And on the seventh day… we all go on a large one

Published: 02 June 2000

IT is quite conceivable that you will have seen a piano used as a sidecar before – in your wildest dreams.

If you pinch yourself and the tinkling of the ivories continues to get louder, you’re almost certainly on the Isle of Man during TT fortnight. And if that piano combination is passed by a loon on the back wheel of his FireBlade then you’ve got yourself mixed up in the insanity that is Mad Sunday.

Mad Sunday is traditionally the Sunday after the Formula One TT. It is the day when, weather permitting, road riders take to the famous 37.73-mile route the racers use. This is a road which – for much of its course – has no speed limits.

So what we have is up to 15,000 motorcyclists discovering the unfettered freedom of going as fast as they bloody well want, and all at once.

To remove an element of the fear factor, the ludicrously fast Mountain section is made one-way for the day. You can use both sides of the road like the racers do – in the sure and certain knowledge that there won’t be a mad German appearing on your side of the road round the next bend.

Every major corner is signed to show you which way the turns are and the locals even go to the trouble of putting out straw bales to help protect you if it all goes wrong.

And to make you feel even more like a racer, there’s always huge crowds at all the major vantage points (usually pubs) to cheer you on. This is not the Cat and Fiddle.

You can ride the course at any time when there’s no racing on, but that Mountain one-way system is only in force on Mad Sunday and that’s what draws the crowds. It’s the oldest and greatest track day in the world and – once you’re on the Island – it doesn’t cost a penny.

Ever since the TT races started in 1907, enthusiasts have ridden their bikes round the same course as the racers to get a flavour of what it must be like.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that vast amounts of machines were brought over and thrashed around the course by their owners.

TT commentator Peter Kneale explains. He says: " Many people think Mad Sunday is an organised event but it’s not. It simply gathered momentum as more and more road bikes were taken around the course. I think Mike Hailwood’s comeback in 1978 heralded the modern phenomenon of thousands of bikers bringing their machines over to the Island. "

And Kneale says it was the fans themselves who dubbed the day Mad Sunday. The name just sprung up in pub talk as riders downed the local Okells bitter and swopped tales of derring-do.

Police Sergeant Mark Pendlebury has been on traffic duty for the last 23 Mad Sundays. His outstanding memory is of a greyhound dog on a lap.

" I had to look twice, but when I did I saw a greyhound complete with helmet and goggles strapped to the pillion seat of a bike going round the circuit. " But it’s not always fun and games.

" I’ve lost count of the horrific accidents I’ve attended over the years. We try our best to calm things down but there’s always a risk. And I think when you consider how many bikes are out there, we do a good job, " he says.

But calming things down doesn’t mean handing out harsh punishments - the Isle of Man police are famous for being fair. As long as you’re not being a complete idiot, you’ll be OK. Pendlebury’s favourite trick if he sees a rider filtering a bit fast is to pull him over and make him sweat it out for 15 minutes wondering how much of a fine he’s going to get. But after the rider’s mates have disappeared into the distance, he’ll let him go with a warning. Can’t say fairer than that.

This year, Pendlebury’s at Ballaugh Bridge trying to make sure nobody tries to jump off it like the racers do. It’s a cross junction and there’s a chance bikes could be pulling out on to the road. Going through too fast can result in broken metal and limbs.

The Manx police turn a blind eye to some bizarre, and probably illegal, machinery during race week – like that piano combination for starters.

The musical motorcycle belongs to the Purple Helmets, a group of stunt riders not known for conservative behaviour. They fitted a platform to an MZ250 to mount a full-sized piano. The intrepid pianist, who wishes only to be known as Skippy, gave a virtuoso performance.

Skippy says: " We managed a 17mph lap yesterday. " But then, their progress was slowed by a pit stop at every pub en-route to take on ale and pies. Naturally, the Mad Sunday crowds loved them.

The latest event may not have the finest weather on record, but still the crowds turn out. Parliament Square in Ramsey is mobbed with spectators and riders alike who stop their bikes for a breather and a chat. But for the local riders, it’s a great opportunity to show off their course knowledge to the visiting hordes. Tony Bridson lives on the Island and rides a Honda VFR800 and he can’t wait for the TT every year.

He says: " Manx riders love to burn off the tourists because we know the course so well. I do maybe 10 laps every week if the weather’s decent so I know my way round pretty well. "

And Bridson can’t recommend strongly enough that you visit the Island outside of TT week to get a better feel of the track with less traffic on it. He says: " Instead of paying for a few track days, riders should come over here and get some laps in - it’s great and the police are brilliant all year round because most of them ride bikes. "

Bridson’s Suzuki TL1000S-riding friend, Adrian Beale, is becoming frustrated by the wet weather. " Everyone’s taking it pretty steady because it’s so wet. It’s not as bad for us because we know our way round, but I just hope everyone respects the course in the wet because it can change so much. "

Not everyone does. The police say they can expect between 20 and 30 accidents on Mad Sunday alone every year. Sgt Paul Bradford says: " Wet weather usually slows people down, but in good conditions we can have 30 incidents although they’re not always serious. Of course, if there is a crash and the roads have to be closed, that reduces the time riders can be out there which also reduces the chance of further potential accidents. "

The Manx police have around 20 traffic vehicles on the course. At the time of going to press, there were 15 incidents reported and part of the course had to be closed for half-an- hour to deal with one. Early reports suggest the rider broke an arm.

