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How to Experience the Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man TT is a true road course event but it’s so much more than that. For legions of race fans, it’s been a mass pilgrimage since 1907. Getting there takes some planning though.

You need to plan well in advance of course, but nothing can truly prepare you for the Isle of Man TT experience. I thought I was totally up to speed (pardon the pun) before leaving for the 2015 version of the legendary event. I had watched countless Duke video annual reviews, had totally absorbed my Murray Walker 2007 Centenary Celebration DVD, and read Rick Broadbent’s That Near Death Thing. But, I was not prepared for the extent to which the TT is integrated into the island culture, and how you are not merely a spectator of the event.

The expression, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” is typically used to explain the Gestalt theory of psychology. One could easily be justified in the belief that the IOM TT offers no greater expression of that principle. The author of that expression, Kurt Koffka, further defined the whole as having an independent existence. That profoundly explains the Isle of Man and its history.

The island was the home to Europe’s first parliament, and in 1949 regained its self-governance with the formation of the democratically elected Tynwald. The origin of the TT is, likewise, firmly rooted in the Manx identity and separateness from England. When road racing was effectively banned there in 1903 by an act of parliament, Manx authorities saw no reason to follow suit, and the TT, or Tourist Trophy races were created to bring racing starved English tourists to the island. Remember, this was an era before permanent racing circuits. It has been run annually since 1907 (with the exception of wars and an outbreak of hoof and mouth). No motorcycle event has a history that can match that of the Isle of Man TT.

TT weeks is not just any bike race; it’s the expression of an independent pursuit of real “road racing,” that eschews man-made circuits, and presents the unique challenges of racing on public roads, with all their inherent hazards. In fact, after visiting the TT in 2009, multi-time MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi was quoted as saying, “I did a lap of the Isle of Man, and I understand why people love this because it’s [awesome]; it’s unbelievable, great. But, unfortunately, it’s too dangerous. Sometimes, riders are crazy. The Isle of Man is very difficult. If you make a mistake, maybe it’s the last mistake.”

The TT sits at the pinnacle of a worldwide circuit of such events, which includes the Northwest 200, Ulster Grand Prix and Armoy Road Races, in Ireland and the Macau GP, run on the Armco lined streets of Macao, near Hong Kong.

And the Isle of Man TT is also not just about getting up close and personal with the likes of John McGuiness, Guy Martin and Bruce Ansty, and their bikes, in a totally open paddock environment. You will never experience that in any other professional motorbike event. Go to a MotoGP race or World superbike event, and only the privileged, garlanded with the appropriate passes are allowed admittance to that inner sanctum.

By contrast, my friend, Russ Sherman and I were free to roam the paddock, and talk to the very accessible riders and mechanics. We now are both proud owners of helmets autographed by McGuiness, Connor Cummins, both Dunlops, Bruce Ansty, Michael Rutter and James Hiller, and others. The only notable absence was that of the enigmatic Guy Martin, who in recent years, has become the victim of his own charm, and is somewhat reclusive.

And it’s not just about getting totally involved with the Isle of Man TT. Because the island is so totally immersed in the event, as a visitor/spectator, you cannot avoid immersion, too. This extends to the paddock area at scrutineering time. You are right there, as the bikes and riders present themselves at the shed for inspection. Everything is “reach out and touch it” close. And the language of the TT is spoken everywhere, with that wonderful Manx lilt.

And it’s not just that an island of 85,000 inhabitants opens its doors to over 35,000 visiting bikers. It does this effortlessly and graciously. Nowhere we went did we feel crowded. Granted, a bit of planning is needed to find the best possible viewing.

As a case in point, on the day of the Senior TT, we were up at 6:30 a.m., on the bikes, and 15 minutes later at the bottom of Bray Hill, with our camp chairs set up, coffee and bacon & egg baps in hand, mere yards away from where bikes would be hurtling by at about 160 mph. The one codicil being, make sure you arrive on the island by bike. That is your key to mobility and prime access.

The island accommodates visitors in many ways. You have a choice of many hotels around the island. We elected to avail ourselves of the time-honoured tradition of home stay. This is essentially a long term, very casual form of B & B. In our case, we had the top floor of our hosts, Deb and Rhett’s house with generous rooms, comfy beds and our own bathroom.

At the end of each incredible day, we would ride “home,” shower up, have a drink with our hosts and head to the Bay Pub or The Station, for a pint or two of the locally brewed Old Bushy’s Tail. Bloody luxury.

At the other end of the spectrum, those of a more hardy constitution, and more restrictive means, can tent in any of the football pitches turned over for just that use. Appropriate weather is not guaranteed.

Likewise, it’s not just a 33-mile long island with some of the best and most scenic riding anywhere. During our two weeks there, we each managed to log over 550 miles on some of the most entertaining roads you could want. Many a time we would crest a hill or round a bend, only to be presented another “wow” vista. Riding through a village at the posted limit of 30 mph (circular white sign with three diagonal stripes), would be followed by a two-striper on the outskirts, restricting us to 50 mph. But once beyond the outskirts, the sign with only one diagonal stripe told us we were no longer restricted by speed limits, just common sense.

That being said though, common sense is off the table on the Mountain Course, from Ramsey to Creg Ny Baa. For the two weeks of TT, when not in use for racing or practise, this portion of the 37.73-mile circuit is open to one-way traffic only, with essentially no restrictions on your behaviour.

This phenomenon is actually formalized on Mad Sunday, held on the weekend between practice and race weeks. Unfortunately, too many riders consider themselves to be the reincarnation of Joey Dunlop, but lack the talent and pay the ultimate price. Many is the time we arrived at the signpost at the bottom of Mary Hill, Ramsey, only to see the notice “Mountain Course Closed,” as the meat-wagon administered to someone who had “binned it” on the mountain. We did manage two full laps, however. (Insider tip: if closed, double back to Sulby Corner and take the road directly up to the Bungalow and have the rest of the Mountain Course all to your self, all the way to the Creg).

