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10th August 2006
Captain Constellation's Challenge: Part Three
Alun Thomas aka Captain Constellation took his Royal Enfield Constellation on a pilgrimage to the Isle of Man while raising money for charity. Finally, he set wheel on the TT course...
Boarding the Super Seacat 2 from Liverpool to the Isle of Man was straightforward and the ship was ready to 'slip and proceed', as sailors say, on schedule at 1100. It was a beautiful day, the sea was smooth and the crossing uneventful, save for a scrumptious Manx Breakfast which, it must be remarked, closely resembles its English equivalent! We were alongside in Douglas by half-past one and duly disembarked, driving straight up to Government House where we were met by His Excellency, Lieutenant Governor Sir Paul Haddacks and Lady Haddacks.
We were honoured to be invited to spend our time on the Isle of Man based at Government House, an unforeseen benefit to our cause which enabled us to obtain much more publicity for Captain Constellation and thus for CLIC Sargent. It was also, of course, very comfortable indeed!
I was surprised and delighted to discover that the Governor's residence is guarded by a splendid field piece which strongly resembles that depicted on the Royal Enfield marque badge. Sir Paul assured me that it is kept loaded and primed-just in case! A garage had been allocated for the motorcycles, and we proceeded to unload them and prepare for the final part of the Challenge -- a lap of the TT circuit, scheduled for 1030 the next day.
The Meteor Minor was unloaded first, fired up without difficulty, and ridden around to the garage, where it was checked and made ready for its part as back-up machine. I unloaded the Constellation, started it and rode it around to the garage as well. I then noticed the trail of oil which had been left on the roadway. It was immediately apparent that the oil was from the Connie, and the oil filter cap was found to be loose. This could be disastrous for the Constellation -- perhaps the Minor would get a run around the circuit after all!
I investigated and found that the oil filter cap securing stud had stripped its thread. I removed the stud, sawed off the damaged section of thread, and found that the stud, being rather longer than necessary, was still long enough to be reinstalled. The securing nut was, fortunately, undamaged, so the repair was completed, to my considerable relief! Although I would very much like to have ridden the Meteor Minor around the course, the Challenge was really to ride the Constellation.
Just to be on the safe side, I took the Connie for a quick run down Glencrutchery Road, topped off the fuel tank, and finished off by checking the oil and tyre pressures. All was ready for the Big Day!
Day Five, Friday 12th May, 1015. I was ready. Both of the bikes were ready. The weather was fine. Silence reigned. Where were they? I had invited several friends and colleagues to accompany me around the circuit as a kind of 'Captain's Escort'. I have studied plenty of on-bike action videos and also driven around the circuit in a car, so I reckoned I wouldn't get lost, but a few riders who knew the circuit would guarantee it, and numbers would help with the publicity, as well.
I shouldn't have worried. One after another, they arrived, and what a wonderful sight and sound they made. The VMCC contingent comprised Tony East (1965 Thunderbird), Ken Blackburn (Velocette Venom), Clive Kneale (Sprung-hub Speed Twin), Harry Cardy (Oil-in-frame Thunderbird), Juan Clague (1948 BSA A7) and Ashley Gardner (1973 Suzuki Kettle). All of these kind gentlemen are residents of the Isle of Man, of course, but the team was completed by the arrival of Brian Selwood, of the Royal Enfield Owners Club. He has attended the TT races regularly for many years and has also served as a track marshal. On this occasion he had ridden his 2000 Royal Enfield 500cc Bullet up from Aldershot a couple of weeks early in order to join us on the ride.
Thus I was escorted by this most distinguished company, seated upon seven of the most beautifully prepared bikes I have ever seen, on my lap of the circuit. What a fabulous experience, what wonderful friends, and what a fantastic result was in store!
As we made our stately progress around the hallowed circuit, there were very few delays. At Quarterbridge, a particularly busy and complex double roundabout when subject to normal traffic, we had to wait a minute or two before continuing toward Braddan, and as we approached the signals at Ballacraine we were held up by a couple of agricultural wagons. Preparations for the racing were in hand at Glen Vine, delaying us very briefly, and, after a short wait for temporary signals at Drinkwater's Bend, we settled into a pleasant 50mph clip subject, of course, to the local speed limits and keeping a weather eye out for the cardboard bobby with a radar gun just outside Kirk Michael!
