November 2007: Special TT Centenary Issue


Embodied Experiences of Motorcycling at the Isle of Man TT Races

Geoff Crowther


In 1907, on the Isle of Man a number of pressures stimulated the development of the TT motorcycle races culminating in an annual influx of tens of thousands of visiting motorcyclists from many countries for the two-week festival. The challenge of competing in the TT races attracts the world’s leading road racers to contest the Mountain Course on the Isle of Man.  The development of racing and associated sport tourism has provided new opportunities for the exploitation of rural landscapes involving the production of spectacle and cultural experiences.  Since the beginnings of the TT races at the start of the twentieth century, new symbolic meanings and place myths have emerged out of the embodied practices of motorcycle racers and enthusiasts.  Embodiment is a process of experiencing, making sense, knowing through practice as a sensual human subject in the world.


The TT races reveal conflicts over the role of leisure and tourism in the Isle of Man, pitting those who view the Manx countryside as a place of peace and natural beauty, against those who see it as a place of freedom and escape to engage in sporting contest involving motorcycling encounters with the Mountain Course.  Simultaneously, the heritage of the motorcycle races is one of many tourism products to be encountered on an Island where new tourist destinations have developed as “attractions” that have been constructed for commodified visual consumption. Sustained development and marketing of the TT motorcycle races as an international tourist attraction at this offshore financial haven in the Irish Sea is also being contested as it the government redefines the event as part of its efforts to attract international capital.  As a result, the TT motorcycling festival reflects the competing ideologies of the dominant groups involved: the racers, the TT tourists, and the indigenous Manx.[1]




The precise character of the TT tourism product and its performance is established by the place and it is the motorcycle that connects the visitor with the Manx landscape. Cloke and Perkins (1998) emphasise the importance of the body in relation to the practice of adventure tourism.  Motorcycling is an explicitly expressive practice that exploits spaces such as roads for rehearsal and performance, and expression of self. The features of spaces examined in this study and the pace and style of activity may be understood as embodied through the actions of riders on their machines as well as spectators. In engagement with place, motorcyclists use ritualistic practices, physical activities and artistic production.


Since the beginnings of the TT races at the start of the nineteenth century, new symbolic meanings and place myths have emerged out of the embodied practices of enthusiasts.  The character of the TT tourism product and its performance is established by the place, where action, adventure, fun, sensation, excitement, supply mythical elements to an audience eager to explore personal capacity for adaptive performance.


Physical environments shape our experiences and relationships as embodied history, as something to reabsorb in the inhabited spaces of everyday practice (Noble, 2002). Festivals such as Daytona Bike Week or the Burning Man provide vehicles through which people can advocate or contest certain notions of identity and ideology (Jeong and Santos, 2004). Attendance at festivals such as the TT Races may be included in a repertoire of activities that is a part of an accumulation of symbolic capital distinguishing participants from others.


Visits to such places require movement through culturally conceived space, with deliberate acts intended to reveal meaning, including as Adler (1989) suggests, the process of projecting bodies through space. Engagement with place is mediated by the mode of mobility chosen. A range of mobilities is available to transport visitors to and around the thirty-by-fifteen mile island.  It is the form of mobility that connects the visitor with the Manx landscape through a kinaesthetic and embodied experience.


Travelling to the IOM plays an important role in establishing the meaningful setting that visitors consume; indeed, such places of mobility construct travel to destinations as Curtis and Pajaczkowska (1994) have noted. The character of the TT Races is influenced by the setting not only on the Island itself, but also it is set in a sea that for the vast majority of TT visitors has to be negotiated and contested. Such spaces of mobility are resources for self-formation and operate as settings for performances that help to establish the character of the Isle of Man and the TT Races. Arriving at the pier head beneath the Liver buildings in Liverpool, would-be visitors join a tight and noisy procession that embarks from the dockside. Once over the ramps into the gaping ship’s bow, hundreds of machines are packed tightly together in the dark ship’s hold.