Bradford says diesel on the road in the wet conditions has been a big problem this year because the track is also open to normal road traffic as well as bikes. So, apart from leaking trucks and cars, you also have to negotiate a myriad of mobile chicanes in the form of slow-moving four-wheelers.

Manx Radio, for example, reveals that the local farmers will be out in force in silage trucks. Apparently, when silage is ready, it’s got to go on. The farmers apologise for having to do it on Mad Sunday but it seems Silage Sunday falls on Mad Sunday every year.

The locals know which side their bread is buttered and that gives them a great attitude towards bikes. They will do all they can to let you through, but no matter how welcoming they make the roads, they can’t control the weather.

This year mist on the Mountain section is bringing visibility down to a few yards in places. Suddenly, well marked corners are appearing out of nowhere. It’s like a ghost train with genuinely scary things jumping out at you. Everyone is forced to slow down.

The feeling of frustration rivals the emotions experienced by kids opening a battery-operated toy on Christmas Day and finding batteries aren’t included. Why hasn’t anyone gone to the trouble of putting a bloody big hairdrier on the Mountain to blow that mist away?

Then at least we could use all of the road, get our bikes cranked over, dream of being Joey or David. But we get a fug of mist. Bugger.

There’s so much traffic on Mad Sunday that mirrors are essential. On most track days you tape them up. Here on the Island there are so many other riders and they are taking such a variety of lines.

Not everyone goes like a loon and you shouldn’t be intimidated by Mad Sunday’s wild reputation. Many riders take it steady, cruise round and steer clear of trouble just taking in the famous landmarks. The variety of machinery taken round the circuit is astounding. Mobile pianos aside, there’s every kind of bike you could imagine. Trailies, cruisers, sidecar combos, classics, specials and loads of sports bikes make it the world’s biggest moving bike show.

It’s why so many people are happy to watch the proceedings over a couple of beers. The locals love it - kiddies stand in doorways waving and old folks stare over garden fences agog at the mayhem.

It’s one of the reasons Pete Wixon, from High Wycombe in Bucks, brought his Yamaha R1 to the Island with a group of 13 mates. He said: " My mates had been before and told me how good it was so I had to come. I’ve been getting up early to do some laps but I had to do Mad Sunday, even though there’s a load of traffic. "

Wixon’s buddy Mark Newman is another Island newcomer but he wasted no time in getting a few laps in on his R1 before Mad Sunday. He says: " It’s pretty scary, especially since I’ve got mud all over my tyres because I was watching a hillclimb. "

Another bonus of riding on Mad Sunday is that you know people are looking after you. There are six ambulances around the course as well as all the police vehicles and they’re mostly manned by bikers who love the TT.

The ambulance on duty at the Bungalow was staffed by BMW R1150GS rider Jeff Wall. He first came to the Island seven years ago to help train volunteers and has been back on duty ever since. He says: " I’ve seen some nasty accidents but we’ve had no calls today - the wet weather tends to slow people down. " Wall’s colleague Clive Maddams, who rides a Kawasaki

ZX-6R, reckons there’s a big problem with foreign riders instinctively going on to " their " side of the road in a panic situation. That’s why the Island is littered with reminders for foreign visitors to keep left. It’s one of the great things about the Isle of Man that the authorities seem genuinely concerned about your safety rather than getting some money in the coffers through fines.

Riding the course fills you with so much respect and admiration for anyone who has ever raced here. It’s without doubt the most challenging race track in the world and it’s testing even at road-legal speeds. Successfully completing a lap is a reward in itself. The souvenir T-shirts proclaim " I’ve survived Mad Sunday " and it’s a boast many feel needs making.

But perhaps the best bit of all is parking up at the famous Creg-ny-Baa pub near the end of the lap and swopping tales with mates and strangers alike. You’ll probably find that you slightly exaggerate the speed you thought you took Brandywell at and that the " mammoth " rear slide you had was more like a twitch, but what the hell? Mad Sunday is a chance for all of us to be a TT hero for a day. You may never lap the circuit at speeds to shame Foggy, but that’s not the point.

The point is the feeling that is in your head and your heart when you tuck in down Creg-ny-Baa. The point is the buzz you get and the smile on your face. The point is, there is nothing else quite like it in motorcycling.