Island Man: Part Two

Toward the end of April, Peter Riddihough a documentary filmmaker is set to come over. Of course, in the days before he arrives, I have experiences that make me think, "Riddihough should be here to film this!"

Because I'm leasing a Honda CBR600 from Padgett's for the race, I'm "on the firm" as Steve Hodgson, the manager of the local shop, says. I seem to be welcome to hang around whenever I feel like killing time.

The other day, Steve Hislop stopped by to chat. He's a Scot, direct, and not too bashful to say that if he hadn't switched from the roads to short circuits, he'd have overtaken Joey Dunlop's record of 26 TT wins.

The three of us sat around on mismatched furniture, drinking instant coffee. Hodgson told a story about watching a race from the kink at the end of Cronk-y-Voddy Straight. "You were the only one," he said to Hislop, "who went through there without rolling off the throttle."

At this point, I have to interrupt, "But it's so featureless! I've been through there a hundred times and still haven't found a single landmark." The course kinks down and to the right, a blind approach with a wall on one side and steep berm on the other. "How," I ask, "do you time the turn in?"

For a moment, Hislop looked at me as though he was wondering if he should give away a trade secret. Then he thought, "What the hell, I'll never ride the TT again anyway...."

"Toward the end of the straight, you come to the crossroads, but that's much too early to turn in...." As Hislop started to answer, he closed his eyes, and leaned forward in his chair. His hands floated up, as if grabbing an imaginary set of handlebars.

"You can't feel it at all on open roads, but when you're flat-out, there's a little rise after the crossroad. If you're tucked right down, you'll feel the bike come up...." Eyes still closed, he exhaled sharply, and lifted his chest--he mimed the tank hitting his chest, then he let his body sag back down for a moment.

"As soon as you feel the bike settle back down," as he said it, his body scrunched into a tuck, "you throw it to the right, aiming at the end of the hedge." He opened his eyes, and looked at me with an expression that asked, "Got it?"

That's what I wished Riddihough had been there to capture on film. It had been years since Hislop last rode through that kink wide open. But when he told me how he'd done it, he hadn't been dredging up some distant memory; it was still right there.

Fairies, redux
Riddihough's been on the Island filming for a while. A couple of weeks ago, we parked along the course, at the Glen Helen Hotel. ("Glen" is Manx Gaelic for "brook.") A footpath leads up through the trees, to a flat, bench-shaped rock that's locally renowned as a "wishing rock." The idea, just as you'd guess, is that you sit on it, close your eyes and make a wish.

There is a superstition for everything here. Visitors think, "How quaint, the simple folk still believe in magic."

I sat on it. I wanted to qualify for the TT, finish, put in a respectable lap--over 100-mph average, at least. Winning was out of the question, but couldn't I be the best newcomer? After that, I wanted to write the definitive book about the experience, and I wanted it to be best seller.

Maybe Riddihough and I had stopped to look at too many of the memorials lining the course, but a little voice told me not to tempt fate by asking for too much. So for my wish, I closed my eyes and imagined, for a minute, the end of one of my races.

I imagined crossing the finish line, taking the checkered flag, slowing down, and turning in to the little slip road at the far end of the pit lane. I imagined people, strangers, hanging over the fence with their thumbs up. In my mind's eye, I saw myself, threading the CBR through the crowd that milled at the base of the grandstand. I visualized strangers looking into my visor, hoping to make eye contact, while they thought, "Wow, there's one of them, a real TT rider." They smiled at me and clapped me on the back. It was good. That was my wish.

Race trim
Hodgson has really adopted me as his rider. He's blagged free tires from Dunlop, fuel, oil and chain lube from Shell, boots.... "Don't manufacturers give you stuff like this when you race in America?" he asks, and I laugh.

Because Paul Smith, my crew chief, flies in from Calgary just one day before practice, I bring the CBR back to Padgett's, so the mechanics there can give him a head start converting it to race trim. When it emerges that the stock brake lines don't meet the ACU's arcane regulations (even though I'm in a Production class!) Andrew, the apprentice, pulls the braided lines off his own bike and gives them to me. They remove the lights and sidestand, change the oil and wire the sump, and mount a set of D208GPs sent from Dunlop. Thursday evening, I pick up Smith at the airport. I take him home, show him his bed. He's been traveling for approximately 20 hours, but instead of sleeping, he decides to install the steering damper he brought in his luggage.

