ISLE OF MAN TT
The terror and beauty of the greatest race in the world
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?
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.
TOWN OR MOUNTAIN: Dunlop between the jagged road stones or Michael Rutter at Ballaugh Bridge, precision is key at the TT.