Monday, 4 June 2018

Notes From A Really Small Island

It was quite a strange feeling inside as we flew across the Irish Sea to the fabled Isle of Man and the 2018 TT for practice week and the Superbike TT. Strange in so much as I had little idea of what to expect and what the three days on the island would have in store for me. As it turned out I witnessed the very best and the very worst of what those 37.73 miles of tarmac can offer; the ultimate highs, the ultimate lows and almost every emotion that resides in between.

This isn't going to be an all-consuming post about how the TT has changed my life because it hasn't - although I confess it has had a profound effect although I'm still processing why - nor will it be about how I now view every other other race series as inferior or less exciting, because I don't. Each series, whether it be MotoGP, World Superbikes or British Superbikes, retains it's own merits and levels of bravery and skill. I kept an open view on what I was to see, hear and experience on 'the rock'. I've been a fan of motorcycle racing for some forty years and seen every side of it, well, or so I thought...

Braddan Bridge, 30 May 2018 was the spot where I took my first view of the Isle of Man TT riders on circuit. I've followed the TT since the days of Joey Dunlop's 'V4 Victory' and ''The New Pretender' in Steve Hislop but I was wholly unprepared for the first-hand experience of being there. People will say there are 'better' places to watch than Braddan Bridge, however with a flight arrival time of late afternoon, it was the closest place to reach before the practice session got underway. 

One thing is absolutely for certain, anyone who's anyone who has been to the TT will take great delight in telling you the best places to watch from, and with around 200 corners and bends to choose from there is no clear winner of 'Best TT Spot to Watch From' 2018. With only 3 practice sessions and a race to witness, we were limited for opportunities but we gave it our best shot and Braddan was a good first spot to spectate from; a little churchyard fronting the road with a good view as the riders accelerate away up the rise.

The one thing that made the biggest impression on seeing the bike pass for the first time? Not the noise, as impressive as it was, or the speed, there are infinitely faster points to view from, no, it was the wind. The air displaced by 1000cc machines accelerating hard away from the bridge almost under the churchyard wall, kicking up leaves, dust and road detritus in their wake. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced at any circuit and nor will likely ever experience anywhere else. You FEEL the bikes as well as see and hear them. It's truly an assault on the senses.

With the first lap of practice underway, and just about managing to process just what the hell I was watching, the Red Flag was shown. At that point little did we know just what was unfolding a few miles further round the course. Information available in the circumstances proceeding any official announcement is scarce for very obvious reasons. You can look on Social Media and find possible names involved as sadly there will always be someone keen to be first with a name, or via the live timing as it becomes painfully clear that which rider hasn't reached a particular sector; it isn't hard to find out if you really want the information. All we knew as we headed up to the paddock was that there had been two separate incidents on circuit including a tree on fire at Churchtown, which the Fire Brigade were already heading to.

Arriving at the Paddock I greeted friends with a big smile, happy to finally get to see them in their alternate little world, which later I immediately regretted, feeling daft that I was unaware of the events at Churchtown. It became very clear something serious had happened on circuit. Awnings throughout the paddock were zipped down, conversations were held in hushed tones and the buzz I was expecting to feel on seeing our BSB friends disappeared with haste  

After a brief chat with a great friend it became all too apparent that a rider had lost his life. He didn't say directly that that was the case, you could see it across his face, neither did he say who was involved and I didn't ask, that's just not something you do. Later, after the official announcement had been made that Tyco BMW rider Dan Kneen had passed away, I received a text from the same friend. "This is the side we never talk about and you walked right in to the worst of it", he said with his apologies. My reply was as you'd expect, saying absolutely no apologies needed and passed our sincere condolences. His reply was profound and something that will remain with me, "we'll be ok tomorrow, we have to be, I have to send 'X' down Bray again so no choice". He was quite correct.

The paddock on Thursday morning was a hive of activity ahead of the evening practice session. A handful of flowers lay outside the Tyco BMW awning with the BMW S1000RR machines looking resplendent inside ahead of another night of laps around the incredible Mountain circuit. Watching the mechanics and team staff milling around the bikes it was as close to business as usual as possible in exactly the way my friend put it the night before, they have to be ok. Were they? Probably not, but they still had work to do for Michael Dunlop and Dan's memory.

