Riding with the stars on the TT parade lap
15 June 2011 14:24
We’re walking up the start/finish straight towards our bikes before the Arai parade lap kicks off on the closed TT course, Reservoir Dogs-style.
Next to me are five of the best racers in the world: GP legends past, present and in the making: Mick Doohan, Nicky Hayden and Cal Crutchlow; BSB star Josh Brookes and eight times TT winner Ian Hutchinson, complete with titanium cage holding his lower left leg together.
As we approach the start line, our bikes and the brilliant ITV4 TT commentary team, Jamie Whitham shouts out, ‘Oi, Neevesy, you fraud, what are you doing here?!’. His sentiments are echoed by the TT radio team and most of the crowd.
So, I’d like to apologise to anyone who wondered who the hell that was riding around on Guy Martin’s superstock Relentless by TAS Suzuki GSX-R1000, the very same one he finished third on two nights before.
It was me, there to tell you what Guy’s bike is like to ride, what it’s like to shadow GP gods for half an hour and most importantly what the Isle of Man course is like, when you’ve got it all to yourself. Either one in isolation would’ve been amazing, all three at the same time was mind-blowing.
The first time I swing a leg over the Suzuki is seconds before the start. It’s really roomy, familiar GSX-R1000, but the stiff suspension lets you know it’s a serious piece of kit.
I’ve just got time to ask Guy’s mechanic, Danny ‘Chief’ Horney if it’s road or race shift (it’s race) and I’m second away after Hutchinson on his R1 superbike, who’s just rocketed off into the distance after executing a perfect race start.
His leathers are cut off from the left knee down and a piece of material, gaffer taped around his cage, is flapping in the wind. Basically he’s riding with shorts on down one side. Due to nerve damage he’s got drop foot too, so he can’t lift his foot up properly to change down through the gears.
Accelerating past the grandstand, I’m surprised how tall-geared the Suzuki is. It won’t wheelie, even in first, unless you really provoke it with the clutch. I guess the last thing you want around here in a race is the bike wheelying all over the place.
Down Bray Hill for the first time I poo myself. There’s no speedo, but I guess I’m doing around 100mph-ish, which is fast for the 30mph limit in place, but nowhere near the flat-out speeds the racers normally achieve.
Up over Ago’s leap, nerves kick in and I change down instead of up, like an idiot, through the race pattern gearbox.
For the first few miles, Hutchy, Crutchlow, Brookes and I are together behind travelling marshal Dick Cassidy, who’s also led Rossi and Lorenzo around here over the years.
We’re going nice and quick for the first few miles and following Hutchy I’ve got the best TT tour guide in the world. I don’t know the track, but am confident he won’t push too hard with a cage on his leg and I’m on one of the best bikes for the job, so I just stick to him blindly.
It’s magical sweeping from corner to corner, the scenery rushing by with the GSX-R beneath me. Guy’s bike is beautiful. There’s a big wide spread of easy to use power – and lots of it.
The suspension is plush and controlled, the tyres have tonnes of grip, it’s super-stable, quick steering and the brakes are amazing. It’s the perfect road bike. It’s nice to get right under that big screen out of the wind, which still has the flies on it from the race.
The TT course looks completely different when it’s closed. Strangely, after a lifetime of being ruled by the white centre line on the road, you don’t notice it any more, just the left and right kerbs, which are painted black and white. It turns from road to track and as you concentrate on where you’re going, you don’t even notice the houses, trees, pavements or lampposts.
It’s cool rushing through towns at 100-plus mph, but the weirdest thing is going into blind right-handers on the wrong side of the road – it goes against every fibre of your being to do it, but feels amazing.
When Cassidy realises we’ve lost Doohan and Hayden, who are taking it steady on a standard Honda Fireblade and Ducati 1198SP, surprised that the parade lap is travelling so fast, we slow down and all bunch up again, pulling wheelies.
Crutchlow, on a stock R1, Brookes on one of Alastair Seeley’s NW200 superstockers and Hutchinson are keen to play, so the travelling marshal waves them by.
I think about going with them but I don’t want to overstretch myself trying to keep up, especially as the course is wet in places. I don’t want the lap to be over too quickly either, and I haven’t even seen Doohan and Hayden yet. Brookes and Crutchlow get into a full-on race over the Mountain and Hutchy just clears off, so just as well I didn’t go after them.
Shuffling right to the back of our Grand Prix convoy there’s a moment I’ll savour for ever. I look up and there’s Doohan and Hayden in front of me, look down and I’m on Guy Martin’s bike and look around and I’m on the magical TT course. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Doohan’s style is instantly recognisable, all hunched up and swivelled around on the bike though the corners, while Hayden has a super-neat and tidy, head-down MotoGP style. Both are pulling crossed-up wheelies at every opportunity, while I’m grinning like a lunatic, keeping respectful distance behind.
We’re going at a swift, but not too mad-a pace now. It’s not quick enough to keep the heat in Martin’s special TT-developed stiff-construction Pirelli Diablo Super Corsa tyres. Couple that with the damp conditions and the Suzuki gets a wobble-on through some of the corners.
The hairpins at Ramsey and Governor’s Bridge, which bookend the fast mountain section are impossibly tight on a race bike with limited lock, but that bit in the middle is incredible. With better visibility of the road ahead the traveling marshal picks up the pace.
Our six-Grand Prix championship freight train picks up speed through the breathtakingly fast sweeps and curves up and down the mountain. In places you’re on your own, with the just the odd orange-jacketed marshal and cloud for company. It’s surreal.
It’s spitting by the time we get to the Creg, Guy’s race tyres are cooling and most of the feeling from them is gone. The conditions are getting slightly worse for the run back to the finish, but Doohan and Hayden are speeding up.
You sense their racing brains have dialled in to their strange surroundings and they’re feeling more comfortable with the madness surrounding them.
By the time we’re over the line, threaded though the tiny road leading into the winner’s enclosure, Crutchlow, Brookes and Hutchy are already there, lids off and chatting. Hutchy is gutted he’s not racing, Cal has that demonic look in his eyes and Brookes just wants to go out again.
Hayden is grinning from ear-to ear and shaking his head in bemusement and Doohan just looks startled. I slip away back into the crowd, back where I belong.