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Isle of man tt

Flashback: Isle of Man 2005

(by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen, August 2021)

Ed’s note, 2021: this was written in 2005, so treat it as a time capsule.

Isle of man tt

A week at the races

Maybe it’s a clear indication of a well-spent youth, but for years yours truly has been regaled with stories of motorcycle racing’s most enduring legend – the Isle of Man TT week. Various folk have described racing there, or being part of a pit crew and rubbing shoulders with icons like Joey Dunlop, or succumbing to weird local superstitions like the Fairy Bridge.

Isle of man tt

Then there are the countless hair-raising videos, showing riders taking risks that seemed neither legal nor possible. For me it reached an intolerable fever pitch when, a few years ago, the rest of the Lemmings Motorcycle Club came back from Mann with endless lurid “wish you were there” stories. When the 2005 trip was announced, I resigned to the inevitable and started handing over large quantities of money to who or whatever demanded a deposit.

Signed up from Motorcycle Trader mag were Spannerman, road tester Rob “Kipper Boy” Smith and me – plus a few current or pledge Lemmings, like Morley, Strapz, Newbold and Triumph distributors Steve and Mary Chiodo. And Mr Smith of Two Wheels fame joined us for a while…oh, plus about 35,000 other scruffy like-minded nutters.

The island, with a population of about 60-70,000 (many of whom sensibly go elsewhere for TT week), hosts about 30-40,000 guests each year. They’re expecting around double that number for the centenary in 2007.

Isle of man tt

Traditional route
We took a fairly traditional route – apparently necessary to get the full experience – which is grab a bike, hop on the ferry at Heysham on the west coast of England, and roll in at some disgusting hour of the morning on Mad Sunday, bleary-eyed and mildly hysterical from lack of sleep. Australia was a very long way from Douglas, our landing point.

Triumph was kind enough to/dragooned into lending a small fleet of bikes, namely the current Speed Triple, Sprint ST and Daytona 955i – the latter two fitted with touring kit. More on them later.

Isle of man tt

Our digs were at the Point of Ayr lighthouse, right out on the north tip of the isle. Since a delayed race was closing the track for the morning, we decided to grab some sleep. That was until a foghorn the size of your average road train decided to fire up. For a moment there, I could have sworn we in the path of the Titanic…

Mad Sunday – the traditional day for punters to sample the circuit for themselves -- has earned its name. In fact every day of TT week deserves the Mad tag, as the nutters are out there on the track from 4.30 in the morning (dawn at that time of year), while us slackers generally waited till 6.30 for a pre-breakfast run.

Watching a video of the circuit barely prepares you for the experience. It’s a 30-plus-mile course and, first time out on the Daytona, I was swearing into the helmet about every half-mile (or sooner) “you’re effing kidding!” Why?

Isle of man tt

Think about laying out a circuit round your suburb – trust me, it won’t be as dangerous. Blind corners, off-camber corners? Hah! I throw camshafts in your general direction. Try blind, off-camber, impossibly tight, first gear, with some killer hump in the braking area and Aunt Martha’s Ye Olde Poste Office (made a zillion years ago from the finest hand-hewn volcanic rock) right on the apex, maybe as much as a foot off your intended line. But it’s okay, because someone has roped a half-chewed hay bale to the sharp bits so you won’t get hurt. The people who actually race there are beyond brave – never, ever, pick a fight with one.

So far as I can tell, five people died over the week – including punters – which is actually a quiet year. It’s reached triple those figures in the past.

Isle of man tt

Killer postcard
If the circuit is a potential killer, the island is also achingly beautiful in places and just lovely at the rest. You have to try very hard to get a photo that doesn’t belong on a postcard.

Spectators can get very close to the action -- near enough to tap the riders on the shoulder – and sometimes the action comes to you. Like the time a rider came hurtling straight at our crew, because he missed his braking marker, and gathered it up just as Spannerman was shouting a last will and testament. (Sadly, I get his grease nipple collection.)

Something that is striking is the weird and wonderful mix of people who attend. Young gals and blokes riding full-on sport bikes or café racers (and sometimes wearing the apparently fashionable stick-on rooster crests on their helmets), rubbing shoulders with classic bike nuts, or family gatherings of often three generations knowledgably discussing who was where on the circuit and what their chances were.

On some parts of the track, the locals would simply grab an ale, stroll five feet out of their front door and watch the action over the front (hand-hewn volcanic rock) fence. Age and gender was no indicator of interest. I heard some old dear working a till at a servo politely curse when the TT radio station announced her favourite rider had just suffered a mishap.

