The Isle of Man? Never really fancied it. Isn’t it that birch-twig-thrashing, gay-banning island? The one with the three-legged swastika of a flag, some stunted cats and a load of tax exiles in pastel sweaters. All living inside Her Majesty’s protectorate, where they get to make up their own laws. Oh, and it rains a lot. Have I actually been there? Of course not.
But when I was asked if I’d come and check out the island’s world-renowned TT motorbike races, the place took on a rather perky allure. You want me to scorch some tarmac on the back of a Japanese racing bike? Oh, go on then. I let on to an old friend who happens to be a biker that I was going to ride pillion with a former TT champion. He shouted: “This will change the chemistry of your brain.” I was taken aback as he continued: “I’ve never been so jealous of anyone, ever, in my whole life.”
The TT – Tourist Trophy – is the world’s oldest and most dangerous motorbike race. What kind of sport is this? Apparently all you need is a big engine balanced on two wheels, and to be a nutter. The fleeting glimpses of screaming-past bikes draw crowds of more than 40,000 to the Isle of Man. I pictured legions of hoary Clarkson-esque geezers, paunches atremble in the exhaust-thick air.
So with all my prejudices at the ready, and not particularly in the mood for any brain-chemistry malarkey, I flew in to Ronaldsway on a sunny Tuesday morning. The island looked very nice. A bit like Yorkshire. Apart from the bits that are like Scotland. It smelled of sea and heather and good things, and I quickly discovered that there’s outstanding seafood to be had.
But I was here for one thing: motorbikes. Though given the notorious mortality rates (135 killed in TT action since its founding in 1907) I was getting nervous. Old memories began to resurface, of reckless boyfriends on mopeds, and how my dad came off a Norton Commando in the Seventies and broke most of his limbs. It doesn’t make sense for humans to perch on top of these rocket-like machines.
The seaside village of Port Erin
I was to be riding pillion with Richard “Milky” Quayle, a former TT champion. Alarmingly, he’s also a champion whose 160mph collision with a drystone wall left him with two punctured lungs and no spleen. Milky now trains TT newcomers, mentoring them as they memorise every corner and bump of the 37¾-mile circuit. Named for his resemblance to the Milky Bar Kid, he’s a proud Manxman who grew up with the TT. “We live and breathe it,” he said. “You always get some who complain about the chaos when the TT comes, but for most of us it’s like Christmas.”
I put on the leathers and attempted a swagger, but although I was dressed for the part, I was now hopping about with nerves. “Don’t worry,” Milky reassured me. “You’ll love it. It’s all about freedom.” He showed me the bike, a Yamaha FZ8 800cc, took me through my safety drill, and I climbed on board. We launched out of the Grandstand, down Bray Hill and on to the TT circuit. Unlike British championship and short-circuit races, with safety barriers and run-off space, the TT weaves around mountain slopes and village lanes that twist and undulate.
What happened next is hard to relate. Picture those cartoon fights where fists and stars burst out of an obscuring cloud. Because, sorry to say, I immediately entered a quasi-religious trance and became unable to formulate sentences. The word ecstasy entered my mind, and the notion that, if I got off the bike, I would become just a dull, foot-walking human again. I recall a feeling of wanting to cry because it was soon going to be over. Followed by a dread that I had all at once become a hollow-eyed addict, ravening with desire for my next bike-fix.
10-time winner Ian Lougher jumps Ballaugh Bridge
I defy anyone to try this and not be consumed. The thrill is extreme. Is it sexual? In a word: yes. Combining power, speed, thudding adrenalin, and – how can I put this? – more than 215 kilos of purring metal between your legs, how could it not be? But it’s more than that. It’s striving, in a solitary way, to be more than human. The TT riders are taking risks that look insane to outsiders but magically make sense when you’re doing it.
Against my expectations, doing the circuit with Milky never once felt dangerous. Yes, there was g-force, death-defying cornering and speeds that changed the shape of my face, but I was with a pro. He says of the risks: “If an Olympic marksman misses his target he loses a point. If I miss an apex, I lose my life.”
Far from being careless, these guys know more about safety than most. My fear that I would scream like a girl’s blouse was also unfounded. Even as we popped a wheelie over Ballaugh Bridge I felt completely safe.
