16th December 2015
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Isle of Man Classic TT 2015
Five go mad on Commandos. Stuart Urquhart's travelling companions manage to break a van before they've got to the ferry; things can only get better once they arrive on The Island, surely...
Following a year of planning our Classic TT week was on. Our Fife group would travel with five Commandos loaded over two vans and catch the overnight Isle of Man ferry from Heysham. I was with my friend Dave in his Ford Transit, while Mike, Iain and Ewen, plus their three Commandos, shared a larger van.
As we travelled in convoy through the midnight gloom I was awakened by Dave’s mobile requests for Mike to pull over to the hard-shoulder and tow us the last eight miles into Heysham...or was I dreaming? And was the choking smoke that filled our cabin a figment of my imagination? Orange flashing lights that sparkled across the rain-specked windscreen held my gaze as Dave’s Transit ground to a shuddering halt and we all piled onto the M6’s hard shoulder. HGVs thundered past, pushing billowing clouds of acrid and oily brown smoke across the carriageway. Still half asleep, I rubbed my tired and bleary eyes - something was amiss, but Dave’s cool demeanour said otherwise.
I felt in good hands, this holiday was in no danger; although I’d learned that the Transit’s turbo was the problem; it had suddenly failed, sucking up most of the sump’s oil and venting it out through the exhaust. Fortunately Dave is Superman in times of mechanical catastrophe and with a tow rope to hand we were off again, but at a restricted 50mph and with only eight feet of hemp separating us from the leading van. Yet again, Dave’s cool under pressure was impressive - as was the white-knuckle ride that didn’t end with a swift exit through the Transit’s windscreen.
Following several hours of waiting at the quayside we were eventually boarded and the Transit’s problem could wait our return. The ferry was packed and we endured a tortured sleep. Heads rested on makeshift pillows of baggage before we were disgorged, coughing and spluttering, from the exhaust-filled ferry...followed by a moonlight dash to our B&B in Douglas and a welcome 40 winks (felt more like 4) and suddenly day one had dawned. Hooray, we were at the Manx!
Recharged by the customary Full English and mugs of coffee, the plan was to visit Kirk-Michael’s Classic Motorcycle Museum, followed by a blast around the legendary TT Circuit. I’m sure there was such a plan; but as I ended up tail-ender, I typically got help up at traffic lights. This allowed a stream of cars and bikes to filter in front, adding more distance between me and my crew. Before I knew it, I was chasing a lost cause. But I headed for Kirk-Michael with the certainty that my buddies would be waiting somewhere along the busy route. I reached the town, then I passed through Ballaugh Bridge, and just as I was about to commit to a u-turn, I spotted them in the distance! I cracked on and by Quarry Bends I was reeling them in. Relief soon crashed to despair however, when I realised I was chasing four Honda’s with not a Commando in sight.
I turned back; secretly hacked-off that my mates were probably hiding behind a giggling hedge row. Back in Kirk-Michael I couldn’t see any parked Commandos, far less any sign of a Motorcycle Museum. I reproached myself for accepting our group policy of ‘keep up’ and sketchy directions - instead of confirming our destination with the aid of a map. With the Wormit crew, ‘it’s keep-up or be left behind!’ So rather than devote more time to a fruitless search, I decided to lap the Circuit and end the day with a solace pint at Creg-ny-Baa, and just watch the bikes go by.
Much, much later I bumped into the Commando Clan at our B&B and took the ‘keep-up’ drilling square on my chin. ‘No more stragglers in this company!’ I emphatically agreed. That evening we walked to the Grandstand (I kept pace this time) to watch pit-teams prepping their race bikes for the evening’s Race Practice. In one tent we came across the new Nortons and the impressive Domi-racer. In an adjacent tent, two naked Paton twins were being cleaned and pampered. Later, we strolled down to Bray Hill to watch the Junior and Senior Classic TT Practice (all classes race together).
