Motor Cycling: TT hero rides a storm to the end

Alan Seeley sees the hero and villain of Manx racing, Phil Read (left), finish a poignant final lap

"THE OLDER I am, the faster I was" is the self-deprecating motto of many motorcycle road racers, slowing down as the years go by. But Phil Read, the seven-times world grand prix champion, was not quite ready to hang up his leathers, even though the glory days of works rides for Yamaha and MV Agusta are a long way behind him.

The 59-year-old Read, who became a household name with a string of epic wins in the 1960s and 70s, raced for the last time yesterday on the legendary Isle of Man TT course, a key circuit in the forging of his reputation, and one of the last in the world to be made up of public roads.

Read's return to the punishing 38-mile Isle of Man Mountain course, to contest the Senior Classic Manx Grand Prix, was an emotional one as it marked the 40th anniversary of his first island race, the 1958 junior event. Next year he will be 60 and his age will bar him from racing.

Mist and fog delayed the start by three hours yesterday and Read had to be content with 16th place behind Walsall's Bob Heath. Even so, the ageing racer averaged 94.50mph over the three laps and earned a silver replica awarded to the first 18 home.

Read's first victory came in the 1960 senior (500cc) Manx. The following year came the first of his seven TT wins in the junior (350cc) event.

In 1972 the TT still counted towards the world championship and was more dangerous than the other circuits. Following the death of the Italian, Gilberto Parlotti, Read was one of the most vocal of the leading riders in a campaign to have the TT's championship status revoked. This duly happened, but made Read unpopular with many Isle of Man purists.

Read is unrepentant about his support of the campaign, but retains a soft spot for the Isle of Man: "By the early 70s we had a feeling that rider safety wasn't at the top of the race organisers' priorities, and the price for riders who did come a cropper was far too high. Parlotti's death was the final straw. But the Isle of Man is still the greatest and most challenging circuit in the world."

Returning to the island in 1977, Read proved he had lost none of his aptitude for the Mountain Course, snatching victory in the Formula One and the prestigious senior events, on a Honda and a Suzuki.

"It was a very emotional and worrying return. I had a van with my name on the side which I parked on the sea-front in Douglas. A policeman knocked on the hotel room door and suggested I hide the van round the back for fear of public reprisal. Some of the marshalls even threatened to strike if I rode. The message was rammed home when I was refused service in a filling station. After my victory on the senior I won back some respect, and because I overcame appalling wet conditions to win the Formula One, there was a slightly louder cheer for me at the prizegiving."

Before this year, Read's last competitive island ride was in 1982 when he posted his fastest-ever Mountain Course lap, taking 20min 22.6sec to cover the 38 miles, averaging 111.09mph. A consummate all-rounder, Read is the only racer ever to win world championships in 125, 250 and 500cc classes.

"I would ride any bike I was contracted to ride to the maximum of its and my ability. Road racing is the only thing I ever wanted to do, so I just got on with it with a will to win. Second place is the first loser," Read said.

His latest and last island outing got off to a blistering start, with the Prince of Speed posting the third-fastest time in the first practice session. "A lot of the really fast boys haven't been out yet and my averages are some way off the pace," he added.

Read was right to be cautious. His Matchless G50 500cc racer, typical of the type of bike he began his career on, presented him and his team with endless problems. He broke down in sight of the finish line on his first lap of Monday evening practice, but with typical panache, took a taxi back to the paddock rather than wait for his team to pick him up once the roads had re-opened.

Read did not feel under pressure to win. All he hoped for was a top 10 finish and a couple of 100mph average laps.

He did not quite get there, but when the flag dropped, he went all out for glory, just like he had done for the last 40 years.

A diary of Phil Read's TT story will appear in Classic Bike, published on 23 September.

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