TT Tales - Being a fan

Published: 28 March 2016

‘Never mind what you’ve seen on telly, brilliant though the coverage is. When you get there you simply won’t believe it’

s soon as you arrive, you’ve got to do a lap.
Be humble, be cautious, be considerate, but get one in. It’s like a hole in a blanket you wriggle through to enter a magic world. And on the other side is something so extraordinary it can only last two weeks. In fact, it’s amazing it lasts that long, because the TT fortnight is really government sanctioned-madness, on a scale not practised anywhere else in the world. Everyone you meet – fans, racers, officials, islanders – knows they’re in a kind of wonderland made up of the scenery, the energy of the fans and competitors, and the colossal weight of history back to 1907.
And anything can happen next. Leaving the KTM in Noble’s Park I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a pile of clothes on the grass. Clothes that are moving. In fact there’s a human form in there, skeletally thin, lying in a heap. And then, through earplugs and a helmet, muffled entreaties.
“Elpmeyup.”
“What?”
“Help me up. I can’t get up.”
I reach down and grasp a feeble paw. There’s mucus around the guy’s mouth like he’s swallowed a jellyfish. Perhaps he’s an epileptic and I should fetch a doctor? But no.
“I’m really pissed. And my ribs are all broken.”
He’s standing now. It must have been agony getting up.
“My girlfriend’s over there but she’s no use.”
And indeed a lady in a similar state is croaking at him.
“Well, at least you’re on your feet.”
I made my excuses and left.
There is a lot of drink drunk at the TT. Take Mick, a wildly happy Australian first-timer who – despite having no helmet – hitched a lift on the KTM from the paddock to Douglas prom. He was so overcome with enthusiasm for the races he let the whole street know. “I love this place, man! I fuckin’ love it!” When I dropped him at the lights he thanked me with a gigantic man-hug which I was in no position to return. Instead, the bike almost fell over.
In fairness, Manx ales are delicious. But there are more interesting things to do with the Island’s festival atmosphere than get ratted.
It is just possible that somebody reading this hasn’t been to the TT yet. In which case I’ll say what everyone says to TT virgins: never mind what you’ve seen on telly, brilliant though the coverage is. When you get there you simply won’t believe it.
For example, on race day the roads might shut at 10am. Have you ever been somewhere where 40 miles of roads absolutely must shut? It’s the cue for a traffic stampede as everyone – locals and fans – tries to get where they want to be for the day. And it’s an important decision. If you’re out on the Mountain with a picnic you could get serious sunburn. Or flattened by rain. If you’re in a pub and there’s a delay to the schedule you could find yourself absorbing Okell’s ales for ten gruelling hours.
For most races we established a route between our HQ at Union Mills and the grandstand. This meant we could work on laying out these pages, rush outside to see the action pass the front door and then, as the final lap started, nip down the old railway line (now utterly beautiful with tangled trees, wild flowers and a stream), grab the bikes outside the Railway pub, and ride via the fabulously-named Lhergy Cripperty road to the paddock in time to see the bikes roll into parc ferme.
One first-timer we met, Tom from San Diego, professed himself unmoved by the racing. “One bike goes past, then another. I see no drama,” he said. Fair enough, if you’re not watching at Ago’s Leap, or Rhencullen, or Conker Trees, or any one of dozens of places where the riders grapple with forces that can no longer be restrained.
But turn on the radio commentary, and everything changes. Modern transponders mean that the real-time analysis is amazing. And even though you only glimpse a fraction of the race, it’s an unfolding drama which – because you’re there, in your chosen spot, getting your hair rearranged as each bike blasts past – you feel part of. In 20 years it will still mean something to say, “I was there when McGuinness raced Dunlop in the Senior,” just as today it means something to say you saw Hislop v Fogarty in ’92, or Hailwood v Read in 1978. Watching TT racing is about atmosphere, group-experienced as unfolding history.
It is, of course, pretty damn dangerous to become a TT racer. Why do they put themselves through it? You can ask them, and they might answer, but words aren’t much use, really. It’s easier to feel it. I was lucky enough to be on the starting grid for the Senior, before the Bray Hill crash, when it was Dunlop 4, McGuinness 0. And I have never experienced anything like that sizzling tension. Mick Grant, who raced here in the 1970s, said he couldn’t remember a build-up like this. As the five minute mark passed, most of the top riders were on their bikes, mastering their fear. Only Gary Johnson stayed by the fence, thinking who knows what. Finally, at two minutes, he moved to his bike like a boxer entering a ring. In that moment he looked capable of anything.
I imagine it’s like this watching men go off to battle, and knowing they might not come back. It’s incredibly moving to witness, impossible to justify, and right at the core of what it means to be a human being. What are these guys doing, really? Measuring themselves, I guess. Getting in touch with something intensely, incommunicably personal. Why do they do it? Why do people climb mountains?
And after two hours of racing, and two pit stops each, the top five riders – McGuinness, Dunlop, Anstey, Hillier and Martin – are separated by a mere minute and 20 seconds.
And then, to celebrate, Douglas Prom descends into a modern-day replica of ancient Rome, powered by pubs that smell of too much disinfectant. Or, worse still, not enough.
To escape the madness, you only have to wake up the next day and realise you’re on a beautiful island. We went to recharge at Niarbyl Bay near Dalby, and spent a few hours rockpooling and exploring caves, to the clop and suck of the waves.
It was a vintage TT, and the endless sun certainly helped. A week after getting back, I rang first-time TT racer Neal Champion, who was in that queue of riders at the Senior, and went on to do a 116mph lap. Was it really as scary as it looked?
“It is a bit like that,” he said. “But I have to say humans are so incredibly adaptable you can get used to anything. The first time I stared down Bray Hill in practice it was really something. By the end of race week it was still a big deal, but it felt almost normal. And the danger is that it becomes a little bit addictive. Everything else pales by comparison. When I went back to work I couldn’t take anything seriously for three or four days.”

Words Rupert Paul  Photo Paul Woodlock