It’s rare that a race meeting kicks off with a 4.30am kebab but as we thread our way through Liverpool during the early hours of Sunday morning among the late-night revellers, it’s hard not to wonder what on earth is going on. Our three vehicle convoy is bound for the docks and a date with an unpleasantly timed ferry to Douglas on the Isle of Man. I think I’d rather still be awake and chomping a kebab; only coffee and bacon can save me now.
Our party comprises two motorcycles and one heavily laden Porsche 911 Turbo. Ahead of us lies – with luck – a smooth ferry sailing followed by nine days of hedonistic speed freakery.
We are soon disgorged onto the quayside at Douglas. Apparently a couple of the motorcyclists departing the boat have managed to drop their bikes on the exit ramp. The trip does not bode well for them.
The scene greeting us at Douglas is mild bedlam. The last time I witnessed such two-wheeled madness was the MotoGP at Mugello – and this adds a layer of music festival inebriation into the mix. The sound of sports bikes fill the air – as it does for the entire trip – but they are punctuated by thumping enduros, most of them employing the back wheel only. Meanwhile a couple of chaps are desperately trying to make it uphill on a pair of old machines which, while undeniably splendid, are apparently unable to travel more than 100 metres at a time without requiring mechanical assistance.
A cyclist, obviously in drink and heavily laden, meanders into my path. He drops his can of Carling to the ground and bends over to pick it up, the momentum of his rucksack almost throwing him over. With tin retrieved, he continues on his way, with no care for the traffic jam which has built up behind him.
Almost before we know it, we find ourselves at the Quarterbridge pub. Two awkward siamesed roundabouts negotiated and we’re on the Mountain course – the very spot we’ve been watching on the telly. It feels surreal and the temptation to gun it like Dunlop is strong. A vast campsite opens up to the right and soon we’re at Braddan Bridge – an obvious landmark thanks to the tree sprouting from the mini roundabout. All the kerbs are decorated with white stripes…the reality hits: we’re at the bloody TT!
Sadly, we were unable to get the outbound ferry we really wanted so we have missed the first day of racing action and we’ve landed on the island on Mad Sunday. We decide to do the sensible thing: unpack and get straight back out to do some shopping meaning we’re prepared for the next few days. It looks like there is just one proper supermarket in Douglas – and by extension probably on the whole of the island. Mercifully there are still a few items available in Tesco so we stock up and head back to our AirBnB house for food and mooted rest.
In spite of having had only three hours’ sleep, none of our little party can resist the urge to get out and explore the place, and especially to clock a lap of the Mountain Course. Mad Sunday is perhaps not quite so mad as it was at its maddest. These days, the Snaefell Mountain Road, the A18, is open only to one-way traffic for the whole of TT fortnight; this measure having been taken in response to the number of aspiring Mike Hailwoods hurling themselves into oncoming vehicles.
That said, the course is still pretty congested and we never really build much of a rhythm. There is some chance to stretch the Porsche’s legs but not much. I rarely have the space to overtake dawdlers in the derestricted sections and I find myself being crowded by packs of bikes in the limited sections. We arrive at Ramsey to find the A18 shut due to a road traffic incident so must proceed around the coast road. Frustrating, but that’s the pattern of the week.
Although our speeds are not high, it certainly offers some context to the endeavours of the event’s heroes. This is a fearsome challenge. There is no respite anywhere on the track – even the straights of Cronk Y Voddy and Sulby are over in the blink of an eye and neither is flat. Everywhere along the course you are constrained by something: kerbs; verges; street furniture; stone walls…
It’s somewhat sobering to imagine traversing any of the course at 130mph+, let alone averaging that kind of speed. I’d often wondered, watching the TV coverage whether the riders are showboating a little over Ballaugh Bridge as they launch four feet into the air. Not a bit of it: The crown of the bridge is an extreme peak and even 20mph feels too fast in a car. The final couple of miles leading into Ramsey at the north of the island feature the kind of scarred, bumpy Tarmac that makes it uncomfortable in the car and, according to my motorcycling mates, perilous on two wheels.
Even without covering the ten miles of the mighty Mountain, we’ve found an overwhelming respect for the competitors. The challenge is absolute and there can be no room for hesitation or self-doubt. That is only confirmed as we trundle along the pit straight at 30 miles per hour, pause at the traffic lights and stare down Bray Hill. What it must feel like to crest that brow and career downhill, throttle pinned at 170mph, I daren’t even imagine. These riders are a special breed.
