It is said to be the oldest motorcycle race track in the world still in operation, and there is no living soul on the island that can remember a time when there was no TT (Tourist Trophy). For more than 100 years, motorcycles have raced on the Isle of Man’s 37.75-mile Snaefell Mountain Course. The whole island lives under the spell of these two racing weeks at the end of May and early June. Even the schools are closed. Nevertheless, there are recurring speculations about the legal banning of the TT. Every year at least one participant dies on average. But no matter whom I ask on the island, the resounding response is, “Everybody races voluntarily. Nobody is forced.”
There are the riders who try to emulate their racing idols. Since the Snaefell Mountain Course is a public road, you have the chance to ride the course with regular traffic. The mountain section is one-way and has no speed limit, and insiders know that the early morning hours are a good time for private training sessions. Even during the day it makes sense to keep scanning your rearview mirror and to always stay on the left side of the road anticipating being passed.
Despite those dangers, I haven’t met anyone coming back from the island who wasn’t thrilled by the visit. Including myself. The main attraction is the racing. Practice runs are just as exciting, since the races are actually time trials—competitors start at staggered intervals for a set number of laps around the course. This means they never pit themselves against each other but always against the clock. And they twist the throttle just as hard during practice.
There’s Something for Everyone
The hearts of fans and wrenches will beat faster strolling through the TT paddock. The alleys between the individual boxes, mostly tents, are free for anyone to roam. You can look over the mechanics’ shoulders and at the bikes underneath their fairings. Fans can even chat with a racer and get tips on tires, for example.
Food and souvenirs are available behind the grandstand at the start-finish line, and regular stunt shows keep the excitement high. A main staple is a colorful bunch called the Purple Helmets. They perform at several different places during the TT.
If you feel like exploring the 221-square-mile island, you will find numerous paved and unpaved roads. But plan ahead. The mountain course is closed during practice and races. While there are special routes to get outside of it—e.g., in Douglas, the capital—they are rare and a hassle. Routes inside allow you to change your viewing spot during road closures. Be aware that others might be a little unperceptive, because they are in a hurry to get from point A to point B. For scenic riding, these roads are best when the course is open.
The open-air museum in the village of Cregneash, and the island Calf of Man, a bird sanctuary and home to a large seal colony, can be found at the southern end of the Isle of Man. Those who love the sea will enjoy homey Port Erin and Peel on the east coast, and larger places like Ramsey and Douglas to the west. Up north, you won’t want to miss Jurby Junk, the Point of Ayre Lighthouse, and the beaches at Point of Ayre.
Motorcycle buffs will love Murray’s Motorcycle Museum, which moved from Snaefell Mountain to Santon. Apart from this legendary private collection, there’s the Jurby Transport Museum. In Laxey, the Great Laxey Wheel, or Lady Isabella as she’s also known, is an engineering marvel, said to be the largest operating water wheel in the world at six feet wide and 72.5 feet in diameter.
If you like trains as much as motorcycles, the Isle of Man is a double win for you. In the south, a narrow gauge steam railway connects Douglas with Castletown and Port Erin, and in the north the Manx Electric Railway connects Douglas, Laxey, and Ramsey.
Rainy days can be spent in the Manx Museum in Douglas or at the House of Manannan in Peel. To try some Manx specialties, visit Moore’s Kipper Yard, one of the last traditional kipper producers in Peel. Another option is to visit Castle Rushen, originally built for a Norse king, in Castletown, also an idyllic harbor city. To enjoy more of nature and recoup from the nonstop adrenaline, hiking and cycling trails cross the island, plus public swimming pools in Castletown, Peel, Ramsey, and Douglas, offer a chance to take a dip. Of course you can swim in the Irish Sea if you really want to. Locals do this dressed in wetsuits, due to water temperatures in the 50s.
The pubs are always warm and inviting, however. Some offer live music during the TT, and in Port Erin a concert happens every evening—and never count out the entertainment provided by locals. But the big party happens at the seafront in Douglas, where fairground rides and a beer tent await attendees. Everybody who wants to be seen will be there.
The Snaefell Mountain Course
Anyone who visits the Isle should go for a ride on the Snaefell Mountain Course to get a feel for what the participants experience. You don’t have to be fast. It is good enough to see the narrow road, the windy corners, and the bumpy route to appreciate the racers’ skills! Originally, the Sunday between practice and race week was the only day the mountain road became one-way, which gave the day its name: Mad Sunday.
Today the one-way regulation runs for the whole two weeks of TT. Ironically, Mad Sunday is now a day when thousands of motorcyclists join together for the Simon Andrews Legacy Lap to commemorate those who have crashed on the course. After I did a round I respected even more what the professionals accomplish here.
For the best vantage point, some enjoy Cronk-y-Voddy because the drivers pass by at high speeds, and others like Ballaugh Bridge because of the jumps, or Ballacraine because of the sharp right corner where drivers have to break hard. The Ginger Hall Hotel offers nice service during breaks, or you can picnic on the green along the track. At Parliament Square one can savor the city flair of Ramsey, while others prefer the familiar outdoors atmosphere of Signpost Corner in Douglas. My favorite is to watch several practices and races at different viewing points so I can compare. You can be as close as possible to the drivers as long as you do not disturb them or put yourself in danger. More than 500 marshals will be there to offer advice on what to or not to do.
Following the Races
The announcer of Manx Radio keeps you updated on everything going on around the course and who is in the lead. Don’t hold monopods for cameras into the race track, as they irritate the drivers. Lifting your camera high over your head for a length of time is not a good idea either, because you will not make friends with the people behind you. Asking nicely always helps if you want a front-row spot to snap some photos. The best thing is to watch the TT without covering your eyes with a lens or getting distracted by holding a camera.
Engines roar and you feel the draft from passing bikes. You watch them twist when braking and lift at the front when accelerating hard. You see the tires slide through the curves and the racers looking for the ideal line. And in between you catch yourself holding your breath and clenching your fist around an imaginary throttle.
In 2015, John McGuinness recorded an average of 132.701 mph on his fastest lap during the Senior Race, which remains the fastest lap ever. For no money in the world would I want to compete at the TT, but I respect the riders’ skills. And I appreciate the friendliness of the Manx people, too, who every year welcome thousands of enthusiasts to their little island to celebrate a great event.
Planning Your Trip
If you want to attend the Isle of Man TT, you should start making plans at least one year in advance.
The Isle of Man is located in the middle of the Irish Sea, but is not recognized as part of the United Kingdom. Its public transportation system works well. If you rent a scooter or motorcycle on the island or on British mainland, be aware that the ferry to the Isle of Man is the bottleneck for everybody who wants to visit. Last year the Steam Packet Company transported 14,055 bikes and over 36,000 passengers. So book early or be ready to wait for a standby spot, which seems to be easier when done from Ireland than from Great Britain. The Steam Packet sails from the English ports of Liverpool and Heysham, and from Belfast, Dublin, and Larne in Ireland. Flights to the Isle of Man Airport (IOM) are also available from the UK, Ireland, and beyond.
The official TT website offers plenty of information, and there is also an app that will keep you updated during practice and race week. It is quite handy for changing time schedules, which occur most often because of bad weather. Multiple booking opportunities are offered by the official Isle of Man travel agency for flights, ferries, accommodations, and tickets for TT events and grandstands. And they provide a thorough viewers guide for the Snaefell Mountain Course.
If you plan on bringing your own tent, you can count on a basic space almost anytime. Hotels, B&Bs, vacation rentals, and pre-pitched tents tend to be scarce during race week. Book ahead to be on the safe side. www.iomtt.com
Text and Photography: Doris Wiedemann
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