“Owners of domestic animals and livestock adjoining the course, please ensure they are secure during the practice and race periods.” That’s not the sort of warning you normally hear blaring from the public address system at a race. But then, this isn’t your normal race. Welcome to the Isle of Man Classic TT.
It’s Saturday morning, the first day of racing at the 2016 Isle of Man Classic TT and Manx GP, and our group is struggling for equilibrium as we work our way through the paddock to watch the start of the Senior TT. For the past two days we’ve been riding across England, acclimating ourselves to confusing roundabouts, riding on the “wrong” side of the road, and fighting various problems with our vintage motorcycles. Our ferry has only just landed in Douglas, the capital, a few hours ago, after a 2 a.m. departure and 3-1/2-hour sail. We are, in a word, beat.
The “we” are myself and 13 intrepid Motorcycle Classics readers, joined together for a tour on vintage bikes from London to the Isle of Man. Leading our ride is MotoTouring founder Eligio Arturi, a veteran of tours to the far flung reaches of the world, including Africa, Japan, Bolivia, Southeast Asia, Central America, Cuba and more. An adventurer at heart (he led Land Rover expeditions across North Africa before BMW hired him in the early 1990s to lead adventure motorcycle tours), Eligio clearly enjoys rides that are a little rough around the edges, where the unexpected is welcomed, even when it means things don’t go your way.
That last bit has definitely rung true on our ride so far, with several breakdowns — all minor, and all fixed quickly — and several bouts of running out of gas. Those little “oops” moments truncated our visit to the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham and, the next day, Liverpool, famous as the hometown of the Beatles. A planned afternoon at the museum shrank to a few hours, enough time to make a circuit of the collection but not enough to really take in the world’s most remarkable and comprehensive collection of British-made motorcycles. Then again, that would take days. In Liverpool we stretched our legs at the city’s historic harbor district on the River Mersey, some of us going straight for the pubs for a bite to eat, others checking out the Merseyside Maritime Museum at Albert Dock or heading toward the “Three Graces,” a trio of elegant, early 20th century buildings (the Royal Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings) lining the waterfront.
With a ferry to catch and our day rapidly vanishing we jumped back on our bikes, working our way through Liverpool and pushing hard on the M6 to Heysham in hopes of beating the sun’s drop to the horizon before we got to the ferry landing. We lost.
Riding at night is often a challenge, even more so on old motorcycles with typically less than stellar lighting. Several bikes decided to drop their lights altogether, but that didn’t slow us down or seem to cause much concern for those riders, as the rest of the group simply took appropriate positions to provide cover and illumination.
We eventually find our way to the coastal town of Heysham and the Heysham ferry landing, where we join a building queue of motorcycles that includes two single-cylinder Vincent Comets that have made the run down from Scotland, finally boarding the Ben-my-Chree (Manx for “girl of my heart”) a little after midnight for the sailing to Douglas and the Isle of Man.
Yet tired as we are, we’re all smiling, thrilled to be on the fabled Isle and by now getting used to accommodating the idiosyncrasies of our fleet of vintage motorcycles. Touring on vintage bikes, our group is learning, takes a different attitude: Patience is key. Carbureted bikes can be hard to start hot or cold, and basic functions like shifting and braking have to be done thoughtfully, considerate of a machine’s limitations.
Our group is comprised of experienced riders, but not all ride vintage bikes, and even then often only for short distances. Seattle-based computer programmer Davis Aites has, prior to now, never owned a bike with a kickstarter. And he’s never shifted a bike other than one down, four up, left side. But for the past two-plus days he’s been riding a 1971 Benelli 650S Tornado, a classic Italian twin that not only shifts on the right, its shift pattern is reversed; one up, and three down. And of course it doesn’t have an electric starter.
Aites approaches his lack of experience as a challenge, and he’s clearly committed to mastering the Benelli, which at this point he almost has. Kickstarts, at first painful for their lack of success, now come easily, and shifting, initially uncertain, is now smooth and clean. The success brings confidence, and a building confidence shows collectively in our group as we prove ourselves capable of meeting unexpected challenges and moving past them. We’re here to have fun, to have an adventure, and by God, we’re having both — by the truck load.
