Mr Tate gets an offer he can’t refuse – to go to the TT races at the Isle of Man!
Since 1907, roads on the Isle of Man (in the Irish Sea between Ireland and the U.K.) have been closed every June for the Tourist Trophy races thanks to an Act of Tynwald (the Island’s parliament, the oldest functioning parliamentary government in the world).
From 1949 to 1976 the "races" (they’re actually time trials, with the riders sent off at 10-second intervals) were part of the World Championship; from 1977 to 1990 they were considered part of the world "Formula One" title, and since then it’s been run as a stand-alone event called the Isle of Man TT Festival.
It still attracts huge interest from the manufacturers, who use victories there as invaluable advertising fodder all over the U.K. and Continental Yurp.
It’s certainly not just an English phenomenon; there were as many folks speaking German and French and Italian as English in the paddocks most days, and the countryside is dotted with temporary road signs reading in German "fahren linken!" (drive left!).
I’ve always been a bit ambivalent, to say the least, about the idea of racing on public roads. Every year riders get killed, and it’s not unknown for spectators to die as well (no surprise when you actually see the roads). I’ve even written harsh words about the event in the past.
Then a couple of years ago I ran across the work of Stephen Davison, a man so gifted with a camera that it makes you want to weep for your own pathetic efforts.
Davison specializes in Irish road racing (like the TT, racing in Ireland is on public roads) and the Isle of Man races (there are actually two other major meets in addition to the TT) and his obvious love of the sport and close personal knowledge of many riders rekindled my interest in the place.
Besides, if you’re a motorcyclist, the Isle of Man TT has to be on your lifetime bucket list, right?
So about a month before this year’s TT I got a call from one of my countless brothers-in-law (the parents of She Who Must Be Obeyed and her family were dedicated Catholics) to say that his son Ron had chanced into a vacant time-share on the Island, and bro-in-law (being an Air Canada pilot) could arrange an ultra-cheap flight, so would I care to join them?
Well, twist my rubber arm.
IT’S SUNNY IN MIDDLE EARTH
We got unbelievably lucky with weather. The whole Ireland/U.K. area is of course famed for rain and fog (and considering that the Island’s latitude is actually north of freaking Edmonton when you look at a map it’s unbelievable that the place is inhabitable at all – I guess that Gulf Stream stuff really works) but we had none of that in the week we were there.
Having said that, the racing was cancelled one day because on "the mountain" (Snaefell, an entire 621 metres above sea level) the shrieking winds off the Irish Sea and clouds of intermittent fog made the track unusable.
Despite this, the rest of the island was basking in unseasonable sun and high temperatures, so we just went sightseeing instead (see pic below).
Honestly, more or less as I expected, the "racing" isn’t even remotely interesting to watch, except for the shock value of the speeds and places they do them in. Since the riders set off at 10-second intervals, there’s no actual racing to watch; it’s more like what we’d call timed qualifying.
Plus, with a 37.73 mile (60.7 km track) course and races running from three (sidecars) to four (600s) to six laps (superbikes) you only see each machine come by every 20 minutes or so – mostly at warp speed in a straight line.
To get any clue as to what is actually happening you need a radio to listen to a broadcast about how riders are doing from point to point. Really, how exciting is that?
But to go to the Isle of Man to just watch the racing is missing the point. It’s the place itself that is unbelievable. It’s like a combination of Middle Earth and an English fairy-tale of a hundred years ago – with a population of happy and hospitable hobbits.
Our first experience of the latter was being picked up by a taxi at the airport, or so we thought. Turned out that it was just a guy being picked up by his wife who thought they’d offer us a ride since they had some room in the car. We weren’t really going where they lived, but that was okay …
MADNESS IS AS MADNESS DOES
The next day we spent in the paddock area, got our passes and so forth and watched the Superbike race from there.
In my opinion the paddock is the best place to be for the racing, and — much like any other racetrack in the world — there’s lots going on, pit stops to watch, beer tent handy (oops, was that my outside voice?).
The next best place to be is at the pub just after the race. We found just such an establishment down near the Douglas promenade (where all the wild social life was centred) where we met a guy who lived just up the street and worked across the corner.
Turns out he takes TT week off every year, and he duly appointed himself our tour guide for the week. "Go to St. Mary’s school at the St. Ninian’s bus stop to watch the Monday race, then call me Monday night and we’ll go for a drive around the course on Tuesday as there’s no racing that day."
We did and we did, and Roy spent Tuesday chauffeuring us all around the Island. Honestly, driving the track in a Peugeot station wagon is more terrifying than watching the crazy on-bike videos, as you get a MUCH better appreciation of how narrow and rough the roads are and how close the curbs, walls, buildings, trees, and people are.
The thought of riding a bike at a spirited pace, let alone trying to race against the clock, is enough to make you ill. I got more respect for the people racing there in that slow lap than I ever had from watching vids of the actual action. Frightening beyond belief.
Roy says, "Meet me tomorrow lads, and I’ll take you out to my favourite viewing spot, yeah?" Why not?
We end up at Cronk-y-Voddy, basically a straight(ish) piece of up-and-down narrow two-lane that’d be not much above a paved cow path in Ontario.
You sit on the bank with your feet on the edge of the pavement while the bikes go by absolutely flat-fucking-out, the superbikes approaching 200 mph (322 km/h). You could reach out and touch them, if you were mad enough and didn’t happen to like your hand.
Mind you, thinking about it, just sitting there is mad enough …
ALE OF MAN
I’d go back to the Island in a heartbeat, motorcycles or not. It’d be easy to spend a month on that little piece of real estate; it’s only about 25 x 50 km in size, but packs an incredible amount of scenery and topography into the space.
There are about 80,000 people there — roughly a third of those in Douglas the capitol — and if there’s anyone there with a chip on their shoulder or an attitude that needs adjusting, we certainly didn’t run across them. Incredibly hospitable and friendly folk.
Not to mention fabulous pubs galore, including one, The Sidings Inn in Castletown (used to be the Island’s capitol in the old days) that has the best beer I’ve ever tasted.
Good story: there used to be three breweries on the Island, Okell’s, Bushy’s (which calls itself the Ale of Man), and Castletown. Okell’s bought Castletown and closed it, and the brewmaster went to work for Bushy’s. The Sidings Inn and its clientele missed their Castletown Bitter, so the inn asked the brewmaster if he could brew up some in his spare time. He asked his new bosses at Bushy’s, who said "Sure, why not?",
Today you can get Castletown Bitter at The Sidings Inn, and there alone. If you’re a true beer fan, it’s a religious experience.
When I can raise the money, I’m going back with She Who Must Be Obeyed, who will love the views, the countryside, the shops, and the remarkable museum. In deference to her general lack of interest in motorcycle racing, it won’t be during TT week, but that’s okay.
The tech guy I spoke to said the lesser-known Manx meeting at the end of August is much more interesting anyway …