Trail of the Unexpected: Pedal power on the Isle of Man

You don't need a motorbike to ride round the Manx TT circuit, says Rob Ainsley

I'd associated the Isle of Man's famous TT circuit with leathery tourists on Harleys, lured by the island's relativity-defying lack of a speed limit. Not hen parties in fairy outfits, nor men wearing rabbit costumes.

For me and my biking chum, the fact that the limit was effectively the speed of light was academic. We were cycling the circuit. The 38-mile loop of public highways mountain roads, country lanes, village streets is set aside for two weeks each summer for the world's most celebrated motorbike race. Practice runs for the 2010 event begin today, with proper racing beginning next Saturday. Winners have included motorcycle legends such as Mike Hailwood, Joey Dunlop and George Formby, though his victory came in a 1936 film, No Limit. The fastest riders warp-factor round the circuit in under 20 minutes; we were taking all day.

At first we didn't link the fancy-dress pub-crashers with the world's fastest rush hour. We were enjoying a quiet post-ride pint in The Railway, a mile or two along the course. A local double-decker bus drew up and out leapt three dozen people. The women were dressed dashingly in jockey silks. The men were jauntily tricked out as racing tipsters, bookies and less explicably a chicken and a rabbit. For 20 Manx minutes (similar to UK ones, except more elastic) the pub was packed and riotous. Then they leapt back on the bus and peace broke out again.

Half an hour later came the hen party, with similarly chaotic effect. When the final bus-flash-mob poured through stag do? birthday bash? the Manx penny finally dropped. This was the local way to do the TT circuit: as a pub crawl, in fancy dress, in a bus hired out of hours.

Locals lament the decline of the Manx country pub. There used to be over 20 on the circuit; now, they say, there are fewer than 10. The circuit still seemed popular: we were well outside race fortnight, but the roads were purring and roaring with bikers on their own DIY TT. A range of European plates lent an international flavour, appropriate given that the initials TT stand for "Tourist Trophy".

Motorbikes Dopplered past us in the wilderness mountain miles by Snaefell. We stopped and hiked half an hour to the summit for its Google-Earth view of the island, and its unique panorama of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

We never saw a Manx cat tailless or otherwise but we saw plenty of four-horned Loghtans. They're startlingly antlerish: mutton fancy-dressed as deer. Some had six horns; very Wagnerian. We counted them off from the steam train between Douglas and Port Erin, a 100-year-old kettle on wheels with entertainingly ancient passenger compartments. It takes bikes, so we could cycle the awesome coast road from Douglas to Port Soderick, and get the choo-choo back. These trains inspired Thomas the Tank Engine, except that the Rev Awdry had Thomas chuffing about on an imaginary island called Sodor, occupying the normally maritime space between Man and Barrow-in-Furness.

The TT circuit completed, we rode the scenic rail-trail (an abandoned line between Peel and Douglas), and stopped at St John's to climb Tynwald Hill. No panoramas from this summit, except of the regimentally trim village of St John's: it's only as high as a pub-crawl double-decker, but it towers metaphorically.

Here, every 5 July, the parliament that claims to be the world's oldest ceremonially reads out the laws they've changed during the year. Don't expect speed limits to feature on Tynwald's roll-call in the foreseeable future, though: the TT is too much a part of the island's USP.

Indeed, we cycled past reminders of the race everywhere. In the foyer of another circuit pub, at Crosby, we admired a gleaming vintage Norton on display, and the pictures of race fortnight on the walls, when the island is overrun with visitors. And in Douglas, on Ridgeway Street, we were delighted to come upon a statue of George Formby. He's leaning on a lamppost at the corner of the street in 1930s TT gear, which apparently included a banjolele.

Our final Manx surprise came on the A27 down in the south of the island. Between Ronague and Round Table crossroads there is a "magnetic hill": a section where the landscape conspires to fool you into thinking an uphill stretch of road is downhill, or vice versa. Freewheeling uphill now that would encourage a few more people to discover the Isle of Man by bike. A stone marks the magic point, and like so many other things on the island, the half-joking locals ascribe it to fairies. Visitors may scoff, but those fairies really do exist. We saw them in the pub, doing the TT circuit pub crawl.

Travel essentials: Isle of Man

Getting there

Ferries (08722 992 992; steam-packet.com ) run from Heysham and Liverpool to Douglas. Fares vary: there are special offers, and early booking online cut prices (up to 434 last-minute return for car plus four people in high season, but as little as 37 return for a foot passenger). Bikes go free. Inclusive rail-and-ferry fares are available from UK stations (London to Douglas from 82 return, Manchester from 49.50).

Getting around

Isle of Man Cycle Hire rents bikes from 13 a day ( iomcyclehire.co.uk ) and will deliver anywhere on the island. The island's mountain railway (Douglas-Snaefell summit), electric railway (Douglas-Ramsey) and steam railway (Douglas-Port Erin) are tourist attractions in their own right, and there is a network of local buses ( iombusandrail.info ). Car hire is available in Douglas from 16 per day.

More information

Isle of Man Tourism: 01624 686817; gov.im/tourism .

The TT 2010 runs from today until 11 June ( iomtt.com ).

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