Isle of man tt

Diversionary tactics
The racing is a little odd, in that it’s a time trial rather than a shoulder-to-shoulder contest – one very real concession to safety. If that doesn’t hold your attention, there are lots of diversions on offer. For example, Honda takes over the town of Peel for a day to show off its assorted bikes and watercraft, elsewhere there are trials and motocross events, track days at an airfield, old railways, one of the world’s biggest junk shops, and a heap of good pubs to help you sample the ales and watch the world go by.

Surprisingly, the prices were generally okay and usually lower than you’d find in London.

iom classics show

One gem we came across was a private classic bike collection which is opened to the public for an evening. Employing full-time mechanics, it has gob-smacking lines of rare kit, such as rows of Vincents. In any other week, you wouldn’t know it was there – but when one of the punters shows up on a well-used and fully-registered Brough Superior, you know it’s a show  worth attending.

islae of man tt

The Ramsay Sprints, where (for 30 quid) you can run whatever you bring down a 200-yard track on the foreshore, is a highlight. Everything from GSX-Rs to a Laverda Jota to a very scary V8 Yamaha TZ drag bike turned up for this one.
Douglas, the main town, has assorted trials, stunt demos and bands in the evening. More often than not we resorted to watching the 10.30pm sunset near the beach over several glasses of talking juice.

Smith the Rob meanwhile found a smokehouse in Peel which did the best fresh kippers and bacon the planet – so we ended up with killer breakfasts. (He’d been talking for months about the joys of ‘real’ kippers – now I’m a believer.) He also discovered some lonely, stunning, and ancient places high and far away from the madding crowd – even on this small island – something to explore with him next time.

Isle of man tt

Relaxed – up to a point
The road and police culture in the UK in general, and the Isle of Man during TT week in particular, is super-relaxed by Oz standards. Up to a point. At certain times of day, the IoM police will turn a blind eye to most things, and will even give you the hurry-up if they want to close the circuit.

But if you get waved over for a chat, do not run. One fool did and copped five months’ gaol when they tracked him down. He probably would have just got a royal bollocking (“leave the bike, catch a taxi, son”) if he’d stopped.

Otherwise, the locals mostly love the bikes and bend over backwards to be helpful. Our nearest supermarket in Ramsay (conveniently located all of 20 yards from the track) printed TT customer cards, which entitled the proud owner to some good discounts on stuff like surprisingly cheap wines from Chile, France, California and, yes, Australia.

If all else fails, go for a ride. Even when the circuit is closed, you can get to most places and there are lots of wonderful backroads. I saw one where traffic literally disappeared out of sight within 20 yards, and decided to follow it. Half a tank of fuel and a couple of hours later –  the island is only 30 miles long – I popped out of the shrubbery near Peel, just in time to join the rest of the crew at the Creek Inn for lunch.

There’s a Tardis thing happening with the roads over there, but who cares? Getting lost for a couple of hours at Mann is a laid-back adventure.

Isle of man tt

The other dimension
I can’t help thinking that the Isle of Man works in a different dimension during TT week. One example is the Fairy Bridge. Local custom says you may not cross it without saying good morning/afternoon to the fairies – otherwise evil will overtake you. Yeah, okay, sneer if you like. But normally cynical grown men and women, including our crew, became terrified of breaking the local superstition – and I suspect some turned around to apologise if they forgot the expected salutation.

The TT atmosphere has an electricity all its own – gentle but real, and the product of tens of thousands of folk with a near-religious dedication to enjoying a unique festival. It gets to you…

Isle of man tt



triumph factory 2005

Meanwhile, over at Hinckley
Triumph Motorcycles at Hinckley, in the midlands of England, has two manufacturing centers – the old factory, plus the new chap where it’s headquartered. You can take a tour of the latter, which keeps up an admirable tradition of being accessible.

We did an extensive walk-through of the place, but let’s have a quick chat about the bikes we borrowed: Speed Triple, Sprint ST and Daytona 955i.

triumph speed triple

The Speed Trip suffered a short career on this journey, when Kipper Smith nobly threw himself under it after encountering a feral steel grid at (thankfully) very low speed. It’s a serious café racer with lots of character and horsepower – amen to that. The damage was minor, but repairs understandably kept it in the shop for most of the week. Smith healed and showed a Speedmaster really can fly – it’s a long story...

triumph sprint st

Spannerman scored the Sprint ST with panniers and gel touring seat. His initial impression was that it might be too sport-focused for a sports-tourer, but here’s what he had to say at the end of three weeks.

“Calling a bike a ‘sports tourer’ means you need to provide the key elements of both categories -- it needs to be both fast and functional. The Sprint measures up as a class winner in its price bracket. Its new engine has grunt just about everywhere but still manages to provide a rush at the top end.

“The suspension seems better sorted than the bike it replaces, allowing for more controlled movement, although I'll be interested to ride it fast on Australia's rougher roads.
“Where the Sprint shines is rider comfort. I initially though Triumph had drifted too far towards the "sports" riding position but a number of six-hour stints proved otherwise.