The Isle of Man TT holds a special place in the hearts of motorcyclists. If you ignore the war years of 1940-1945, when racing on the Isle was suspended, the IOM TT is the world’s longest running motorcycle race. The 37.73-mile Snaefell Mountain Course was first run in 1911, and over the decades the TT and Manx GP races have become an annual pilgrimage for thousands of enthusiasts, a sacred journey to the motorcycle holy land, to the place where the greats like Stanley Woods, Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood raced in the glory years of motorcycling. No place on earth holds the same attraction as the Isle, and for our group, all except for leader Eligio first-timers to the Isle, standing at the start-finish line as eventual Senior TT winner John McGuinness revs his 500cc Paton is electrifying.
A few of us make our way to Governor’s Bridge, once famous for a descending right hand hairpin turn that regularly separated riders from their bikes — and produced some of the greatest photographs of all time. It’s much milder now, but it’s no less a thrill, the unique howl of an MV Agusta triple filling the air as bike and rider come into focus and shoot out of the tree-covered bend, throttle pinned for the final straight to the start-finish line.
The entire course is run on public roads, and it’s hard to overstate the danger this presents to the riders, with trees, stone fences and buildings lining the route, sometimes inches from the road. The course has extracted a fatal toll — 252 times since 1907, when the first races were run on the 15-mile St. John’s Short Course. World Championship Grand Prix racing on the Isle ended in 1976, the course deemed too dangerous, but that didn’t discourage other series from stepping in to fill the vacuum, with modern TT racing in late May/early June and the Classic TT and Manx GP in late August/early September.
Festival of Jurby
With a break in racing on Sunday we head for the northwest corner of the Isle and the old Jurby airfield for the Festival of Jurby. By now we’ve all gotten completely comfortable riding on the left, and as a group we’re having a blast, hustling northwest along the TT route from Douglas before turning north at Ballacraine, then into the forest and past Sarah’s Cottage before rising up Creg Willey’s Hill and out into the open. It’s intoxicating, and we’re all astonished that we’re actually here, actually on the Isle, actually riding the Mountain Course.
Turning left just past Ballaugh Bridge, a famous hump where the faster racers get scarily airborne, we head for Jurby, one of the most amazing vintage bike gatherings in the world. The parking lot is a sea of motorcycles, with vintage BSAs and Rudges parked cheek by jowl next to modern Hondas and Triumphs. Throttles twist and megaphoned vintage race bikes bark to life, plying the lot before joining the queue at the airfield for exhibition runs. We watch open-mouthed as historic race bikes like Peter Williams’ Arter Matchless G50, Wagon Wheels — the first bike to wear cast mag wheels — roar past on the airfield track. An East German Simson 250 single, one of 15 AWO 425R race bikes made, glides by. Overhead, a World War II Spitfire and Hurricane fighter plane put on a show, the sea of spectators below taking it all in. Walking back through the lot I bump into famed motorcycle magician Allen Millyard, who’s there with his incredible 5,000cc (!) aero-engined Flying Millyard, which he rode to the event.
More bikes, more roads
The course is open except during racing, shutting down approximately 45 minutes before the first race. That leaves plenty of opportunity to run the course yourself, which everyone in our group does — some more than once. On Monday morning a group of us head out early before the day’s races. The locals appear to be staying home, and it feels like the road has been reserved for motorcycles only as we make the 37.73-mile loop. The local constables are notably present at Ramsey Hairpin, a show of authority designed to discourage any boy-racer tendencies as riders brake and bank hard left before heading up for the Gooseneck and Snaefell Mountain.
Our bikes aren’t fast, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling like TT participants as we work our way up Snaefell. The air turns suddenly cold as we head up into the fog-laden mountain and it feels literally a world apart, completely disconnected from the cheery, colorful lowlands, Snaefell’s denuded slope turning an odd shade of brown as we rise, a strong wind trying to blow us back. As we flash past Kate’s Cottage on the backside I spy Creg-ny-Baa ahead, for me the most famous bar in the world, the road dropping straight for it before banking hard right at its front door. It takes us 1 hour and 10 minutes to run the course, our average speed a thrilling 33.7mph. Two days before, McGuinness finished his four laps in the Senior TT in 1 hour 21 minutes, 20.25 minutes a lap and at an average speed of 111.559mph. On a 500cc twin. Unbelievable.
