Island Man: Part One
Motorcyclist Magazine, February 2003
Feature Article by Mark Gardiner
January, 2002 - Mountain 1, Mark 0
I don't have a motorcycle yet, since I arrived on the Isle of Man with only the luggage I could carry. But I have a bicycle. After settling in for a few days, I figure it's time to begin learning the Mountain Course - all 37 miles, 240 bends of it. It's a Saturday; well above freezing, dry roads, high broken cloud. I start off on the course at 1:10 pm, thinking that (based on my pace in training rides in the 'States) I'll get back to Douglas before dark.
Glencrutchery Road - it's the main route through the Island's biggest city - runs between the block-long, painted-plywood scoreboard, and an oxidized aluminum grandstand. Bray Hill is steep even on a bicycle. There's a traffic jam at Quarterbridge. I turn right, and get into more open country.
The road is not wide. It's two lanes, with a shoulder for cycling that ranges from a foot or two, down to a paint line. Just past Glen Vine, I'm passed by a long line of cars. They, in turn, are overtaken by a couple of guys on bikes - an R1, and a GSXR, going at least a 120 miles an hour. Local lads, taking advantage of good light and dry(ish) pavement to have a thrash around the course. The R1 gets to the head of the line of traffic, and pulls into his own lane, comfortably separated from the first oncoming car. The Suzuki rider is a second behind him. I wonder if he'll hit the brakes and attempt to merge with the line of cars in my lane, but he stays on the gas, just reaching the head of the line before the oncomers close the gap. No one honks, panics, swerves, or jams on the brakes.
Impressions: beautiful, ruined old stone buildings, drystone fences. Fields full of crows. A herd of sheep, released from the hypnotic power of a border collie's stare, drifting away into the pasture, like a dandelion gone to seed, caught in the wind.
In no real hurry, I stop at a roadside pub for a half-pint, and a bag of crisps. The only other customers are a table of, what, farmers? They look like they've stepped right out of a Breughel painting.
The mountain begins right in the town of Ramsey, at the foot of May Hill. Up and up past Waterworks, the road is so steep that the adjacent footpath turns into a staircase. To top it off, I'm pumping into the teeth of a 40 m.p.h. headwind.
By the Gooseneck, maybe a third of the way up the mountain, in terms of elevation, I'm seriously questioning the whole idea of learning the course on a bicycle. "It would force me to really see and learn the little landmarks," I thought. Now I just wonder if it will exhaust me, and teach me the one-foot strip of the course adjacent to the ditch. To add insult to injury, every few minutes, I'm strafed by another squadron of sport bikes.
I'm already in my lowest gear; head down, legs burning, riding from cat-eye to cat-eye. Long past studying the racing line. Gusts of wind blow me almost to a standstill, causing me to wobble from the edge of the ditch into the road. I need to get off and walk for a while, rest my legs. But I'm so tired, and going so slowly, that it's a real effort to unclip from my pedals without falling over.
It's not much easier walking against the wind, but at least it's different. I clip-clop up the road in my cycling shoes, eating a Clif bar. I guess I push the bike about a mile, up to the Guthrie Memorial
Just above the memorial, I get back on. The summit of Snaefell's looming dark; at the latitude of Ketchikan, Alaska, January nights fall early. I can't put the tube from the "camelpack" into my mouth for water, because I'm too tired to take a hand off bars; anyway, it takes too much energy to suck on it.
At the top, I want to yell or something, but I don't have the energy. Windy Corner lives up to its name. I struggle, even, to get my bicycle turned in; wobble around, barely avoiding the gravel trap. In this wind, if you tried to take it at racing speed on a motorcycle, you'd lever the bike right off its wheels for sure. By now it's dark. The lights of Douglas are visible down on the bay, so I can see my target. But the only light I have to ride by is a bit of moon.