Ropes that bind the machines in an intricate web of mutual support reflect the bond of shared purgatory between the TT pilgrims. Here, motorcycles are held frozen in the bowels of the mother ship in a suspended state awaiting arrival in Douglas Bay. Butting into the steep waves of the Irish Sea the velocity of travellers is reduced to a slow pace heightening feelings of separation from the fast pace of the motorways that disgorged them onto the departure dock.


On arrival in Douglas, riders and machines are loosed from their ties in the gloomy ship’s hold, and to the accompaniment of a noisy chorus of Termigoni and Akropovich exhausts enhanced by a glimpse of Snaefell mountain through the opening bow doors, TT pilgrims flood onto Douglas promenade. Expectations of comfort at this sporting venue have little relevance as thousands of fans choose to sleep in tents and prefer to spectate by sitting on grass banks at remote road sides for many hours. Motorcycling has never been a quest where comfort was a key issue but one that resonates with the discourse of Romanticism that renounces the anaesthetising comforts of urban life and casts the TT visitor into direct encounters with landscapes of the Island producing a feeling of place. Engaged in a bodily escape, motorcycling visitors take time out to enjoy leisure, a release from chronological time and a retreat from a world both spatially and temporally.


On the Isle of Man, the motorcyclists’ gaze is directed to features of landscape which separate themselves them off from everyday experience.  “Such aspects are viewed because they are taken to be in some sense out of the ordinary” (Urry, 1990, p. 3). It is the TT Mountain Course that commands particular attention during TT race fortnight. The quest for sensual velocity on the Mountain Course is an essential ingredient of motorcycle travel experience at the TT as the visitors to the Isle of Man come to know the place through their motorcycles and bodies. It is oppositional to widely accepted motives that define the purpose of travel to be destination oriented; a tourist practice that is embodied and felt where the road becomes a taskscape and not just imagined and represented.  The findings of this study highlight a quest for personal performance involving mobility that seeks the essence of place whilst at the same time consuming it.  The Isle of Man TT Mountain Course is an example of what Shields (1991) refers to as social spatialisation. This refers to the ongoing social construction of the spatial at the level of the social imaginary that includes collective mythologies and presuppositions.


Motorcycling visitors mostly subscribe to images based on the possible performances of the place. For adventurous motorcyclists opportunities exist for enjoyment of a highly sensuous activity. Modes of movement through a landscape have been referred to as “place ballet” by Seamon (1979) who notes how walkers exploit a regular and routinised choreography involving a set of practices by participants. The alternative mobility of motorcycling also requires its adherents to engage in a “place ballet” with the motorcycle acting as a medium between bodies and nature. As the body and nature come together, both become endangered. Motorcycles mediate between their riders and the environment through which they pass as riders make their way to watch the TT Races and Practice sessions.  This achievement is accompanied by a sensual experience with heightened sensory experience, risk, vulnerability, passion, pleasure, mastery and/or failure that achieves a zenith on Mad Sunday which occurs in the middle of the motorcycling festival. This long-standing ritual involves visitors and locals alike taking to the TT course in a spectacle that has generated its own mythology reinforced through videos submitted to YouTube and memorabilia that declares, “I survived Mad Sunday.”  


Photo 1     Mad Sunday, Grandstand, Douglas


In this practice, riders are searching for balance, smooth lines, clean gear changes and precise response whilst maintaining control of machine. In motorcycling we can detail a wide repertoire of bodily practices that enable progress to be accomplished: pulling levers, twisting throttles, toeing gear shifts, pressing footpegs, shifting weight, etc. We find established a set of distinctive embodied practices such as knee-down cornering that deliver varied, novel and complex sensations and experiences forming an essential ingredient that explains the willingness to take risks when challenging the TT Course.   

As they proceed along the TT course visiting motorcyclists have time only to glance as opposed to luxuriate in protracted gaze at the landscape. It is forever in motion with horizons titling and shifting as machines lean through bends and swoop through dips. At motorcycling enclaves around the island bikers contemplate the marvels of fellow bikers and their machines through processes involving intense scrutiny as they reconnoitre favourite sections of the mountain course, stalk other riders, and cruise Douglas promenade. TT tourists become voyeuristic strollers discovering extremes of motorcycling as fashionable styles of road riders pillaged from the world of the race track are subject to critical surveillance. 

