It very nearly ended before it even began, but my first TT was every bit as magical as I had imagined.
It was the day before Tony, the Editor, and I were supposed to set sail to Douglas for the 2016 TT, and I thought I’d done a sterling job with organising everything: the ferry crossings, camping in the Metzeler village and even maps of the island were all sorted. I had already packed all my stuff, and thought I’d just take a quick look at the ferry tickets to double check the sailing times once more. Yep, sailing out on Tuesday night to be there in time for Wednesday’s races, and returning on Saturday morning after watching the Senior race on the Friday. Everything was in order, except, hang on, no, oh God, no no no, nooooooo! This was just a ticket reservation, not an actual ticket.
After some frantic phone calls (involving much more pleading, begging and grovelling than I care to admit to) with the Steam Packet Company who run the ferries to and from the Isle of Man, I managed to get some tickets sorted. The sailing out was the same as before, but the earliest return ferry I could get was two days later than the original.
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Next I had to call Tony and explain that we might be stranded on the Rock for a couple of extra days. I was surprised how well he took it, as he would have been well within his rights to punch me in the face and tell me in no uncertain terms what he thought of my organisational skills. Instead he said: “Never mind, we’ll see if we can get a standby place on an earlier ferry back.” It’s impressive how chilled you can be about these kind of things when you’re a veteran of 20-odd TT races.
The next day we jumped on our bikes and headed over to Liverpool. Now with proper tickets for the ferry and everything.
“It left me knackered, overwhelmed and with a long ride home, but I still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face”
As we were queuing up to ride into the bowels of the ferry in the shadow of the iconic Liver building I started to slowly understand how big the TT is for bikers. There must have been hundreds of bikes at the harbour. And this was just one of dozens of sailings that carried visitors to the island.
Another thing that struck me there was how many different bikes people had. I’d expected everyone to be on sports bikes, in full leathers and frothing at the mouth with the thought of riding around the Mountain Course at break-neck speeds. In reality, sports bikes seemed to be in the minority, with plenty of tourers, city bikes and even the odd Vespa lining up to join the carnival of speed. It was starting to feel like a big, happy (if somewhat eccentric) family of people with a shared passion for the most iconic road race in the world.
The sailing itself was fairly uneventful. There are cinemas and restaurants on the ferries, so time flies when you’re there. One thing I learnt was that it’s worth making a beeline for the restaurant as soon as you board the vessel. The queues soon build up, and I’m not convinced they have enough nosh for a ferry full of hungry bikers, so if you want to eat, be quick!
In the village
We’d picked the Metzeler Village as our base on the island. It’s basically a sports field full of tents, with sleeping bags and mats, lanterns and even pillows provided. The tents are all ready for you to roll into, and you have access to the loos and showers on site. It’s still camping, but definitely at the posh end of the spectrum.
The Metzeler village is in Douglas, right near Quarterbridge, which is handy if you want to just roll out of your tent and watch the races. Camping here is very good value, with prices starting from just £22 per night, and the site also arranges a free Q&A with some of the riders during race week: we were entertained by the witty Gary Johnson and the sublimely fast Ian Hutchinson, among others.
I was lucky to have Tony with me to show me the best places to watch the races, but to be honest, I don’t think there are any bad places to watch. As long as you get there early and park yourself close to a burger van or take sarnies with you, you’ll be set for the day.
We headed over to Rhencullen for our first race, the Supersport 2. Although we were there about two hours before the race, it was already getting packed, and we just managed to get the last spots in the grandstand. It was a great place to watch the bikes go tearing past, disappearing into a right-hand corner at the end of the straight. Or rather, it would have been — for the first hour or so all we could see was mist. The weather on the island can be problematic for racing, but on this occasion the luck was on our side and slowly but steadily the mist lifted. I could hear the bikes approaching us well before I saw them explode into view, scream past us and then disappear again. Ian Hutchinson won the race, but in all honesty, I didn’t even care who came out on top — I was just thrilled to witness the spectacle.
The TT races are pretty unique in terms of how close to the action you can get. I still can’t believe that you can actually sit on the bank of a road, with just a couple of feet between you and a bunch of speed-crazed petrol heads astride big lumps of metal travelling at 200mph. There’s nothing quite like it!
For the Lightweight race we moved to the legendary Ballaugh Bridge. This was even better than Rhencullen. The bikes came flying – actually flying – over the bridge, hit the Tarmac with a thud and as soon as the suspension had half-settled the riders were full on the gas again. It was like a kind of brutal ballet: beautiful, highly skilled and acrobatic, but leaving you wondering if the laws of physics apply to these guys at all. Ivan Lintin won the four-lap race, but as far as I’m concerned, anyone with the balls to take part is a winner.
On the day before the Senior race we managed a full lap of the Mountain Course as there was no racing on the day and the streets were open to the public. The 37-mile road track is a joy to ride, but it made me wonder how anyone can go so fast on these bumpy roads. I could feel the shudders from the rough road surfaces when riding at a fraction of the speeds that the racers were doing. I still don’t know how they do it. There were hundreds of bikes on the roads all around the circuit, slowly plodding through the villages round the first half of the course, then hitting the mountain section with more purpose and speed.
After the lap, we headed over to the paddocks to watch the teams put the final touches to the bikes for the Senior race, and browsed the dozens of stalls selling everything from TT merchandise to biking gear. We also picked up little TT radios from the official shop, so we would be able hear the commentary and follow the action better when watching the Senior race the next day.
The morning of the Senior race was another misty one. Tony and I headed over to Creg-ny-Baa in the mountain section and watched the swirls of mist sweep past for three hours before our radios finally confirmed that the conditions were good enough for racing.
The Sidecar race started the proceedings, with the Birchall brothers claiming their fourth victory. Then it was time for the big one: the Senior race. The big names to watch were Hutchinson, McGuinness and Dunlop, but a surprise winner was not out of the question either. You could feel the anticipation in the air.
Creg-ny-Baa is another excellent place to watch the racing. The riders wind their bikes up to incredible speeds on the long straight, and then tip into a tight right-hand corner, narrowly missing the pub at the end of the road. The race was every bit as good as we had expected, with Michael Dunlop setting both a new absolute lap record at 133.962mph and a new race record time for a six-lap race on the Mountain Course. In the end he was half a minute clear of Ian Hutchinson who was second, but the race wasn’t decided too early on, so we saw a proper battle for the top podium.
Home sweet home
It had been an incredible few days on the island, with some top-quality racing, scenery, people and riding. But as soon as the dust had settled on the Senior race the show was over. You could almost feel the whole island taking a deep breath and settling back into normality. The visitors started heading back over to the harbour and the airport, and very quickly the place started to feel like a ghost town.
We decided to get to the ferry terminal as soon as it opened the next morning at 4am and see if we could get home before our actual sailing in two days’ time. Although I was tired, nursing a cold, and the standby board outside the ferry office had the uninspiring word ‘FULL’ written all over the next few sailings, it turned out to be the right thing to do. We were third and fourth in the standby queue, and after three sailings our names were called, we grabbed our new tickets, jumped on our bikes and raced to the ferry waiting impatiently in the harbour.
And with that, my first TT trip was over. It left me knackered, overwhelmed and with a long ride home, but I still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face – it was every bit as good as I’d hoped, and more!