Motor Cycling: Perils of pleasure island

Norman Fox explains the strange lure of a pursuit which bears a health warning; 'I tried riding without taking any painkillers. Only by doing that could I feel the pain and decide if I could race'
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The Independent Online
PHILLIP McCALLEN was "devastated" but he was not breaking up furniture in a hotel room, crying or selling his story to the Sun. As with Gazza, his big ambition ended last week. He was declared unfit to race in motorcycling's Senior TT on the Isle of Man next Friday. He admits to having been a bit "stupid", but in his case it was nothing to do with "refuelling" habits. He just came off his bike at 130mph and fractured his spine.

That was only a month ago at Thruxton, but up until a few hours before TT practice began he still thought he could attempt to win his 12th title. Contemplate it. Even with a slight backache, let alone reshuffled vertebrae, the discomfort of racing on the most dangerous, stone-wall bordered road race circuit in the world would be far beyond the pain control of a handful of paracetamol. His doctor said one more fall or severe jolt could paralyse him for life.

The chances of that occurring were perilously high. Take one short stretch of the 37.73-mile course: Rhencullen. For quick riders like McCallen, an S bend scrapes one knee after the other, the front wheel lifts on acceleration, then there is a hump which rockets bike and hanger-on into the air at 130mph. Crash there and you hit something, extremely hard. But for the riders who refuse to be daunted by a circuit which, as a result of its 171 fatalities in 90 years, including another in practice yesterday, the international motorcycling authorities keep trying to ban, that sort of white-knuckle experience is the lure of this island in the Irish sea.

To McCallen and the other Irish racing motorcyclists, the Isle of Man is their equivalent of horse racing's Cheltenham Festival. Joey Dunlop, for instance, is 46 years old and has won a record 22 TT races. He has nothing left to prove but is risking the pain and potential damage of riding with a broken collarbone. Forgivably, he may opt out of riding a big machine in the Senior race but wants to compete in one or two of the other events.

As well as the collarbone injury suffered in a race last month, he lost most of his wedding-ring finger and cracked his pelvis. Why tempt fate? "There's nothing in the world like going round the island and winning. I'd done everything I could to get myself fit to ride six laps on a big bike this year. Last year I was getting tired. This time I was fit and ready for it, until the crash, but I never had any doubts that I would be able to ride here."

Typical of the breed, he said that his latest injuries were not the sort to "make you give up without a fight - not like a broken leg which might make it impossible to ride". Note the word "might". His 34-year-old brother Robert arrived in the island on crutches. Last month he, too, came off while racing in Ireland and broke his collarbone... and a leg. Doctors have agreed to let him race. There was no need to remind him of the danger. In 1994 on the island he crashed so badly that his right arm has little strength. He operates the front brake with the thumb of his left hand.

McCallen is marginally more circumspect than the Dunlops. "I decided that I had to put my health first, so I tried riding without taking any painkillers. Only by doing that could I feel the pain and decide whether or not I could race. The doctors decided that I could risk more damage if I rode." Another movement of the vertebrae would almost certainly have battered the spinal cord and left him in a wheelchair for life. McCallen knows exactly how dangerous the island course can be. Last year, while riding in the 125cc class, he came off at Quarry Bridge when topping 140mph. He was amazingly fortunate to escape with only broken bones in his hand. In spite of that he was even more determined to return this year, mainly because he had been offended by remarks that he made no effort to push the lap record in the Senior race to beyond 125mph. His fastest lap last year was over 122mph, but after his closest rival, Michael Rutter, crashed, there was no need to take further risks.

McCallen's absence has played into Rutter's hands. He has taken over McCallen's factory Honda machines. "It's going to be the most frustrating time of my career," McCallen said. "The island and the people have become a love affair." A lot of outstanding riders have disagreed. Barry Sheene, for instance, tried it once, failed to win and never went back.

Many of the riders are no more than middle-of-the-field finishers in mainland short circuit racing. Most of the top grand prix and superbike competitors stopped going years ago. The defiant devotees say this is the only proper bike racing: against the clock, the unpredictable weather and the guy or girl ahead on a real road. Their attitude to risk is that you could stay at home and fall off a ladder. Trevor Nation, who rode many a mercurial TT lap, was supposed to be back in harness last week as a mechanic but he did just that and broke his ankle.

Another of the Irishmen "devastated" not to be racing this time is Derek Young, who was fourth in last year's Senior TT but came off his Honda last week and damaged his spine. He crashed at a place called Nutt's Corner.