Vintage Racing Motorcycles Achieve Harrowing Speed At The Isle Of Man Classic TT
Photography by Will Broadhead
The fog is thick. Impenetrable in fact. Ten feet in front of me I can see a precariously placed marshal, stood in the gutter of the road, holding a static yellow flag warning of potential dangers on the path ahead. Across the tarmac I can just about make out the fence posts; they look aggressive in the low light and gloom. Irregular angles, waiting to spear anyone that gets too close. Then beyond that, nothing. I know there is a drop there, and in many ways knowing something is there but not being able to see it is more disconcerting. There is something else out there that I can’t see as well, but I can hear it.
Far in the distance, coming over the mountain mile, I can hear the unmistakable howl of a highly tuned motorcycle engine. The throttle is pinned and every so often you hear the revs blip a little, as the bike takes off over the bumps and undulations in the road. It’s getting louder, but I still can’t see it. The marshal is getting tense, the grip on her flag stiffens. I raise my camera and squint into the viewfinder, guessing roughly where the bike will appear. Then it is on us, screaming out of the mist. A cacophony of two-stroke squeal, attacking the corner and then away further into the depths of the mountain and the completion of another lap. This is the Classic TT, this is the famous TT Mountain Course, and in this evening’s fog, this is, quite frankly, madness.
The Classic TT is part of the wider Festival of Motorcycling on the Isle of Man. The Manx GP runs alongside it, with competitors in both events racing on the same circuit that is used at the regular TT held in June. The mountain course as it is known, is 37.73 miles of flat out, white knuckle race track during these events. It travels down closed public roads, through towns and villages, inches from walls, curbs, telephone poles, and any other associated street furniture. Then, there is the mountain itself. As the riders begin to climb out of the town of Ramsey, they head up through famous marques of the course; The Gooseneck, Joey’s, Guthrie’s, and then onto the Mountain Mile. Snaefell Mountain towers in the distance, keeping watch over the circuit. Manx folklore says you can see seven kingdoms from up here. The Isle of Man, Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales are all visible on a clear day, and if the stories are to be believed, the sea Kingdom of Manannan and the Kingdom of Heaven are also within view.
As circuits go, this is the toughest in the world, but the mountain section is a challenge in itself. Races can be won or lost up here, and the climb is even harder on some of the classic machines racing in the festival. Most of the course up here is flat out and riders must pitch into blind bend after blind bend, placing ultimate trust in the front to stick. When it goes wrong here, it goes really wrong. With sheer drops to the side of the road, it’s an unforgiving place to have an accident. They must fight against the cold and the deafening winds that howl up from the valleys at this height. And as if it wasn’t hard enough already, there is the fog. Manannan’s Cloak is what the locals call it; a shroud of thick mist that engulfs the island on an almost daily basis. But the riders race on, driven by a sixth sense of where the road goes. It’s breathtaking to bear witness, these riders in visibility so poor that you are forced to slow down in a car whilst just getting around. Somehow though, the racers here keep the throttle pinned and travel through it at speeds getting on for 170mph.
A lap lasts just under 20 minutes, depending on the speed of the rider and the machine, and races are usually run over four laps. Lap times are measured in average speed, with the fastest ever man around the mountain being Michael Dunlop, clocking in at an average of 133.962mph on his BMW Superbike. Michael is racing this week, albeit on a slower Suzuki XR69 and a 500cc MV Augusta. He’ll be competing against the other big names of road racing, including his brother William, Bruce Anstey, James Hillier, Ivan Lintin, Josh Brookes, Michael Rutter, and Ian Lougher, to name but a few. And all of them on a mixture of classic superbikes and even older 500cc Hondas, Vincents, and Nortons in the Senior Classic TT. Two-stroke fans won’t be disappointed either, with a plethora of GP strokers filling the air and nostrils with nostalgia. The bikes may be slower, but the competition is no less fierce, and lap records tumble all week.
Then there are the Manx GP competitors. A traditional stepping stone to its big brother, the TT, the Manx has long been a proving ground for the privateers and future stars of the sport. These guys really want it as well, despite the tight budgets and (relative) lack of experience, the effort involved is staggering. The commitment to setting the fastest lap they can, to conquering their fears, the track, and the mountain is something to behold. They can’t all get on the podium, but every single one of them walks away a winner in some sense.
Just like at the TT, the paddock is open—you can get up close and personal with your heroes, meet the up-and-comers and have a detailed view of the machines as they are prepped for racing. For any petrolhead or classic bike fan, there is almost too much to see. Displays include the famous Britten Bikes, put together by engineering genius John Britten. Then there are the radial engine Nortons, like the one ridden to success over the mountain by Steve Hislop in the 1992 Senior TT, widely regarded as the greatest race ever seen on the Isle. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, with mechanics inviting people in to the awnings to take a closer look at the machinery, riders chatting and laughing with the public, and all manner of classic machinery parked at the front of the TT grandstand that have been ridden there by the fans. But then the klaxon sounds and the bikes assemble on the grid and the tension builds. The riders’ shoulders are tapped by the starting marshal and then they are away, flat out down the Glen Crutchery Road, across St. Ninian’s Crossroad, and then down the ludicrously steep Bray Hill.
Too many people say this, but in this case it holds true: you have to be see it to believe it. And once you’ve ventured here for the first time, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be back. Spectating is slightly more restricted than it has been in previous years, but there’s still nowhere else that you can get so close to machines traveling this fast. You will be addicted from the first view of a bike blasting past, just like the riders atop, who return each year to compete against the mountain. Some will progress to the TT proper and then only be eligible to return on classic machinery, and some will compete here year in, year out. You see, the event, or the class, or the bike they are competing on isn’t important here. What’s important is that they have come to the most dangerous and most difficult race in the world, and in some small way tamed the beast. The mountain though, will never be truly conquered.