Three have died on Bikers' Island - and they haven't started racing yet

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The Independent Online

The Mitre pub in Kirkmichael on the Isle of Man is hardly the most cosmopolitan of venues. But this weekendlocals wanting to eat there may struggle a little - the menu has been rewritten entirely in German.

The Mitre pub in Kirkmichael on the Isle of Man is hardly the most cosmopolitan of venues. But this weekendlocals wanting to eat there may struggle a little - the menu has been rewritten entirely in German.

That's not the end of it. Around the island, road signs exhort drivers to links fahren, and the ferries carry warnings in German, French and Italian about draconian drug policies. From this afternoon the Isle of Man, for 50 weeks of the year a largely overlooked blob of rock in the Irish Sea, becomes the motorbike racing capital of the world.

The TT races that 40,000 fans will come to see are the toughest in the world, around a cruel anachronism of a course that has claimed the lives of three competitors, two English and one Irish, in this year's practice sessions alone. As the mainstream motorcycle races have departed from their road-racing roots, only the TT and a handful of Irish events remain. Last year four people died during the seven TT races. A total of 196 people have died since the races began in 1907.

At precisely 2pm, about 100 motorcyclists will tear down a normally quiet suburban street in Douglas and fly over the crest of Ago's Leap at 150mph, before braking sharply for the pub at Quarter Bridge. After another 37 miles and 1,200 yards, they will return to Douglas to complete the first of six laps and 226 miles of racing.

There are no gravel traps or run-offs, just rows of straw bales to protect the riders from crashing into a wall, or even a house. The racers, however, can ill-afford to linger over thoughts of their own mortality. What may seem like callousness is simply the means by which riders continue to take such risks.

Despite, or because of, the danger, the TT is gaining popularity. This year there will be 573 competitors - including 10 women - from 22 countries. To bike fans it's not the Isle of Man, but The Island - capitalised, even in speech. More than that, it's Bikers' Island, as though the indigenous population were merely caretakers for the other 50 weeks of the year.

At TT time, you can't quite get away with murder, but you can indulge your two-wheeled fantasies more than the police in Baden-Baden might permit. To their credit, the Manx authorities understand this, and the law is enforced with a relaxed but effective hand. There is also the small and, to speed-merchants, enticing matter of a total absence of speed limits outside built-up areas. And for the most part the locals welcome their leather-clad invaders.

The 40,000 race fans will swell the local population of 72,000, bringing with them about 13,000 motorcycles. Every boarding house, hotel and guest house was booked up months ago. In Douglas, the biggest town, every parking space and every kerb is packed with gleaming hardware. If you want to see the finest classic Vincent, the most lavishly customised Harley-Davidson or the "trickiest" Japanese sports bike, this is the place.

There are as many bike gatherings, owners' club barbecues and custom shows as the rest of Britain sees in a year. Add motocross, trials, hill climbs, sand racing and classic parades, and it's easy to see why for these two weeks the entire island heaves to a crescendo of all things two-wheeled.

Yet the whole thing began by default. When the idea of the races was first mooted in 1904, Westminster would have none of it. The Manx, spotting an opportunity to extend their tourist season, stepped into the breach with "an order permitting the use of light locomotives" on closed public roads. Bike racing - or reliability trials as they were then, hence "Tourist Trophy" - began on the Isle of Man in 1907. Other than adjournments for two world wars, the races have been held every year since.

But today's light locomotives are far removed from those original machines. The first TT was won at an average speed of 38mph. The present lap record, set by the Glaswegian Jim Moodie, stands at 124.45mph. Sometime during the next week it's likely that the 125mph barrier will go.

And those who witness it will do so for free - a course this long can scarcely charge admission. All that's required is a wireless tuned to Radio TT's live commentary, a decent bottle of claret and a grassy vantage point from which to enjoy the sight and sounds of the last of the great road races.