The road antics of Dunlop, Anstey and other racers proved very thrilling to watch. Tremendous speed, deafening exhausts and puffs of smoke as fairings smacked into tarmac under loaded suspension – was quickly followed by death-defying speed wobbles as the combatants screamed up Bray Hill. Then spectators' heads would all turn on cue to gawp at the next incoming missile. This was high-octane stuff that promised an adrenalin-charged week. What an opener!
Next day the simple plan at our am briefing was ‘a day at the races’. I was ‘all ears’ lest I get left behind once again. I’d vowed the Commancheros wouldn’t give me the slip a second time and as our B&B was on a very steep part of Broadway, I’d left my Commando pointing downhill in anticipation of a Le Mans start. When our ‘pack-leader’ Mike fires up, he’s off without a rearwards glance and stragglers are left spinning in his high octane peashooters. This time it was a lethargic and hung-over Ewan who got left behind. I on the other hand, was a fast learner in this ‘Drag-starts for Breakfast’ company. Cunningly, I’d Fred Flintstone’d my Commando all the way down Broadway before firing up to find I was tail-gating Mike through the first set of traffic lights. Laughing like the possessed Foggy, I rear-guarded my second place and zipped along the Prom without so much as a rearwards glance. The race was on; sniggering hedges were yesterday’s news.
I confess I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where we were heading - only that it was imperative to play follow-the-leader by cutting and undertaking anything and everything that got in your way, including my fellow Commanche’s. Not great road manners I’ll admit; but it’s survival riding with the Wormit crew out on the circuit. It was every man for himself, but secretly, I was hoping Ewan would quickly catch-up.
Suddenly, we were circling an island within a growing swarm of bikers. No-one seemed to know which exit to take. But then Ewan joined our growing tail and suddenly we were off again, following a Vicar on a Vespa for all I knew - because we ended up at an old church where the congregation were preparing lunch. As we removed our helmets ‘Glen Vine’ was passed down the line. This turned out to be Marown Church - an excellent view-point from which to watch the day’s racing.
Marown offered cafe-style seating and uninterrupted views of the track. It was a prime spot and I reckoned we were joining a ‘crowd’ of no more than thirty, making front-line viewing anything but shoulder-to-shoulder. The opening VMCC parade was a little off-the-pace, but after an unexpected delay, and with attentive ears glued to the trackside commentary, race-bikes suddenly appeared on the horizon, followed by an incredible din. The crowd gasped as the racers blinked past and vanished round a bend; but never quite out of earshot - as their fading exhausts would rise and fall in pitch as the distant racers negotiated other track hazards – this was exhilarating stuff!
Licking our lips after a lunch of Incredibly Yummy Strawberry Tart and double cream we were suddenly off again, following our new English comrades to yet another ‘secret’ racing rendezvous that promised even more excitement. After thundering along countless back lanes I will never remember, we parked and trekked over some green fields to the circuit somewhere near Ballacraine – where I was greeted by a seductive Black Ariel that begged me to take her home (sigh). But reality revived, our company were soon settling onto a twelve foot high banking accessed by short ladders, and only inches from the elevated track. AGAIN there were few spectators and we felt extremely privileged to be invited to another gold-nugget viewpoint.
First race was the 500 Classic and as soon as the leading bike appeared we were hit by a shockwave as bike and rider passed in a blur. We had at least 400 yards of uninterrupted track, but blink just once and you’d have missed the action. It was exciting, spectacular, close-proximity racing.
Bikes were now flying past in two’s and three’s when ‘ping’ (...that’s all we heard), an immense cloud of blue smoke suddenly smothered spectators, track and bikes alike. It was obvious an engine had blown right beneath our noses...’Oh no!’ gasped the crowd, as two shoulder-to-shoulder racers were next lost in the smoke, careering at 160mph+ into a sharp right-hander! We all held our breath, expecting the sickening crash; but only silence greeted the hushed crowd. Then as the smoke cloud began to drift distant shouts could be heard, as Marshalls emerged frantically waving yellow flags and scurrying up the track like a swarm of agitated wasps. Some peered over the barrier fence, some pointed at the bend - all were expecting mayhem and debris. But it soon reached our ears that all the racers had made it through the cloud unscathed. A senior Marshall followed a tell-tale oil slick back to our position and asked if anyone knew what had happened. We pointed to the spot where we heard the engine go ‘ping’ and soon we were surrounded by inquiring Marshalls, clean-up trucks and a track inspection Range Rover - what a show!