If I could see where I was going, the trip down would be a reward for the effort of reaching the top. In the dark, blown around, and blinded by the headlights of oncoming cars, it's just scary. I almost wipe out, for the nth time, trying to follow the ghostly white line around the long, third-gear right at Creg Ny Bar.
In a land of tea drinkers, British kettles boil water in a moment. I make a cup of tea and eat some cookies, shuffling around, stunned by the effort, half-in, half-out of clammy cycling gear. I run a hot shower and soak myself down until I feel the sensation returning to my hands and feet. That was a classic mistake, of course: as the blood vessels dilate in my skin, blood that had been keeping my internal organs warm begins circulating through cold muscles and limbs. I step out of the hot shower, and start shivering uncontrollably. I crawl into bed and shake.
How did I end up here?
I grew up in a house in the suburbs. It had a playroom in the basement, with a brown nylon carpet. There was a window, high up on the wall, which looked out at ground level. This created a pool of sunlight in a room which was, otherwise, a cool, concrete bunker against the summer heat. Once in a while, I'd hear the flat ah-r-r-ah-r-r of the approaching lawnmower, which would build and build until it passed, spattering the glass with grass clippings and stunned ants.
Idling there one day, I opened the encyclopedia to 'Great Britain'. It was illustrated with a map, though it was not very detailed. Scattered across the map were a few pictures. Near London, Tower Bridge; a piper in a kilt served to illustrate Scotland. And there, in the sea between England and Ireland, was the Isle of Man. And superimposed on the Island was a picture of a racing motorcycle.
I was a bookish child. Maybe, even at that age, I sensed that I'd never succeed in sports under my own power. Maybe that's why, in my mind, I was already a motorcycle racer.
It didn't matter that, up until then, I'd never actually touched a motorcycle. If there was one thing I had, it was imagination.
I read and reread that entry in the encyclopedia, but there was no reference to motorcycle racing. I don't even think it mentioned the Island. But I knew that those images were not placed at random. Had the Island been known for nothing in particular, the cartographer would have gone with the tried-and-true peasant-girl-in-traditional-dress; that's what they always did.
So I stared and stared at that map with a dawning sense of awe. Here was a place - here must have been a place - which was defined by motorcycle racing. If you laid there reading, supporting yourself on your elbows for a very long time, they came away imprinted by the rough nylon pile.
On the ferry; Douglas, Isle of Man to Liverpool, England. June, 2000.
There are people sleeping on the floor, with jackets over their faces to cut the light, and perhaps afford the illusion of privacy. I overhear snippets of conversation between old friends from previous TT's. Once or twice, from questions like "How did you do?" I realize that the guys talking are not fans, but racers. They don't look much different than me; maybe a little younger, but not as young as the guys I've been racing back in the 'States. I jam my backpack under the last vacant seat.
The day's high winds have raised a chop on the Irish Sea. From a lower deck, in the bar area, come rhythmic, ragged cheers. In mid-trip, I go down there to use the toilet. I don't watch long enough to determine the rules, but there's some kind of drinking game going on which involves a large inflatable doll. The booze and motion are keeping the boat's cleaning staff busy in the toilets.
At the Liverpool dock, motorcyclists go down to the vehicle decks to retrieve their bikes while foot passengers shuffle out to the gangplank. There are guys on crutches and wearing fresh casts. Another employee clears a path for a wheelchair, the occupant apologizing that he can't wheel himself; you see, he's broken his wrist as well.
I can't help thinking of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford's narrator in Independence Day, who said, "Nothing is worth doing, unless it has the potential to fuck up your whole life."
I do, after all, hold an FIM 'International' license. This, and about two bucks will get me a Starbucks coffee back home, but it means that unlike British riders, I can gain an entry to the TT without first proving myself in the Manx Grand Prix (amateur races held on the same course in late summer.) I already own a single-cylinder road racer, suitable for the 'Singles' class.