Maybe it’s no surprise that Milky won’t ride pillion and hates being a passenger: “I have to be in control.” He mentions other TT riders who don’t ride their bikes in normal traffic, or who won’t even fly. For apparent hell-raisers they are very cautious. I wonder whether the proximity of death makes them value being alive in a more conscious way than the rest of us?
At a launch event, with beer and fans and PR girls wearing giant eyelashes, I tried to find out. The riders certainly looked like ordinary guys, low-key and unassuming. Without exception they were patient with the queuing autograph-hunters. Ian Lougher, 10-time TT winner from Wales, said that before he even got near the Isle of Man he spent months dedicating the circuit to memory: its 226 gear changes, each and every corner. That’s a lot of work, I mused. “If you don’t do it, you die,” he replied flatly. But the risk is worth it . He compared the TT to the Grand National: “It divides opinion, but it’s the ultimate glory.”
The unifying qualities seem to be commitment and guts, plus a pinch of superstition. They joked about lucky pants and T-shirts, and rituals such as getting on to your bike from the left. Conor Cummins, a local hero, said he goes commando. The final countdown to the race is sheer madness, said 2011’s fastest newcomer, Simon Andrews: “But once you get on your bike you just go into the zone. Then it’s complete calm.”
The fishing port of Peel
The TT riders aren’t what you might expect. They’re not macho, reckless show-offs. And they’re not privileged, bratty sports celebrities. They come from blue-collar backgrounds, doing something that most people don’t understand, with a passion that few people experience. “It’s hard to explain,” said Johnny Barton, preparing for his 23rd TT race. “There’s nothing else like this. That’s why I can’t stop doing it. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
The Isle of Man itself has a defiant, untameable beauty. This place is a law unto itself. And it’s that same rebellious spirit that fuels the TT. Yes, there are those who say it’s too dangerous, but no one is being forced to do it. If you don’t like it, then don’t ride it.
A number of confessions: I was wrong about the Isle of Man. It’s a friendly and lovely place. I was wrong about the TT riders. They’re not nutters; they are heroes. And on top of it all I have a secret crush on Milky, which is plain unprofessional. What was that about brain chemistry?
Slightly red in the face, I’ll leave the last words to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Clearly, the Isle of Man TT was right up there on his bucket list:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
There are 19 departure points from the UK and Ireland to the Isle of Man with easyJet (easyjet.com), Citywing (citywing.com) and Flybe (flybe.com), including London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow and Southampton.
The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company (08722 992992; steam-packet.com) has a year-round ferry service from Heysham and Birkenhead and a seasonal one from Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin; from £65 each way for car plus two passengers.
Every summer, from mid- May to mid-August, the Isle of Man becomes a basking shark hotspot. Boat trips to see them cost from £25 per person for three hours (01624 832761; geminicharter.co.uk).
The Isle of Man is home to brown and mountain hares, stoats, mountain goats and more than 100 wallabies; guided wildlife tours cost from £30 per person for three hours (01624 678788; iomtours.co.uk).
A wide range of migrant birds can be seen from the island’s bird observatory on the Calf of Man, an islet off the south coast reached by boat from Port St Mary; from £15 return (Calf Booking Office, 01624 648000; visitisleofman.com).
The Isle of Man TT takes place from May 25 to June 7 (iomtt.com).
Isle of Man Trike Tours allow two passengers to experience travelling on a motorbike around the full TT course. From £60 for one hour. Helmets and waterproofs are provided (iomtriketours.com).
Snaefell Mountain Railway
In operation since 1895, this is the only electric mountain railway in Britain (visitisleofman.com).
Where to stay
The Sefton Hotel (seftonhotel.co.im) is a four-star hotel in Douglas, close to the capital’s main shopping and business districts. It combines finely restored Victorian elegance with a modern extension built around a beautiful indoor water garden, and the new Sefton Suites. Prices start at £70 per room per night.
Where to eat
Tanroagan (tanroagan.co.uk) is one of the best seafood restaurants in the island, offering as much Manx produce as possible. Scallops, queenies, kippers and a selection of homemade breads and soups are served by friendly staff.
14North (14north.im) is a family-run restaurant in Douglas that showcases the produce of local farmers, fishermen and artisans.
Further information, see visitisleofman.com