Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Travel Tales: IOM Maniacs


It was during the month of June when Jeff pulled up outside my house on his GT550 Kawasaki. Both our wives had run off and left us for other men earlier in the year and he had a spare seat on the back of his bike. I'd never been to the IOM before so I said OK. Even though I was temporarily without a bike I still had my Norwich Union Rider insurance, so we took turns with the thrashing, er, I mean riding.

Leaving Gateshead at midnight we arrived at Heysham at 3am the next day. The bike was a good and solid ride. the four cylinder shaftie holding both our beer bellied frames and the camping gear with relative ease. I only noticed a slight buzz coming up through the footrests at high speeds, tingling through my boots. The shocks seemed to bottom out if we went over any big bumps, but I suppose that was to be expected from a medium distance tourer heavily laden.

The ferry across was uneventful, apart from the hundreds of bikes crammed in to it like some sea going museum for the new and old, standing side by side in the bowels of the ship. Three and a half hours later Douglas rolled into view, my very first sight of the island. We went below and waited to disembark, the combined roar of the metal herd started to make my heart sing.

I was in heaven, dribbling over old Ducatis, the thumping Harleys. the plodding BSAs and the sweet screams of the turbo charged project bikes. the nitrous bottles no longer hidden in fear. When the time came we swarmed out, disgorging all that power out from the port and off to our various campsites. Ours was in Laxey, a sleepy village north from Douglas. rudely awakened by the hundreds of bikes churning through it.

We made camp, dumped all our things, locked the bike... and went to the pub. The beauty of the lOM is that motorcyclists are not treated as second class citizens but as real people. Even the police join in, posing for pictures outside pubs with some of the hardest looking leathered humanity I've seen since the Windsor Angels gathered at the Stonehenge festival all those years ago.

We started off with the Ramsey Sprint, drag bikes competing alongside road legal machines, screaming along the short distance of the promenade front. The rain that lashed down left wheels spinning as the monsters cleared the timer gate in the middle, the noise from the tortuously tuned engines jarring my bones.

A Vincent growled down the course, showing us they still had it in them, its black V-twin engine grunting like a middle-aged man on a 16 year old virgin. l was transfixed with awe, shaking my head in near disbelief — weren’t they meant to be in museums, lovingly tended by grey haired. pipe smoking devotees? Obviously not, as it spun the back wheel sprinting to the timer check point. I think I clapped!

The sideshows that went with the Sprint were a spectacle, the vintage motorcycle display showing old Ariels, Rudges, Newcastles and the like in better condition than some of the Japanese beasts that prowled the area. I remembered my old BSA A10 with pride, wishing I'd kept it.

The racing was different from anything else I'd seen. Those fearful machines running wild around bumpy corners often inches from limb crunching, machine crumbling stone walls. A moments lack of attention was all it would take for self immolation.

I saw the Norton wankels roar past at speeds that left my mouth dry... the sidecars going into orbit as they flew over the Bridge... the 250s that made me curse my old Superdream. At any moment the weather could switch from clear blue skies to terrible downpours that must have rendered high speed visibility treacherous. And still the machines kept on and on.

During one of the days when the racing wasn't on, I took the GT550 out for a blast over the mountains, assiduously avoiding the temptation to join in on the Mad Sunday blast - it’s utter mayhem, only undertaken by people with the survival instincts of a three legged hedgehog crossing a six lane motorway. I must admit, however, that I did have to lock myself in the tent, where l twitched until it was over, Jeff refusing to tell me where he had hidden the keys.

On my run around the island, as soon as I hit the national speed limit sign, I opened her up. the rev counter swinging quickly for such a small bike. I ran up through the gears. leaning out from the seat, knee inches from the road as I powered round corners, pulling myself up with the remaining power as the next bend loomed, the light 550 loving every second of it.

The mixture of hills. curves and straights was intoxicating stuff, the things motorcycling dreams are made of... of course, with the racing off there were cars coming the other way, not to mention thoroughly demented Germans on hyper machines who forgot on which side of the road they were supposed to travel. One ended up dead after splattering himself head on into an auto.

For a shaftie it was remarkably well behaved. not snatching during gear changes as some of its big brothers like to do. It oozed confidence. the front twin discs shedding speed quickly coming up to the corners. the perky engine piling it on again when out the other side. On the straights I stood no chance against the huge 1000cc machines, whipping past me as if I was standing still, but when the road snaked l was catching them, the bike flicking in and out of the corners beautifully.

l was chasing an FJ1200 around some S-bends. a yard or so from the German registered number plate when the road straightened. l twisted the throttle hard. the bike pulling me up.the distance between me and the FJ down to a few feet. The FJ straightened but it was too late, I was past. The engine howled as I leapt away from the bend, my head hunched as low over the tank as my AGV would allow. I caught a fleeting glipse of the FJ's headlamp dropping back in my mirror and smiled to myself, a moment of self congratulation passing as I focused ahead.

In the distance I saw the thirty limit signs rapidly grow, twin numbered lollipops either side of the road. But that wasn't what made me grab handfuls of brake, it was the luminescent vest and radar armed gentleman that made my sphincter twitch. The back wheel skipped under the pressure, the front forks dived like a whale seeing a harpoon swing towards it. Even with all that braking l was still doing 57mph when I crossed into the thirty limit. A casual wave of a hand stopped me and l was nicked - it cost me £57.65 the next day at the station, but luckily they don't touch the licence. The national speed limit sign, though, means there is no speed limit, but the other ones are strictly enforced - if you're caught doing twice a speed limit it's an automatic ban and the bike isn't given back to you until you leave!

There are grandstands dotted around the course but these cost money to enter and you have to get there early... there are lots of stone walls to sit atop on which to watch the racing, but you have to take waterproofs to keep up with the weather as it changes in seconds and when it rains.

l favoured a wall on the Sulby straight for the Junior Class and stood in a field at Kate's Cottage for the Senior, a good straight with bends at each end showing the Nortons off admirably. The local radio station gives out race information and if you’re spectating away from a PA it's essential to have a radio to be able to follow what's going on.

The matter is further complicated by the bikes going off singly at intervals of ten seconds. They all race against the clock, not really each other, but there are some excellent dices to get the adrenalin going.

The diet is chips and beer, if you have more sophisticated tastes you may have problems. Bushy's on Douglas Prom is the most popular watering hole, impossible to miss because of the crowds of people standing outside it. Drinking beer, talking bikes, watching the racing, it goes on and on, and still people can't get enough of it... my only regret is that I had missed out on it for so many years before. If you want to savour the atmosphere book now, you won't stand a chance otherwise; I booked up as I left. 

David O’Neil

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