Of course, that still leaves the matter of learning the course. I develop the idea of quitting, selling everything, moving to the Island months ahead of time. I'll bicycle the course every day. This will get me into top shape; more important, I'll learn the course foot by foot, perhaps conferring an advantage that will make up for other things, like a conspicuous lack of talent and courage.
In the middle of winter, I manage to get invited to the Manx Motorcycle Club annual dinner. This is one of the social events of the year on the Island; I actually buy a suit to go. Picture a large room of men in blazers. Several, with snow-white hair, announce their retirement. Their positions are taken over by other men with gray hair.
Standing at the bar, afterwards, I meet two riders, an old guy and his protégé. The old guy is Chris McGahan, an Englishman who nearly made a career of racing, back in the '70s. Since then, he's specialized as a "roads racer", doing the major Irish meetings, the TT and Manx GP, and a few public roads races on the continent.
Chris, who's probably in his fifties, looks like an ex-lightweight boxer who stayed in shape. Long arms, strong hands and shoulders; his most noticeable feature is a pair of large ears, the tops of which stick out horizontally like wings. "They call me 'wingnut'," he grins. In a room where men outnumber women at least 20:1, he seems to have two dates. The younger guy is Sean Leonard, Irish. "Dere's noothin' known about racin' dat Chris don't know," Sean tells me.
They've hardly stopped drinking when they call me around 10 a.m. the next morning. They're going to drive down to Castletown to meet a sponsor, then cut a couple of laps of the Mountain in a borrowed car. Do I want to come?
Chris spins one yarn after another. Famous old racers, fast women; smuggling booze back across the channel from continental races, smuggling stowaways on the ferry to the island for the TT; serious substance abuse continuing right up to the green flag; choose any four from columns A, B, and C.
Chris is driving as fast as he's talking. Suddenly, with Chris hurtling along in mid-sentence, Sean blurts, "Fairy Bridge!"
No Island native crosses the little stone bridge without saying 'hello' to the fairies. Sean says it, and so does Chris, injecting his "Hello Fairies," in the middle of a sentence. I say it, too. They kind of laugh it off, like, 'we don't actually believe it…'
We park at a pub, and go in. It's maybe 10:30 a.m., I'm thinking what, tea? Brunch? They stand at the bar and order pints of beer. "What about you, Mark? What'll you take for a livener?" I order a pint of Guinness.
We're onto second pints before the sponsor shows, with his wife. He's a dapper guy, younger than McGahan (and me, for that matter) but dressed older; a pocket watch on a gold chain. There's a bit of business done, as Chris discusses plans for a vintage bike, something they're planning to build for one of the Manx GP classes.
I beg off the third pint, while we socialize. The sponsor, I learn, owns a scrapyard somewhere "on the mainland" but his involvement with Chris isn't really a business proposition; in 'real roads' racing, sponsors provide bikes or money so they can hang out with riders, maybe that's why the riders tend to be such characters.
We head back north in the car, and pick up the course at Ballacraine corner, about six miles into it. Chris is again in running commentary mode, driving even faster now. As we go over the various "jumps" and bumpy areas on the course, Chris takes his hands off the wheel and makes handlebar waggling movements. Sean reaches up and grips, tightly, the handle above the passenger-side door. Soon enough, we're in Douglas.
We end up spending four hours in another bar, "The owner's one of our sponsors," Chris says, and we begin drinking as though someone else would pick up the tab. When I finally beg off, they can't believe I'm not coming with them to the next party.
If winter gales keep me off the mountain, I go to the library in Douglas. They have a full set of Manx newspapers there, going back to the beginnings of the TT in 1907. Not on microfilm or anything; the real newspapers, leather-bound in annual volumes.
I ask the librarians for a few years' worth, choosing volumes pretty much at random. They disappear down a cast iron staircase that spirals into the basement. They are all older ladies, with physiques like shorebirds. They struggle back up with the huge books; literally dusty tomes. After a few days of this, they tell me that I've been given special permission to go down into the archives on my own. They show me where the light switch is. "Remember to turn it off when you leave."