Monday is race day and we’ve decided to ease ourselves in gently and play it safe with our spectating spot and opt for the famous Railway Inn at Union Mills. Spectating at the TT is rather like stage rallying for short track regulars like us: spread-out and a bit daunting. As most spectating areas are free – or carry only a nominal charge – and the course itself is so vast, it’s hard to know where to start. Even worse, you don’t have a clue where to park, nor whether you will find perfect, unobstructed viewing, or a frustrating gaze through the back of someone’s head. It all feels a bit of a lottery and rather disorientating.
The front row of the elevated terrace at the Railway is fully occupied when we arrive but we’re in good time and slot into row two where we are able to snare half a picnic bench. Our view of the track is relatively short but that’s a common theme at the TT. And these guys are travelling so quickly that you’re always experiencing the race in snapshots anyway. Our choice of venue is corroborated when motorcycling legend Steve Parrish joins us on the terrace to enjoy the action.
As the crowds build, so too does that tension. The Railway is steeped in motorcycle lore and the walls are generously decorated in photos of racing on the island. Multiple taps serve local beers, all named in tribute to the TT. And it’s cheap too – £3.50 per pint is a bargain compared to virtually every drinking establishment on mainland Britain. Praise be!
Opening Monday’s proceedings is Supersport Race One. The formbook suggests Dean Harrison and Michael Dunlop are the riders to beat – and so it transpires. Aided by the live race commentary on a portable FM radio, we are able to follow the action closely. And, much like a WRC event, you know the leader is approaching by the sound of the following helicopter before the howl of revs from the 650cc machines.
They are in sight for barely a couple of seconds but there is drama aplenty. They hurtle downhill from our right, tight as they dare on the kerb outside the pub before cranking the machines over to the left. That takes them over the Union Mills bridge, which crosses the old railway line. The bridge barely registers in a car but a motorcycle at full lean doing 100mph is off the ground. Every competitor lifts the front wheel and most the rear for good measure. It’s almost impossible to believe what we are seeing. They wail into the distance, noise reverberating off the petrol station, church, Spar and houses. Real road racing.
The bikes in isolation are spectacular but there’s a race on. Dunlop is ferociously committed and bullies his stead around the course, getting more air over the bridge than his rivals. Dean Harrison, meanwhile, has been flying all week and had set a new absolute circuit record during Saturday’s Superbike race – the first 134mph lap of the island. Harrison, though, doesn’t have an answer to Dunlop on the smaller machines and slows at the end to allow Dunlop to win on the road, as well as on time. This very nearly backfires for the Yorkshireman, though, as Peter Hickman closes to within six tenths of a second at the flag.
It’s a pretty breathless start to the week and the action is tense – a ten second winning margin for Dunlop sounding greater than it felt. For context, that’s 2.5 seconds per lap over a 37.7 mile course. The margins this year are so tight among the top three that each of the riders is pushing to new heights. Lap records fall in every category across the week.
It is only after the race that we learn of the fatal accident which has befallen rider Adam Lyons at Casey’s. With Dan Kneen having perished only a few days earlier, it’s a stark reminder of the perils of road racing. We love it because it’s the ultimate challenge but the stakes are high. Virtually every conversation you have with those who don’t follow the sport will feature an inevitable remark about the terrifying death rate. Sadly, it has always been so on the roads and the competitors walk willingly into the coliseum as gladiators.
Lyons’ death is a shock but the track activity doesn’t relent and the sidecars take to the course for a practice lap. Limited to 650cc they may be, but their speed and the incongruity of brave passengers hunched on the deck will never cease to be alien to us mortals. The revs flare as they traverse the bridge and wriggle their way out towards Crosby.
The Superstock race is hotly anticipated – and with good reason. You could barely squeeze a fag paper between Harrison, Hickman and Dunlop in practice, with all three producing lap times previously unheard of for a stocker. Behind them, James Hillier, Michael Rutter, Conor Cummins and David Johnson are legitimate dark horses.
In fact, the whole fortnight has a feeling of a new world order on the island. Guy Martin has retired without a TT win to his name, John McGuiness is present but not racing, Bruce Anstey is undergoing treatment for cancer and Ian Hutchinson is racing but still recovering from horrific leg injuries in the previous year’s event. Hutchinson would doubtless be at the front exchanging punches with the new generation but he hobbles to the ‘bike with a crutch for support. That he is racing – and pretty quickly – is testimony to the extraordinary mental strength of this rare breed.
The Superstock race opens with a clanger from Hickman who overshoots the left at Braddan Bridge and finds himself the wrong side of the roundabout. He remains calm but crosses the line eight seconds down on Harrison at the end of lap one, the Kawsaki star riding like a man possessed. The level of commitment from the top trio is staggering; the bikes are wobbling and pitching, front wheels hanging in the air, with the rear tyres snaking under braking and carving wide arcs out of the corners. There is a sense of something very special from three riders dining at the top table.
