On Saturday, the Isle of Man’s 95th Tourist Trophy Race began. The first race was held in 1907 and the Trophy was for many years the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world. Each year, the two week motorbike racing event sees about 25,000 people travel to the small Island which ordinarily can only boast of a population of 85,000. What makes the T.T race so special is that many of its competitors are amateurs who see the T.T as a chance to experience the thrill of racing across the open road by an incomparable mode of transport.
The T.T course itself, which runs around the island, is both complicated and unforgiving, with 264 corners that can cause unexpected pile ups of both racers and mounted spectators alike. Every year, without fail, riders both watching and racing die on the Manx road. In fact, since the Tourist Trophy began 240 people have lost their lives, with 21 deaths since the turn of the century.
Despite improving health and safety regulations, it seems the much-loved annual event cannot help but be marred by tragedy. Last summer, I could not imagine why the event would continue to be loved unconditionally by those who participate and watch from both the side lines and on two wheels of their own.
The temptation of glory in victory seemed to me, though daring, a near-rational reason to take part. It was the attitude of the spectators who rode without the temptation of victory and leaned into the bends, which I could not understand to be anything other than suicidal. In order to understand this I would have to understand the Island’s motorcycling culture. Last summer, the members of the committee members of the Manx Moddey Dhoo Motorcycling Club were happy to answer my questions.
Brian Corrie, a biker since the tender age of sixteen is Chairman of the Moddey Dhoos, an MCC founded in 1993. The club was named after a mythical black dog, which according to Manx folklore, haunted Peel castle, a monument found on the West coast of the Island.
“It’s exciting being a woman in this environment”
“Outside biking I’m a trained mechanic”, Dave Andrea tells me. Married couple, fellow Moddey Dhoos and self-confessed “rock ‘n’ rollers” Marie and Dave, moved to the Island from London. Dave, brought up in a family of bikers since his birth in 1949, was part of an MCC in London and was drawn to the Island due to its biking culture. Marie, whose whole family was “brought up on bikes”.
“It’s exciting being a woman in this environment”, Marie tells me. “It’s a family and we look out for each other. If a lady’s partner is away, everybody looks after the woman. I’m treated with respect.” Marie confesses her love affair with biking has been life-long and has influenced every part of her life including her relationships. “Ever since I was younger I couldn’t see myself being anything other than a biker. I only ever went out with biker boys.” Marie met Dave when she was fourteen. The rest is history.
The club is based on the Isle of Man and I wanted to know the extent to which biking is a part of Manx life. Last year, Allan Bell, the Island’s chief minister claimed that the biggest threat to the Isle of Man was its aging population, which is expected to grow by 75% over the next 20 years. The Moddey Dhoos, however, claim that the Island is not the peaceful haven it may appear to the mainlanders in all respects.
“The event shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience – it’s part of the island”
“If you’re from the Island, it’s very hard to not be in some way involved in bikes”, Brian tells me. “We have a problem where some people buy houses on the course and then complain bitterly when there are bikes riding past during T.T week. But the event shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience – it’s part of the Island and people should know that before moving here.”
In 2012, 9000 bikes were brought to the Island during T.T fortnight. But the Island’s bikers are not all to be found in racing leathers. Brian tells me about the different types of bikers who I could expect to meet. These groups of people are not simply motorcycling “commuters”, who view their vehicles as a way of getting to and from. If you’re a true biker, it’s not the same as simply saying you take the bus, it is a way of life. There is only one obligation, according to Brian.
“You have to be a rebel to be a biker. The whole point of being on the bike is to have a bit more freedom. You can do a little more than anybody else. You travel more dangerously. I mean in terms of biking history it was only in the seventies where if you walked into any pub with a biker’s jacket on they wouldn’t serve you.”
Brian goes on to list the categories. “You have your Sports Bikers in their full-suit of leathers – they just want to ride fast. Then there are the Dirt Bikers, they ride off road. There are also Cruisers and Retro-Style Bikers, we ride for the pleasure of riding. We are the kind of riders who just want to keep things as standard as possible.”
It’s this kind of mind-set which prompts bikers such as Brian to worry about the increasing influence technology is having on the T.T. “More and more you see racers adjusting their bikes through their laptops rather than in the garage. You can’t just go back in the shed and do things old-school. It’s a worry because it means grassroots racers cannot afford to compete because new technology is making it so much harder for non-team members.”
I ask Brian whether he worries this is making the T.T race an elitist event. “Of course”, he replies.
But there are other aspects of biking which are changing. Along with an increasing number of houses being built on the Island, Brian fears that the giants of Health and Safety will, one day, call a stop to the T.T.
Everybody seems intent on making bikes safer. Motorcyclists must wear helmets, which Brian claims save thousands of lives each year. There are crash bars and airbag-fitted biking jackets – “You can imagine how amusing that could be,” Dave tells me, “You go to put your jacket on and it blows up like a balloon”. Helmets have been built which, upon hitting the floor, release an “airbag hood” in order to protect the biker in a similar manner as the car driver.
On the T.T course itself, areas have already been prohibited to spectators, as a result of accidents which include bikes going into the crowds. “The problem is you can never be 100 per cent scientifically sure where a bike is going to end up when it crashes at 180mph,” Brian tells me. “However, it’s important to remember that outside the T.T course, the majority of bike accidents do involve cars”.
“Yes we’ve had the accidents, we’ve had blood-spills, but we’ll never give up.”
At this point Brian tells me of people he personally knows who have lost their lives on their bikes. He tells me of a club member who was killed 9 years ago when an elderly driver failed to see them while overtaking. Another couple, Tony and Sarah, were separated when the two were involved in a pile-up. Both were sent to hospital, but only Sarah survived the ordeal.
The Dhoos have all experienced their fair share of close-shaves. “I’ve come off at 110mph and I’ve walked away” Dave tells me. “The fatalities are very harsh but you learn to expect them. People do fall off bikes. Yes we’ve had the accidents, we’ve had blood-spills, but we’ll never give up. At the end of the day we’re all going to die, whether we are bikers or not.”
The bikers are a community, but for Marie and I expect many others, it’s also about the chance to take full responsibility of your own life. The thrill does not just lie in sharing time with like-minded people and being part of a “family” but also enjoying your own presence in this way. “It’s an incredible community, but it’s also about being with yourself. You may be riding with people at the time but you are also simultaneously completely on your own. You can be thinking about whatever you want to at the time. That’s you, that’s your space. How you deal with it is entirely your choice.”
The club members were very kind to me and Dave even took me round the T.T course on his own beloved bike. I was offered a glimpse of a thrill of what the MCC live for. Biking is about the biking family and the biking culture, but it’s also about the biker’s own decisions and self-experience. It is not only the freedom of feeling the wind in your hair, but in the freedom of taking your own risks. It is by understanding this that I could understand why riders effectively choose to place their lives on the line each time they reach for their leathers.