Inside the Isle of Man Tour

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus
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If there’s one place every vintage bike fan wants to visit, it’s the Isle of Man for the Classic TT and Manx GP. Since 1907, this island in the Irish Sea has been ground zero for motorcycle racing, making it perhaps the most storied place in all of motorcycling. All the greats raced here back in the golden years of GP racing, and in 2016 we finally made the pilgrimage, linking up with tour leader Eligio Arturi of Moto Touring and riding vintage bikes from London across England with 13 Motorcycle Classics readers. It was, to put it mildly, the trip of a lifetime, a bucket list item each and every one of us was thrilled to check off.

We published a full report on our Isle of Man tour in the March/April 2017 issue, and we thought it would be cool to catch up with some of the tour participants to get some feedback from them about why they went, what they expected and what they got. To give you a better idea of the people who rode with us, we asked them to round out the picture with a few details like how old they are, what they do for a living and what they ride today. Vintage bike fans appreciate modern bikes as much as old one, and not surprisingly many of our tour participants ride modern bikes when they tour, keeping their classics ready for special occasions and shows. Although there were a few stalwarts, for many riders, riding yesterday’s bikes in today’s traffic — on the “wrong” side of the road! — was a new experience, which made them love it all the more.

As you’ll read below, the experience was a thrill. It wasn’t always perfect, but it was memorable to the point of motivating some tour participants to write their own stories about their trip to the Isle of Man. Tour participant Mark Scott was so besotted by the experience he penned a full article on the tour — with photos — fully describing his experience. Speaking of Mark, this is an appropriate moment to acknowledge his input in shaping our own tour article referenced below. We weren’t halfway through the Motorcycle Classics Isle of Man Tour when Mark, after successfully conquering some roadside snafu, suggested that any story about our ride simply had to be titled “A recipe for adventure.” Mark hit it the nail on the head, and we followed suit — as did he! If you’ve been on the fence about going, read our story, read Mark’s story and read below what other tour participants said about the experience: You’ll be ready to start packing your bags for the 2017 races!

2016 Motorcycle Classics Isle of Man Tour Riders

Joel Parks
Age: 70
Years riding: 54
Occupation: TV writer/producer (ABC News, Fox, CBS, NBC)
Current bikes: 1966 Triumph Trophy, 1981 BMW R80 G/S, 1974 Moto Guzzi Eldorado, 2000 Suzuki DR650 and 2014 BMW R1200 GSW.

“I signed up to celebrate my 70th birthday. I had few expectations for the trip, other than being able to see great old bikes being ridden as they were intended by like-minded fools like myself!

“For old bike lovers, the Isle of Man is quite simply the Holy Land. After reading about the TT for better than 50 years, and playing “V Four Victory” over and over on my ancient VCR, places like Kate’s Cottage, Ago’s Leap, Ballaugh Bridge and the Creg-ny-Baa, had assumed biblical status in my mind, so actually going there and riding the storied island course on classic machines was a dream come true. But, looking back over the scribbled notes of my 10-day pilgrimage to this vintage bike promised land, it looks like I should have changed my name from Joel to Job. And I wasn’t alone.

“Broken clutch cables, leaking and flooded carburetors, dodgy electrics that threatened to plunge us into darkness -or prevent our bikes from running at all –and, of course, the ever-popular disappearing fasteners, made for what, on paper, looked like a pestilence, not a pleasure.

“But it wasn’t. It was magical.

“The weather was what locals called a “20 year event” (meaning it was nearly picture perfect and virtually rain-free) and our small “congregation” instantly bonded over the day’s trials and tribulations — which also provided great conversation-starters for our nightly beer-soaked “prayer” meetings.

“Not surprising considering most of us had ridden, or still ride and wrench on old bikes back home. We’re the kind of bikers whose face visibly brightens along with our turn signals when they are actually working; we marvel at the miracle of the “magic button” and how it sometimes spins an old engine to life without having to kick anything; we equate successfully tracking down a false ground with discovering a gold mine in the Nevada desert. So mechanical faults — and the bodges needed to right — them are nothing for us. Indeed, just the opposite. For this group of old bike pilgrims, the MotorcycleClassics 2016 Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling and Classic TT was a real religious experience. And, best of all, we didn’t have any droughts, plagues or swarms of locust to deal with.”

