23 Jun 2012

Isle of Man TT racing and golden oldies

Ok, now you've seen it. Feeling scared, impressed, amazed, knocked-out? Thinking that this is just stupid, beautiful, impressive? Probably a mixture of all of these...

This video shows just how hard it is to race a bike on the 60 kilometer road circuit that comprises the notoriously dangerous Isle of Man "mountain" circuit. The fastest guys that you see in the video are AVERAGING 130 mph (that's about 210 kph) over their four or six laps (depending on the category) of the 60 miles road circuit. The Isle of Man TT races (TT, for Tourist Trophy, although these guys are not exactly your average tourists!) are the longest standing and most famous of all motorcycle road races: ie races held on normal roads otherwise used on a daily basis for regular traffic.

The Isle of Man lies between England and Ireland, in the Irish sea. Although it belongs to the English monarch and pays allegiance to the Queen of England, it has a form of independant status and is neither a part of the United Kingdom nor of the European Union. In 1904 the island's parliament authorised the closing of certain roads to hold automobile road races, a procedure not authorised in England. The first motorcycle races were held there in 1907, at that time on a 24 kilometer circuit. The current 60 km circuit was first used in 1911, and the annual races there have never been interrupted since, with the exception of during the two world wars, and once again in 2001, during the so-called "mad cow" epidemic. 

The first bike winner (on the shorter circuit) was Charlie Collier, on a Matchless, who won the single cylinder category at an average speed of 38,20  miles per hour, after 4 hours 8 minutes and 8 seconds racing. The twin cylinder category was won, at a slower speed, by Rem Fowler on a Norton with a V-twin Peugeot engine (mabe this should have been called a Peuton?). He averaged 36.21 mph and took 4 hours, 21 minutes and 52 seconds to complete his race. Note the pedals to help him up hills, and the drive belt. Oiling was done by the hand pump on the side of the tank.

The course has always spelt danger, both to riders and, sometimes, spectators, especially those who go crazy without knowing the course well on what is sometimes calles "Bloody Sunday", between the 2 weeks of racing. In now over 100 years of racing on this course, some 220 racing riders have been killed on it, either in races or in practise. This considerable danger element caused Grand Prix racing to retire from the course years ago, but the TT event continues and is followed by a growing number of fanatics who would not miss it for anything. It also has its specialist riders, about whom more later. I have been there once, as a spectator, back in 1971 if I remember rightly. I was riding a green Norton Commando 750 Fastback at the time and I went with an American friend who was riding a BMW (a 75/5, I think it was). We camped out. It rained a lot but it was an incredible experience. It was amazing to be able, between practise sessions, to ride the same track as the racers and, even at the fairly modest speeds at which we rode (traffic was two way when the roads were open !) it was an impressive road to ride.  

John McGuinness, this year's double TT winner, and now winner of a total of 19 races on the island 

The first week of the event is reserved for practise sessions, with the roads being re-opened to normal traffic in between. A series of races, for various categories, are held during the second week. Because of the nature of the course (narrow roads and many hard obstacles like walles, poles, houses and pavements!) riders start individually at fixed intervals. Since the days of Grand Prix bikes and great riders like Surtees, Hailwood and Agostini, it is superbikes and the like that are used for the races, with different categories. The Senoir TT is the most prestigious event and this was cancelled on account of rain this year. The other races were run however and what struck me was the average age of the winners, who, with few exceptions, all seem to be 40-ish. John McGuinness, for instance, who won 2 races, is over 40, and so is Bruce Anstey, who won 1. The only youngster on the winner's board, for one race, was Michael Dunlop. Michael happens to be the nephew of the record holder for wins on this circuit, the late Joey Dunlop, who has his statue on the island.    

These guys are all unassuming heroes, who do what they like best and take the consequences. They are far from the star system. And if you still doubt the ability of over 40's racers to win at top level in bike racing, just take a look at what 41-year-old Max Biaggi is doing this year on the World Superbike circuit. He currently leads the classification with 3 race wins and a 30 point lead on his nearest follower.

For other posts on the Isle of Man TT races on this blog, you can look here:


and at this one, also on Guy Martin and one of the most popular posts ever on this blog


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