|Photo by Peter Riddihough, courtesy www.onemansisland.com|
None of that changes the fact that, if you love motorcycles and motorcycle racing, the Isle of Man is your spiritual home. If you've never been, you owe it to yourself to go. And like me, you'd better hope that this won't be the last TTime...
The TT lived in my imagination for about 40 years before I got there. In 2002, when I finally arrived in the paddock before dawn on the first day of practice, I walked into a setting that I'd imagined so many times, I experienced a profound sense of déjà vu.
I wrote about experiencing the paddock for the first time, after imagining it so many times, in Riding Man. If you'd like to read about it, click that tantalizing 'Read More' link on the next line...
The Striped Tent
We’re up and bumping into each other on the way to the bathroom, scrounging in the kitchen, at about 3:45 am. It’s a little bit of a late start. Not very late, but enough to put us on edge. Toast, coffee; listening to Manx radio–expecting to hear that the weather has caused them to cancel or delay practice, because it’s blowing a gale out there–but there’s nothing but oldies. We load Peter's little rental Nissan with camera gear, a stand for the bike, and a jerry can with spare fuel. Although I have a reasonable toolbox on hand, Paul has picked out the hand tools he wants and put them in a white plastic shopping bag. Various sharp points are already poking out a bit. I’m in my leathers, with a rain suit over top. I’ve packed one little bag with spare helmet visors, glasses and cleaner, dry gloves, and the orange “Newcomer” vest I was issued yesterday.
Last night, Steve told me he would drive across from Glen Maye and be there to wave me off at first practice, but there’s no sign of him. Just as we’re ready to go, maybe 4:15 am, Andrew rides up on the knackered Yamaha DT125 he rides to work. He lives way down at the south end of the Island, in Port Erin. “Jesus!” I say, “What time did you get up?” He tells me that he didn’t really sleep, so waking up wasn’t a problem.
Paul rolls the CBR down the driveway and starts it up. He holds it while I get on. We quickly check to ensure we’ve all got our passes, then Paul hops into the passenger side of the Nissan. I lead the way to the paddock, with Andrew as wingman on the DT, and the car behind.
A lackadaisical security guard waves us into the upper paddock. I turn right and ride up to join a few bikes waiting their turn at scrutineering. Andrew follows me in and parks his trail bike off to one side. Peter and Paul turn left, winding between campers and the shower building, and make their way to the lower paddock, to park at the spot where we’d erected our awning on Thursday. As the line moves forward, a volunteer comes out and notes the number on my bike. (I run the number 57 on a blue background. That’s my official number for the Junior race, and I’ll use it throughout practice.) He returns with a sheet of paper for me to fill out. I try to shield it from the rain.
By the time we get to the head of the line and have been ushered into the shelter of the garage, Paul has arrived with the bag of tools. He takes over the bike and watches warily as a scrutineer examines it. A Japanese TV crew watches us watch the scrutineer. An old guy, he has us gently push the bike forward while he tries the front, then rear brakes. He pushes the handlebars from one stop to another, checking to make sure there’s finger clearance at the gas tank. Holds the front brake tight, and pulls down hard on the handlebars, feeling for looseness in the bars or steering head, and looking for oil at the fork seals.
Finally, after working his way from front to back, he signs our form, and points the way out the other side of the garage into the “parc fermé” (the term is just French for “closed parking,” and it’s a fenced-off area in which, in theory, the bikes are off-limits until we’re told we can go out on course.) He tells us, “Yours is the first bike I’ve passed in an hour,” and it turns out it’s the shark fin guards that are the sticking point. They’re not bending the rule, so in hindsight, all the running around and hassle involved in making it now seems worthwhile.
In America, and at short circuit races everywhere, the tech inspector puts a sticker on your bike, and you can return it to your pit. Once you’ve “teched,” you’re good for the entire weekend. You don’t have to go back for another inspection unless you crash. Here, once your bike’s been checked, it goes into parc fermé. It has to be ready to ride, as it’s against the rules to work on it. The process is repeated every time you take to the circuit. As we push the CBR through the gate, the attendants there tell us, “No chance of going before 6 a.m.” So we have nothing to do but wait.