It’s Hickman, though, who is able to squeeze the most out of lap two, turning in the first 134mph lap of a Superstock to snatch the lead as they pull into the pits. Even that moment at Braddan Bridge can’t stop him. After 34 flat-out minutes and 75 miles, three seconds covers the top three. This is nail-biting stuff.
The pit stops spread things out slightly – but only between first and third as Harrison drops back to a sizeable (by the standards of this race) five seconds behind his BSB rival. Dunlop, though, has benefitted from a cracking stop and crosses the line three tenths down on Hickman. The atmosphere at the Railway Inn tightens. Hicky’s first victory or Dunlop’s 19th? 17 minutes will never pass so slowly.
They flash past us a minute or so later – first Dunlop then Hickman; both visibly faster than anyone else bar Harrison with Dunlop leant way over in his customary style, bending the machine to his will. We chase the action all the way on the Manx Radio commentary, listening for the split times. It sounds like Hickman has made a break for it as they cross the Mountain, historically the section of the course where he really excels. His final lap is a scarcely believable 134.403mph – just a fraction off Harrison’s outright lap record from Saturday’s Superbike race. It’s only as he crosses the line to secure his first TT win that we remember to breathe.
These top three riders are pushing their bikes to new extremes, chasing the outer edge of the envelope. Forget the 130mph club – unless you can deliver 133mph on a flying lap in race conditions then you won’t be troubling the podium. The spectacle of seeing the bikes being pushed that hard in the face of such peril is as mesmerising as it is addictive.
Track activity closes for the day with a practice session for the electrically-powered bikes taking part in the TT Zero race. It’s a small field but the characteristic scream of race-tuned internal combustion engines is replaced with the high-pitched whistle of electric motors as the protagonists flash incongruously over the Union Mills bridge. It was a brave move by the event to embrace electric racing technology during its relative infancy. The field remains small but the machines are ultra impressive.
Day three features no racing activity on the Mountain Course but there’s little shortage of things to do. After a leisurely morning – well, this is our summer holiday, after all – we convoy up to Ramsey for the sprint along the prom. This is a storied event and competitive, although anyone can enter. It’s a simple ‘run what ya brung’ straight line sprint along the seafront. The activity is free to watch and has attracted a sizeable crowd, which gently bakes in the unremitting sun.
The sprint delivers every conceivable kind of motorcycle in action. Long-wheelbase purpose-built drag racing specials with extended swing arms juxtapose with supermotos and homebrew trikes. Plenty of riders are competing on their road bikes and it’s not hard to identify the best of them from the execution of their gear changes. There’s no hiding from mistakes when you’re the only guy on track. These pilots are super-brave though and a couple of the most extreme drag bikes lift their front wheels, with the throttles twisted wide open.
The sprint is informal, with a family-friendly atmosphere and plenty of folk pottering around with ice creams. The paddock is completely open and various stalls sell merchandise and comestibles. It’s the kind of event you could watch all day or just for ten minutes; a nice break from the intensity of the TT races.
The day is wrapped up with a trip to Douglas – a 45 minute walk from our digs in Strang. The Red Arrows are performing their annual display over the bay and the seafront is packed with spectators. They blast into view over our heads before thrilling the crowd with customary brilliance. No matter how many times you see them, I would defy anyone to lose interest in the spectacle of fast jets performing synchronised acrobatic manoeuvres. It’s the perfect way to celebrate the 100th anniversary year of the RAF.
As soon as the Red Arrows have departed we dash into the Gaiety Theatre for a date with Steve Parrish. The celebrated motorcyclist, truck racer, broadcaster and hell-raiser is performing a live show as part of his M.A.D. Tour (My Adolescent Dad). Usually run as a double act with his daughter, this one is performed with his wife asking probing questions to tease out the best stories from a life well lived.
He runs through his (very successful) career on two wheels, his switch to trucks – at which he was for a time the best in the world – and his friendship with the late Barry Sheene. His pulls no punches when describing his ex-wife and offers a flavour of life away from the track including the legendary Macau brothel incident and the Imartra toilet block incineration. The only pity for us is that he isn’t performing his usual microphone duties on ITV4’s TT coverage – the old team having been jettisoned in an unfortunate move by the producers. Hopefully he’ll be back soon. The evening closes with a sale and signing session of his new book, a copy of which promises to make for excellent aeroplane reading on my next holiday.
The theatre itself is part of a wider complex which includes the huge Bushy’s TT village at the adjacent Villa Marina. The place is jumping every evening and we duck in for a couple of pints and some food. A variety of stalls is serving really good grub even at 11pm and though the live music isn’t totally to our taste, it’s the adoptive centre of party activities over the week.