The ter­ror and beauty of the great­est race in the world

Cycle World - - Race Watch - By Mark Hoyer

By now we’ve all seen the bonkers videos of Isle of Man TT rac­ers lap­ping at 130-mph av­er­age speeds, head-shak­ing or crash­ing be­tween hedges and rock walls (if they are lucky), and gen­er­ally de­fy­ing the odds by run­ning at the limit where a greater per­cent­age of mis­takes will end in death or se­ri­ous in­jury. Three rid­ers died this year. See­ing it live and rid­ing the course on a street­bike while the roads are open dur­ing TT made me re­al­ize that as good as the cov­er­age and on-board footage has be­come, the soul-mov­ing mag­ni­tude is only truly ab­sorbed by rid­ing those bumpy, crooked roads first­hand and then see­ing our su­per­heroes who some­how look like con­struc­tion work­ers (or are ac­tu­ally con­struc­tion work­ers) use un­fath­omable skill and tal­ent and phys­i­cal force to thread su­per­bikes through im­pos­si­bly nar­row gaps to near per­fec­tion. It’s more than joy to watch, and the feel­ing of do­ing it first­hand must be in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Around the time of the TT, The New York Times did sev­eral nice pieces on the Isle of Man race, its peo­ple, cul­ture, his­tory, and how it sur­vives. The pri­mary piece started with death, run­ning the to­tals from 1907 to now. For a main­stream pub­li­ca­tion writ­ten for the bulk of cit­i­zens who are non-rid­ers, run­ning the death toll is prob­a­bly the right way to be­gin, and cer­tainly the story searched for un­der­stand­ing and was beau­ti­fully pre­sented. But as mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­asts and rid­ers, we have al­ready made the de­ci­sion to take risk that most oth­ers do not, and even if we never race the Isle of Man or do 180 mph on a race­track, just by mak­ing the de­ci­sion to ride, we have taken a step closer to un­der­stand­ing the mo­ti­va­tion of a TT rider. We also have a taste of the joy that comes from do­ing some­thing dif­fi­cult well enough

to sur­vive and even thrive.

I was for­tu­nate on my first visit to the race to spend some time with Michael Dun­lop on a rainy Thurs­day morn­ing of TT week. I asked Dun­lop how he pre­pares for the TT. “We just work your nor­mal week’s work, TT comes, you take your two weeks off, come here, do all your rac­ing,” he said plainly. “Yes, you pre­pare your bikes, but it’s not like the end of the world. You don’t start pre­par­ing your mind weeks be­fore­hand. You just ar­rive, take it as it comes, have a real good go, and see what hap­pens. I’m not a pro­fes­sional road­racer as such, rac­ing ev­ery week­end, we just do [real] road­rac­ing. I view this as a hobby sort of thing.”

“Hobby” does per­haps un­der­state his and his fam­ily’s re­la­tion­ship to real road­rac­ing. Michael’s late un­cle Joey Dun­lop is the great­est TT leg­end the world has known. His fa­ther, Robert, had great suc­cess on real-roads cir­cuits, and when he was killed in qual­i­fy­ing at the North­west 200 in 2008, Michael won the race. On that day, as he says in his ex­cel­lent book Road Racer: It’s in My Blood, “To­mor­row I bury my fa­ther,” and ded­i­cated the race win to him.

Ev­ery racer who shows up for the TT has a re­la­tion­ship with mor­tal­ity most of us will never un­der­stand. But it’s not about cheat­ing death; it’s about liv­ing life and striv­ing to con­trol the out­come.

Rac­ers race be­cause they have faith in their skill to ex­e­cute ev­ery cor­ner and mit­i­gate the risks. When Guy Mar­tin crashed his CBR1000RR in prac­tice this year af­ter end­ing up “with a box full of neu­trals,” he was vis­i­bly shaken in the in­ter­view af­ter the crash. But the fail­ure of the gear­box to op­er­ate as in­tended was out of his con­trol, and had it hap­pened some­where else or even a slightly dif­fer­ent time, the out­come could have been much worse. It was be­yond his nor­mal con­trol, and the team with­drew from the Se­nior TT to de­velop the bike more. There are many chances to take, but this was con­trol­ling risk in the only way pos­si­ble since it was out­side of Mar­tin’s purview, as it were. He could do the TT but his bike could not. As ever, rac­ing is about in­tel­li­gence, cal­cu­la­tion, and ath­leti­cism, not just some kind of meat-headed fear­less­ness.

The morn­ing of the fi­nal day of rac­ing that would in­clude the TT Zero elec­tric race, side­cars, and the Se­nior TT, I was able to bor­row from Honda UK a VFR1200X to ride most of the course just min­utes be­fore each sec­tion of the road was clos­ing. That’s when the mag­ni­tude of what at TT racer does made my bones ache. Roads at 70 mph that seemed im­pos­si­bly nar­row. Sec­tions so bumpy it up­set a street­bike at tour­ing pace.

Blind cor­ner af­ter blind cor­ner. Shad­ows and paint lines and curb­ing. There is no con­vey­ing it with­out see­ing it first­hand.

Just like the rac­ing. The electrics were im­pres­sive on the Moun­tain, and the side­cars chill­ing from the Top of Bar­regar­row to the Bot­tom of Bar­regar­row, where the left-side­mounted “chairs” (beds?) and their pas­sen­gers nearly kissed the stone wall at the G-out apex.

For the Se­nior, I watched the rac­ers start at 10-se­cond in­ter­vals. When the lit­tle red flag of the Isle of Man—the brattagh Van­nin—waved off the first rider, Nor­ton V-4-mounted David John­son, the bike fired off the line and shot down the main road, fa­mous tower to the left and ceme­tery to the right. The howl­ing noise was alone on the is­land and echoed off trees and build­ings and head­stones and his­tory. I’ve never watched some­thing like this that felt so real in the mo­ment. Ian Hutchin­son, as 16-time TT win­ner, led on his Tyco BMW but crashed and broke his fe­mur. The race was restarted and Dun­lop cracked off a few 17-minute, 132-mph-av­er­age laps of the 37.73-mile course to take the de­ci­sive win.

In a time of au­ton­o­mous cars, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and com­put­ers tak­ing over more and more tasks, if we ever lose the Isle of Man TT and other risky pur­suits of striv­ing and ex­cel­lence, hu­man­ity will have lost some­thing es­sen­tial to hu­man­ness: free­dom to im­prove or die try­ing. I’d never race the TT, but I can un­der­stand why some­one would. And know­ing what I know from my own ex­pe­ri­ence al­lows me to watch them in this beau­ti­ful pur­suit and get a small taste of that ac­com­plish­ment.

How could we pos­si­bly ask peo­ple not to try to do some­thing so amaz­ing?

TOWN OR MOUN­TAIN: Dun­lop be­tween the jagged road stones or Michael Rut­ter at Bal­laugh Bridge, pre­ci­sion is key at the TT.

MON­STERS OF SPEED (Bot­tom right) Dean Har­ri­son air­borne dur­ing the RST Su­per­bike TT Race. He fin­ished third in the Se­nior TT. (Be­low) Har­ri­son’s son grips an un­opened Mon­ster En­ergy can. Har­ri­son’s fa­ther, Con­rad, was on the podium in the Side­car race.

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