As Sunday unfolded, an unfamiliar yellow orb rose in the sky over the Isle of Man, and a stiff wind blew the eerie mist known as The Cloak of Mannanan out to the Irish Sea. Weary sojourners emerged from crowded pubs and soggy tents. The TT Paddock buzzed with energy. After five consecutive days of qualifying canceled and racing delayed, motorbikes and sidecar outfits took to the 37.73-mile Mountain Course in anger. The 2019 TT was finally on.
This year’s races are wide open. Conor Cummins, Michael Rutter, Peter Hickman, Dean Harrison, Lee Johnston, Ian Hutchinson, James Hillier, Michael Dunlop, and the back-from-the brink John McGuinness (pictured above on the new Norton) are all in the mix, and despite the travails of this week, will be fighting for the podium.
Unlike last year’s meet, with resplendent, flawless weather, it’s been a grind so far for the 44,000 visitors, 86,000 IOM inhabitants, 1500 TT Marshals, and hundreds of riders and race team members. Even the rapidly multiplying, zoo-escapee population of feral wallabees have an edge to them.
For the racers and their support teams, there is no substitute for time on the track. Racing bikes prepped for 151 miles of public roads on a course largely unchanged since 1911 are not kitted like those used for short circuits or lesser road races. And 278 turns at unreal speed require refamiliarization.
I caught up with rider Shaun Anderson in the soggy paddock. He’s riding BMW S1000RR Superbike and Superstock machines this year for NW Racing, and a Zero electric for Duffy Motorsport /KAST Energy. Anderson recorded his best ever lap around the TT Course on the final lap of last year’s RST Superbike Race at an average speed of 128.672mph. “It is tough,” he said. “After cancellations and sitting around in our gear as the qualifying sessions are delayed hour by hour, then cancelled, I feel like we are going home more tired than if we were riding. But you focus, and keep looking ahead and then try to plan to get the most you can as you know race days are getting closer.”
Clerk of the Course Gary Thompson has had little sleep and much agita, constantly gathering input, analyzing weather data, redeploying human assets (like the 530 Marshals stationed, valiantly, around the course) and rescheduling qualifying and races. There has been almost universal admiration for the job he has done this year in impossible conditions.
Arriving last week for ‘Practice Week’ and the Pre-TT Classic races on the Billown Circuit allowed for a good deal of touring the island and meeting up with old friends, rubbish weather be damned. I bought a Suzuki V-Strom 650XT from Jason Griffiths Motorcycles to stash over here for my annual visits, and it is the ideal machine for bounding about the tight and twisty B- roads, sweeping glens, and open sections of the Mountain Course. I caught an electronic music set by the supremely talented Richard Quirk (aka Sandfingers) at the incomparable Foraging Vintners in Port Erin. Pennsylvanian first-timers and Kawasaki ZRX enthusiasts Isaac and Kasia Meeder followed me from the southern tip of the Island, the breathtaking Calf of Man, all the way north to Bride, with a stop at the Creg-Ny-Baa to watch qualifying. They’ll be back.
The solitude of the inner spine of the island allows for perfect off-the-grid moments, and I took great advantage of the emptiness, chatting up the occasional fellow traveler like Ruud Schlicher of the Netherlands as we took a break in the sheep enclave of Druidale. He came over on his ’98 Suzuki Bandit S, owned since new, a bike that has taken him to races all over Europe. “I come here for the unbridled passion of the TT, and the unique beauty of the island.” he said. I concur.
John Santapietro, my TT traveling partner of the last eight years arrives, and we head to what is the newest, and one of the best race viewing places, the new Black Dub. An old mill and guest house at Glen Helen, with a long view of the course, a food truck and fine libations by the Foraging Vintners folks, it is the inspiration of Al Morris, entrepreneur and founder of clothing brand Uggly and Co. He told me, “I have a deep passion for motorbikes and the TT, so I took over what was a decrepit place and restricted area, and I’m turning it into a new Mecca and meeting point for TT enthusiasts and the locals for the rest of the year.” Check it out if you get over here.
We’re at the wonderful Ginger Hall today. The 37-¾-mile track is covered with hundreds of vantage points, from delightful pubs to hedges in the middle of nowhere. I’m working on hitting them all in the years ahead. Stay tuned for my next report in a few days.