The Marshalls entertained us with stories from past TT’s as we awaited news from the trackside speakers. Unfortunately the oil spill was too serious and racing was cancelled for the day - just when the action was hotting up! We were all bitterly disappointed and already spectators began to disperse. We stayed to enjoy more chat with the Marshalls and fortunate that we did, because the organisers decided to bring forward ‘The Rivals Parade’ in honour of racing legend Joey Dunlop. Taking part would be track gods such as Michael Dunlop, Ray McCullough, Mick Grant, Carl Fogarty and a host of other famous stars, past and present. We were about to be thoroughly entertained all over again.
Six Marshalls formed a flag-line to usher racing stars away from the oil spill and right beneath our beaming faces. As the racing stars passed, many saluted our enthusiastic little group who were cheering and applauding each in turn. True to form Foggy then blasted through, ignoring all the frantic flag-waving and upsetting the Marshalls - all just show I’m sure, and intended to entertain the spectators. But what a show, and how the beers flowed that evening!
As much as I enjoyed the racing, I was looking forward to day three’s trip to the Classic Festival at Jurby. However, our previous night’s briefing called for a 7am thrash around the circuit beforehand. This turned out to be a sunny if bitterly cold ride, but with very few bikes out exploring the circuit, it was a morning’s ride we would never forget.
The sun was already warming our backs by the time we’d arrived at Jurby. I was amazed at the thousands of classics already crammed into Jurby’s three car parks – a display that turned out to be every bit as interesting as the Jurby Festival itself! Dave had brought along FREE trade tickets and we spent the rest of the day admiring the incredible exotica on display. I was sucked into the many side stands and unfortunately I missed the racing display. Jurby has its own mini-race track, and Foggy was apparently wheelying and blitzing all the other racers. Another Jurby highlight was the European and Japanese classic racers that fired up to entertain the thrumming crowd - even Bruce Anstey and his pit-crew turned out to entertain racing fans. That evening we enjoyed an excellent meal at The Bridge Restaurant and relaxed with the expectation of another fine day ahead.
My last day was intended to be a tour around the island. En-route I visited the excellent Murray’s MC Museum and enjoyed a late lunch and a pint of the local Okell’s beer with a couple of German bikers I’d met at the museum. After lunch I resumed my tour in what was fast becoming a wet and gloomy afternoon – the first rain we’d had since arriving. Beaten by the cold I decided to head back to the Grandstand and buy some souvenirs. This was a fortunate decision, for both the Norton Domi-racer and the Paton twins were fired up for race fans - what a fantastic din! Wandering around the pits I managed to see many race machines up close, including the Paton twins, which appear to be beautifully engineered. The Kiwi racing Manx Norton’s were also lined up for the fans and also looked formidable; but the real bonus for racing fans were the friendly mechanics and pit crews who were mixing and engaging with fans.
On our last evening we had a traditional ‘pub crawl’ around some of the glitzy promenade hotels, sampling Manx beers. Later we stumbled upon a live gig with a band of ‘Auld Codgers’, who rattled out some magnificent Rock & Roll riffs and impressive Quo hits. In appreciation Dave and I stayed until lights out, enjoying a thoroughly entertaining evening before tomorrow’s early start and the ferry trip home. Back in Heysham we faced the unfortunate news that Dave’s Transit wasn’t going anywhere under its own steam. So we split up and Dave and I packed the Commandos for an unexpected motorcycle trip home to Fife. Fortunately it was a warm and sunny afternoon and we enjoyed a leisurely run home through excellent Border scenery.
This was my first visit to the Classic TT and our group are planning another trip in 2016. It goes without saying that the Classic TT is a spectacular event for classic enthusiasts and racing fans alike. The Racing Circus, Jurby Festival and Clasic Club meetings are all ‘must do’ experiences. My advice is to book again for next year before you leave, ferry space is much in demand. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth!
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