By the time he comes in from the garage, he's aligned the rear wheel, discovered antifreeze in the cooling system and drained it, and found that in the course of hose-clamping and wiring the oil filter, the filter housing had been kinked. Because there are no kinks on a "Speedsmith" bike, Smith attempted to remove the filter. Except the lads had screwed it on so tight, his filter wrench crushed the filter without removing it. So now Smith is overtorqued. In fact, he's made up his mind about Padgett's, and everyone who works there.

(I'll end up spending a good part of the fortnight engaged in a sort of shuttle diplomacy between them. For years, back home, I raced without any support or backing. Now, my support disdains my backing, and vice versa. Anyway, Padgett's never really saw the bike again until it went back into their inventory after the TT. "He drilled everything!" they complained.)

We spend Friday morning staking out my awning in the paddock. Except for a few big transporters up by the grandstand, it already looks like a gypsy camp. The mood is festive; little kids zip around us, laughing, on ratty dirt bikes. We appraise the remaining patches of gravel, guessing which one might have the best drainage. Down here in the lower paddock, guys are backing racebikes down planks. Wives and girlfriends are boiling kettles on camp stoves, and there's a whiff of grilling sausage in the air The word "amateur" can be either an insult, or--less often in this era--a compliment. These guys are amateurs in both senses of the word.

Behind the closed doors of the riders' meeting, risk is not downplayed. Neil Hanson, the clerk of the Course, wraps it up by saying, "There's two ways you can leave the Island. You can be ecstatic, telling everyone who'll listen that the TT is the most fun you've ever had, the greatest race, or you can go home in a box." Then, as a group, the newcomers load into a bus, for one guided lap. There's a moment of pairing off, as French, German, Japanese and Spanish riders find seatmates who can translate the advice we're gonna get from Roger Sutcliffe, an ex-Manx Grand Prix winner, who's now a plumber on the Island.

Through the day the weather deteriorates. The forecast is dire. Nonetheless, at approximately 10:00 p.m., we swing past the race office, and there's a sign taped to the door: Contrary to rumors circulating the paddock, Saturday morning practice is definitely on.

The striped tent
There's fog on the Mountain. With nothing to do but wait, we take shelter in a huge blue-and-white-striped tent, where a couple of older ladies are brewing cauldrons of tea.

Every now and then, the wind sets the canvas to flapping. Steam from the kettles mingles with breath and smoke, and rises to condense against the ceiling. It falls as though it's raining in here, too.

Around 6:30 a.m. there's a crackle from the P.A. system, a musical ping and an announcement: We'll be allowed to go out for a single lap. At great length, the announcer warns of standing water all around the course, leaves and debris on the road under the trees, fog, and severe wind on the Mountain. "Do not," he concludes, "attempt to lap at anything like normal practice speed." There are just a handful of us, pulling tarps off bikes in the parc ferme. Many more are already back in their trailers or hotels, back in bed, pretending they didn't get up at 4:00 a.m.

Until the Dunlop truck arrives this afternoon, the only tires we have are 208s--hardly suited to the conditions. Still, I'm glad to have a chance to review the launch procedure--bikes line up two by two for practice, rolling slowly down Glencrutchery Road until they come to the starter. Here, we stop a few feet apart. The starter puts a hand on each rider's shoulder, usually leaning in to say something like, "Take your time, it takes years to get around here really quickly," then taps us when it's our turn to go.

On principle, I gas the CBR just enough to get the holeshot over my practice partner. I don't get further than Quarterbridge before I have a choppy little slide--a warning. I tell myself to calm down and concentrate on finding the racing line. But in general, I splash around like a geek. I'm off the throttle, and riding on eggshells, 10 feet outside every apex.

(After keeping a really detailed journal of my first months on the Island, I found that once the TT was underway, I stopped being a writer. Nonetheless, I did make some notes that morning. "Not really good for confidence" was how I summed it up. Finally being able to use the whole road gave me a new feel for the racing line, even if I was rarely on it.

I also wrote, "The top of Barregarrow, Rhencullen and Kate's Cottage should be good for me.")

In the paddock, Smith growls at the Padgett's boys to keep them away from the CBR. We all feel relief, more than anything else, that I've returned it in one piece. A sodden, sullen little group heads back to my house for coffee. It feels like lunch time, but it's actually 8:00 a.m.

Over the course of the day, my nephew arrives, to work as Smith's helper. (He's the first of a trickle of hangers-on; at the peak, 12 people and two dogs will share my one bathroom. To ease the strain, I make it a rule that dogs and men pee in the back garden.)

Now that I've officially practiced, I can go to the race office, and pick up a check for my travel expenses. As an overseas competitor, I collect #1600 [approximately $2516]. There's another #300 [$472] to come if I qualify for the races. After a lifetime paying to race in North America, this is worth it's own paragraph.

