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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
For the love of speed
Three riders on the course (Picture: Stephen Davison/TT)

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Isle of Man's Tourist Trophy motorcycle races are celebrating their centenary. They've claimed dozens of lives but are seen as a symbol of freedom of choice in an increasingly regulated world.

To see a competitor flash down Bray Hill at the start of the TT is an extraordinary thing, even to the non-motorcycle fan.

The roar of even a single 1000cc engine can be heard as much in the solar plexus as in the ears.

We all think we know what racetracks look like - squiggly circuits of beautiful flat road, courses littered with safety features like gravel traps and tyre barriers.

On a normal road elsewhere, you would immediately go to jail or kill yourself
John McGuinness
TT champion

But the TT - the longest and oldest motorcycle course in the world - is 37.73 miles of closed public road. It is narrow country road, with overhanging trees, whitewashed cottages fronting directly onto the track and tricky corners bordered by solid dry stone walls.

Hay bales are often all that separates a miscalculating rider from serious injury or death.

Element of danger

Morecambe rider John McGuinness holds the current lap record at an average speed of over 129mph. Riders, who race against the clock, can exceed 200mph on some stretches.

"It's the longest circuit in the world by far. It's part of history, almost where motorcycling started. The speeds are unbelievable.

"On Bray Hill, you go from 0-180mph down a straight. On a normal road elsewhere, you would immediately go to jail or kill yourself.

"It looks ridiculously fast and mental and insane, 200mph on a road looks like absolute madness. But I leave a little bit, my safety buffer."

A 1907 entrant with his bike (Picture: Fottofinders)
The Isle of Man has always been prepared to close the roads

There's no escaping the element of danger, and many riders who died pursuing the sport they love are remembered in the names of corners and milestones.

Birkin's Bend remembers Archie Birkin, killed avoiding a fish cart in practice in 1927. The Graham Memorial is dedicated to Les Graham, killed on the second lap in 1953. The 11th Milestone is a tribute to Reuben Drinkwater who died in 1949. Joey's is for Joey Dunlop, perhaps the greatest rider, who died in Estonia in 2000.

In all, more than 200 riders have died in the TT and its sister event the Manx Grand Prix over the last 100 years.

Frozen to bike

As another of the race favourites, Lincolnshire rider Guy Martin, explains: "The danger is a big thing why I like it, that's my main thing. It is thrilling. People think you are mad for saying that."

TT riders were always made of tough stuff. John Surtees, the only man to have been motorcycling and Formula 1 car world champion, remembers racing in 1959 in appalling conditions. He had to be lifted off his bike at the finish.

"I had hail and I had rain. The hail was so strong it took paint off. I sort of got frozen on the spot. Worst weather conditions I've raced in. The Isle of Man can throw everything at you."

TT FACTS
A rider takes a corner in 1928 (Picture: Fottofinders)
25,000 attend annually
50-55,000 this year
Average helicopter time to fallen rider - six minutes
Section of course open one-way to fans
More than 200 deaths in TT and grand prix

The TT races had their genesis in Britain's fear of speed and danger on the roads.

The 1903 Motor Act imposed a 20mph speed limit on cars, and the legal impossibility of closing roads for racing meant car and bike enthusiasts had to look for a more liberal regime. They found it in the Isle of Man.

The island, with its own legal system and distinct culture, is a very different place to its near neighbour, Britain.

On the island, aversion to the idea of speeding enforcement is so great that a "safety camera" was attacked by arsonists soon after installation.

In Britain, often referred to simply as "across" by islanders, the newspapers like to paint a picture of a manic wave of health and safety zealotry forcing kids to wear goggles to play conkers and "nannying" citizens with excessive regulation.

Long controversy

"There is that much government legislation on health and safety these days, but it ain't quite got to the Isle of Man," Martin, who also races lawnmowers, notes.

A rider passes the crowds in 1968 (Picture: Fottofinders)
By the post-war era speeds had jumped massively
Stuart Barker, author of TT Century, lost his friend Gus Scott, who died in 2005 after colliding with a race marshal who was on the track. The marshal also died.

"You can't argue that it isn't dangerous. How much longer it can last in today's society, I don't know. Even in the 1920s it came in for flak, with people saying the bikes were too fast and it had to stop."

But the ultimate decision has to lie with the riders, and the Manx people who host the event, Barker says.

"It is a breath of fresh air to get away from the crushing environment of regulation."

To McGuinness, the safety groups who would see the race diluted are a "bunch of do-gooders".

"Everyone wants to kick it in, but we all know that we accept the risks. Maybe we are hard-nosed bastards."

Risk remains

There has, however, been a drive for better training of marshals in recent years, and more money spent on safety, but riding the course remains a risk.

A rider corners in 1971 (Picture: Fottofinders)
Bikes have changed dramatically

David Jefferies, killed in 2003, put it succinctly to a reporter.

"No-one is forcing me to go, I'm doing it completely off my own back. I enjoy doing it. There are so many things in life that you aren't allowed to do for some pathetic reason that some bloke in a suit has decided because it's dangerous or some other reason."

