Isle of Man TT – The World’s Toughest Road Race

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Glenn Roberts and Isle of Man
April 1 2011

Every time I looked at my speedo I was reminded, “Look Right, Stay Left!” I had written these four simple words with a thick black marker on the piece of masking tape I kept in plain view. Words I repeated inside my helmet, hoping it would become second nature. I’m not sure where I picked the tape idea up, but regardless of its source, it’s a good piece of advice and one I’d recommend to others. It was a constant reminder to stay alert and never let my guard down while riding in England or on the Isle of Man. When a panic situation occurs, it is natural to revert to what you know. This was made all too evident by a number of German deaths a few years ago which have resulted in German signs “Immer Links” (keep left) that appear throughout the island during the two-week Isle of Man TT race festival.

Paddy Tyson and I had a spirited ride north from his flat in the Birmingham, England, area to Liverpool on the M6 motorway. The thought of chasing down Beatle memorabilia in the Fab Four’s hometown never once crossed my mind. We were on a mission to find the ferry terminal, and in particular, the ferry Sneafell. The name sounds as if it came right out of The Lord of the Rings, but the ferry is in fact named after the highest mountain summit on the Isle of Man, a summit I hoped to be riding by within a couple of days.

A Spectacle of Speed

Arriving at the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry dock in good time, I could feel the excitement in the hundreds of motorcyclists in front of us waiting to board, but that excitement was nothing compared to the energy that a thousand bikers would radiate three hours later, as the ferry pulled up to the dock in Douglas on the eastern coast of the Isle of Man. Down in the bowels of the ferry, the enthusiasm was as thick as the exhaust fumes, as it seemed that all of the bikes started and revved up at the same time. Hundreds of bikes nestled together like sardines in a tin – we were packed in so tight I couldn’t get my borrowed Triumph Sprint GT off its centre stand without hitting the bike in front, or my panniers hitting the bikes beside me. It might have been my burning eyes or the dizziness setting in from the grey-blue exhaust haze, but I realized that I had no idea which end of the ferry opened up. Since we arrived at the ferry dock early, I’d hoped it would be first on, first off, and that we would not be among the last to disembark, left to breathe the fumes of a few hundred tailpipes.

Douglas, or Doolish if you’re a local, is a picturesque town with Victorian facades gracing the buildings and a promenade that follows the crescent-shaped bay. Behind the promenade is the downtown core, and the residential area fans out from there. Also important to note: the start/finish line for the world’s greatest road race is just a few blocks up the hill.

We had no time to waste. Following Paddy’s photographic memory after a quick study of the road map, we headed west out of Douglas. After a few short blocks, we were actually on the track. Vibrant green countryside partitioned by stone fences and littered with white dots of sheep for as far as you can see. We only had one hour to find our trackside campsite, set up our tents and get to a pub with a viewing area before the race marshals would close the road. The road closes on most of the track one hour before a race or a practice, while the mountain section of the track is closed one-and-a-half hours prior to the bikes hitting the course.

After setting up the tents, we backtracked a few kilometres to the Crosby Pub and got off the road just as the barriers were put in place, sealing off the intersection and keeping us captive for at least two hours. Luckily, the pub wasn’t too busy that evening, as this was a qualifying practice for sidecar and various-sized bikes. We found a decent vantage point right at the stone fence that separates the track from the pub’s parking lot and were positioned about four metres from the road’s centre line. The Crosby Pub is on one of the fastest sections of the track – a slightly uphill, long straightaway on the bottom section of the course – and the 1000 cc Superbikes can reach speeds up to 305 km/h (190 mph) in this section as they and the 600 cc sidecars (186 km/h, 116 mph) fly past in a blur. You can hear them approaching from the slight bend at the bottom of the straight and leaving, but not much in between. It’s impossible to register a split-second of a sound as they pass by, so close you swear you can feel the wind from them.

Throughout the towns there were speed signs with either a happy face if you are below the posted speed, or a flashing sad face if you are riding too fast. I wondered what happens when the racers fly by at 300 km/h.


A Racing Experience Like No Other…

The TT (Tourist Trophy), running since 1907 with a few years’ hiatus during the two World Wars, is an extremely dangerous scenario for both the racer and, in some cases, the spectator. The safety officials of North America would never allow an event like this to happen for fear of legal action and the lack of spectator self-control, making the Isle of Man TT an experience like no other in the racing world. The race takes place on 37.73 miles (60.7 km) of public roads, and many of the vantage points are within just a metre or two of the track itself.

In true European fashion, much of the road system has grown to its maximum width. Starting out as horse and cart paths, the roads have been widened over the years as vehicle size increased, until the road is right against stone fences that might be 60 to 90 cm thick, walls of buildings, or massive cedar hedges and trees. Spectators are allowed to view the race on front lawns, sitting on stone fences or pub patios that, in some cases, separate spectators from the racetrack with only a wooden railing or a thin rope at the patio’s entrance. Intersections are blocked with basic three-piece wooden barriers common in your local works departments, while stone gateposts and building corners have a single foam barrier or hay bales to help protect an out-of-control rider. If a racer goes down, there is no grass or sandy corner for him to slide into.

