2014: King of the Mountain

IMG_4267SpectatingGary Johnson 3norton

2014 has been a year of firsts on the biking front, a year that’s seen my biking bucket list get shorter and shorter – TT? Check? Off-roading? Check. Litre sports bike in the garage? Check?

The TT was magical. From the moment you pull on to Liverpool’s waterfront you know that you’re entering a different world, a world where two wheels are king. It doesn’t matter what type of bike you ride yourself, all that matters is that you’re ready to worship at the altar of motorcycle racing.

The first thing that struck me looking at the mass swarm of bikes on the quayside was just how wide the appeal of the TT is – sportsbikes, cruises, tourers, classics, sidecars, crossers, customs, rat bikes, monkey bikes – the machines on display were just as varied as the nationality of the numberplate they’re sporting. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you ride, or where you’re from, the appeal of watching the ultimate test of man and machine across the 37.8-mile island circuit is universal.

The second thing that struck me was just how challenging the TT course is, to both rider and machine. TV coverage doesn’t give a true reflection of just how steep, bumpy and narrow the island’s roads are. It’s a thousand times removed from the short circuit racing scene back in the UK – there are no crash barriers and no gravel traps, no room for error. The roads are bumpy, really really bumpy, the bike’s suspension works overtime to try and smooth out the ride, and the only protection offered to the competitors are the ubiquitous airbags. They’re everywhere – tethered to the red telephone boxes, lampposts, drystone walls. You just can’t get your head around how hard hard it must be to ride a bike that fast around here.

The third thing that struck me was just how accessible the whole event is. It’s the polar opposite of the sanitised MotoGP circus – here it’s about being inclusive, not exclusive. Stroll through the paddock behind the grandstand and you’ll see Guy Martin signing a young girl’s T-Shirt, William Dunlop sharing a joke with a couple of mechanics, Keith Flint laughing with his rider Steve Mercer and Bruce Anstey chewing the fat with a couple of racegoers under the Mugen awning. You really can get as close to the bikes, the riders and the action as you like.

Want to watch superbikes roar past at some 160mph just metres away your feet on a grass bank at Cronk Y Voddy? No problem. Want to see the Norton team spannering Cam Donald’s bike? Step this way. Want to check just how firm the front end of a Lightweight race bike is? Go and say hello to MCN’s Adam ‘Chad’ Child.

Then there’s riding the Mountain itself, there’s nothing quite like it in the world. As you approach Parliament Square you suddenly become painfully aware of just how many bikes there are swarming in your rear view mirrors. Your senses start working overtime, ears picking up every engine rev while your eyes notice every swerving headlight. Heading up May Hill, under the famous gantry, your heartbeat increases as you realise that soon your speed will be governed only by your own sense of self preservation. Tip into the Waterworks and then take a wide left into the Ramsey Hairpin before traffic cones funnel you into one lane, throttling off a little to give yourself a bit of space from the bike in front. After taking the Gooseneck right-hander the cones suddenly stop and the road effectively becomes a racetrack. It’s just you against yourself. There is no speed limit, the laws of the road no longer apply and the only limitation is your own talent and bravery. The next 10-miles and 13 corners are a blur of overtakes, being overtaken, hugging the racing line in left-handers while being horribly offline in right-handers, fear of falling off the road and down the rugged mountainside getting the upper hand over my desire to be quick. The views are spectacular but there’s no time to take in the scenery – your eyes are constantly scanning the road as far ahead as possible while checking the mirrors looking for approaching headlights. Some five minutes later I signal left and pull into the layby by Creg-ny-Baa and jump off the bike, the Aprilia’s engine pinking hard in the cool Mountain air after its early morning workout. My legs had turned to jelly, I was wet with sweat and I felt sick, yet I loved every breathtaking mile.

And there’s plenty more to TT fortnight than the racing. Here are 11 things I learnt from my first time on the Island:

1) Bray Hill is a lot, lot steeper than it looks

2) Queenies rock

3) Malteser and banana cake rocks even more

4) Cruiser riders pull out of every junction without looking

5) French riders are dangerous – give a wide berth

6) When it’s raining and foggy on the Mountain it’s hot enough for ice cream in Douglas

7) Staying with a local with an empty garage is good

8) Staying with a local who knows the roads like the back of his hands and has a Land Rover Defender that he’s happy to use to take use up the trails to the Mountain is even better

9) Riding the Mountain makes me feel sick

10) The phone signal on the Island is crap

11) Kriega luggage is the kit of champions. Nothing else comes close.