My Isle of Man TT experience: The most insane motorcycle race on Earth

When a 1000cc motorcycle quickshifts near the redline a few feet from your face, it’s like a bomb blast.

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I like motorcycles, a bit too much probably. Naturally, I like motorcycle racing. I follow MotoGP, WSBK, BSB, and MotoAmerica quite closely.

Sometimes the pain and suffering racers need to go through makes me a bit uncomfortable with motorcycle racing. This became a bit harder to ignore after watching Marc Marquez crash at Jerez in 2020, and his struggle that has followed to return to racing, which is still ongoing. Sure these people are highly paid superstars, but I don’t see how any amount of money or fame can be enough for a life spent with a body literally screwed together with bits of metal. The whole thing feels like a circus of exploitation sometimes, which I am paying for.

But then again people do what they want to do, and there is a certain charm in watching someone master the art of going around in circles. Nobody has been able to sufficiently explain to me the purpose of motorcycle racing, one rather dubious idea is that it helps companies sell more bikes, another even more questionable is that the technology developed trickles down to normal motorcycles over time. I think it’s just entertainment, humans like watching other humans do insane things.

When I lived in the UK, it was obvious that I should go and watch by far the most insane motorcycle race on the planet. I did that in 2017, and here I’ll try to explain why the Isle of Man TT is unbelievably bonkers.

Everyone knows the Isle of Man TT, one of the deadliest events on the planet. You can watch crazy onboard footage of the riders on Youtube, you can read what that feels like in the rider’s books. The TT returned this year after disruptions due to the pandemic, and multiple people lost their lives. What I want to talk about is the general madness of the whole thing.

The madness begins at the beginning. You look online for tickets to TT, and none exist. Confused, you search around, and realize that watching the event is free. This seems a bit too good to be true, so you search a bit more. There are grandstands at some places around the 60 km “track”, and you can buy tickets to sit there. Nobody seems to bother to do that however, the best places to watch the race are right by the road, centimeters from the bikes as they scream by. I still bought a grandstand ticket for Creg Ny Baa. I don’t know why I chose that particular spot.

Then you move on to the next question, how do I get there? Isle of Man is, surprise surprise, an island, roughly in the middle of England and Northern Ireland. To get there, the most common way is by ferry. I booked a rather cheap return ticket directly on the Steam Packet website. I wasn’t prepared for the surprise that followed.

I got to Liverpool and waited for the ferry. I saw what looked like a Star Trek vessel on steroids approach. It arrived and docked rather hard, the whole building where we sat shook. Boarding slowly began, and I noticed that the ferry looked rather odd, nothing like any other boat I’d ever seen. A quick search for Steam Packet Manannan, and I understood why.

The Manannan used to be a US Military vehicle, meant to transport troops and cargo quickly to a combat zone upto 5600 kms away. Naturally, it was the perfect choice to ferry half-drunk bikers and their bikes the 130-odd kilometers from Liverpool to the Isle of Man. Only a clinically insane bunch of people could’ve thought this was a good idea, but I wasn’t complaining.

I stood on top of the ferry and watched what looked like jets of water shooting out of the thing down below. Watching it overtake other ships like they were standing still was funny, but the fun didn’t last too long.

Soon the ferry rocked from side to side, it was quite concerning for someone like me who was new to water travel. Watching the horizon out the window go from only water to only sky to only water was a bit scary, and nauseating. 10% of the turbulence of this sort on an airplane and the staff are shouting at you to put on your seatbelt, get out of the toilets, and pulling the food out of your mouths. On the Manannan, the captain was making announcements about “slightly choppy waters”, and the beer never stopped flowing.

I watched as people with 2 beer mugs in each hand hit the left wall and then the right wall, all the while making steady progress to the back as half their beer flowed to the floor. While I was looking for a bag to vomit into, people were standing in line to buy sandwiches and more beer. The craziest thing was watching these drunk 6-foot behemoths in leather try to use the urinals as the ferry tried to shake them off like a wet dog. I think I was the weirdo, everyone else seemed to think this was all normal. It was a bit surreal to find myself inside one of the fastest ferries on the planet, humans bouncing off the walls like a game of Pinball, and rivers of beer flowing down the hall.

The ferry dropped us at Douglas, it was pitch dark, 10 something in the night. I was alone, with no idea where to go, but a nice taxi driver took me to a camping area. I paid £15 for a spot, pitched my tent, and spent a miserable sleepless night in the rain and the cold.

The next morning I started walking towards the paddock. It was the day of the main event, the Senior TT. I had been incredibly lucky, my plan was to spend only 1 day on the island, and due to rain disruptions a lot of cool races were happening on that day, the TT Zero, the Sidecar TT, and a bunch of other smaller ones.

Youtube videos don’t give you an idea of how incredibly dangerous the “track” is. It’s just a narrow, standard road. There’s a footpath on both sides in some sections, with a raised edge as normal. There are trees, poles, hedges, houses, and other random objects all along the road.

Another indication of the insanity of the organizers was that a lot of these trees and poles were covered in something red. I went and checked one of these out, it was just a thick piece of foam. It blows my mind that someone felt that a human flying towards a tree at 200 kph will feel better if there was a rather hard piece of foam covered in faded red fabric to cushion the impact.