“On the touring side, the hard luggage system is easy to use but sticks out past the handlebar width, requiring some concentration in traffic. A rack would be useful, too, as there are limited options for additional luggage.

“Pillion comfort will depend on the size of the passenger proving once again that bigger isn't always better. Triumph obviously thought long and hard about this bike and the result reflects their efforts. There's a waiting list for them in Britain so get in early...”

triumph daytona

And the Daytona? This was probably the surprise package of the three. The Isle of Man course is pretty demanding, but the track didn’t overwhelm the bike. I felt I was at no serious mechanical disadvantage over the latest sports kit – a lack of racing talent was a far bigger hobble – but I overtook more often than getting overtaken. Sure, we were giving away a few horses at times, but the bike’s riding position (sporty but not punishing), well-sorted suspension, sharp brakes, and predictable steering made it a very user-friendly and quick mount in hostile circumstances.

At a guess, I did about 2000 miles-plus (3200km). If the Mann circuit tested the sporting ability, which I rate as user-friendly and strong, later work tested the relationship. Like a long day run from near Edinburgh in Scotland down to Weston-super-Mare in south-west England – eight-plus hours non-stop varying from bitterly cold and wet (is this summer?!) Scot backroads to heavy M-route traffic, usually at 90mph. About 700km. We were over each-other by the end of the day, but still talking.

I can now admit that I quietly worried whether it (or more likely I) would cope with a long day in the saddle. It turned out to be a far more capable all-rounder (albeit with a sporting bent) than I could have hoped for.

What helped substantially was the T-branded tankbag and panniers. Rather than go into a lot of detail, it’s sufficient to say they were easily detachable, worked well, and were clearly designed by a motorcyclist. Top marks for the soft luggage.

So if you want a sport-oriented bike that really can tour on occasion, you could do much, much worse.

castletown iom

Getting around the UK
Britain is the easiest place on the planet for Australians – among the rare breed who ride on the left side of the road – to get around.

A couple of trips have convinced me the traffic is much more polite than we’re used to and, partly because of that, faster. While M roads are strictly speaking 70mph, you can safely sit on 90 in most places and plod won’t mind a bit.

Rental bikes are available for around $500-800 per week and, if you have a friend over there, buying a cheap runner is an option. England has a strict annual MOT (roadworthy) inspection, which is the first thing you should look for.

Fuel is about $2.00 per litre, while the country has a network of well-sorted major highways called M roads.

There are two publications which I’d regard as compulsory. One is the Lonely Planet guide to Britain – it will easily save its own cost (around $40) by providing useful advice on where to stay.

Another is the Collins route planner, which costs five quid (about $13) over there from newsagents and servos. Of the maps we tried, it was easily the pick.

Isle of Man was cheaper than expected, but Britain generally cost in pounds what you’d expect to pay here in dollars. In other words, about 2.5 times what you’re used to.

scotland triumph motorcycles

Getting to the IoM
It takes an air ticket, spare time, and a fair bit of savings.

The air fare costs around $2000, depending on how/when you book, while a ferry fare with a bike is a few hundred dollars, again on depending where/how.

If you go from Heysham (there are a few launching points) we can recommend staying at St Winifred’s in nearby Morecambe, on the foreshore. The owner of this old but elegant motel charges low rates and will make room in a garage to lock up the bike.

An alternative to the bike/ferry gig is to fly straight in. IoM has a large airport that serves England, Ireland and Scotland.

As for accommodation on the Isle, it pays to book well ahead – sometimes literally years.

If you want much of the hard graft sorted, Australian tour operator Dave Milligan can organise to take you and your bike over, plus an itiniery – see getrouted.com.au.

Useful web sites
IoM government: gov.im
IoM TT: iomtt.com
Steam Packet Company (ferry): steam-packet.com
Visit Britain: visitbritain.com
Lonely Planet: lonelyplanet.com

scotland triumph daytona

Some Sidetracks
Spannerman and I shot off to see his mates, the Booker family, in Scotland after the IoM. Located in the south-east of the country (near Huls), they happened to be among some amazing, often challenging, backroads. I’m told there’s even better in the north. In any case, Heysham is close enough to the Edinburgh region to make it an entertaining day-ride.

smith dublin 2005

While at Mann, we also did an overnight tour to Dublin, which is only half an hour away by air. The Guinness really does taste better and it’s worth the few hundred extra bucks in plane tickets.

manx aero club

You can also do a lap of the Isle of Man by air, either by helicopter, or by Cessna with the Manx Aero Club. As a pilot, I did the latter while taking the controls with an instructor on board. No matter who’s steering, it’s scenic, more interesting than you might expect, and worth doing.

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