The well-known features of the circuit passed in succession, Alpine Cottage, Ballaugh Bridge, Sulby, and soon we were passing through Parliament Square, Ramsay, negotiating light traffic as we swung through Waterworks and into the Gooseneck. This is extremely tight and was taken at a careful 30mph and then we were on the steep climb onto the Mountain. I had been a little concerned about my Constellation's power output. Although these 700cc twins were capable of well over 110mph when new, I have been unable to replicate such a performance, not least because of current speed limits. I was unsure how the climb would go but we virtually stormed up the incline, passing the Guthrie Memorial and into the Mountain Mile at a fine pace. After the necessarily slow initial climb out of Ramsay, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Constellation would climb easily in top gear. Tony East, who was just behind me on his 1965 Thunderbird, confided afterwards that he had had to drop into third gear to keep up!
The Mountain section must surely be a universal favourite. Sweeping bends combine with beautiful views to make a racing circuit which is unique, as far as I know. Under racing conditions, the experience is rather less romantic and prodigiously more demanding -- absolute concentration is required to progress through some of these extremely complex bend sequences at speeds of around 180mph, and in some races, four laps are completed!
Once again, the famous names slipped past, evoking memories of the radio commentaries I heard in my youth, 'listen as the factory Nortons come by…' etc, the Verandah, Bungalow, and into the triple curvature Brandywell. Windy Corner had been closed for resurfacing for about six weeks, commencing in March, and I had been worried that the work might not be completed before my Challenge lap, but all was well. In fact the camber has been modified to give a more consistent curve, and this might well lead to slightly better racing times, though it is said that the main problem with Windy is, naturally, the crosswind, which prevents riders from banking rapidly enough upon entering the bend. There was no wind today, and we had no trouble banking at our modest speed, and so to Kate's Cottage and into the long, precipitous straight down to Creg-ny-Baa.
It would be easy to arrive at the Hotel with a little too much speed for the corner and I've often wondered how many riders have tried to take the bend too fast and ended up in the car park -- or even the bar, perish the thought! There's always a big crowd here on race days, and there's a large stand, positioned well out of the way of any errant machines!
The remainder of the circuit is quite fast, and we covered it quickly enough, but at Signpost Corner we were really getting back into the suburbs, and first 40 and then 30mph limits reduced our speed. Although the Isle of Man is the motorcycle racing capital of the world, you can still be prosecuted for speeding, and this particular stretch is a favourite. If proof were needed, I saw a speed cop here with a radar gun the day after the ride.
With 362 miles on the Constellation's odometer, we crossed the Finish Line at Government House at 1139, to be welcomed by His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, and Lady Haddacks, the ex-Mayor of Douglas, Mrs Glenda Corkish, and Mr Corkish, the ex-Mayoress of Douglas, Mrs Ruth Denning, and Mr Denning, as well as the legendary TT rider, Eddie Crooks, and Mrs Crooks.
As we parked our machines and began to relax and discuss our experiences, Harry Cardy very graciously presented me with the last remaining badge commemorating the VMCC 2005 International TT Golden Jubilee Rally, a very handsome adornment indeed, which I shall always treasure. Mrs Denning then absolutely made our day by presenting Sue and I with a cheque for £2000 in favour of CLIC Sargent. This took the total amount raised to a little over an absolutely incredible £10,000!
The entire company was then entertained for a light lunch by His Excellency and Lady Haddacks which made a splendid end to an absolutely fabulous experience. After a weekend of relaxation courtesy of our hosts, when some of the splendours of the Isle of Man were explored by car, the bikes were trailered together for the journey home just as the weather broke on Sunday afternoon. A night of heavy rain could not dampen our enthusiasm for the island as, early on Monday morning, we made our way reluctantly to the ferry port to begin our journey home.
We had had a week beyond our wildest dreams, the only disappointment being that the Meteor Minor had not graced the track. Perhaps it will return one day! The trip back was uneventful and quick. The day after our return we heard that the ferries had been held off because of the discovery of a WW2 bomb in the Mersey, and the M6 was closed in both directions following two crashes. The gods had certainly smiled on us for the whole adventure. Since our return the bikes have settled back into a less prestigious environment, and even more donations have been made, bringing our total to over £11,000.
It only remains for me to thank, most sincerely, first of all my wife, Sue, for her unwavering help, support and forbearance, and also the many, many, kind and generous individuals and companies, really too numerous to mention here, who have sponsored or assisted us on our journey, or contributed to our fundraising activities.
We simply could not have done it without you all!
SO NOW IT'S YOUR TURN. You may still be able to donate to CLIC (Cancer and Leukaemia In Childhood) at www.justgiving.com/captainconstellationschallenge, or you can contact Alun via firstname.lastname@example.org to send a cheque and add to his total.
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