Typical Island weather:
In the afternoon, the rain stops, and the wind dries the Course. Despite having confirmed the availability of KR364 "intermediates" with Dunlop, we leave the 208s on; after all, they weren't even heat-cycled this morning.

Once again we start two by two, and I get the holeshot. Because it's dry, I accelerate harder down Glencrutchery Road. But as the revs climb in third, past Saint Ninian's church, and again in fourth, past the Total station, the bike develops a nasty headshake. I back off, short-shift into fifth then top, and the CBR settles as I drop down Bray Hill. But my start partner has caught up. We're side by side through the bottom of Bray, and he pushes me wide toward the curb on the exit. It's a little early in the week for this, so I let him go.

It's enough to make you shake your head
I get a few laps in on Saturday afternoon, but the front end waggles enough to shake my confidence. Hodgson has locked up Padgett's and is hovering in the paddock as I pull in. If anything, he seems even more bothered by the instability than I am. "Can't we drop the fork a little?" he suggests. For Smith, "concealed irritation" is an oxymoron. He points out that the problem is a lack of weight on the front, and that dropping the fork will actually transfer weight back.

At one point, Hodgson pleads with me to buy a set of Pirellis or Metzlers (which have 0-degree belt construction, unlike the Dunlops, which are more like pure race tires) just to try them. In the final analysis, it's a moot point: Dunlop is giving me tires.

Over the course of practice and qualifying, we put as much weight as possible on the front wheel. Smith pads the back of the seat, and gets a local machinist to craft a pair of footrest jack-up plates. Clive Padgett, who runs Padgett's race team, arrives on the Island with goodies, too: a more adjustable Oehlins shock, a race muffler and a Power Commander.

Qualified success
You expect bad weather on the Isle of Man, but this is ugly. You qualify for the TT in stages. The first hurdle is putting in three laps by Wednesday. In the striped tent, old hands bemoan the fact that some riders have not even managed to do that. Lots of riders--me amongst them--have so far failed to put up a lap at qualifying speed. One of the race officials, just sharing our table for a social cup of tea, tells us, "If the weather stays bad all week, they'll make concessions (to the qualifying requirements) but," he looks at me over his steaming cup, "it's better to qualify early."

As bad as the weather is, it's too changeable to run GP-style wet tires. Most days, we mount Dunlop KR364 intermediates. This is no place to crash finding the limits of an unfamiliar tire, so instead I'm frustrated, letting people pass me, as I increase my speed in tiny steps.

It's funny the way an image sticks in your mind, and later on, it turns out to be important. Wednesday afternoon, I notice another guy waiting to start practice. He's fit, but even older than me, relaxed and laughing while he paddles along toward the launch point. He's in white leathers with a stylin' red and blue stripe. I find myself wondering if this is a really cool retro look, or just a suit he's been wearing since the 1970s.

Once again we stage on dry pavement, but by the time I launch it's streaming rain. My practice partner passes me on the brakes at Quarterbridge. This is getting old. I concentrate on hitting the apex and get a reasonable drive off the corner, the rear spins up in the wet, but the Honda holds its line, and I have a good run to Braddan church.

At the church, I notice something. The wake of the bike in front of me is still visible in the standing water on the road. He can't be far ahead. Maybe I have an epiphany. I aim for a late apex, wind the throttle on and let the spinning rear tire slide around until I'm pointing down the road. Over the next few miles, riding the CBR as though it was an XR100, I catch and pass several guys; no one passes me.

I catch my next victim at the top of Barregarrow. He's another newcomer--I see by the orange vest. Even in this weather, the run down to the bottom of Barregarrow is top gear. There's a hump where the road crosses a stream, and it kinks left around a building. It's the hump, not the corner, that limits your speed. The apex marker is a cast-iron drainpipe. The first time I came through here, I found it damned intimidating--and that was on a bicycle.

I know I'm going to carry a lot more speed through here than this guy. I plan to pass him on the bumpy straight just afterward. But as I adjust my speed and commit, Mr. Orange Vest panics and brakes extra hard. Leaned over, in the rain, with the bike unsettled by the bridge, there's no way I'm stroking the brake. I literally squeeze through the gap, brushing the drainpipe with my left shoulder, "brushing" him a little harder with the CBR's Micron can. When I look back, I'm relieved to see that he's still on his wheels.

At the tricky 13th milestone, who passes me? Mr. '70s, in the white leathers, and is he smooth. Riding behind this guy, in the rain, is like running around on the stage at the Bolshoi, trying to stay close to Rudolph Nureyev. I lose him after a few bends, but in the next 24 miles no one else gets by.

