Isle of Man TT: It has killed 200 people. But still they come. Maybe that's why they come

On the Isle of Man they won't let the TT die (or forgive Barry Sheene). By Sholto Byrnes
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The Independent Online

For 50 weeks of the year, the Isle of Man is one of the most docile places in the British Isles. Red telephone boxes still stud the landscape, horse-drawn trams meander alongside the harbour at the island's capital, Douglas, and half of the island's train network is driven by steam. It is, as Alan Whicker said, "the way everything used to be".

For 50 weeks of the year, the Isle of Man is one of the most docile places in the British Isles. Red telephone boxes still stud the landscape, horse-drawn trams meander alongside the harbour at the island's capital, Douglas, and half of the island's train network is driven by steam. It is, as Alan Whicker said, "the way everything used to be".

But for 14 days beginning yesterday, the TT Races transform the island into one of the most treacherous stretches of tar macadam on Earth: a few dozen miles of fatal accidents waiting to happen. And you don't normally have to wait long.

More than 200 motorbike racers have died here in the festival's 98-year history, a toll which reflects the fact that racing on the Isle of Man takes place not on a track, but on the undulating, bendy, dry-stone walled roads normally driven over by residents with justifiable care .

Places such as Quarry Bends, where Stephen Henshaw died in 1989; Union Mills, a stone wall which claimed the life of John Clarke when he hit it at full speed; and Greeba Bridge, where Raymond Hanna crashed one day in 2000. These races are the wall of death recast across open country.

Perilous it may be, but thousands can't wait to get here every late May and June, and see if they can take it on and survive. Some don't. Two years ago Dave Jeffries, nine times winner of the TT, the Tourist Trophy, made the following observation of the course he had ridden so many times. "To succeed on the island," he said, "you have to be totally at ease with yourself, know exactly what you're doing, and accept that you might be going home in a box." Shortly afterwards, after colliding with a telegraph pole in Crosby village, he did just that.

Critics of the races, however, are not welcome, even ones as elevated as the late Barry Sheene. The motorcycle legend led a successful campaign for the TT to be stripped of its world championship status after taking part once, in 1971, and concluding that the course was too dangerous.

"He either stopped or came off at the first bend," says Paul Speller of the Manx Independent newspaper. "He never even completed one lap."

But the prospect of going home in a box is not one that seems to bother many of the participants. "It is inherently dangerous," says Albert Price, a mechanic from Wolverhampton, "but that's all part of the experience. It's just genuine working blokes having a holiday."

And so, to this raucous festival of fear and challenges, come the leather-clad men and women every early summer.

"It's anarchy," says Poppy, a driver with Bunty's Taxis. "The bikers go all over the place. You can't move for them in Douglas.

"They park in the middle of the street - they even cycle in the nude."

Others on the island are more enthusiastic. Even on Thursday night, when the first few bikers arrive, there are signs welcoming them.

The paddock outside Castletown is where they head once here.

On Friday morning, 30-year-old Luke Notton and his sponsor, John Oldfield, are looking over the two Walmsley Seeley bikes Luke will be riding in the Pre-TT Classic races. These are on a shorter circuit to the main TT races, which go over the mountain in the middle of Man.

But even the Pre-TT course goes past front doors and railway crossings. There are bends as sharp as those on the main TT. An unseated rider is likely to find himself hurtling towards a fence or a wall at high speed.

"I don't think about it," says Luke, a European champion. "I've broken ribs. When I broke my shoulder, I rode the next day."

John Oldfield looks on jovially. He used to ride in the TT races himself, until he crashed and broke his back in 1981.

"When you fall off," he says, "the first thing you should do is find out where your bike is. I thought I'd got away with it, and then the bike went straight into my back. Took a year to heal."

Over in Douglas, they're preparing for the crowds to arrive. Paul Spellerconcedes that the festival is not to everyone's taste. "Some local people don't like it. But they book holidays to avoid it."

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