CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN
As always, the first week of June is Isle of Man TT week. This year however, is a bit special. 2011 marks the centenary of the Mountain circuit, the 373/4-mile roller coaster of a race course that makes the if what it is the world’s wildest motorcycle race. During the event’s 105-year history, several shorter circuits have been used, but the Mountain towers above them all.
Each and every lap of the Mountain course is an adventure: almost 40 miles of zigzagging country roads, 260 corners (more or less the faster the bike, the more corners), a 1384ff elevation change and sometimes four seasons in one lap. And then there are the bumps, manhole covers, melting Tarmac, wild changes of camber and mostly zero run-off.
Riding the Mountain is like mainlining the greatest drug known to mankind. Few things get the adrenaline pumping like swooping through a village flat out in sixth gear, bloodied chin pummelling the fuel tank as you strain to keep out of the wind-blast, the elbows of your leathers scuffing a dry-stone wall.
To most modern racers who grew up racing minibikes around mini tracks, the TT is tantamount to insanity. To others (me included) who spent their youths careering through the English countryside, it makes perfect sense. It is that ancient challenge of man and machine versus the road. It is that sublime psychological exercise of puffing it on the line and using all you’ve got to pull you through.
The if has so much history the event encapsulates preffy much the entire story of motorcycle racing and so many stories, some funny, some sad. In the early days, when riders dressed in specially tailored, tight tweed suits, the last man out in practice was asked to shut the gates as he descended Snaefell. In 1927 racing aristocrat Archie Birkin (brother of ‘Bentley Boy’ Sir Henry Birkin) lost his life during a practice session when he swerved to avoid a horse and cart. Only after his death did the authorities see fit to close the roads to normal traffic during practice.
The Mountain circuit lap record stands at 131.578mph not bad for a B road. Perhaps more alarmingly, most races are now won by mere seconds, which suggests that top riders are pushing closer to the edge than ever. Last year’s main event was marked by two huge crashes involving two top riders, but Guy Martin’s 160mph fireball of an accident hasn’t put him off. “I love the danger of the if,” he said recently. “Everything else has been sanitised.”
The action (this year broadcast on ITV4 from June 4 to 10) is rarely less than breathtaking, though if you do watch you may have to get used to dealing with a sense of foreboding because the Mountain claims lives most years. This is what watching Grand Prix racing 50 years ago must have been like.
Never mind the dangers, the Manx government wants the TT to go global. They are hoping to expand ‘real road-racing’ into a World Championship, using either new or existing road circuits in other countries. I think they will struggle to find new venues, because in this safety-obsessed age most road circuits only survive under the flag of tradition.
Whether or not the world series happens, the TT itself will always be unique. During the 1980s1 raced the Mountain and other road circuits such as Montjuich Park, Macau and Bathurst (only Macau survives as a bike track), but nothing evokes the same whiff of adventure as the Mountain. Armco-lined Macau is scarier it makes you feel like a rat racing down a drainpipe. Montjuich for the 24 hours was a delight in the cool of the night, and if the bike broke it was only a short stroll to the all-night bars on the Ramblas. Bathurst was most memorable for Conrod straight. This was in prechicane days, when the final brow at the end of the straight was taken at 170ish on one wheel. The organisers kindly flew a flag so riders would know which way to body-steer the bike as the front wheel became airborne. No such luxuries on the Mountain.