estimated 92,000 people were ferried to the Isle, out of some 150,000 who attended the races. Needless to say, I felt lucky when I found a seat amid the leather-clad hordes on board. I sat next to an older couple who’d been riding to the Isle from their home in Birmingham for the last 40 TTs! During the course of my stay I met quite a few others who matched that record as well. “First TT?” the man asked me. “It won’t be your last.”
At only 32 miles long by 13 miles wide, the Isle is small and rural, its population of about 71,000 mostly clustered in the port town of Douglas on the east coast.
“Quaint” is the word I kept thinking of, which accurately describes the neat lines of Victorian row-houses and the rough-hewn stone walls of medieval cottages on the island, not to mention the funky antique electric and steam railroad lines that travel between the burgs of Ramsey to the north, and Douglas and Castletown to the south.
My host Tom graciously met me at the pier as I hobbled off the boat. His house was on a quiet street, in an immaculately clean neighborhood with views of distant green hills with nary a whisper of the race noise to be heard — perfect accommodation, and a bargain at just $50 per night, as hotels were going for upwards of $250 per night — if you could find a room.
David, a native Manxman who lived next door, offered to drive me to a good spot for viewing, all the while regaling me with TT tales of yore. “In the early ‘60s, my friend hosted the Honda racing team at his house. This was the first time anyone here had seen an Asian person, you understand, so there was a bit of culture shock, especially when the Japanese guys walked around the house with nothing on but their bathrobes, and spread mayonnaise over everything they ate!”
Although the first motorcycle races were held in 1907, in 1911 the founders of the Isle of Man TT started running on the Mountain Course, which is pretty much unchanged today. One notable difference is that until about the 1920s, racers had to stop to open cattle gates and close them as they carried on. Try that at Laguna Seca! And while this year marks the centenary of the TT, the race has actually been cancelled several times during the last century, for two world wars and most recently in 2001 due to the hoof and mouth disease scare.
Where closed-course race circuits have gravel traps, air walls and lots of run-offs in the curves, the TT has rough stone walls, curbs, lampposts, trees and numerous other hard things to smash into. The road is uneven asphalt, with manhole covers, crowns and blind corners with slippery off-camber surfaces. You’ll see a few small DIY-like pads strapped to poles and trees along the way, and the sharper bends have hay bales lining their outsides, but that’s about the extent of “safety” devices used at the Isle of Man TT.
“This place is nuts!” former world champ racer Kevin Schwantz, in attendance for the event, told the Brit motorcycle press. “The most striking thing for me from what I have seen is how little concern there is for safety. It’s more than just the speed that blows my mind. To comprehend what these [racers] are able to do takes a complete readjustment of my understanding. There is just no room for mistakes in any way.”
Racers must memorize all of the hazards if they are to survive, let alone finish, this deadly race. And it truly is the most lethal road course on the planet; since 1907 there have been more than 200 fatalities in the TT. (Sadly, that record was updated this year, with yet another racer’s death on the very last lap of the last race. Two spectators also perished in that accident.)
Still thinking about racing in the Isle of Man TT? You’ll need to ride the 37.73 mile length at speeds up to 190mph without crashing, and your average better be well over 100mph to put you in the ballpark with the competition. Repeat that again … and again ... FIVE more times, for a total of 226.38 miles of twisted, tortured tarmac. Oh, and watch out for the island’s sheep, dogs and other domestic animals crossing the roads. If you don’t wipe out, you still have to worry about running out of gas, because then you’ll have to pit, which could cost you precious seconds. No wonder it takes riders years just to learn the course.
And winning won’t earn you any points towards any other race series on the planet, as the TT stands alone in the world of moto-racing. Those who run the TT are there to compete against the clock and the course, not Rossi and Bostrom.
Among the TT’s many pleasures is how close you can get to the action; just find an empty spot along the road or a spot on a wall (or grandstands, in a few key places) to sit on to check out the bikes shooting past little more than an arm’s length away. Watching the first bikes leave the starting line from Bray Hill about 1/4 mile away during the Junior TT race, I nearly had the wind sucked from my lungs as a slime-green Kawasaki tore by at Warp Factor Nine, then dropped from sight down the hill like a brick off a building. Later, when my buddy Ian Foster took me for a spin around the Isle on the back of his CBX (with six-into-six pipes, sounding just like a Ferrari!), I felt my stomach sink as we descended the same hill — at a piddling 60mph. Imagine what it must feel like at over twice that speed.