For a motorcyclist, it's like finding the Dead Sea scrolls. For a long time, the TT was the world's de facto championship (and then in the post-war era, its status was "first among equals' amongst Grands Prix.) So the local newspapers, which covered the TT in depth, provide an almost complete history of the sport.
On finer days, I'm now finding it easier to pedal the course. Thanks to all the old stories, I'm not just learning the geography, I'm learning the history too; linking hundreds of spots to stories from the past.
Paul Smith, who built my single-cylinder bike (rendered moot by the TT organizing committee's decision to cancel the 'Singles' class) had found a written-off Honda CBR600, which we thought we could resurrect for the new 600 Production class, but the job's going slowly. He calls me up to suggest that, between parts needed at his end, and the cost of shipping the bike to the Isle of Man, it's probably going to be cheaper to buy, race, and resell a bike here on the Island.
On the spur of the moment, I wander into the Padgett's shop in Douglas. It's a quiet day. There are a couple of guys clattering around a dank workshop, but there's no one at all in the showroom. Up on the wall, a TV endlessly replays some TT highlight tape.
There's a little office, off to the side of the entrance. I introduce myself, and Steve Hodgson, the manager of the business, does the same. We start talking, and for whatever reason, my story ("Here I am. I quit my job, sold everything I owned, and moved here to ride the TT…") strikes him as rational.
He's laid-back. (In the end, I will get to know him well before I ever see flashes of the young Steve - a brain-out two-stroke racer, with a room full of trophies and Barry Sheene in his sights.) He first came to the Isle of Man as a fan, with his friend Phil Mellor. They stood in the front garden of a house on Bray Hill, right at the spot where a sidecar crash came to its gruesome, fatal conclusion. "That's it!" Mellor said, "I'm never going to race here!"
Steve didn't want to race here either; he though of himself as a circuit specialist. He did come back and race in the Manx Grand Prix, under pressure from his sponsors. The plan was to quickly qualify for a TT berth the following year. That all ended with a massive crash at Oulton park, broken femurs, and a sudden desire to get a regular job. Still, like so many motorcyclists, he knew once he'd been here that it was his spiritual home. Mellor eventually rode here, and he never left either; he killed himself at Laurel Bank in 1984. He was fast, no question about that, but the way he rode, everyone had seen it coming.
All this comes out in a long, rambling conversation, uninterrupted by even a single paying customer. Padgett's main shops are in Yorkshire, where they do enough business to bankroll a major race team.
Being bikeless this close to the event is weighing on me. I ask if Padgett's still lease bikes for the TT. "Sure," says Steve. In fact, they have a race-prepped R6 down in the shop right now. "Some American guy," he says "leased it in 2000, but he didn't qualify." I tell him that I've got my heart set on a Honda. We call Clive Padgett, who runs the racing side of the business, and within two minutes, I've got a deal. I'll take the brand new CBR that they have in the showroom here on the Island, run it in on the road - which will help me learn the circuit, to say nothing of make it easier to get the groceries - then we'll pull the lights off it and race it. This'll cost me £3,000.
April. Griffin and Velocette
A few minutes ago, there was the sound of an old single, thump-coughing to stop.
Andrew, Padgett's apprentice mechanic, is prodding a bit of motorbike. He wanders up the oily concrete steps from the workshop into Steve's office, then stops, as if he's forgotten why he came up.
The whole 'employees only' thing doesn't happen here; a customer has followed him, past the red stencilled CAUTION sign that is the shop's only concession to future liabilities. The guy is maybe 50, in a Cordura riding suit that's seen some miles. Andrew hands the stranger his part - which looks like the float and bowl from an old Amal concentric - saying, "It looks OK to me." With that, the stranger walks back down through the service bay and outside. A few minutes later, Andrew is back, handing Steve a £5 note.
"What's that for?" asks Steve.
"He just gave it to me," replies Andrew.
"What did you do?"