But the risk is not just confined to the competitors. Unlike virtually every other motor race in the world, in the TT, the fans can taste the danger too.

One of the most notorious features of the TT fortnight is "Mad Sunday", a tradition that sees a large section of the track - from the Ramsey Hairpin to Creg-ny-Baa - made one-way to the public for one day. Fans get to be racers for a day.

Mad Sunday

There are no speed cameras on the island's A-roads. They'd be pointless. There is no island-wide speed limit, although there are limits in towns and accident blackspots.

When the government decided to extend the Mad Sunday concept to the full fortnight of the TT festival for the centenary, critics said it would be both inconvenient and an encouragement to fans to travel at unsafe speeds.

But the authorities take the view that by avoiding head-on collisions the prospect of deaths will be greatly reduced.

Circuit map

"They can ride the mountain course one way. Sometimes you are going to get the odd accident. They take it at their own risk," McGuinness suggests.

The TT's supporters point out it has been important in pioneering techniques to keep riders safer.

Richard Fairbairn, of Motorcycle News, says it is the world's biggest safety laboratory. Non-slip road marking paint, high-grip road surfaces and flush cats' eyes have been all been tried on the island and then adopted elsewhere.

The event is the major tourist draw to the island. This year at least 20,000 motorbikes will be brought to the island as well as many fans travelling by plane.

For every islander who despises the noise, inconvenience, crowds and danger, there is another who recognises an emblem for a little-thought-of island.

And for motorcycle fans, the TT will remain a symbol of adults being free to pursue a passion, even at the cost of risking their own lives.

BBC Two will show highlights of the TT on Sunday 17 June from 1300 BST.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I was born and brought up on the Island - the TT races are a fantastic experience, but no Islander fails to appreciate the danger. There are some of the best accident-care facilities in the world, the rescue helicopter can get to anywhere on the TT course within 7 minutes. For two weeks of every year, we drive with caution, knowing that many tourists can get a little carried away and think there are no speed limits anywhere! We welcomed visitors and racers from all over the world, and still do. I'm just really sad that this year I'm not there to experience the centenary!
Leonie Brown, Shrewsbury

Having lived for years right on the course, I share many of the sentiments above. But spare a thought for the policemen and other innocent local bystanders who have been hit and killed by errant bikes and who have had no wish to lose their lives in the mad pursuit of speed. Risk your own life if you will, but you have no right to take others down with you.
Liz Spencer, Ottawa, Canada

Let people decide their own destiny. I have lost many friends on the TT course, having spent many years working there in the motorcycle industry. As DJ put it, "it's my choice."
Gary Hartshorne, UK

I am personally glad that such an event can be allowed to continue in this increasingly nannying world - the human race has got this far through endeavour and risk - removing that risk, or the possibility to expose yourself to it, makes a mockery of our 'free and civilised' society. Here's to another hundred years of brave men doing what they love and providing a spectacle worthy of the name.
Malcolm Donohoe, Troon, Ayrshire

In todays cotton wool, nanny state, health and safety obsessed society it is more important than ever that events such as the TT go ahead. It is about man and machine and trying to push rules and boundaries, if it weren't for people doing these things the poor old human race would still be living in caves, eating mud and generally being bored senceless.

It is important that there is a place where people can escape the rules and enjoy what brings them the thrills and experiences that todays day to day world can't offer. That it is dangerouse only adds to the experience and that is something that those who want to ban it don't understand. As David Jefferies said "Those who risk nothing, do nothing, acheive nothing, become nothing."
Ben Thompson, Stamford UK

The world, and Britain in particular, seems to be full of finger wagging old women saying don't do this or don't do that! I've been a motorcyclist for 30 years or so and visited the TT once, in 83. I have had a couple of near fatal accidents in my motorcycling career, both caused by the stupidity and down right arrogance of car drivers! No one has ever held a gun to my head and ordered me back on a bike. I do it because I love it!
Jim MacDonald, Berlin Germany

It sounds great, but you don't have to live here... a normally quiet and beautiful island turns into mad place. Huge traffic jams as most of the roads around the island are closed off due to the racing, and when you do find a quite stretch of road, you have to drive on your nerves as you don't know what's coming around the next corner, which could be a foreign rider on the wrong side of the road.

200 have been killed in the races, but as many again have been killed once the races have finished on the open roads thinking they are in the race. Years ago when motorbikes where quite slow, the TT was a real thrill and joy, but machines today can travel well over 120 mph on roads aren¿t up to the speeds ¿ it¿s turned into a death race.

