Introduction Not Required: This Is The Isle Of Man TT
Photography by Will Broadhead
Crowds line the road in a riot of noise and color that complements the spectacle they are about to witness. The man in the starting gate neither sees nor hears it though, astride his 1000cc Superbike, a highly tuned and modified version of the bikes you and I can walk into a showroom and buy on credit with a few pieces of paperwork. The engine burbles below him, the exhaust pipe playing out the menacing thrum of an engine on tick over. Behind him a long line stretches back comprised of other riders—racers—all waiting to contend the greatest two-wheeled (any wheeled) contest of them all.
He has no thoughts for them though, and indeed I wonder what what’s going on behind his helmet as he sits and waits for his moment of motion, staring down that long and lonely view to the end of the Glencrutchery Road, disappearing left over the crest and terrifying descent of Bray Hill and then 37.7 miles of public roads. 37.7 miles of towns and villages that fly by at such a pace as you would never see them, lamp posts, buildings, walls, bumps, jumps crests and traps, all waiting to be blurred as part of the ultimate test for competitor and machine.
The revs rise as the clock moves towards the time to go, he must be aware of the clamor all around him now, bought back to consciousness by the lift of the starter’s hand which up until now has rested upon his shoulder. When the hand taps down again the race will begin and the next time he tears along this strip of tarmac, he will be flat out and one lap into the six-lap Superbike race at this year’s Isle of Man TT. Whatever hype you have heard about this race, believe it; whatever you think you know about this event, discount it until you have experienced it; and if you have never been, for goodness sake, get here. I promise you it will blow your mind.
The TT has been contested for the last 111 years, and since 1911 has run on the current Snaefell Mountain Course. It is arguably the toughest and most terrifying motorcycle race in the world, its thrills are almost as well documented as its tragedies, yet every year riders flock to the circuit to compete against the fabled course cut through stone walls and undulating countryside. The fans too, come in droves, to witness the spectacle like no other. In a world full of red tape and health and safety mandates, these races have stood out against the sanitized aspects of the culture we live in—the nanny state has no place here.
That’s not to say they take the safety of the riders and the spectators lightly here, far from it, just ask the fan that took it upon himself to encroach on the circuit during practice this year and found himself residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure for four weeks as a consequence. Nobody who comes to watch this event wishes to see anybody get hurt, or worse, and no rider has any sort of death wish, but at an average speed over the 37.7 miles of upwards of 130mph for the top competitors, and with 70% of the lap completed at full throttle, when she bites, she bites. Over the fortnight there would be accidents, bruises, broken bones and, unfortunately, much worse. You can’t get away from the attrition, but you can’t love this kind of life without accepting what comes with it.
Each of the 37 miles has a name, some are simply the names of the places at which the TT passes through—Glen Helen, Union Mills, Sarah’s Cottage, Cronk-y-Voddy, and Ballaugh Bridge for example—then there are the competitors whose names adorn corners and sections—McGuinness’s, Hailwood Heights, Guthrie’s, and Joeys, the last paying respect to the late great Joey Dunlop, who won here 26 times in the thirty or so years he competed, before he was sadly killed in a little-known road race in Estonia. The only man to come close to that tally in the modern era is the mighty John McGuinness, the first man to ever break the 130mph average lap speed barrier.
Behind him are the indefatigable Ian Hutchinson and Joey’s nephew, Michael Dunlop, who coming into this year is the fastest ever rider around this course at an average speed of 133.9mph and the first to ever break below a lap time of less than seventeen minutes. And you thought the Nordschleife was fast and long!
133.9mph across 37.7 miles, across flat out jumps that carry a motorcycle that was very much designed to stick to the ground through the air at 150mph. 133.9mph through the urban, narrow streets of Kirk Michael and Ramsey, past shops, houses, and pubs at up to 180mph at the rev limit. From blinding sunshine into the shadows and then back out again, the riders say that they are going so fast through some sections of the circuit they can only focus on the light in front of them, their eyes not adjusting fast enough to make out anything else that’s recognizable.
Joey himself used to say he aimed for the grey between the green bits. They know this place like the back of their hands of course, but it takes years to build to a truly fast time here, learning more than 200 bends, never mind all of the braking points, tip-in points, and goodness knows how many other nuances that are unique to a course of this type.
Most who compete are part-time racers, this is their hobby and they come here to beat their time from the previous year. Once the two weeks is over, they will return to their day jobs as brickies, plumbers, and accountants. None but the racers will ever truly know what it feels like to “tame” this place, to pry blistered and bruised hands from handlebars after 226 miles of flat-out speed. For those of us who spectate though, we can feel some of the excitement and the thrill in a sideline experience that is unlike any other. After soaking up the electric atmosphere in the paddock those who come to support their heroes can get closer to the action than possibly at any other place on earth, inches from motorcycles doing 180 and up.
The Isle of Man TT is incredible, it is controversial, and it is damn exciting. It will always have its detractors, but for those of us that make the pilgrimage each summer and for the bravest of the brave that compete, it is the greatest show on earth and always will be. I hope to share the roads with some of you next year.
This is dedicated to the memories of Dan Kneen and Adam Lyon, they lived more in 37.7 miles than many manage in a lifetime.