"His carb was leaking. I just told him to pull off his float bowl and I'd look at it," Andrew, who is only 16, adds "but I've never seen anything like it, so I don't have clue what's wrong."
On cue, the stranger returns. Evidently, just pulling and replacing the float bowl hasn't fixed anything. To rescue Andrew (as usual, the apprentice was the only one doing any real work) Steve and I go out to look at the guy's bike. It was a 1960 Velocette Venom Clubman. Original, unrestored; the Amal now dribbling out fuel at a rate some prostate patients would call progress. We stand there, it's quite pleasant in the sun, speculating about what the problem could be, but none of us really know. We decide to call someone.
In his office, Steve flips through a battered rolodex. On the Isle of Man, you're never more than a couple of calls - a friend of a friend - from an expert on any motorcycle subject. The Velocette owner, meanwhile, introduces himself.
His name is Iain Griffin. He'd ridden a BSA B40 back in his college days, and has owned the Velo since the mid-80s. "When I bought it, I was actually living in Australia," he explained, "but I used to come back to England every year or so on trips. Whenever I came back, I'd ride it for a day or two." Now with his kids grown, he'd recently been transferred back to England. For the first time in ages, he'd got four days off in a row, and he'd set off that morning from Birmingham on the Velo.
Meanwhile, Steve's tracked down a Velocette expert who lives at Sulby; a guy named Vern Wallis. The next call is to Vern himself, who suggests that if the bike will make it, the owner should just ride it to him. "Turn right between Sulby Bridge and Ginger Hall."
A lot of addresses on the Isle of Man are home names, not numbers. Wallis' house is 'Rider's Retreat.'
"Sulby," says Griffin, "that's on the TT course, isn't it?" I start to explain how to get there, and he stops me. "Wait, I've got a map on the bike."
He unfolds a faded, brittle topographical map of the Island. Each corner is peppered with pinholes. He tells us that he bought the map in 1973, and put it up on the wall of his room at Oxford; he wanted to come to the TT after graduating. Since then, despite a series of moves that took him further and further from the Island, he'd always had it on the wall.
In fact, the road we need to show him isn't on the map. I offer to lead the way on the CBR, and keep an eye on the Velo. Out on the course we trundle along at about 40 miles an hour; the old Venom has a ribbed front tire that looks a little too original for my liking, but when I check him out in my rear-view mirrors, Griffin confirms himself as a smooth, composed rider.
It feels nice to be showing someone else the way 'round. I imagine him seeing the famous landmarks for the first time: the Highlander, Glen Helen, the bridge at Ballaugh, the front doors of the houses in Kirk Michael that open right onto the course. These places are now more familiar to me than the streets I grew up on, but leading him around, it's as though I'm seeing them again for the first time, too. I see the scenery, see the flowing mix of fast and medium bends, the places where I've learned to compromise one bend, in order to be better positioned for the following one. And it hits me: this would be one of the world's great riding roads, even if it wasn't famous.
Ian Griffin is grinning like a kid when we stop in front of the Velocette expert's house. Vern's wife comes out; we're expected. She cocks an eyebrow at the gleaming CBR I've parked on the street, then looks more warmly at the Venom. "Push it in here." Vern's already lowered one of the two bike lifts in his garage, and backed some project off it, to make space.
There's a round of handshaking and introductions, and Mary goes in to make tea. This is not your ordinary garage; there's a restored Harley Sprint on the other lift, a perfect Velocette KTT in race trim parked off to one side, and a Manx engine on a work bench in the far corner. Another Venom, "built from bits" for a friend, awaits pickup in the driveway. The only reason I don't describe it as 'showroom' is that they never looked that good when they were new.