Richard “Dick” Nash
Age: 69
Years riding: 50
Occupation: Retired tool maker
Current bikes: A pair of Suzuki V-Stroms; a DL1000 with a trailer for touring from my Wisconsin base and a DL650 for the back roads of Arizona from my winter home in Mesa.

“The Isle of Man TT races have been a bucket list item for 50 years. When I saw the ad for the tour in Motorcycle Classics I signed up on the spot!

“I have had a mental image of the Isle of Man ever since I first read of the races when I was a kid in school. As with such things, the reality is always different than the image, but I was not disappointed! I have long imagined what it would be like to ride the mountain course. I got to fulfill one of my fondest fantasies. That is, riding a screaming machine flat out on the mountain! Yes, it was only an old Honda CB500 Four, but it felt like a nimble TT racer at full song and it made 75mph feel like a 150! When we finished that ride as a group there were shit-eating grins on every face!”

Davis Aites
Age: 43
Years riding: 23
Occupation: Enterprise software architect
Current bikes: 2007 Triumph Thruxton 900, 2001 BMW F650GS Dakar

“While I used to do yearly local trips around the Pacific Northwest, I’d been promising myself for a couple years that I’d get back out for a long ride. I realized that the combination of vintage bikes, a trip through the UK, going to the IOM — all were a trip of a lifetime. The whole idea struck me instantly as something I could not pass up, as I’d been passing up too many things in pursuit of work. I know the camaraderie that comes with multiple days on the road with a group, and instantly knew that I could never pass it up.

“The experience surpassed what I thought it could be. I wanted to ride old bikes on the Isle of Man; I’ve ridden enough non-new bikes and been around old machinery enough to realize that means adventure. I wanted the real experience of riding real bikes with real people, come what may, and found new friends as well as a country and a bike that I fell in love with.

“The entire experience was one big smile-inducing adventure, starting out on the first morning riding on the left side of the road, on a bike with right hand GP shift and kickstart only, and promptly taking a wrong turn and walking the bike back along the highway. This after snapping the key off in the ignition on my first kickstart, and spending the rest of the trip starting the bike with a multi-tool.

“Highlights included starting the cold Benelli on the first kick getting off the ferry to the Isle of Man and waking at 7 a.m. and riding the Isle of Man Mountain Course for the first time on my own at dawn, the Tornado singing sweetly as the open road unwound and the sun burned away the fog over Snaefell Mountain. How many times do you get to ride the full IOM course for the first time on a 1971 Benelli Tornado 650 in fine fettle? Then rolling back into town just as the rest of the group was ready to go, not even turning off the bike, and going back out for a second time.

“I’ll never forget the first nod of approval from Paulo as I began to learn to start the bike, or being tired, wet, cold and lost, with darkness looming and traffic getting bad, with two Americans and two Italians who couldn’t speak English. We called a taxi and paid the driver to drive to our hotel, following him through rush hour Birmingham traffic. I laughed in pure joy as we rolled into the hotel, pulled off my helmet, and couldn’t help exclaiming ‘That was awesome!’ And I’ll also never forget lane-splitting for 40 miles during incredible traffic on the M40 and M42 and watching news reports the next morning about the ‘worst traffic in recorded history.’

“We swapped bikes regularly, and handing the Benelli off to another rider, he asked me ‘anything I should know?’ ‘Nothing major,’ I said, ‘it’s running great.’ Later at the petrol station:
Him: ‘You could have mentioned the reverse shift pattern.’
Me: ‘Oh, right, forgot.’
Him: ‘The low beam doesn’t work.’
Me: ‘Ah, yes.’
Him: ‘The rear brake also locks up.’
Me: ‘Right, forgot to mention to not touch that.’
Him: ‘And all the gauges aren’t responding.’
Me: ‘Hmm, true.’

