Ride or Die | We Rode the Course of the World's Deadliest Motorbike Race
Exploring the Snaefell course, home to the infamous Isle of Man TT
Photo: Lara Platman
Amelia Earhart, the famous female aviator who never fails to inspire me, once described adventure as “worthwhile in itself” - a good adventure doesn’t need self-justification, just a bit of derring-do and a vague plan. ‘If Amelia could do it,’ I thought to myself last year, ‘then surely I can too’, so last year, I took my motorbike license, and set about planning my own adventure. And where else to start, for any keen motorcyclist set to start their days traversing the tarmac, but the Isle of Man?
The Isle of Man is an island beset with motorcycle madness. The annual TT race, which first began in 1907, is arguably the pinnacle of road racing - attracting widespread attention every year. Legends are made on its infamous track, Snaefell; from Mike Hailwood and the Dunlops (the first family of motorcycling), to modern icons like Peter Hickman and the indomitable John McGuinness.
The TT’s infamy is hard-earned. It’s often referred to as “the most dangerous motorsport event in the world,” and with good reason: few tracks in all of racing have seen the deaths of so many riders. Since it was first raced 112 years ago, 270 people - riders, officials, spectators, bystanders - have died on the Mountain Course; last year saw the deaths of two TT competitors, and the chances are that more will follow in this year’s race. Motorbike road racing is an undeniably dangerous sport, with a habit of doing away with its most talented stars, but Snaefell has a body count that far exceeds any other circuit.
At the same time, the fame of the event has made the Isle of Man an undeniable destination for any motorsport enthusiast, and as such, a steady flow of tourist cash that has allowed the island to thrive, and provided a sense of identity for its residents. So I caught the Steam Packet Ferry from Liverpool to Douglas, armed with my camera, intent on tackling the track that has captivated so many riders over the last century. If I can handle Snaefell, I can handle the world.
I had originally thought to whiz around the Isle in a particularly fetching BMW R nineT Scrambler. This hunk of machine, styled impeccably like the roaring boxers of old, is a mighty bike; alas, after an initial test drive through Fish Hill, I quickly learned that it was not the ideal vehicle for a novice. After all, there’s no worse way to endear yourselves to the natives of Douglas than to go skidding off your bike into one of their manicured hedges: they get enough boy racers - best not to join their ranks.
I disembarked the ferry to find drizzly rain - the kind that strikes fear into the heart of even the most embattled pro - and thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t tried to earn my chops on these tricky, congested roads. Instead, I had arranged to stay with one of the quickest, sharpest drivers to grace Snaefell: no, not one of the TT racers, but one of the track’s Medic Marshals, who need to be straight out of the traps should any issue arise.
The Doctor was kind enough to offer me a tour of the track - in a car, unfortunately, although at this point I took what I could get - and so off we went. What struck me first and foremost was the unrelenting speed that the track demands (not that it should be a surprise) - at some corners, it’s impossible to brake, so you have no option but to follow through and hope for the best. I can’t imagine how I’d have handled the Scrambler; god knows how you’d manage on a rip-roaring TT bike!
What could compel a driver to try and handle a track like Snaefell? The answer, according to one budding racer, Oliver Lace, is short and sweet: “The adrenaline”. Lace, a young mechanic who I spoke to at the track’s local garage, is an unusual racing sort, in that his ambitions are less to do with riding the bike itself, and more about securing what might be called the best seat in the house - the sidecar.
TT racing is fearsome enough, but that responsibility is left to Lace’s race partner, Harry Hayne; instead, Lace grips on for dear life, trying his hardest to withstand the G-force whilst hoping not to encounter any bumps in the track. All power to him, but that might be a little bit too much adventure for me.
Even if a sidecar was a step too far, I knew it was time to get round the track on a bike. When I decided the Scrambler was a touch too rich for my blood, I rang around my veritable black book of Manx contacts, and pulled in my old friend, Ralph Kee, to lend me a bike - or, at the very least, give me a piggy-back ride.
The time for that piggy-back ride had come, as I climbed onto Ralph’s 1991 Moto Guzzi Le Mans. We headed up first through Ramsey and Parliament Square, up to the ‘Hairpin’, and ‘Waterworks’, and ‘Gooseneck’.
Straight after the Gooseneck, Ralph tapped me on my arms, which were wrapped around his waist, to indicate “hold on” - after that, we were zipping off up the fast mountain stretch. I felt the wind in my lungs, and the unrelenting speed of the track; it was an extraordinary sensation.
For Ralph too, it was invigorating - every ride out was. He had dreamed of owning a Moto Guzzi for years before he took the plunge and bought it; he’d been riding bikes off-road since he was 12, and on-road since the age of 16, like all of his friends. “There’s an addictive nature about it - the passion you have for bikes,” he told me, “I’ve always had it, and I always will.”
My turn! The day had finally arrived for me to actually have a go at channelling my inner Joey Dunlop, and Ralph’s Moto Guzzi was going to be my ride for the day. As I pulled up to the track that morning, I spotted a group of riders decked out in bright pink tutus (because what else would you wear for a spot of TT racing?)
As it turns out, they weren’t a ragtag gang of biker-ballerinas, broken away from the Bolshoi, but were instead a crew of racing enthusiasts celebrating one of their members defeating prostate cancer. I should’ve asked if they had a tutu spare.
I spent the day whirling round and round the track, thoroughly thrilled; up onto the mountain, past the bungalow, past the railway station, past the grandstand, and through the finish line. For as long as the weather held (not for very long, annoyingly), I stayed on the road, savouring every bit of the adventure that I could - this is what I’d come here for, and it certainly scratched the itch. For a moment, whizzing through the track, I felt like I understood the thrill that TT riders spend their lifetimes chasing.
Jo Pack, one of the voices on Manx Radio TT, and a road-racing obsessive, is acutely aware of that sensation. Pack grew up on the Isle, alongside many of the riders that dominate the scene today, and knows better than most about the magic of Snaefell, and the mindset of its challengers. “Riders that race here,” she told me, “aren’t in it for money - there isn’t any. They’re intoxicated by the excitement.”
“I’m the same. I get goosebumps thinking about practice night: the revving of the engines, the smell of the petrol, the first bikes leaving the grandstand. It’s such a privilege to be there, getting to speak to the riders - they’re such a special breed. So laid back off the road - look at John McGuinness or Carl Fogarty; you couldn’t find more affable men - and yet, when they get into ‘race mode’, they’re a different animal altogether.”
Every adventure must come to an end, and mine was no exception. Having driven the course once, been driven in a car once, and ridden on the back of a bike once, I thought that I would be satisfied with my time around Snaefell - I wasn’t, and I left wanting more. I came in quest of understanding why TT racers do what they do, and thought that in speaking to people on the Isle, I might leave with some clue. But all the interviews in the world couldn’t convey what drives the drivers; the pang in my heart to return, however, and go further, and faster, and for longer, told me all I needed to know.
Lara Platman is a photographer and Leica Ambassador. Keep up with her on Twitter.