ON the morning of June 7, a few spectators gathered by the side of the narrow country road that runs through Ballig, a tiny hamlet on the Isle of Man. They waited quietly, listening for engine noise against the pastoral sounds of birdsong, the wind in the trees, a murmuring stream under an old stone bridge. Then a high-performance motorcycle blasted past, at such concussive velocity that it might have been a missile.
First-timers winced and recoiled. “Who was that?” someone asked. More riders followed, fearsomely fast and loud, at intervals of a few seconds. Some were recognized by their bikes, or their racing colors. Favorites and rivals Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop showed distinctive, contrasting riding styles.
“Hutchy guides the bike, Dunlop wrangles it,” said local fan Brian Coole. Lesser-known competitors could only be identified by matching their blurring race numbers to the names listed in the programme for this year’s TT, or Tourist Trophy – a week of motorcycle time-trials held annually since 1907 on this bumpy, grassy rock of an island in the middle of the Irish Sea. There had already been some changes to the 2017 lineup.
Number five, respected veteran and 23-time TT winner John McGuinness, was forced to withdraw after breaking his leg in a bad crash on a Northern Irish circuit in mid-May. Also absent was number seventy-one, Davey Lambert, who had crashed near here in the TT Supersport race the previous Sunday. Lambert’s subsequent death from his injuries was announced just before the event now in progress – a Superstock race for production-class machines over four laps of the Snaefell Mountain Course. That thirty-seven and three-quarter mile circuit of winding public roads is often said to represent “the Mount Everest of motorsport.” Partly for its technical challenges, but mainly for its deadliness.
On the first lap, number sixty-three, Dutch rider Jochem van den Hoek, rocketed through Ballig on his 1000 Honda at more than one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Some twenty seconds later, turning through a tricky curve at the eleventh milestone, van den Hoek came off the bike. His death would be confirmed that afternoon, around the same time that number fifty-two, Irishman Alan Bonner, had his own collision higher up the mountain during a qualifying round for the Senior TT.
Bonner was also killed, bringing the historic death toll on this circuit to two-hundred and fifty-five – and thirty-two in the last decade. That figure does not count non-racing fatalities involving amateur enthusiasts during TT week, nor race officials and spectators hit by riderless, runaway bikes. An exploding motorcycle took three lives and permanently disabled an attending marshall in 2007. The same thought surely occurs to any casual observer: this is madness, right?
“Yeah I hear that all the time,” said former racer Richard ‘Milky’ Quayle, at the TT grandstand in the Manx capital, Douglas. “And it winds me up a bit. You couldn’t do this if you were mad. It takes too much focus and and discipline.” Quayle had known the two men killed that day, and resented any suggestion that competitors were careless with their lives. “Every rider out there is actually living their life, not wasting it like you see so many other people doing. They know they might take a beating, or worse. But they do it because they want to. It’s a passion, and they love it.”
One of the few native islanders to ever win a podium place in the tournament, Quayle was now a chief advisor on the TT circuit – talking newcomers through the treacherous geometry of the Snaefell Mountain Course, and assessing their readiness to ride it. In his view, this requires more skill and courage than any other contest, in any other sport.
To slip off a carefully calculated racing line, or turn at an errant angle through a critical apex, or lose concentration for a fraction of a second, means losing momentum at best, and risking oblivion into the bargain. Quayle knew this risk as well as anyone, having clipped a stone wall with his shoulder at Ballaspur in 2003, resulting in a spectacular crash that made him famous on YouTube. “I smashed myself to bits,” he said. But it was having a child, born while he was still recovering, that made him quit the TT.
“I always said I’d stop when I had a family. I couldn’t leave the start-line with a kid waving ‘bye-bye daddy’. I wouldn’t be able to take those total commitment corners at Ballagarey or Quarry Bends, knowing he was waiting for me to come back. I still ride fast bikes almost every day. But I do miss the racing. And without it, to be honest, I struggle with life.”
The course was “red-flagged” after Bonner’s crash, and closed again the next day due to poor road conditions. Rain, mist, and gales tend to swirl around the Isle of Man, but this had been one of the worst TTs in memory for weather delays. There was a time when racing would have gone ahead regardless. In the 1930s, riders were crashing and dying in thick mountain fog. For the first 20 years of the contest, parts of the course remained open to public traffic – racer Archie Birkin was killed swerving to avoid a fish truck in 1927.
“The TT has always been dangerous, no doubt about it,” said David Cretney, former minister for tourism and serving member of the ancient, independent Manx parliament at Tynwald. (Though defined as a British crown dependency, the island has been largely self-governing since that parliament was founded by vikings circa 979.) “I think everyone knew that right from the start, when legislation was passed that allowed it to happen.”
