The Centenary Isle of Man TT

Text: Peter Jones • Photography: Catherine Wedmore

In the film It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey says the three most wonderful sounds in the world are "airplane engines, train whistles and anchor chains." You won't catch me arguing with that sentiment, but of course I need to add one other sound that intimates a promise of places unknown: motorcycle engines. And while I'm at it, why not hoof clops and tram bells too?

This wonderful assemblage of sounds is all part of the magic of a trip to the Isle of Man for the annual motorcycle TT races. If you plan your visit right, you'll hear each of them and experience the adventures each implies.

Sitting in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, the Isle of Man is a country unto itself. It has its own money and is not a member of the European Union, though British pounds are accepted at face value. The Man flag features three legs extending out from a single hub, symbolic of the country's ability to land on its feet no matter how tempestuously it may be tossed about.
The yearly TT races at the Isle of Man have beckoned motorcyclists for 100 years now, with the Tourist Trophy having celebrated its Centenary TT in June 2007. Although the course has evolved a couple times during its long history, it has always been a true street course, now running over 37 miles and traversing towns and countryside. It's a motorcyclist's dream to witness how every Manx on the island gives up the freedom of casual daily travel for these two solid weeks when motorcycles are permitted to scream through intersections and past front doors, forcing a meaty portion of the country's commerce to stop for some six hours each day.

Seeing the racing in person starts out as a shock. At the bottom of Bray Hill, maybe a mile from the start-finish line, the bikes bottom out as they howl through a slight bend at around 180 miles per hour. Each side of the roadway has curbing and a sidewalk boarded on the outside by stone walls. The side streets provide gaps in those walls of stone, filled in by walls of people, each leaning forward for a better look. The many street lamp poles and various trees are wrapped in six-inch foam; but pondering the difference in outcomes between hitting a bare pole at 180 mph or one thinly covered in foam is, of course, a black comedy.

Nearly every foot of the TT course is fraught with dangers, which is not to say the local marshals aren't doing whatever they can to reduce the risks. But it's an impossible task and maybe, most importantly, it's part of what gives the TT its beautiful contradiction: an incredibly exciting celebration of life marred by profane wastes of life. During its 100-year history over 225 racers have died. Although that toll might bring an end to any other event, the only thing that will stop the Isle of Man TT is the riders no longer showing up to race. The TT is basically sanctioned by the country of the Isle of Man, so there is no sympathetic authority for opponents to petition.
Traveling to the TT, we flew to Dublin and then on to the Isle of Man's airport after a day of rest. Connections can also be made to Man through Belfast or Manchester, England, but not from London. The original plan was to take a ferry to the Isle of Man from one of the nearby ports (Liverpool, Heysham, Dublin or Belfast), but all tickets had been sold out months earlier due to the centenary celebrations. The bottom line is, no matter which TT is attended the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's ferries are always booked way in advance, so planning an exit before arriving is imperative.

Though the whole point of being at the Isle of Man TT is to immerse oneself in everything motorcycling, I quickly refused the bike that had been loaned us, preferring to rely on the eclectic offerings of mass transportation. - What? I gave up the chance to ride the course? To participate in Mad Sunday? Yep, I did. While I'm all for countries having their own languages, I'm ardently against having the traffic drive down the "wrong" side of the street. Looking left and stepping off the curb can be, quite literally, deadly. As for visitor fatalities on the Isle of Man, head-on collisions seem to be the major cause of death. When exiting any business, foreign drivers often forget where they are and…

So we took advantage of the Isle of Man's lively and entertaining public transportation which carried us to nearly every corner of the Isle and traveled on most of the TT course, with the exception of the mountain section. At the Isle of Man Packet Company building, in downtown Douglas, purchasing the Isle's major city, multi-day passes allows access onto Douglas' horse-drawn tram, the electric train to Ramsey in the north, the steam train to Port Erin in the south, and the double-decker buses to nearly everywhere else.

By walking, and riding on these various new and old machines, we were able to make our way to most portions of the TT course, including the ends of the mountain section. Not only were we able to watch racing from various points around the Isle, we even made it to a few different places in the same day. In all, we watched the races at Bray Hill, Ago's Leap, Quarter Bridge, Ballaugh Bridge, Water Works, Gooseneck, the Nook, Governors Bridge, and the Start/Finish line.

As with transportation to and from, lodging arrangements need to be taken care of prior to arrival. Consider renting a room in someone's home for a better rate and more intimate experience. And if you lodge in Douglas, you're closer to the biggest parties, alternate entertainments, and have ready access to the rest of the delights on the Isle of Man.