“I just hadn’t noticed, as every bike had its own personality, and little things like the above simply no longer registered. I’ll also never forget the pure politeness of everyone, guest and locals, on the IOM. Never rushed and always smiling, everyone was simply happy to be there. No trash, not a single cup or can even when there were 10 thousand people gathered at the Festival of Jurby. Everyone was too respectful to litter.”

Ken Maher
Age: 49
Years riding: 40
Occupation: Electrician
Current bikes: 2002 Harley-Davidson Superglide with frame-mounted Vetter fairing and a barn-find 1966 Harley-Davidson FLH waiting to be restored … and a mini-bike.

“I’d looked into making this trip before. It’s not an easy thing to set up on your own, even for someone who travels a lot. From the U.S., it’s best to go with a tour group, unless you’re tagging along with friends from Europe. When I saw it in the mag, I knew this was my chance. My wife said, ‘Why wouldn’t you go, what’s stopping you?’ She was right, it was the chance to go to the Mecca of motorcycle racing. I registered by week’s end.

“I’ve had a fold-out of the course from a European mag, with McGuiness explaining the track, pinned up in my garage for close to 20 years, and I’ve been reading about or watching the race on TV for years, along with the Northwest 200 and a handful of the other European road races. So I kind of knew what to expect of the race and the paddock and such. But once you’re there, it’s more than you think.

“The whole vibe of the island is something of its own. There are people there from all over the world, yet it maintains a small town feel, a camaraderie of strangers brought together by a passion for motorcycles. The ferry sticks out most in my mind. They hand you a piece of foam as you’re riding to the ramp, minutes later you’re parking your bike as tight as you can against a railing, all while the crew is running around lashing bikes to the rail or to each other. In the morning a horn blows when you dock and the scramble starts: Get to your bike, untie it, load your gear back on and go — the whole time engulfed in exhaust fumes and revving motorcycles all around you.

“Sheer joy for me was riding down the ramp onto the Isle of Man flanked by two old Vincents, and riding the Mountain Course everyday was a dream come true. It was a great group of people and I really enjoyed myself. Might see me on the next tour — Viva la Cuba!

John Stockman
Age: 74
Years riding: 50-plus
Occupation: Industrial designer (trying to be semi-retired without much success)
Current bikes: 2016 Honda CRF250L, 1997 Yamaha Virago XV1100, 1992 Yamaha XJ600 Seca2, 1980 Yamaha XS1100 (not running), 1967 Bultaco Metralla MKII (being leisurely restored), 1972 Bultaco Alpina, 1999 Bultaco-branded Sherco trials bike

“I think I was the old man of our group. I’ve been riding for more than 50 years. My first bike was a Honda CB90 in college. It’s the only bike I’ve ever sold, and I wish I hadn’t. Craig Vetter was a class mate at the time and riding a Bridgestone 90. I think he drew his first fairings as part of a senior project.

“The tour struck me as the opportunity of a lifetime so I didn’t think twice. I had looked into getting to the Isle in the past and it seemed fraught with hassles and costs, so having someone else deal with that and provide vintage bikes to boot was too good to let pass.

“My expectations were exceeded in every way and our shared experiences are still in my thoughts daily. Aside from my untimely get-off on our way to the ferry the last day, I couldn’t agree more with Mike, Joel, and Tim about the memories and experiences. The ‘herding cats’ analogy, riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, the endless bikes, the Mountain Course, great weather, spectacular scenery, good ale, the breakdowns and our Italian cohorts diligently making repairs were all memorable, but as always the people make the experience special.

“I actually enjoyed my extra time on the island to do some non-riding things and get to know some local folks. My stuff beat me home and I’m glad everyone made it safely (but not without some more adventures, it seems). Ride safe, everyone.”

Editor’s note: John had the misfortune of clipping a curb and going down on the Honda he was riding — at literally the last hour on our last day in Douglas on the Isle of Man. Although he was going quite slow at the time, he suffered enough injury to have to stay in hospital in Douglas for the better part of a week before finally flying back home, having missed our ride back to London and our last few days as a group.