Civilians are allowed to ride the course during the off hours, and for the entire fortnight (that’s two weeks in American-speak) the mountain section is one-way only so the assembled hooligan hordes can safely speed around the course’s open sweepers without fear of oncoming traffic. On Mad Sunday, the traditional “let ‘er rip” day when speed limits are suspended on this section, wannabe racers can wind the throttle back to the stop with only the size of their cojones — and those nasty stone walls and cattle fences — to hold them back. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for some) Mad Sunday 2007 was rained out, which kept the speeds — and crashes — to a minimum. Thankfully, the rest of race week was gloriously sunny, if not exactly balmy-warm.
Once you’ve experienced the Isle of Man TT, even MotoGP racing seems tame and somehow artificial. There’s also a camaraderie on the island that I’ve never seen at any other race or bike gathering. It’s a big commitment to visit the TT, even if you live in the UK, so the type of moto-phile you’re likely to meet tends to be the sort of extreme gearhead/two-wheel junkie who can carry on a fascinating conversation on motorcycle minutiae for hours, preferably over some of the fine local brews. It’s also amazing to behold the sheer variety of the visiting fans’ bikes. Sure, there are tons of new machines, and that’s all good, but where else do you see German Adlers, English Scott Flying Squirrels, Italian Moto Guzzi Falcones and French Voxans, and all of them running down the road?
Of course, this being the Centenary TT, the classics were exceptionally well-represented. Nortons, Vincents, Triumphs, MV Agustas — you name it, they were there on the Isle, most ridden rather than trailered. I’ll never forget watching a 1900-something Norton waiting at a stoplight as I enjoyed a brew in a roadside pub, its exposed pushrods and valve gear fluttering away under the long metal tank, the rider clad in period leather helmet and goggles, gripping the hand shifter. Most notable was the re-enactment of the very first TT on opening day, featuring those same period-costumed riders on 100 concours-quality machines from 1907, riding along the original St. John’s Course; one Dr. George Cohen rode the actual 1907 Norton that started the whole event, which was kicked off by Blackpool town crier Barry McQueen and famous TT racer Geoff Duke. Ancient singles and twins putt-putted away in pairs, total-loss oil systems dripping, valves clattering, leather drive belts straining.
Given the age of these machines, the reenactment was a friendly event with no real competition. Nevertheless, current TT superstar Guy Martin (who talks as fast as he rides!) got caught up in the spirit of the event, riding a 500cc 1938 Triumph Tiger 100 to “second place.”
“I am loving this!” said Martin. “It’s not exactly the type of bike I’m used to riding — and the gear change is on the wrong side of the bike compared with my normal machines, but to take part in such a historic event is a fabulous way to mark the history and all the hard work that people put into the TT.”
My favorite moment was the “Lap of Champions,” which featured still more pristine examples of famous winning bikes from TTs past, ridden for the most part by the original racers. The bikes were given the stick for thousands of fans along the seaside Promenade, the main drag of the island’s capital, Douglas, and the center of the TT social scene. It was beautiful music, like a concert of classic rock-n-roll played by the old masters on priceless vintage guitars!
MV Agustas and Gileras of the 1950s had the best screech, with the famous Honda 250cc six-cylinder racer from a decade later pulling a very close second. Then there was the wonderful banshee wail of Mick Grant’s 1970-something Kawasaki H2R. I’d have to give the loudest overall to the head-splitting song of the 1938 DKW supercharged two-stroke (yes, that’s a supercharged two-stroke!), which let off an incredible roar through its dual megaphone pipes that had onlookers holding their ears in agony! How this thing’s noise was tolerated by the rider back in the day, I have no idea.
By the fortnight’s end, the 130mph average speed barrier had been shattered by John McGuiness, some 83,000 pints of beer were consumed (on just the first weekend!), about 200 rear tires were shredded by the stunters along the Promenade, 71,000 residents of the Isle were a lot richer, and 150,000 Isle of Man TT fans were well satisfied with the whole event. Will I be back? Most definitely, but next time I need a bike. Now if I can just find some kind soul to loan me some wheels locally ... MC
Isle of Man TT Resources
Want go to the Isle for the 2008 races May 24-June 6? You’d better start planning now. Reservations for ferry service to the Isle fill fast, but there are flights in and out of Castletown from England, Ireland and Scotland.
Hotels also fill fast, but there are ample rooms available from Isle locals, who rent out entire homes to visiting race fans. If sleeping under the stars is more your style, there are plenty of options for camping.
Camping: www.iomtents.com or www.ttvillage.com