Tuesday is another rest day, and after breakfast we head back out on the course, this time going straight at Ballacraine Corner to St. John’s. The village was the start of the St. John’s Short Course, a point celebrated with an annual vintage bike show and run of the 15-mile course. A decidedly smaller event than Jurby, the bikes are no less impressive. What looks like a Panther turns out to be a Dunelt, this one powered by a Sturmey-Archer single, and next to it is a spectacularly original Douglas with its fore-aft horizontal twin. The show itself is short, as the main event for many is making the timed exhibition run of the Short Course.
From St. John’s we head west to Peel on the coast, stopping at Peel Castle on the west quay for a group photo and a spot of hot coffee. It’s been overcast since morning, and the mood suits the location, the castle ruins set against a gray sky, an empty, craggy coastline stretching to the south.
Leaving Peel, we head south through bucolic farmland and the villages of Glenmaye and Dalby before turning east, the road now taking us through a heather moorland — a peat bog — before rising to the top of Dalby Mountain, the barren, almost purplish landscape oddly contrasted by a plantation of green conifers. Surreally beautiful, it’s almost disappointing when the road starts dropping back toward the lowlands and the coastal village of Port Erin, where we stop for lunch.
Leaving Port Erin, the 1970 MV Agusta 350 I’ve been riding stalls and refuses to start. A few of the group stick with me as Eligio and the rest head out, and by the time I get the MV moving the rest of the group is … gone. But we know he’s heading for Castletown, the Manx capital until 1869, when that title was assumed by Douglas, and eventually we find the road to Castletown and a few miles later the rest of our group, who stopped, wondering where we were.
The day is starting to wear on all of us, so after a break for coffee in the shadow of the magnificent medieval Castle Rushen, we saddle up for the last leg of our ride back to Douglas.
Wednesday, our last day on the Isle, comes too quickly. A few get up in time to make a final run of the course before the Junior Manx GP, but I decide to just relax, meeting up with tech editor Keith Fellenstein and his wife, Elaine, for breakfast. The pair made the trek separately, but as luck would have it we ended up — with absolutely no planning — in the same hotel. On the same floor. Across the hall.
Keith and Elaine were here for the 2014 Classic TT on a rented BMW, but this time they’re travelling by foot and local bus or tram, experiencing the Isle from a different perspective. And with no bike, there’s more opportunity to savor the fine beers and local cuisine. Brilliant.
A few of us make our way to Quarter Bridge for the Junior Manx GP, riding there via Peel Road to the backside of the intersection, where we simply park our bikes in the lot next to the Quarter Bridge Pub, walk in, grab a pint, and then back outside to watch the action. Unbelievable.
Aites and I make one last run to Creg-ny-Baa, then head to the harbor to join the others for the ferry back. There, we learn that one of our group just had a slow-speed get-off, resulting in a punctured lung and a forced extended stay on the Isle. It’s sobering, because while we all know motorcycling carries risks, we can convince ourselves it won’t happen to us.
It’s pitch black when we land in Heysham. The MV has given up its electrics and I’m riding one of the backup bikes, a 2004 Honda VFR800. With real lights. Which turns out to be a good thing, because they’re not working on the Tornado or the Moto Morini K2. Aites, now riding the K2, duct tapes a flashlight to the Morini and the rest of us play wingman to provide cover.
Our last day is a blur. We’re tired, and trying to make time on the M40 to London is just a drag. Twenty-four hours ago we were riding some of the most glorious, most fabled roads in the world. Now, we’re sparring with trucks and Volvo wagons on the super slab. We have a few more minor issues, but eventually find our way to our hotel in Windsor, most of us now a little road weary after a full week on two wheels and almost happy to get off our bikes.
After a quick rest and change of clothes, we gather for a final dinner and farewell. Reliving the past week, we’re all revelling in the experience. It’s been the realization of a dream for every one of us, and we’re basking in the fresh memories of the incredible adventure we’ve had. “The Isle of Man TT races have been a bucket list item for 50 years,” Dick Nash says. “I’ve had a mental image of the Isle since I was a kid, and I’ve long imagined what it would be like to ride the Mountain Course. I got to fulfill one of my fondest fantasies.”
Reflecting on our tour and the challenges of making it on old bikes, Parks says what we’ve all been thinking: Our trip has had its share of trials and tribulations, yet those very things were part of what made it such an incredible adventure. “Broken clutch cables, leaking and flooded carburetors, dodgy electrics that threatened to — and did — plunge us into darkness made for what, on paper, looked like a pestilence, not a pleasure. But it wasn’t. It was magical,” Parks says.
When do we go back? MC