Okay, a handful of MO readers and Kevin Duke have wondered aloud when my next report from the 2017 Isle of Man TT would arrive. Did a tailless Manx cat eat my homework? No. What went down was seasonal-affective disorder – triggering weather, a mangled race schedule, and a surfeit of reasons to not submit columns about the pubs I was spending an inordinate amount of time in. The knock along effects of the wet, cold low-pressure bubble that enveloped the IoM turned the TT into a logistical challenge of epic proportions for race organizers, riders, and barkeeps. And forced visiting race fans and part-time pseudo journalists (I count myself in both categories) deep into the pubs, where the cask ale was fine but the stories unprintable. So, now safely back in hot, dry New Jersey, I’ll do my best to capture the TT scene belatedly.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Three more riders died this year, Alan Bonner, Jochem van den Hoek, and Davey Lambert. Road racing on the Isle of Man has seen over 250 competitor fatalities over 110 years, which puts it in marked contrast with modern, civilized sporting contests. You know, the ones that only cause crippling physical pain, brain damage and early onset dementia.
The TT is, indeed, extremely dangerous, and some people want it to end. The clucking on social media and in the sports pundit community (ahem, Bryant Gumbel) reached a fevered pitch last week. But, suggest ending the TT to any rider, virtually every Isle of Man resident or visitor, and millions of fans, and you’ll get the tongue-lashing you deserve. The TT remains the last, best motorsports event on Earth, and turn away if you don’t like it. Watch golf. Or MotoGP.
The entire vibe of the TT was different this year, though. The qualifying and races were bunched up and compressed further as the fortnight dripped along. It was tough settling in at race-watch locations or planning your activities, as rescheduling, red flags and restarts wreaked havoc. And, yet, only one race was cancelled. Race organizers, Clerk of the Course Gary Thompson, and the ‘Orange Army,’ the IOMTT Marshals stayed focused and determined.
Let’s talk about the Marshals. These unpaid volunteers are essential to the TT, with just over 500 needed to be in correct positions around the course before a race or a practice can start, and more than 1500 required to cover the two weeks. They handle flagging, radios, race incidents, crowd control and road closings. When bad stuff happens, the TT Marshals are often the ones to save a rider’s life. I’ve been a TT Marshal for nine years now, and if you ever go to the TT, volunteer for a few sessions. Marshaling offers the best race view, a chance to meet wonderful, colorful people, and intense connection to the TT.
This year was a transitional year for the TT paddock. The absence of injured King of the Mountain, John McGuinness, was clearly felt. Guy Martin came back but suffered a crash on the new Honda Fireblade that injured his arm and caused even more consternation in the Honda paddock. Sixteen-time TT winner Ian Hutchinson fractured his femur, in the same leg he almost lost six years ago, in a crash during the red-flagged first start of the Senior. Cameron Donald was in the broadcast booth rather than on a Norton, and 48-year-old crowd favorite Bruce Anstey won the TT Zero electric bike race for Mugen but didn’t fully factor in to podium contention the rest of the week.
But a new generation of riders has emerged, and the podium for the Senior TT saw three under-30 riders holding up trophies: Michael Dunlop, who lived up to his boast that it doesn’t matter what bike he’s on, he’ll win, Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison. Hickman won the Joey Dunlop TT Championship after five podiums in every class, establishing himself firmly as a future legend. Sidecar grids were full, and the Birchall Brothers won both slidey races, setting a new lap record in the bargain. The TT is regenerating itself with new talent, 110 years into its glorious history.
I caught up with Hector Neill, owner of the TAS Racing Tyco BMW team, who told me, between answering better questions than mine being lobbed by a swarm of Isle of Man school children, that “Almost any of these younger riders can win on any of the new machines, from BMW, Suzuki, Honda, even Norton.” I asked him about how the weather was affecting the team, and he laughed and said, “Well, our compound is getting flooded!” He then noted that, “We’re not going to see the top speeds we saw last year, the track is too green, not enough rubber down.” He was right; no lap records were set this year on solo machinery.
Across the paddock, I chat with the Penz13.com BMW Team riders, Manxman Dan Kneen, Alessandro “Alex” Polita, and Danny Webb. Webb was honest about the lack of practice and ever-changing schedule. “You do the best you can, but it does require you to be more cautious and dial it in slow.” Webb would be hurt in a crash during practice a day later but back in the paddock to cheer on Polita and Kneen, who grabbed his first podium ever with a third place in the Superstock contest.