Add to all of that, the sense of festival that permeates the entire island. Every coastal town has its own “TT Day.” Where we stayed, in Port Erin, on the southern tip of the island, we were treated to an evening display of the antics of the Purple Helmets, and the magic of the Monster Energy Trials team. The seaside towns of Peel and Ramsey likewise had their “days.”

The financial impact of the Isle of Man TT and the August Festival of Speed (incorporating the Classic TT) rings to the sum of over £28,000,000. Such is the importance of the event, that the last day of racing, the Senior TT, is declared a bank holiday.

Any one of these Isle of Man TT parts alone would form the foundation of an incredible holiday. Add them all together, and you have a whole far greater than its parts, and any other two-wheel event.

Our adventure commenced with my friend and I picking up a pair of Suzuki GS1250s at a rental depot in east London, from where we wove our way westward though the city to the M4. Russ wisely brought along his GPS and Bluetooth setups, both a must for two riders negotiating London’s streets. After a couple of nights in Bath staying with some fellow Rhodesian ex-pat friends of Russ’s, we headed to Liverpool, avoiding the motorways as much as possible in favour of the ‘A’ roads.

The TT experience really starts the minute you arrive at the ferry terminal to catch the steam packet vessel Manannan. Every type of bike imaginable manages to find its way to the loading dock, from a fully loaded old fossil Velocette, to a minimally encumbered Panagale and nary a car in sight. Once on board, all you see are bikers—bikers in line for brekkies, bikers at the bar (nothing goes better with a bacon buttie than a pint) and bikers and their gear strewn all over the lounges.

We landed in Douglas under dark skies and were greeted by wet roads, but that was it for the rain, as the skies cleared that evening and we were blessed with likely some of the best weather one could hope to have for TT viewing.

The same could not be said for the riders though, as high winds in the first week wreaked havoc on the mountain, forcing the cancellation of many practise sessions and even bringing down a helicopter. If you have never been to the TT before, go for two weeks.

We used our first week to get the lay of the land and experience the paddock and other areas with lesser crowds. Viewing options range from free to a couple of quid in informal stands or £30 for a Fan Zone ticket at the famous Creg Ny Baa. If you desire more exclusive viewing from the pub terrace there, then that’s another matter. Whatever your choice at the Creg, you are also guaranteed a free bike show, as the parking areas are chock full of the finest range of two-wheeled eye candy you could hope to find. In fact these “bike shows” can be found everywhere bikes are parked, particularly along the Douglas Promenade.

Our chosen viewpoints included the Nobles Park main straight grandstand, overlooking the pits and Bradden Bridge, where we saw riders, knee to the pavement, emerging from behind a picket fence, and sidecar passengers struggling to keep that inside wheel close to the ground. As mentioned, we enjoyed clear, albeit slightly chilly, viewing in the Creg Fan Zone stands. One of the more unique options is to ride to the old mining town of Laxey, and catch the cog-driven tram up Mt. Snaefell to the Bungalow. From a number of vantage points there, you can catch riders, off in the distance at Mountain Mile, round the corner at the Veranda and past you, heading up Hailwood’s Rise.

We also found our way along some narrow residential streets, which landed us on the inside of the Ramsey Hairpin. A chance encounter with a resident there evolved into an invitation to come back and watch from her little backyard podium, right on the edge of the hairpin exit.

If we ever felt the need for a break from the action, there is so much else to see and do on the island. In Douglas, there is the Promenade and no end of shops selling Isle of Man TT merchandise. The area next to the paddock is a souvenir hunter’s dream, and we found it way too easy to buy so much gear that most of it had to be posted home.

Our spending was capped off at the Arai tent. Seeing as the buckets we brought with us had been fully graced by our heroes and were due to be retired in honour when we returned home, we felt fully justified in ordering new helmets. I went for the 2015 TT edition unit, and Russ acquired a new Mick Doohan replica.

You need to start planning your own TT adventure about a year in advance, as ferry space books up early. We didn’t book until the August of the year before, and the earliest ferry we could book off the island wasn’t until the Tuesday after the final race. But it wasn’t just time spent sitting around, waiting to leave. There are Post TT events on the 4.25-mile Billown street circuit, near Castletown, south of Douglas. This is the same circuit used for the Southern 100 races, held in July and forms part of the road racing circuit, but for the Post (and pre) TT races serves as more of a warm-up and cool-down for the TT.

We also took advantage of the added time to visit Murray’s Motorcycle Museum. This small facility located just a few miles south of Douglas, belies its size, and includes numerous rare and vintage bikes, as well as two- and four-stroke racers and related memorabilia. Admission to this must see exhibit is by donation.

Our last days on the island blessed us with fine weather for covering more territory, and our last day was truly bittersweet. We were sad to be leaving our hosts and comfy digs, but were looking forward to the last leg of our trip. We had planned to cap everything off with visits to the Donington Racing Car Museum, National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham and the Imperial War Museum at the old RAF Duxford field, before returning the bikes. Our last museum fix was the Science Museum in London before heading home. All of these are highly recommended.

This was a trip of a lifetime, and from the moment we landed on the island, each phenomenal day was celebrated with a days-end pint. In a previous edition of this magazine, I ended my story “Wizard of Oz” by saying I would return Down Under, but not before a trip to the Isle of Man TT. Well, Oz will have to wait a bit longer, as we are already planning our return to the TT!

by Brian Kendrick Canadian Biker Issue #321


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