I love living on the Isle of Man, but I hate the bikes, and the deaths it brings with it. To many of the locals, the famous TT course is a 37 mile long graveyard of famous riders, the not so famous, spectators, course marshals and innocents, who just happen to be on the wrong road at the wrong time.
David Lloyd-Jones, Douglas, Isle of Man

I think the TT is one of the best things on the IOM, it is great to see the hustle & bustle and all the new faces & nationalities, its a breath of fresh air. As for the inconvenience that some people complain about there are 2 ferries running to the UK everyday if they don't like it! Riders know the risks they take but it is something they love to do and something i love to watch.
Shaz, Isle of Man

My brother-in-law was killed whilst racing on the IOM. The thing is, he lived his dream. How many of us can say we do or have done that?
Chris, Leicester

The TT is the most exhilarating motorcycle racing on the planet. Yes it's dangerous, but so is crossing the road! I've been many times and can say without doubt that most islanders are strong supporters of the event: even little, grey-haired old Manx ladies are out on the street cheering on the riders. It's a wonderful atmosphere and helps the economy of the island hugely. Thank you for such a positive report of this unique event, here's to 100 more years of the TT!!
Lizzie Rymer, Leeds, Yorkshire

The TT is a right of passage for bikers! No-one forces the likes of McGuiness or Archibald to race, they do it because they want to. In the same way, no-one forces me and my mates to go and have a "play", but we do, because we want to. Thank God for the IOM government and their ability to let people live their lives with a bit of excitement - this will be my 5th TT and soon hope to be a permanent resident of the island! Long live the Tourist Trophy!
Jim Martin, Shifnal, shropshire

I have lost count of the number of times i have visited the Isle of Man since i was 5 years old, beggining with the Manx TT, and latterly the TT Races. I have followed my own personal heroes & even 1 freind who unfortunately died whilst racing there. Even though the "top riders" no longer compete, this, for me, has not diminished the event at all. It is, in my opinion, without doubt the greatest Sporting Occasion on the calendar and i would encourage anyone who has not witnessed the atmosphere 1st hand to go as soon as they can.
Graham Jackson, Blyth, Northumberland, England

To all those bikers travelling over to the island: I'd be grateful if you saved the speeding until you actually get there, rather than treating the A683 like a racetrack whilst on your way to Heysham to catch the ferry. I've lost count of the times I've nearly hit an overexcited speeding motorcyclist as I try and exit my driveway - trust me, if they weren't speeding there'd be no danger of a collision.
Michael S, near Lancaster, England

My father-in-law Pat Barrett is going for his 50th consecutive year.He is 71 years old and is still riding motorbikes.
andrew paine, stevenage,herts.uk

It is too easy to stand outside the island looking in, and bash the TT. Would like to point out though that although the Mountain section of the course is one-way it is also heavily policed and is therefore not a racetrack for the two week period.
Nick Corlett, Douglas, Isle of Man

Would that the Government in England could recognise that we (mostly - I personally am eternally grateful to the genius who insisted on the 'may be hot' labelling on coffee which has prevented me having horrifically hot fingers on countless occasions - I'd always wondered why that happened and then it was made clear) have the brain to know risks when we see them. And that some choose to accept them.
Alistair Norman, Blackburn

My last visit to The Island was in 1987. It is the place of dreams. At 53 my wife has just started to ride pillion, too late for the Centenary. She hates nearby Dartmoor in the car but loves it on our new Bonny. For 101 we will be on the Island. I know she will love it too. Nobody ever goes back across without leaving their soul behind.
Mike Hallums, Teignmouth, Devon, UK

Last Saturday I put my bike down the road on a diesel spill in the pouring rain, and my only regret is that it'll be a week before my thumb heals and I can hop back on again. Motorcycling is one of a precious few things people can do that sticks one up at an otherwise overprotective state. Dangerous as it may be, the TT embodies freedom of choice, and that can never be a bad thing.
Dominic McNally, Salisbury

My parents are running B&B and the two weeks for TT allow them to subsidise the farm over there. I think it's fantastic that the TT remains an integral part of island life and that the H&S suits have not watered it down in anyway.

Now, if London were to host a major bike or car race.. that would be fantastic, but I fear it will never happen because of some office bound health and safety "executive" listing too many "risks". Live and let live, no one is forcing the riders to take part in any such event!
Lee Cripps, Reading, UK

You know my grandmother used to tell me of my great uncle and how he was a great racer - 'terribly brave' she used to say. Well, he ended up coming a cropper racing in Germany, but they very kindly named a corner after him - Jimmy Guthrie.
George Simpson, Bristol

My first exposure to motorcycle racing was when my family moved to a village adjacent to Brands Hatch in the early 50s, where I saw Geoff Duke, Bob McIntyre and the 'local' boy, John Surtees in action. In the mid 50s BBC Radio introduced me to the IoM TT. Wow! What an audio experience that was. The commentator at the Start/Finish line was an old racer named Graham Walker. After he'd sent a few top riders off, a few minutes later you'd be transferred over to his young son, Murray Walker--Yes, he of the Murrayisms-- to hear them approach, and then accelerate away from, the 90-degree right-hander at Ballacraine. To hear those bikes drop down through the gears and then accelerate away towards Sarah's Cottage and Ramsey was like a motorcycle symphony--the bass of the Nortons; the higher tones of the 4-cylinder Gileras and MV Agustas; and the incredible high pitch of the 8-cylinder Moto Guzzi!
Peter Bradford, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

As someone proud of my Manx family, I assume that David Lloyd-Jones is not of Manx descent? Not a Manx name, not a Manx attitude to the TT. If I'm right (and I probably am), Why did you move there David?
Ash, Leeds, UK




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Bikers competing in the highly dangerous TT race



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