In 2008, as I flew back from my ‘bucket list’ trip to the Isle of Man, it dawned that I would not be able to resist the ne plus ultra road races and atmosphere of the Isle of Man TT. So I furiously crafted the mental PowerPoint presentation for my wife, kids and boss on why I’d need two weeks off every June for the next 25 years or so.
It worked! So here I am again in my happy place, and not unlike the riders gradually learning the Mountain Course, but with far less troubling outcomes for mistakes, my annual TT pilgrimage has gotten better each year. And while the races remain central to the experience, it is getting out and about on the Isle of Man on motorbike, foot and the occasional steam train, that makes the fortnight so special and so different from virtually any other motorsports event.
But first, my layover in London coincided with the Bike Shed Show, a rapidly growing event organized by the eponymous club in Shoreditch. Cheap shots at ‘hipsters’ be damned, (yes, there was a beard trimming booth and ample skull-centric artwork available,) it was an impressive show. Over 200 custom motorcycles selected from the best builders in the UK and Europe were on display, and manufacturers such as Honda, Herald, CCM and Royal Enfield were on board. While we may have crossed the ‘peak knobby’ threshold, there were a number of inventive builds.
I chatted with actor/adventurer/motorbike enthusiast Charley Boorman, who I’ve met a few times at the TT. He was promoting his new book ‘Long Way Back,’ and is an investor in the café/club/movement that is the Bike Shed MC.
“This is all the vision of founder Dutch (Anthony van Someren) but has morphed into something much bigger,” he told me. “And, well, just look around!” I did, and it was quite the scene. “We’re planning on growing it internationally,” Charley added, “including the U.S.” Stay tuned, hip-MO-sters.
Touch down on the IoM coincides with Stephen King-esque mist, but I score my rental bike from top-flight Jason Griffiths Motorcycles, a brand new Kawasaki Versys 650. First stop was the Pre-TT Classic Road Races, held on the 4.25-mile Billown Course. The nine-race program covers everything from single-cylinder 250s to Classic Superbikes and Sidecars. The course, the classic bikes, the sweet smell of Castrol R, and the overall laid-back atmosphere make for a totally different experience to the TT, and there is a race-bike concours and awards presentation in the Square at Castletown afterwards. If you do a TT trip, try and get in early, just for this event.
I ride over to the TT paddock behind the iconic Grandstand, which unlike the impenetrable ones at other race meets, feels more like a flea market where the primary product is racing motorcycles rather than 8-packs of tube socks. Flashing my press credential like Wayne and Garth’s backstage pass for Aerosmith, I chat with a few teams and inspect the machinery.
I’m fascinated by the Mugen crew, wielding multiple laptops and tools made of artisanal tungsten, hard at work on the stunning Shinden Roku electric superbike. Mugen will attempt to bring home its fourth consecutive victory at the TT Zero.
Mugen Team members Yasu Ishikawa and Taku Nagami tell me that they are eyeing the 120-mph average lap-speed barrier, a modest goal considering the 119-mph record lap that John McGuinness managed last year. With Guy Martin and Bruce Anstey riding the Mugen this year, expect a TT Zero win and new lap record. But until the electric bikes can manage more than one lap, there will always be some skepticism from fans. I ask Ishikawa when he sees the confluence of range and speed to yield a two-lap (75 ½ mile) TT Zero race, and he demurs, but then says 3 to 5 years. I hope he’s sandbagging.
A dreary and wet first week means cancellation or curtailment of virtually all of the practice sessions. But conditions have improved, and a massively retooled qualifying and race schedule for the remainder of the meet is in play. My mates John, Lothar and Peter and I are undaunted, with a goal of racking up the miles on our rental bikes and viewing the races from as many different locations as possible.
Some of the vantage points are old favorites, others new to me, but all are fantastic. So we take to the back roads that I now know well, avoiding traffic jams and closed roads, and allowing for multiple locations in a single day. The TT Mountain Course provides scores of viewing options, and one can watch from hedges, walls, church gardens, grandstands and pubs. You can guess which ones are my favorites.
The Raven Pub provides a unique perspective on the racers’ sheer superhuman abilities. We eat Manx burgers and enjoy an Okell’s Bitter at a table with a window view of where bikes land after jumping the iconic Ballaugh Bridge and accelerate away at full throat. Out in the beer garden, you can see the exit from Ballaugh where the best riders use all of the narrow road, helmets and shoulders just missing houses. Oh, and the Raven offers an excellent sticky toffee pudding, which will be highlighted in my ‘Cakes of the Isle of Man ’ documentary. Script is in turnaround.
Across the island, we ride up a rugged road-like path to The Gooseneck, an acute uphill right-bend between the 25th and 26th Milestones, just after the climb up from Ramsey and the start of the Mountain. It is popular with spectators and film-crews, and offers great sightlines and atmosphere. Great spot for sidecar watching, as the slidey passengers are all that keeps the outfit from visiting the fields.
Hillberry is situated at the 36th Milestone, and we soak in the first Supersport race there, won by Michael Dunlop, with the Sidecar race won by Ben and Tom Birchall. Viewing at Hillberry gives an uninterrupted view all the way to the left-hand corner at Brandish, down the 180-mph descent, right through the 140-mph right-hander and kink to the left. It’s fast and close.
I’m posting a montage of shaky, amateur iPhone-shot video from some of the locations we’ve viewed from so far this week to give you a sense of the speed and how close you can get to the action.
Lots more to come: the list of pubs, hedges, events and pubs is long. Race results and TT intrigue are being covered here on MO. Stay tuned for more from the Isle of Man 2017.