You really have to see it to believe it. In an attempt to keep racers separated, each racer leaves the start line at 10-second intervals.

While there are plenty of viewing locations around the 37-mile track, we soon realized that some degree of planning was needed in order to take in all we could for the four short days that we would be at the two-week race festival. Although there are some races held during the first week, this is generally considered practice and qualifying week, while the second week is filled with races. There are many excellent vantage points, but once the road is closed, even crossing it is out of the question, so you have to pick a spot and stay put. If you plan it properly, however, you can park at one of the intersecting roads that will give access to the roads outside the track or the few that wind through the mountainous interior, allowing you to move to another area. But be aware that the good locations are taken early, so it might be better to just stay where you are if you have a good spot to watch the action.

One of the vantage points that were on my list of must-sees was Ballaugh Bridge during the Superbike race. Ballaugh Bridge features a bend in the road immediately prior to going over the bridge. The bikes have to slow quickly from sixth gear to about second, make the corner, and they then become airborne as they cross the bridge, and according to the literature, they are still going about 130 km/h (80 mph) as they take flight. Unbelievable!

Luckily, Ballaugh Bridge happens to be one place where the track intersects an exterior road. Forgetting our plan to leave the area at midday for a different location, we parked our bikes on the exterior side of the track, but accidentally parked our bodies on the interior side. In our haste, Paddy forgot something in his bike, and when he returned, the road was blocked, meaning that we were on different sides of the road. At least I had the backpack and the food on my side. An hour later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a voice saying, “Got a sandwich? I’m feeling a bit peckish!” Paddy had shed his shoes and rolled up his pant legs to walk through the river and under the bridge to get to my side of the road. The race that was to start at noon didn’t get underway until three because of fog obscuring parts of the track. The helicopters have to be able to see every square inch of the track before racing can begin. At the time we didn’t know why the races were delayed but if we had a radio, we could have been listening to a dedicated TT station that gives play-by-play of everything that is going with the track and rider positions and changes during the races.

If the Irishman can do it, so can I. It was time to join the ducks under the bridge and get back to our bikes. At the end of the Superbikes races, we rode to Ramsay to catch the sidecars at the 90-degree turn in the centre of town. To those who say sidecars aren’t as exciting as the bikes, I disagree. While the sidecars don’t lean like a bike or go quite as fast, they can get you whooping and hollering as the sidecar lifts off the ground at times or they fishtail around corners with the passengers hanging off the sidecar with shoulders and helmets mere centimetres away from the tarmac, no doubt touching down periodically over bumps. And, of course, if there’s more than one of them, they make for a good heated race.

Another viewing point we took advantage of was the cemetery and church at Braddan Bridge. Still in the heart of Douglas, a series of two right-angle corners make up this “S” bend, and still the bikes get into a groove in the 110 km/h (70 mph) range as they pass by and accelerate hard, heading west out of town at around 160 km/h (100 mph) in third gear.

Often our stops to view the race were by chance, as it happened to be the closest place we could see the track before the road closed. That’s a reminder to plan ahead and not to leave anything to the last minute. Good spots fill up fast.


Mad Sunday and other crazy laws

Every other day, at least until evening, is a non-race day. These days allow organizers and racers rain days in case of inclement weather the day before, but also allow the locals to go about their everyday business and the motorcycling tourists the chance to ride the track. On these days, regular speed limits apply, with the exception of a few extra speed zones that are set up in dangerous areas to help keep the two-wheeled masses down to a more sedate speed.

The opposite of sedate speed happens on the second Sunday of the festival. Mad Sunday is a day allotted to sheer madness, when the testosterone-filled brave and stupid, young and old, inexperienced and Ricky Racer types are allowed on the track in a free-for-all frenzy of speed. Both Paddy and I agreed that we didn’t need to become statistics, so we rode to Peel on the west shore, and then to Castletown on the south shore, and enjoyed a leisurely day of riding some amazing roads and seeing quaint villages. It seems many others wanted nothing to do with Mad Sunday, as the roads and towns were plenty busy with motorcycles.

One of the oddest things about the Isle of Man is that there isn’t a national speed limit. This helps immensely in the above-mentioned statistics department. In Europe, when you see a circular white sign, outlined in black with a black diagonal line through it, it means the speed limit is the particular country’s national limit. I questioned Paddy when he told me this, but so far on the trip he seemed to be on the up and up, so why should he trick me into spending time in jail? He assured me that on the Isle of Man, a cop wouldn’t stop you regardless of the speed you were going within those posted signs. Skinny two-lane roads – at least, skinny by our standards – snaking through the countryside, hugging stone walls and cedar hedges, with autobahn speed limits seemed so foreign to me, but maybe not quite as strange as the ability to lane-split.


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