Greetings from greater Douglas, Isle of Man, where I have settled into the cozy confines of The Arrandale Hotel, for my tenth annual trip to the Isle of Man TT.

Off The Grid on the Isle of Man TT 2017

Off The Grid on the Isle of Man TT 2016

So, my original initial column was to be a preview of the upcoming races, highlighting the key story lines and battles to come. Then Dan Kneen died.

The beloved Manx rider from Onchan was killed in an incident at Churchtown in a practice session. At 30, he was an accomplished rider and paddock fixture, from a racing family with centuries-old roots in this island of 88,000 souls. To say a pall was cast over the entire island country would be an understatement. I interviewed Dan last year, and he was a big, beaming presence. While the TT has claimed many a rider over its 110 year history, this one was different. Close. Personal. Family.

In true Manx form, Dan’s father, Richard, a former TT rider himself, gave his blessing to press on regardless, saying “Dan would want us to be strong… and to crack on. Best wishes for all the other competitors – the TT show will go on. RIP my son Daniel Richard Kneen from DAD.”

James Hillier and Michael Dunlop await the starter’s signal ahead of the third qualifying session of TT 2018. Photo by Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

He is right of course, and the TT will roll on. But rather than spend more time in the paddock the day after this tragedy, I strapped on the helmet, got on my friendly-as-a-golden retriever Suzuki V-Strom 650 XT, and took to the hills to clear my head. Time to get Off the Grid on The Isle of Man again.

While thousands of bikes are wailing around the 37 ¾ mile circuit, often in packs and threading through the work-a-day traffic, I head to the winding paths and kinda-sorta-roads that criss-cross this magnificent island. They are virtually empty. It is a warm, clear day. And I find my benches.

A peaceful place on the IOM. Photo by Andrew Capone

First, there is ‘Lude’s Bench.’ Presented by his work colleagues… Lude must have been a well- loved man at his office. It sits overlooking the fly fishing-friendly Injebreck Reservoir up in East Baldwin. I head here every year on my first full day on the IOM, and just breathe, soak in the isolated beauty, and attempt to figure out what draws me back here year after year.

Yeah, it’s the TT. But there’s the beautiful coastline, the empty countryside, the castles, the ruins (called Tholtans), and the people, many of whom are now among my dearest friends. A sit on Lude’s bench helps me order all of this.

TT Virgins. They’ll be back. Photo by Andrew Capone

On a nearby bench (I didn’t see the naming plaque, but I imagine it was a gift from Lude back to his work colleagues, because Lude is like that,) I chat with Paul and Sally Solloway, of Southampton, England. TT virgins, but motorbike race fans, Paul has wanted to come since he was 18, and they finally pulled the trigger, riding a Honda Fireblade, 2 up, (note to my wife, Cynthia…ahem) to the Liverpool to IOM ferry, and all over the island, taking in the races and the scene. This happens every year. I meet first timers who had the TT on their bucket list. They think it will be a one-time deal. For most, it won’t be. I saw the twinkle in the Solloways’ eyes as I left them to head to my next bench. See you next year, Paul and Sally!

A nice, technical ride up and over Injebreck, over the tree line and back down, brings me to Druidale, population 3, and the Harry and Elsie Birchall memorial bench. A no-doubt loving couple, reunited forever. They would really enjoy their namesake bench, it’s in one of the most peaceful parts of the island. I enjoy a sandwich, and consider the Suzuki. It’s the right bike for the Isle of Man. No, not for the Mountain Course. For everything else. Tractable as all get out, soaks up the ox cart lanes, and not too precious. It’ll probably run for 30 years with a few oil changes. And the sheep seem unperturbed by the ’zook’s mellow exhaust patter, so it’s flock friendly. I’d definitely have one if I lived here. When I live here?

The view from the Birchall Bench. Photo by Andrew Capone

My third and final bench destination is back in Douglas, up the Douglas Head Road. There sits the Freddie and Elsie Quayle bench, and if you were going to park your keister on only one for a few hours, this is the one I’d suggest. A sweeping view of the Douglas harbor and coastline, all the way up to Onchan. The Steam Packet Ferry pulling in, heaving with hundreds of passengers and motorbikes about to embark for the magnificent week ahead. It’s a mint late afternoon, and my third bench session has delivered the desired result. Clearer head. Ready for the races. Time to heed Dan Kneen’s dad, and crack on.

Isle of Man TT: Cool and Unusual Motorcycles

OK, fine, here’s a little taste of what to expect this coming week. The first of four race days is Saturday, and unlike last year’s weather debacle, the warm weather and lack of rain have enabled the riders to achieve remarkable lap times in practice; there is a lot of rubber down on the course.

Dean Harrison (Kawasaki/Silicone Engineering) at Ballaugh Bridge during Monday evening’s Isle of Man TT qualifying session. Photo by Dave Kneen/Pacemaker Press

Dean Harrison is the man to watch this year. On Tuesday evening he delivered a stunning lap of 133.462mph, which unofficially broke the Superbike lap record and also saw him become the second rider to lap the Mountain Course in less than 17 minutes. In practice. From a standing start. Peter Hickman was close behind, with a lap of 132.81mph. In a year where many of the familiar names like McGuinness and Martin won’t be competing, look for Harrison, Michael Dunlop and Hickman to fight it out for podiums and the overall 2018 TT title.

Michael Dunlop (BMW/Tyco BMW) at Guthrie’s Memorial during Tuesday evening’s Isle of Man TT qualifying session. Photo by Photo by Dave Kneen/Pacemaker Press

The Formula Two Sidecars also set incredible practice paces with John Holden/Lee Cain pulling a 115.732mph, which was only three seconds outside their personal best. The Birchalls, Alan Founds/Jake Lowther and Dave Molyneux/Dan Sayle all put in record practice laps. The three wheelers will put on a magnificent show this TT.

John Holden/Lee Cain (LCR Honda/Silicone Engineering/Barnes Racing) at Ballaugh during Monday evening’s Isle of Man TT qualifying session. Photo by Dave Kneen/Pacemaker Press

So, let the races begin. Visit Motorcycle.com every day for results. Download the Manx Radio app, or listen on the website, to their superb live coverage each day. Set your DVR’s for Velocity Network’s coverage. And I’ll be posting a few more columns on the TT scene, paddock patter, cool people and places, food and beer (there are three beer tents this year!) and being out and about on this magical island for the greatest motorsports event on earth.