The island’s biggest draw

The Classic TT isn’t just an après-TT frolic – it’s just as dangerous and demanding as the modern races

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The first time I saw the Isle of Man TT circuit, in the early 1970s, I couldn’t believe the savagery of the place. The Mountain Circuit was just brutal and merciless. I’d seen the photos, but the reality of being on the 37.73 miles was shocking, even by the minimal safety standards of the time.

I travelled to the Isle of Man with a colleague, Robin Miller, who was then Grand Prix reporter for Motorcycle News. He drove us in from Ronaldsway airport with our portable typewriters and kit chucked into the back of a rented 850 Mini, and we took a lap of the circuit. Robin had competed in the Manx Grand Prix on the MCN Spares Special, a 500cc Triumph built from parts sourced from classified ads, so he was a useful guide.

Braddan Bridge, the first real corner we came to, set the pattern. The S-bend was lined with kerbing, or if you ran out of road on the exit you’d smash your shoulder into the stone wall that juts out. Places such as Greeba Castle and Quarry Bends looked dark and dangerous. Up on the Mountain, Robin talked me through blind multi-corners such as the Verandah (four rights) and the 32nd Milestone (three lefts, I think). The occasional sandbag was randomly attached to a telegraph pole, as though whoever had placed it there could predict the trajectory that a flying body would take. It was madness, I thought, to stage Grand Prix racing on roads better suited for a 40mph tourist putter round the Lake District.

That year, 1973, I reported on the Senior TT in which the Arter ‘Wagon Wheels’ Matchless G50 (see p68) finished second. And for an article in MCN, Peter Williams, who won the F750 race on the John Player Norton, told me how he rode the Mountain Circuit; on the rise from the second-gear Ballacraine corner he would float the front wheel off the ground on the big Nortons. Why? I asked. “Reduces tyre scrub,” he said. This was an insight into the meticulous mindset of a top TT artist: it would have pared micro-seconds from a 20-minute lap time, but that’s how they have to think in order to win.

Four laps of the Mountain Course on an XR89s is an intense ride – and it’s great to watch

Four laps of the Mountain Course on an XR89s is an intense ride – and it’s great to watch

For many years I staged my own personal boycott of the TT. I thought it was wrong to hold racing on such a dangerous circuit. Around 250 competitors have died on the Mountain Circuit since racing began on it in 1911. Its deadliest year was 2005, when it claimed 11 lives (one of them a spectator).

I returned to the Island in 2014, curious about this new phenomenon, the Classic TT. I took a 60mph trundle round the course and decided its dangers are evident to any would-be competitor. So if they race, it’s their decision. The paddock scene was fascinating: the leading teams in the classic scene – Molnar Precision (Manxes and G50s), Black Eagle Racing (MVs), Mistral Racing (Kawasaki ZXR750s), Valvoline Padgetts (Yamaha YZR500), Team Classic Suzuki (XR89 superbike), Ripley Land Racing (G50, AJS 7R and 350 Honda) – worked in tents. They seemed like medieval knights preparing to joust on the Mountain Circuit.

The idea has somehow come about that the Classic TT is some kind of relaxing caper after the tensions of the TT. It’s not. The fastest machines in the Superbike Classic race are touching 175mph – only 25mph less than their modern equivalents. For machine builders the event is the biggest challenge of the classic year – a four-lap 151-mile race on the Isle of Man is the equivalent of a 75-lap race at 2.17- mile Cadwell Park. How many bikes would still be running after that? Add in the 1400ft climb up Snaefell, and the fact that engines run at full throttle on the island for far longer than on short circuits, and it’s not surprising some bikes don’t even survive practice week.

The Classic TT is demanding and controversial – there are always complaints about rules and machine eligibility. This year there’s a race for up-to-2006 250cc bikes, which some will claim are not old enough to be classic. But for me and an increasing number of others, the Classic TT is the most compelling race of the year.