I reached the paddock, saw Guy Martin and John McGuinness and Ian Hutchinson do their thing, but stayed away from all. If I was participating in an event with a statistically significant chance that I would die, I would not like to waste that time taking selfies with strangers. Overall, the difference between the Isle of Man TT pit and a MotoGP pit is like the difference between a schoolyard and a prison yard.

Creg Ny Baa was still far away, so I started walking. The first race of the day was about to start, so I didn’t have much time. The roads are closed for racing, and there are barely any other paths to go around, it’s all just fields with gates on them. Every time I saw a marshal I asked them if I had some time, they told me to run to the next marshal post and try my luck. It was my fault for asking a TT marshal if it was safe to do something, their answer was always yes. Because of them, I ended up running 5 kms to Creg Ny Baa with a 15 kg backpack.

Finally found my grandstand, sat there for 5 seconds, and then immediately got down to find a better spot. A bunch of Irish lads offered that I could sit with them right by the road, I took the offer.

A vehicle moving centimeters from you at 200 kph is not an experience you’re likely to have in normal life. When those vehicles are race machines with straight pipes, the experience is terrifying.

I was not expecting that I would flinch so hard when the first bikes came through, it was scary as hell, and I was lucky not to drop my phone in fright. I was sitting a few hundred meters after the Creg Ny Baa right turn, on the outside, the bikes naturally came towards me as they exited and accelerated.

When a 1000cc bike quickshifts near the redline a few feet from your face, it’s like a bomb blast.

But the scariest things by far were the sidecars. It is absolutely bonkers that someone wants to race these things. The whole idea of the “monkey” throwing himself over the machine in turns is insane enough, but what made me the most fearful is that these things never look stable, and they accelerate like a bat out of hell. When a sidecar came out of Creg Ny Baa, you watched as the throttle was pinned, and the monster weaved and drifted left and right over the uneven road. One small mistake and it would steer straight into my face at a hundred miles an hour. It feels extremely unnatural for 3 wheels to be going that quick.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to describe this experience fully, you have to experience it for yourself. It feels strange that such a race exists, and that you are allowed to sit right by the “track”, for free. The experience has a dream-like feel to it, things don’t make sense, but they are somehow real. Or maybe I was just tired and sleep-deprived.

After the races were all done, I followed the Irish lads as they decided to jump through some of the nearby fenced fields to get to the paddock quickly. Our progress was halted by many factors, including my 15 kg backpack, slushy ground, and a large herd of angry-looking cows. After jumping a few fences I was too tired to move, and my shoes were soaking wet, so I stood by the road. A TT marshal looked at my sorry face and gave me some lemon tea. It was like life to a dead man. When I told him I’ve been running around with this heavy bag on my shoulders, he told me that next time I should leave it at the camping spot. I had no idea I could do that.

Back near the paddock, I bought John McGuinness’s book and got it signed by him. Back on the ferry, I was absolutely dead, and even though the water was even more choppy I couldn’t care less. I slept soundly for the hours it took to get back to Liverpool, but the party wasn’t over yet.

It was 3 in the night when I reached Liverpool. It seemed stupid to book a hotel at this hour, and I couldn’t find any camping spots nearby. I had a train to catch from Liverpool Lime Street station in the morning, so I thought I’ll just go spend the night there. My thought process was that Lime Street is a big station, there would be trains moving all night, I’ll just sit and snore on a bench somewhere.

I got to the station, found my bench to sit on, and started snoring. A lady came over and asked if I was alright, I was like sure I am. The following conversation followed:

  • “Don’t you have a train to catch?”
  • “What? Oh, no, not until the morning.”
  • “Where are you from?”
  • “Milton Keynes.”
  • “So you aren’t taking any trains right now?”
  • “No, only in the morning.”
  • “We’ve got to close the station, it needs to be locked up.”
  • “Oh, of course. I’ll pack my stuff and go outside.”

I wasn’t wearing my lenses, so I couldn’t see her face clearly, but she looked beautiful. I guess everyone looks beautiful when you are half-asleep and legally blind. She was the station manager.

I peeled myself out of the sleeping bag, she was looking at me. She either thought I was a homeless person, or that I was a security risk. My plan was to move out the gate, and drop dead on the floor immediately next to it. It was raining outside, I wasn’t going anywhere far.

  • “Do you think you could just sleep here if I lock the gate?”
  • “Absolutely.”
  • “You’d be alone in the entire station for some 3 hours.”
  • “That would be OK.”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “Yes.”

She locked me inside. I spent a night inside a giant railway station, completely alone.

I was woken up around 6 am by the sound of people walking about. I decided another hour of sleep would be good. I ended up sleeping till 8 am. I was woken up by 2 more security guards in the meantime, they were either concerned that I had died inside the station, or they thought I was a terrorist. I told them the same story I’d told the lady yesterday night, and they let me sleep.

After waking up I put on my wet shoes again, and took a train back to Milton Keynes. I slept on the train, and slept some more at home. I don’t know why I decided to make this trip into a fever dream, it was an exceptionally intense yet unreal experience. If you get the chance, go there. It makes you question things in life, it makes you scared and uncomfortable, and that’s good.

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