One thing that hit home the hardest later that morning was as we passed the point of Dan's incident on a lap of the circuit by car. Flowers already lay in place as people were gathering to pay their respects to the fallen Manxman. It made it all very, very real.

Godspeed, Dan Kneen and Adam Lyon and also my very best wishes to Steve Mercer for a strong recovery.

Thursday evening was my first full taste of TT motorcycles at full chat as we watched from the churchyard at Sulby Crossroads. You hear them, you spot them in the distance, the noise builds and before you know it, they're gone. And there it is again... the wind, the leaves, the dust. Watching the machines rise and compress over the undulations of the road showed that even on the straights the riders have no rest whatsoever. Another wonder is machine reliability. How those motorcycle engines don't detonate with alarming regularity is beyond me, a testament to the manufacturers, teams and mechanics.

Walking the grid before Friday night practice showed me just how much camaraderie exists between the teams and riders. There are riders that will never get on, that's just human nature, however, taking the opportunity to observe the riders and their mechanics actions due to a delayed start it was clear that a healthy respect exists between the majority of the grid. And why not, after all these guys are united by a common desire; the desire to cover the 37.73 miles ahead of them in the slowest fastest time possible. Make sense? I thought so. While 'fast and safe' is a common pre-start wish to any rider, setting lap records must be secondary to coming home safely in the fastest time needed.

After the event I've tried to process just how I feel about the TT Races and the guys that ride there. As much as I half expected to be thrilled and excited, I wasn't surprised to feel almost the opposite. The human side of the TT is like nothing I've ever experienced in racing. Watching friends who are so focused in their work and so meticulous in their preparations of the bike, staring in to space unsuccessfully trying to calm their quite obvious nerves. I cannot begin to understand the pressure, emotion and nervous energy they feel as they push their man off down towards the start line. 

The looks and nods shared between rider and mechanic; the fist bumps, handshakes, hugs, leg or back pats that silently say 'bring her home'. It's a powerful ritual to witness, never more so than when a father hugs his racer son, looking him in the eye one last time before anxiously retiring to the tent to watch the timing screens, willing his boy to stay safe.

As for the circuit itself, I REALLY can't begin to understand just what it takes to circumnavigate those island roads at those speeds. I have the strongest of respect for anyone who takes on the challenge there, whether an experienced 130mph+ lap man or a newcomer chasing his first 120mph lap, they all deserve every respect just for having the determination and bravery to wind on the gas and ease the clutch out to launch down Glencrutchery Road. 

Whether Bray Hill, Black Dub, Kirk Micheal, Barregarrow, Rhencullen or up on the Mountain, wherever you choose to view from it's an overwhelming experience. I can't deny that it scares me. It really does. I take no embarrassment from that feeling and make no apologies for it. It's a raw and unforgiving place. We spectated at the Bungalow, the bottom of Bray Hill and Glen Vine for the Superbike TT and I'll take so many memories from all of those locations. I genuinely felt privileged to be there, not only to see the spectacle for myself but also to witness history as Dean Harrison set a new lap record from a standing start in the Superbike TT.

Courage. It's the word that keeps coming back to me to describe the essence of the TT. Every motorcycle racer everywhere has it, but at the TT it's tangible and abundant in everyone from racers to support crews to marshals and medics.

Will I go back? Of course. As soon as I possibly can. I want to return to support the friends who live and breathe this phenomenal event - that in modern terms would be a ridiculous notion - and once again witness the spectacle of man and machine versus time itself. 

Thanks to Chris and his team at Xpress Coffee for their hospitality and taxi services and to our friends on the island that made it so memorable for so many reasons.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece.
    You're right about the amount of air a bike displaces . It's surprising . It wasn't something that I expected either. The way I describe it to people who have never experienced it is , it's almost violent . The noise builds as they approach and then there is this almost violent assault on your senses . The noise, the smell , the wind and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.