November 2007: Special TT Centenary Issue

 MGardiner   

Excerpt from Riding Man

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gardiner, www.bikerider.com.

From where I’m standing, in a muddy pasture on the east side of Mountain Road, I catch sight of the racers as they pass the Les Graham memorial. They approach Bungalow flat out in top gear, the road, cut into the smooth side of the Mountain, falling and sweeping away in a gentle right-hand bend. They brake and downshift a couple of gears in front of the idiosyncratic Mr. Murray’s squat and isolated motorcycle museum, turn left, bring the bike upright and catch a gear as they cross the railroad tracks. Just over the tracks, there’s a right-hand turn under a permanent spectator bridge that’s been built here–it’s a popular viewing spot. After Bungalow, they catch top gear and climb flat out for almost a mile, as the road crosses the grassy col between mounts Snaefell and Beinn-y-Phot. When the riders disappear over the crest of Hailwood Rise, they’ve been in sight for about a mile and a half, which they cover in just over half a minute. After that, it’s a fast left at Brandywell and right at the aptly named Windy Corner as they plummet down the Mountain, toward Douglas and the finish line.

I’m standing on the exit of the right-hand turn, out from under the bridge. And I mean right there. There’s a rusty gate, so livestock can cross the road when the TT is not on. So there’s the road: two lanes, no shoulder. There’s a ditch, maybe eighteen inches wide, and the pasture side of the ditch is bermed up with a little grass-covered levee, maybe a foot wide at the top and two feet tall. If I were to crouch down and stretch my arm though the gate, I could near as put my fingertips on the racing surface.

As a racer, you wouldn’t want to use all of the road here. The pavement on modern racetracks is flat in cross section, but this is a public road. It’s got a crowned surface: the middle of the road is higher than the edges, so rain will flow off. This means that the edge of the road nearest to me is off camber–banked the wrong way. Like rainwater, motorcycle racers can flow off, too. Into the ditch, the berm, the rusty gate.

The start is staggered, with the faster riders leaving first, so on the first lap the top few men come through in order. Even out here in the pasture, I can hear the race commentary–it’s broadcast on Manx Radio from loudspeakers at the tea hut. And the tinny voice is echoed by hundreds of transistor radios carried by the fans, standing in knots and bunches on the slopes, lining the fences where normally there would be sheep.

The first, fast guy flies past me, going maybe 140 mph. He drifts across the centerline on a wide, smooth arc, always holding a few feet of road in reserve, respecting that negative camber. The race will go like that for a couple of hours, riders coming through about every fifteen seconds. Sometimes, they come through in little groups, slower bikes trailing behind faster ones in an effort to catch their draft. Faster riders pass slower ones, but carefully. Because of the staggered start, each rider is really riding against the clock. On the world’s most difficult and unforgiving race-course, other competitors are a secondary concern.

***

In the middle of the race, in the middle of the pack, the impression of one particular second is burned into my memory. An anonymous rider–some guy with a start number in the 30s–comes through the left turn, crosses the rail line, and then something goes wrong in the middle of the right-hander. Racing suspensions can overheat on bumpy public roads; perhaps his rear shock can’t handle the train tracks any more. Or maybe he has a tiny failure of nerve. Seeking the safety of the inside of the curve, he may have turned in a split second too early.

Whatever the cause, an instant later he’s still leaned over turning hard right at a point where he should be standing the motorcycle up and pointing it up the road. His exit from the turn carries him off the crown of the road, down onto pavement sloping toward the ditch. The front wheel is leaned way over, scrabbles for grip, and starts to slide. The bike stops pointing up the road and starts pointing toward the ditch. Exactly, in fact, toward the point where I’m standing. Instinctively, the rider turns the handlebars a little farther, and the front wheel tucks. Now the front wheel is pointing the right way, but it’s still skidding because the rest of the motorcycle is moving the wrong way.

This rarely happens to ordinary motorcyclists, because they don’t lean over far enough, or wrench on the handlebars hard enough, to get into this kind of trouble. Which is good, because of all the ways a motorcycle can slide, a front-end tuck is the hardest to save. If you want to try to save it, you can apply the racer’s maxim: “When in doubt, gas it.” This, to be honest, doesn’t always solve the problem, but at least it ends the suspense.

Using the throttle to regain control is a hard thing to learn, for two reasons. It’s counterintuitive. And there is no time to think about it before acting. So racers learn, if they learn, by mulling it over ahead of time. Visualizing it on long winter evenings when it’s too cold to ride. Programming themselves, even hard-wiring themselves, to do the very thing that their instincts desperately oppose when they get into trouble.

The rider, whoever he is, isn’t consciously thinking. That much I know. His body feels the slide. A message–which originates in his inner ear, and bypasses his brain altogether–goes straight to his right wrist, which opens the throttle, spinning the rear tire. The rear of the bike slides out to match the front. Each wheel of a motorcycle is a spinning gyroscope. As the rear wheel comes back into alignment with the front, physics makes the bike rise out of its lean; the front tire stops sliding and starts rolling.

Had he done nothing, or done too much, or too little, the bike would have continued along its path: ditch, berm, rusty gate, me; bangbangbangbang. As it is, the rear wheel catches traction and fires the bike back onto the center of the road.

The rider catches an upshift, and disappears over the hill. There are three guys standing right beside me. “Ho HO!” They banter among themselves, laughing nervously, taking a few steps back before the next bike comes through. That was close.

Images and text copyright © International Journal of Motorcycle Studies