Vern disassembles the Amal, handling it with a familiarity that other men reserve for their TV remotes. I can see that he doesn't need to concentrate, so I ask him how long he's been here. He looks up into the middle distance and counts something off with little nods of his head. "Let's see," he says "this Manx, it'll be 14 years." The son of a machinist, Vern apprenticed at Collier's, one of England's biggest Veloce dealers, when he was 14. He saved up enough to come to the TT for the first time in '51, finally coming to race the Manx Grand Prix in the mid-'60s. When Veloce closed their doors, Vern continued working on the bikes, restoring them, effectively serving as the "help desk" for the Velocette Owner's Club.
Ian Griffin's Venom has broken down on the Isle of Man. Purely by chance, he's brought it to the man who is, quite possibly, the world's greatest living expert on sick Velocettes. In the time it takes to drink a mug of tea, the carb's been fitted with a new needle, and the Venom's been test fired. The subject of payment never comes up.
"What about you?" Vern and his wife want to my story, too, "We've seen you practising." When I tell them what I'm doing here, Mary immediately says, "Well, stop in any time; there's always tea on here, and a loo." In fact, my friend Karolyn, who is coming from San Francisco for the TT, actually owns a Venom. I tell them I have a friend who I'd like to introduce, "I'll be knocking on your door some time during TT week to bring her around."
"Oh, no one bothers knocking during TT week," they say, "The door's always open. People just come and go." (In fact, I won't get around to visiting them during the races, but I see them standing out by the course, on the little straightaway between Sulby Bridge and Ginger Hall. They're there every session, and wave at me every time I come past.)
T-minus Sixteen, and counting
The Sulby Glen Hotel has a frosted glass front door. The back door - the one everyone uses - is made of planks, and latches with a hook, to a nail in the frame. Since it's a cold night, there's a good coal fire burning in the fireplace. Eight or twelve people sit in that corner of the room, ignoring a TV up front.
I order a pint and some food at the bar, then sit down myself. The pint is an Okells bitter, which I now pronounce correctly - it's not O'Kell's; the word rhymes with "locals.'
Above the bar, there's a glass cabinet with maybe a dozen little water pitchers, each glazed with the name of a whisky brand. There's a plate rail mounted high on the walls, displaying the usual Victorian knicknacks, dusty old books, and plates. But most of the 'Glen's wall space is given over to framed photos of motorcycle racers. TT greats and unknowns, and amateurs from the Manx Grand Prix.
My food comes, and I eat it while the conversation ebbs and flows around me. The subject changes every few minutes, after a lull, or as someone wanders in or leaves. Being the one stranger in the room doesn't specifically exclude me from the chat. I make eye contact from time to time, to smile at a joke, cock an eyebrow, or nod in assent. One fellow punctuates a conversational point with a practiced flick of cigarette ash into the fireplace.
But mostly, I listen. Every few minutes, one way or another, the chat comes back to motorcycles. First, a debate about graduated licenses (the Isle of Man is on the British system, where new riders have to spend some time on small bikes before moving to, say, Gixxer 1000s.) Then, Colin Edwards' coming visit - news that had only come out in a Honda press release that very day. ("Mr. Honda himself really liked the Island," I hear someone say. He did, too.) At one point, maybe a lull in the hubbub, a woman - she's about 55, jolly - looks across at a big guy that's been sort of joking most of the night. She says, "So Steve; sixteen weeks."
He says, "What's that, Christine? You're sixteen weeks? I didn't even know you were pregnant!"
She laughs, and says "Sixteen weeks 'till practice, Steve. Sixteen weeks till the TT."
I finish my dinner. I've got to cover twenty miles, over Snaefell, to get home to bed. In pubs here, if you leave a tip, the barman will run out after you to return it. I bring my empty glass and plate up to the bar, then stand close to the fire while zipping up, trapping as much warm air as I can in my jacket. I open the back door. I get a little lull in the conversation, too. "Well, good bye then," someone says, and there's an echo, "Yes. See you again."
copyright 2003, Mark E. Gardiner, reproduced by permission.
For more information about Mark Gardiner's book about his Isle of Man adventure, Riding Man, please visit Mark's website