Contested Landscapes


“I’ve got to get out on the course before breakfast to get a fast lap in whilst the road is quiet.”--visitor


The TT Races take place on a closed public road, a symbolic site that may be consumed in different contexts. Certainly over the TT festival fortnight a variety of activities occur as a diverse range of people pass along using different modes, in different directions and at widely separated speeds.  Whizzing iron monsters may be perceived, for instance, as forceful contaminators of an imagined picturesque, serene and virginal landscape (Ousby, 1990).


Photo 2      Steve Plater Entering the Gooseneck, Superbike TT 2007



These conflicting experiences were reflected in the interviews held that revealed competing interests in consumption of mobility surrounding the TT course; they may be summarised as follows:


Table 1

Road User Discourses




Tourist excursionists

Visit possibilities to preserved and constructed attractions

TT motorcycling tourist

Manx motorcycling encounters


TT Racers

Road conditions, performance possibilities and experiences

Manx commuters 

Ease of traffic flow


Virtual tourists

Competition and confrontation



Between the towns of Ramsey and Douglas the TT course rises to a height of 1400 feet above sea level and in response to a number of serious crashes in recent years, the Manx Constabulary operate a one-way traffic system during the fortnight festival. This extends over eleven and a half miles of a fast and spectacular section of the course from Ramsey Hairpin to Hillberry corner. Local commuters, commercial traffic, and tourist excursionists have to endure the inconvenience of using alternative routes if they wish to head direct from Douglas to Ramsey, whilst visiting motorcyclists are able to take full advantage of  the absence of speed limits through Waterworks, Gooseneck, Guthrie’s Memorial, Mountain Mile, Stonebreaker’s Hut, Verandah, Bungalow, Brandywell, Windy Corner, Keppel Gate, Kate’s Cottage, Creg-ny-Baa and Brandish.     


During practice sessions and race days the entire 37.73 mile course is closed resulting in many homes, businesses and farms becoming isolated for several hours at a time. Generations of Manx people have been accustomed to such restrictions.  However, as the economy flourishes and more newcomers arrive to live on the Island contestation for access and mobility occurs.  Conversely, no such problems exist for virtual visitors who are able to experience place in another space; the virtual space created by games such as TT Racer and TT Superbikes available on PlayStation games. The search for narrative fidelity and fulfilment of narrative expectations engross virtual visitors whose search for evidence of place asks questions about the possibilities to convert fantasies into “authentic” experience. Indeed, novice racers who learn the TT course with the aid of such games, admit to potential for confusion between virtual racing and the real road race experience.


For visiting, rather than virtual, motorcyclists, riding the course is a part of the normative role intimately associated with the notion of traditional road racing and increasingly this is accompanied by intensive police vigilance associated with extensive speed limit enforcement as part of an effort to control, or choreograph the riding behaviours of visitors. In response to this curtailment, some visiting riders participate in a new array of practices which seek to transgress the formalised representation of space. Motorcycle stunting has become a means of expressive performance witnessed at numerous sites on the Island throughout the festival despite police attempts to curb the practice.  


Ritual practices such as engagement in motorcycle stunting whether through participation or observation serve to foster a carnival-like atmosphere. This gesturing and posturing is a dynamic, symbolic act that is a fundamental unit of ritual activity at the races relying on the receptivity by others. On some occasions the principle of receptivity is energised by the actions of the ritual as the departing motorcyclist lifts the front wheel in a defiant wheelie. At other times the audience can be actively solicitous, as on Douglas promenade during the TT festival when crowds of enthusiastic motorcyclists assemble calling for stunting activity; an invitation to transform space into place.