There’s a huge blue and white striped tent nearby and without asking I know it’s “the” blue and white tent I’ve been reading about since I was in high school, poring over accounts of the TT that used to appear in summer issues of Cycle. It’s the tent where riders go to await the start, have a tea in the morning, or a mug of soup when they stumble in half-frozen from a wet practice.
It’s as familiar as can be. Two women of the grandmotherly type ubiquitous among TT volunteers tend a pair of enormous kettles. A plywood table sits in front of them covered with styrofoam cups. Milk and sugar are laid out. An oversized tin can’s been turned into a sort of piggy bank; donations are welcome but they understand when you come creaking in a race suit that you probably don’t have pockets, say nothing of coins for the tin.
I ask Andrew if he wants a cup of tea. He looks down. “No thanks.” He works full time at Padgett’s, but he’s only 16 or 17. This is the first time he’s ever had a team pass. Despite (or is it because of?) being Manx, he’s awed. He doesn’t seem sure if the tea’s for the likes of him.
Every now and then, the wind sets the canvas to flapping. Steam from the kettles mingles with breath and smoke, and rises to condense against the ceiling. It falls as though it’s raining in here, too.
The Dunlop 208s we have on the bike have practically no tread. They’re obviously intended for use in the dry, but Paul warns me that it’s not just a matter of tread pattern; the rubber compound itself has less grip in the wet. “Even World Supersport and AMA guys slow right down on them if it starts raining during a race,” he says, by way of telling me I shouldn’t push my luck, if we get to go out at all.
After we’ve been in the tent for a while, Peter wanders in looking for us. He tells me that our parking spot down in the paddock has now got someone else’s trailer in it, and that access to our awning has been almost completely cut off by people who arrived and set up after us. This is the kind of thing that really bugs him. Me too, but I don’t want to think about it at all until after practice.
Paul, it turns out, has something he either wants to drop off in the car, or pick up from it, and takes the keys. As he’s leaving, he says something like, “Well, anyway, we’ll just have to fucking move them out.” He’s a fair size, and not interested in creating a good first impression with strangers. I wonder if he’s about to pick a fight down there. While he’s gone, my imagination works overtime, concocting ever more irreconcilable confrontations. My mood is not improved now that Peter’s sitting with us, because he says the guys crowding our spot look like real thugs. I shouldn’t be thinking about this stuff, and I’m glad when Paul comes back. We agree we’ll go and sort it out before this afternoon’s practice.
Around 6:30 a.m. there’s a crackle from the P.A. system, a musical ping and an announcement: we’ll be allowed to go out for a single lap. At great length, the announcer warns of standing water all around the course, leaves and debris on the road under the trees, fog, and severe wind on the Mountain. “Do not,” he concludes, “attempt to lap at anything like normal practice speed.”
There are just a handful of us, pulling tarps off bikes in the parc fermé. Most of the riders are already back in their trailers or hotels, back in bed, pretending they didn’t get up at 4 a.m.
Still, I’m glad to have a chance to review the launch procedure. Bikes are fired up in the parc fermé and then the stewards open a big gate onto Glencrutchery Road. There’s no prescribed starting order to practice. Bikes pull out and line up two by two. Most riders are accompanied by two or three mechanics and friends, who help push them slowly along.
You pass a person standing in the road, supporting a plywood sign with a drawing of a crash helmet and the question, “Helmet Strap?” Then another person, with a chalkboard, which carries specific notices of the hazards of the day. This morning, it is a Manx haiku:
Standing Water–all around course
Fallen leaves on road
Fog on mountain
As you push toward the start line, the mechanics and friends fall back. A few feet from the starter, the last-but-one official makes eye contact with you, and signals you to shift into neutral; they don’t want some short circuit racer instinctively launching the second he sees the rider in front of him going.
Finally, it’s just you and your practice mate on the line, with the starter standing between you. The starter puts a hand on each rider’s shoulder, usually leaning in to say something like, “Take your time, it takes years to get around here really quickly,” then taps you when it’s your turn to go.
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