Mat Oxley's highlight of 2013

Motorcycles

You may hate me for saying this, but following MotoGP sometimes feels like Groundhog Day. Each weekend’s schedule mimics that of the last race you went to, so occasionally you do look up from your laptop, momentarily confused about your whereabouts. Er, is this the Sachsenring or is it Aragon?

Some of that confusion is down to samey architecture. Pretty much every press room looks the same these days: a vast room filled with neat rows of desks and chairs and a hundred or so TV monitors hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t always so. The press room at Goiania, brilliant venue for the Brazilian GP in the late 1980s, was outdoors, in the shade, overlooking the racetrack. You definitely knew you weren’t at Donington.

There’s one racetrack I visited this year that can’t be confused with anywhere else: the Isle of Man’s Mountain course. I made it over to Mona’s Isle for the inaugural Classic TT in late August, a magnificent event for fans of a certain age, though there were plenty of youngsters around, watching and racing, all of them loving the mad array of sights, sounds and smells from half a century or so of bike racing.


John McGuinness and 500cc winner Olie Linsdell on Paton 500 twins

Spectating on the Mountain course – ideally somewhere super-fast and scary, out in the middle of nowhere – is a must-do for any race fan, and the Classic TT is an ideal opportunity because the Island is less busy than during the real TT and the atmosphere is more laidback, even if the fast guys aren’t riding much slower – Michael Dunlop rode a heroic 125mph lap on a replica of an early 1980s Formula 1 bike!

And for fans fed up with never getting up close to the bikes, you can get a million miles nearer to the metal than you will at any MotoGP round or other pro racing event. The variety of machinery is mesmerising – a what’s what of motorcycle racing history – and ear shattering, too: Manx Nortons, Paton 500 twins, Matchless G50s, AJS 7Rs, Suzuki RG500s, Yamaha TZs of every size, shape and age, Kawasaki H2Rs, Suzuki XR69s, Yamaha OW01s, Honda RC30s and on and on and on.

There was even a replica of DKW’s Ladepumpe 250, the ‘supercharged’ two-stroke that won the 1938 Lightweight TT in the hands of Ewald Kluge, who was part of Hitler’s Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahrkorps (National Socialist Motorised Transport Corps) and ended up in a Russian POW camp after the war. Former 125 and 250 GP winner Ralf Waldmann rode the DKW in the official parade lap and was stunned by the TT circuit. “If you’re winning here,” he said afterwards. “It must be like being a German soldier getting out of Stalingrad in 1943.”

So the Classic TT was my moment of 2013. More specifically, I shall selfishly choose a more personal best moment: riding that parade lap with John McGuinness, Michael Dunlop, Phillip McCallen Steve Plater, Mick Grant, Brian Reid, Steve Parrish and others. It was only my second lap there since I last raced on the Island in 1989.

Excuse me if this seems a little over the top, but there’s something almost spiritual about riding round the TT course when the roads are closed for racing. These days I occasionally ride a short circuit, but because I am many years beyond trying to go as fast as I can, the exercise seems entirely pointless.

I was definitely, absolutely, without doubt not trying to go as fast as I could round the TT course, but the exercise was anything but pointless. I’m still buzzing from it now, almost four months later.


Giacomo Agostini waves to admirers on a 1970s Yamaha 350

I struggle to understand how that can be, but I think it’s because I grew up thrashing down narrow country roads, pretending I was racing. To then be presented with 37 miles of empty country roads and invited to go as fast you like would’ve been my ultimate teenage dream. And your teenage dreams tend to stick with you for the rest of your life.

Also, zooming past houses, jumping bridges and avoiding lamp posts has an entirely different effect on your senses and your adrenal gland than does riding past the neat yellow and red kerbs of Valencia. Didn’t Mark Webber recently say that one lap around Mugello provides as many thrills as a thousand laps around the new Abu Dhabi Formula 1 circuit? The same is true of the TT course, but multiplied several hundred thousand fold; especially when you’re riding with McPint and the rest, even if they’re waving to the crowd while I’m hanging on for dear life.

When I wasn’t terrified, trying to keep Ferry Brouwer’s Yamaha R1 (not very classic, I know) from throwing itself into a tank-slapper every time I hit a bump or opened the throttle, I was laughing at the madness of it all: a bunch of blokes tearing through villages at frankly ridiculous speeds, doing all the silly boy stuff like cutting each other up and pinching each other on the backside.

The ride was insanely fun because there’s something very wrong, but even more so, so very right, about blasting down a country road as fast as you like.


Michael Dunlop flying up the Mountain aboard a Suzuki XR69 replica

I followed Parrish on an ancient TZ750 for a while, unsure whether passing was the gentlemanly thing to do on a parade lap, but finally decided, what the hell, and passed him into Ramsey. Accelerating uphill and out of the town I got into the notoriously bumpy May Hill right-hander a little too hot for my liking and the bike started jumping around, dragging me over the bumps towards the kerb. It was one of my least enjoyable moments of the past decade. When I next saw Stavros at Silverstone the following weekend, he was still laughing about it.

My biggest laugh was having Dunlop – riding an ex-Kevin Schwantz Suzuki RGV500 – come flying past me at way over the ton as we approached the scary Barregarrow section. Silly thing to say, that, as there aren’t many parts of the lap that aren’t scary. It seemed like the RGV’s two-stroke powerband had caught him out because he had dialled in a lot more power than he had intended. The RGV’s front wheel was at least level with my head when he came rocketing past, just inches away, and it slammed back down onto the road as he shut the throttle. Not that it seemed to bother him.

Biggest surprise was the road from Ginger Hall to Ramsey, which seems even bumpier than it was back in the 1980s. I cannot and do not want to imagine what it’s like to ride a 200 horsepower superbike through those high-speed twists that run through a tunnel of trees and greenery, the rear wheel jumping off the ground so often that it feels like you’re on a motocross track. All I do know is that McGuinness had the most frightening moment of his TT career through there, when he got into an almighty tank-slapper on a 600 at Glen Duff.


Ian Lougher mono-wheels a Royal Enfield 500

“It was awful, absolutely terrifying,” says the 20-time TT winner and lap-record holder, who’s obviously not an easy man to scare. “It went lock to lock to lock, snapped the steering damper, smashed the bodywork, it was just bang, bang, bang, bang on the lock stops and I was an absolute total passenger. I’ve tried to find a smooth line through there but there isn’t one.”

If they ever resurface that section, lap speeds will increase by a mile an hour or two in an instant. After those few moments of terror it was a relief to make it into Ramsey and then commence the greatest part of the whole lap, climbing towards the top of Snaefell, the pastoral glories of the Island laid out around you, sheep grazing casually, the Irish Sea twinkling in the distance, the rev counter surging into the red. Nothing else like it…

All photos courtesy of www.iomtt.com

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