The Commodification of Place


The TT Road Races possess great cultural significance as an intrinsic attraction connected to core beliefs related to motorcycling and to the Isle of Man. Such cultural displays may become cultural products that meet the needs of commercial tourism and contribute to the construction of heritage.  As Ashworth (1994) has argued, a place may become a commodity purposefully created to satisfy contemporary consumption and which also serves to stimulate tourism development.  McCracken (1988) refers to such an experience as ‘curatorial’ consumption (p. 44).  In the case of the TT Races, the race organisers, visitors and racers perpetuate myths and legends that imbue the TT races with a seductive aura through construction of spectacle and festival.


The TT, thus, is one of many tourism products to be encountered on an Island where new tourist destinations have developed as “attractions” that have been constructed for commodified visual consumption.  Re-enactments of military events are an example of such activity meant to symbolise ‘heritage’ and on the Isle of Man each year a ‘Viking Battle of the Isle of Man’ is staged. As Penaloza (1999) notes, spectacles focus on a restricted set of meaning making processes by fostering focused collective attention, which can be contrasted to festivals, ceremonies, and fairs. 


In contrast, the world famous TT races does not require solely a static gaze but beckons those with a lust for motorcycling road racing heritage to feast on multi-sensuous and active experiences that transcend mere spectacle to become a festival.  At the TT races, fans anticipating the arrival of racers in quiet, rural corners of the Island are assaulted by a noise and motion spectacle of performing bodies and race machines that calls up sympathetic echoes within static, awe-struck spectators. The thrilling and pleasurable sensations evoked involve the audience as part of the spectacle; their own physical encounter influences their modes of seeing and contributing to the total experience. Amongst the spectators shock and violent movement excites the physical senses and heightens a sense of unity and friendliness. Similar sensations are available at the Ramsey Sprint, a formal, organised speed contest scheduled for the TT festival.   


Enterprising marketers supply consumer goods that assist the TT fan in constructing and achieving desired identities. A vast range of merchandise featuring the TT logo are available including items such as t-shirts, fleeces, caps, pins and so on.   Through purchase and subsequent display, visitors not only attend the event but also collect an experience. Douglas promenade on Saturday night of race week is a place where performance and spectacle contribute an essential element to the festival. Bodily practices including dress, draw attention to the fact that consumption of place is simultaneously bodily and social, involving individual as well as collective, experiences.


However, the performance of TT visitors at this enclavic tourist space is becoming increasingly constrained as visits become progressively more choreographed by a government seeing to attract international capital.   Sustained development and marketing of the TT motorcycle races as an international tourist attraction is complicated by the island’s position as an offshore financial haven in the Irish Sea.  Marketers have exploited mythic fantasies that relate to enduring narratives of heroic encounters by racers such as Mike Hailwood and Joey Dunlop in the epic setting of the Isle of Man.


The TT races on the Isle of Man demonstrate that visitors may contest local meanings of place and confirm that cultural identity is an ongoing process.  Other developments on the Island however, have also impacted the landscape and sense of place, including the growth of new marinas in historic ports, and the construction of new housing estates in small rural communities.  Recent development of Manx “heritage” attractions has added to the multiple interpretations of the Island landscape contributing to the image fray.  The branding proposition for the Isle of Man emanating from the Manx Government in 2006, “Freedom to Flourish,” appears to endorse a secure future for the “Road Racing Capital of the World.”


The ability of the TT Races to appeal to particular motorcyclists needs to be understood not only in terms of the motorcycling experiences facilitated, but also the often improvised and unconscious forms of practice played out within the landscape spaces. Moreover, it suggests that any understanding of motorcycling at the Isle of Man must consider the embodied experiences of not only riding motorcycles and the use of specialist equipment, but also the use of spaces around the roads, which are part of motorcycling experience.  It is precisely the need to experience physical sensation that drives motorcycling and inspires riders at the Isle of Man TT to experience the feeling of their physical bodies united with machines on great biking roads such as the TT Mountain Course.



1A series of in-depth interviews was conducted with TT and Isle of Man visitors, Manx residents, Government officials and the Manx police. It was felt important for the researcher to gain an empathetic sense of visiting motorcyclists’ experiences through deepened personal involvement and this was achieved through attendance and participation at the TT races. The main forms of recording used were a personal log, plus qualitative notes, video and still photography and collection of hundreds of photographs and material artefacts.







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