Soon after the first speed limits were imposed in the UK, the Automobile Car Club of Britain and Ireland appealed for special permission to race on the Isle of Man’s public roads, which was duly granted by the island’s then governor. “The idea was to bring tourists over, who would then leave their money behind. Crudely, it worked, and the TT is still very important to our economy.”
Cretney himself started racing in 1976, not long after this event was effectively expelled from the World Championship circuit, largely because of safety concerns shared by professionals within motorsport. “The most vocal opponents were track racers, not road racers,” said Cretney. “And they said that would be the end of the TT, but it went from strength to strength. In today’s world, where we feel cotton-wooled a lot of the time, there is nothing else like this. People recognise that, and they want to be a part of it, because it’s such an anachronism. The riders themselves are seen as heroes, like gladiators.”
In his own TT career, he was never more than an “also-ran”, admits Cretney. His only goal was to record at least one lap average of more than 100 miles per hour, which he finally achieved in 1998, at the age of forty-five. “Not very impressive, when you consider guys like Bob McIntyre were doing that fifty years before.”
Today, even production-class machines can do more than 200 miles per hour on the straight sections of the course, with recent models reaching more or less the same speeds as vastly more expensive race-engineered “superbikes”. The roads, however, have not changed that much over the decades. Stretches were widened, surfaces reprofiled, and embankments removed in response to specific collisions. The straw bales meant to cushion impacts on tight corners were only recently replaced with modern air-fences.
In 2003, during Cretney’s tenure as the Manx government official most directly responsible for the TT – when he gave himself the informal title, “Minister for Fun” – the horrific death of top-ranked rider David Jeffries prompted a bitter investigation of safety measures and incident management. “That was a very difficult time. The fans thought DJ was invincible.”
Lessons were learned and improvements made, said Cretney, but the margin for error remained razor-thin, and there would never be any legislating for luck. In the team paddocks behind the grandstand, Manx sidecar racer Deborah Barron could vouch for this. She and her “passenger” Alun Thomas were using the downtime to work on their 600 Ireson Kawasaki, having veered off the road at Ramsey Hairpin in this year’s opening sidecar event, and narrowly missed a group of picnicking spectators.
“Fortunately, we only killed some sandwiches and a thermos,” said Barron. “Obviously, we are extremely relieved.” She considered the Mount Everest analogy pretty accurate. “Yes, we all want to summit, but the main thing is to make it back to base camp in one piece.”
Barron said this would be her last TT. As a “privateer”, she had never been offered the kind of investment that can bolster talent with state-of-the-art machines and resources. Even big names Ben and Tom Birchall, the brothers won the race that Barron crashed out of – and broke the sidecar lap record in the process – said they barely made enough to cover their costs. “We’re second-class citizens compared to solo riders,” said Ben, the driver to his brother’s passenger, in a strong English East Midlands accent.
“This is the poor man’s end of the sport. But if we wanted to be millionaires, we would have taken up golf.” They hadn’t set out to break that record either, he said. “I knew it were a clean lap, and a quick lap. Tom were good, I were good, the bike were good. But I had no idea what time we were doing. That’s the key to this place. Intense concentration, but being relaxed within it, and letting it flow. If you push it, or chase it, you make mistakes.”
Birchall was not the only one to make the Snaefell Mountain Course sound like the path to enlightenment. A few tents over, racer Dan Kneen was playing a demo for a newly developed TT video game on a Playstation 4. A local hero on the Isle of Man, especially since winning third place at the Superstock event the day before, Kneen did not yet have his own avatar, and was riding as Ian Hutchinson.
(“Hutchy” had been first in that Superstock race, but went on to crash badly at the Senior TT two days later, breaking his leg for the third time in seven years). In the game, collisions were tastefully rendered as a bump and a fade to black.
In real life, as Kneen knew from personal experience, there is only time to think “oh fuck”, he said. “When it happens to someone else, like yesterday, you’re bound to think, ‘well, it could be me’. But people get killed driving to work too.” He preferred to dwell on the upsides of riding fast – the feeling of flight, the sense of time displacement, the potential for transcendence.
“When you’re really moving smoothly around this track, and hitting all your apexes, it can seem like you’re going slow. It’s a really weird thing. You’re alone, in your bubble, and you’re not thinking at all. These days it seems like we live with so many restrictions. Can’t go there, can’t do that. In this world, the TT is the only way I get to be free.”