So, the races eventually went off, but, as I’ve covered before, the other great element of attending the TT is what goes on around the Isle of Man during the meet. And with expensive rental motorcycles waiting outside the Arrandale Hotel, we dodged the raindrops best we could to take in the sights and spectate from around the island.
The weather turned sunny and warm for Senior Race Day, and after watching some great action at Ballacraine Corner, we hopped on our bikes and enjoyed a spirited ride over South Barrule, the highest point in the south of the island, considered the home of the Manx god of the sea Mannanan. No doubt as a tribute to him, the A27 Colby to Peel and A36 Sloc roads which cross it are among the best on the IoM, empty and smooth, with jaw-dropping vistas. We visit Niarbyl, a rocky promontory on the southwest coast with spectacular sea views and a fisherman’s cottage familiar to anyone who has seen the film Waking Ned Devine.
Here we take measure of the bikes we rented from the excellent Jason Griffiths Motorcycles. John Santapietro, a Jersey track-day junkie and owner of some impressive bikes including a KTM 1190 Adventure, is highly complimentary of the new, improved Suzuki V-strom 650 XT (recently reviewed here on MO by John Burns), declaring it a massive improvement over last year’s iteration. It’s the bike he’d choose as the ideal all-rounder for the IoM.
My 2017 Kawasaki Versys 650 gets quite rorty over the mountain. It is comfortable and nimble, and it looks good; I’ve had a fair number of people compliment it. But the Kaw’s Versys-ness ends where the roads do. It may be styled like an ADV, but the 17-inch road-rubber shod wheels lead to sketchy behavior even on packed dirt, never mind some of the Viking-era oxcart paths across the IoM’s hinterlands. I’d own one, though, and I prefer it over the V-Strom. Lothar rates the Kawasaki Z650 as enjoyable, sporty, and slightly more nimble than his 1954 Horex Regina sidecar rig.
We spend a fine day at the Creg-ny-Baa, watching races from the iconic balcony. We pay our annual visit to the Vicar at Bride Church for the TT Tea, a blessing and some laughs, and at the end of Senior Race day, we settle in at Port Erin on a glorious afternoon, enjoying the coolest new place to open on the IoM this year, Foraging Vintners. Owners Ian Swindells, and Marybeth Coll, who reverts to her native Freehold, New Jersey, accent after John and I reveal that we are from the very same exit on the Garden State Parkway, have built a working winery that uses local produce to create sparkling wines and mead. The pink-hued sparkling rhubarb wine is Moscato-like and refreshing. (Admit it, you’ve never read a sentence like that in a motorcycle race article before.) The small plates and Ploughman’s pie are tasty. The triptych in the bar of Dunlop, McGuinness and Martin/Hutchy is remarkable art. The view is spectacular. And we soon forget about the drenchings, wacky scheduling and limited riding we’ve dealt with this week.
All week at the grandstand the crowds are thick and excitement high. I meet Paul Hardy from Tamworth, England. On one of the 14,000 motorcycles that came over on the ferry, and a TT virgin but extensive motorcycle road-tripper, he represents what this event is all about. He is “completely awed by the scene, the sheer excitement of the races, and the friendliness of the crowd.” He’s going to come back many times, even though he doesn’t know it yet. Just like me, 10 TTs after my once-in-a-lifetime trip.
I’ll have a highlight video for y’all in a few days, and I’m counting down to TT 2018 already.
|Senior TT||Superbike TT|
|1. Michael Dunlop||1. Ian Hutchinson|
|2. Peter Hickman||2. Peter Hickman|
|3. Dean Harrison||3. Dean Harrison|
|Supersport TT||Superstock TT|
|1. Michael Dunlop||1. Ian Hutchinson|
|2. James Hiller||2. Peter Hickman|
|3. Peter Hickman||3. Dan Kneen|
|Lightweight TT||TT Zero|
|1. Michael Rutter||1. Bruce Anstey|
|2. Martin Jessopp||2. Guy Martin|
|3. Peter Hickman||3. Daley Mathison|
|Sidecar TT Race 1||Sidecar TT Race 2|
|1. Ben Birchall/Tom Birchall||1. Ben Birchall/Tom Birchall|
|2. John Holden/Lee Cain||2. John Holden/Lee Cain|
|3. Dave Molyneux/Daniel Sayle||3. Conrad Harrison/Andrew Winkle|