Have You Seen Anything Wilder Than Airborne, Sliding Sidecars At The Isle Of Man?
Photography by Will Broadhead
Under the setting sun of a near-summer evening in Milntown on the Isle of Man I find myself perched on top of a bit of garden decking, peering over a wall into the tree-sliced shadows of the Lezayre road. Parts of the tarmac are illuminated by searching beams of light where bright streaks have pierced the canopy and trunks of the trees and somewhere in the distance I can hear the howl of a 600cc engine being thrashed within an inch of its life.
My goodness that engine sounds tight, the motors attached to the particular machines that are about to advance upon me are always worked hard, but this is a different noise. The note is something more akin to a MotoGP machine than a supersport motor, I can hear it earlier than those, and the bellow of it coming through the trees is terrifying. The howl increases and the few fans gathered around this tree-lined avenue fall silent, the rasping roar ever increasing in decibels as the beast approaches. Then it is there, rounding the corner in a flash-bang of noise and color, stuck low to the ground on its three wheels, the two-man crew of Ben and Tom Birchall fighting and wrestling to remain in control as it skids and scuttles across bumps and jumps in the road.
It sounds tremendous as it howls by, the banshee cry of the engine reverberating off of the houses and walls of this usually quiet suburban row. Then, it is gone, clattering into the dusk, the doppler effect put into fast-forward. This is sidecar racing and it is properly, unashamedly insane.
All of the racing around the TT course is frightening, but the sidecars, well, they are extraordinary. Three wheels, hardly any suspension and a lap completed somewhere around the 117mph average, all whilst a 600cc engine propels a 250kg craft and its two occupants around the 37.7 miles that make up a lap of the Mountain Course.
That’s a phenomenal amount of extra stress to place upon a highly tuned motor that normally hauls around 60kgs and one whole person less on its back. They aren’t as fast as the solos around this course obviously, but it’s all relative right? And the speeds at which the crews do manage to get their outfits around this place in is nothing short of staggering. They manage it through a combination of technological innovation and good old-fashioned teamwork, not to mention unfaltering commitment and bravery, which is common to everyone that takes on this place, regardless of how many wheels or CCs they have beneath them.
Crewed with a pilot and a passenger, the origins of sidecar racing can be traced back to when these machines were nothing but a standard motorcycle with a chair bolted on, and for many they were the transport of choice before the age of affordable cars—a post-war model of efficiency.
Things have moved on quite a lot since those rudimentary machines and the role of the passenger in keeping these things pointed in the right direction cannot be underestimated. These are no mere passengers, but active components of the man and machine combination. They have possibly one of the riskiest and most physically challenging jobs of any of those involved in the TT, tasked with using their body to distribute weight over driving wheels under acceleration and to help with cornering these heavy beasts, all the while hanging on using just hands and feet for grip, as the duos are tossed about by the bumps and jumps of this unforgiving road circuit. It’s a dangerous game of acrobatics and I never tire of watching these real-life Spidermen and women, contorting into circus positions as they travel around the TT course at 150mph.
The most successful sidecar pioneer around the TT is Dave Molyneux, and since his debut in 1985 he has recorded a staggering 17 victories. Pioneer is an apt word, as Manxman Moly specializes in machine development and over the years has provided no end of Dave Molyneux Racing machines to competitors up and down the grid. This year his kit resembled something from an ‘80s sci-fi paperback, what with its emphasis on aerodynamics and the resulting aero package that forces passenger Dan Sayle to adopt a plank position whilst the machine is pointed down the straights, lying flat on his face with outstretched feet to create minimal wind resistance. While the machines of Moly are ever evolving, the Birchall brothers are currently the men in form and the ones to beat. Ben and Tom are the lap record holders around the mountain course and, despite stiff competition from John Holden, added to their tally of wins this year. The placed first in both races and set a new lap record of a staggering 119.250mph in the process.
That equates to less than 19 minutes to power one of these temperamental machines around the 37.7 miles that make up a lap. To watch these racers taking off over crests and jouncing around corners is something to behold, both balletic and aggressive, these ‘cars are not easy to control. To see the heroic work of the passengers, somehow knowing exactly when to pop up out of the bubble at the end of a straight, hauling themselves into position whilst careering through the air and around bends is astounding. The solo riders are brave—of course they are—but these three-wheelers? Well they are of a different breed entirely, a close-knit band of fearless competitors that for my money, are one of the standout classes at the TT, which is really saying something.