Tim Ivers
Age: 70
Years riding: 55
Occupation: Veterans claims adjudicator and vintage bike restoration.
Current ride: 1958 Ariel square Four, 1961 Matchless G12 CSR, 1971 BSA Lightning, 2000 Honda Valkyrie Interstate and a 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120.

“I turned 70 on the trip. Through the years, I’ve owned just about every brand of post WW II British bike that was sold in the US and at least one of each of the Japanese brands. When I was a very young man, I thought I could be a racer, The Isle was the pinnacle of road racing. In the Sixties there was a famous picture of Mike Hailwood dressed in all black leathers on the Honda 6-cylinder going around the Island. I wanted to be Mike Hailwood, I wanted to ride the Honda Six and I wanted to race the Isle of Man. My racing career went nowhere, but I was still always fascinated by the Isle and the guys who raced there: Phil Read, Giacomo Agostini and Joey Dunlop were my heroes.

“In 1992, I lucked into a Vincent basket case, and I bought it and restored it. After 24 years, I sold it for an obscene amount of money, and a portion of the proceeds paid for the trip.

“I had no expectations other than to ride the course, which I did several times. On one lap, I took it slow just to drink it all in, stopping at special places like Ballaugh Bridge and downtown Ramsey just to sit and absorb it.

“The unexpected pleasure was the beauty of the Isle itself. All around the course, the scenery was spectacular. The Isle itself is a kind of time warp back to the 1960s: I only saw one fast food place on the whole Island. The people were extremely kind and patient. In central Florida, where I live, I would have been run over several times, but folks there just waved.

“I’ve been on other group tours, and those all made sure the riders knew where we would end the day, so that if we got separated we could still find the group. This tour, you kept up or got abandoned. When we were riding through Birmingham we got broken up and those left behind had no clue where we were headed. We eventually found the lead group through blind luck. On the trip back some folks got lost in Windsor. I think Eligio could have made better preparations, and with a group as big as ours was, there should have been at least two leaders who knew where we going.

“This trip was still the fulfillment of a dream for me, and I had a wonderful time. The people in the group were all very nice and wonderful traveling companions, with no negativity from anyone. It was a great time.”

Mike Courtney
Age: 62
Years riding: 46
Occupation: Retired computer software designer
Current rides: 1981 Yamaha XV920

“All my brothers (four of ’em) and my dad have been into bikes for as long as I can remember. At one point my roommate and brother and I had 11 bikes in our apartment garage.

“When I saw the advert in Motorcycle Classics for the Isle of Man trip I knew my teenage dream was finally gonna happen. I rented a new Triumph 900 in the San Francisco bay area and took some practice runs to all my old favorite riding spots, including stopping at Alice’s Restaurant several times.

“The trip, well now, the trip was better than all the day dreams combined, starting with incredible weather and great riding buddies. The stories and adventures that you all shared filled a 20-year hole in my biking soul.

“I took hours of GoPro video and in some segments you can hear me laughing over the sound of the bike. Every turn has been mentally imprinted and stored for years of play back.

The bikes, the bikes, the bikes. I got to see and hear bikes that I’ve only read about before. The Flying Millyard V-twin was fantastic, and the Kawi 666 4-cylinder blew my mind — a couple of times. The bikes parked on the sidewalks and in the parking lot at the Festival of Jurby were just as beautiful as any of the bikes in the race paddocks. And the British National Motorcycle Museum … incredible.

“Were my expectations met? Oh hell yes — and exceeded in every measure. It was a great adventure, warts, wiggles and all, and the highlights … well, there’s too many to mention them all, but they include sitting with our feet dangling over the edge of the course on the run past Kate’s Cottage and down to the Creg-Ny-Baa turn on the back side of Mount Snaefell, with bikes flying by just in time to hit their braking points and some (the really fast guys) still on the gas for another few yards before popping up and railing the turn. Wicked!”

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