In the parc ferme, after the session, Mr. '70s is waiting for me. "I knew you were a goer when I saw you hit that guy at the bottom of Barregarrow!" He's laughing. British accent. He pronounces Barregarrow the way the locals do: "B'garrah." My friends Kris and Karolyn Bachelor (the latter a new arrival from San Francisco) sidle in close, wondering what's up. They hear the guy say, "I was just going to follow you; I was thinking 'This bloke's putting on a really good show' but then when I saw you bump that guy, I thought, 'Maybe I'd better get out of here!'" He walks off saying, "You're the best newcomer I've seen here this year!"

I wish Smith had been within earshot. Still, even though it was too slippery to actually put in a qualifying time, we're all pretty pumped that, for once, I'm not right at the bottom of the time sheets.

"It's only a 600! It's only a 600!"
Thursday's midafternoon qualifying session is traditionally the one where riders go for fast times. For the first time all week, the forecast is for clear, dry weather.

So far, I've gotten faster every time out. I've already come close to my first qualifying target, 24 minutes 30 seconds. Even though time is running out, everyone's outwardly confident I'll make the field, at least in 600 Production. In the group, everyone still endorses this "slow and steady" approach. But alone in the garage, Smith makes a point of telling me, "I've looked at the other guys' bikes when they come in, and they're using more of their tires."

Whether it's down to tires, chassis setup or the stock fork simply being overworked, I am losing a lot of speed between Ginger Hall and Ramsey. Three or four miles, under the trees, where roots have rippled the old pavement. That means I need to make up time on the smooth portions of the course. One place I swear I won't back off is cresting the rise at the end of the long Crosby Straight. (I never even noticed there was a crest riding through here on open roads. But things change at 140 mph. The first time I came through flat-out, I thought I was going to loop it.)

Now, as I approach the crest, I push myself--hard--up onto the tank. I jam my Shoei as far forward as I can, between the instruments and the inside of the screen. I relax my grip on the bars. To hold myself on the bike, I squeeze the tank with my knees. Finally, as the crest approaches, I tell myself, over and over, "It's only a 600! It's only a 600!" When I came here, I thought I already knew how to ride motorcycles. I didn't know how to handle those crests (and the one I just described is not as hairy as Ballacrye Leap). I didn't know how to tuck.

How to handle crosswinds.
Or bumps. Oh my freaking god the bumps. Worse than motocross.I put the balls of my feet on the pegs, squeezed my knees together, then flexed my calves to jam my knees under the bulge on top of the CBR fuel tank. Once I'm locked into place like that, I float my butt off the seat, like a jockey. Finally, I rest my left hand on the grip without even closing my fingers, and squeeze the throttle just hard enough to hold it open on the right.

That, and more but I don't want to bore you, is enough to get me qualified for the Production 600 race. Thursday evening, we're in the mood to celebrate. "Maybe I'll just have one beer," I say, an idea that's immediately, vehemently vetoed by my whole team. Friday morning, at scrutineering, I'm breathalyzed. You have to blow 0.00, or you're out. Smith gives me a look that says, "See, you were saved a pummeling." That afternoon, on the last lap of the last session, I qualify for the Junior. With nothing to do until the first race next Wednesday, I do crack a beer. Four of my friends from the Heartland of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts club in Kansas City (I'm sort of an honorary member) have ridden up on battered courier bikes they managed to rent in London. I want to hit the legendary Bushy's beer tent with them, I really do. Maybe tour the Manx bars that, for one week a year, bring in lap dancers. But somehow I don't.

The Junior
My girlfriend arrives, with my sister and her husband, for the race. I have to think about where I want them to sit, a spot where I ride well, but where they'll avoid carnage. I send them to Creg-Ny-Bar, a crowded pub at the bottom of the Mountain. You come down from Kate's Cottage, on the rev-limiter in top, knock it back to third as you reach the grandstand, and then there's a smooth right--a corner you might find on a short circuit, except that there's only an eighth of an inch of runoff on the exit.

My race is anticlimactic. Everyone always says that's ideal for a first TT. After the pit stop, I know that despite my best efforts, I'm running close to last. On the final lap, in survival mode, I ride just fast enough to maintain my concentration. "Do I still qualify for a finisher's medal, if I'm passed by the Traveling Marshals that open the roads after the race?" I wonder. (Don't laugh! It happens.)

Back at the house, we all crowd around, and watch the entire race played back from the on-board camera that Riddihough's rigged to the CBR. "Whoa! What was that?" Riddihough asks, as the picture shakes from side to side while I'm accelerating over the ripples. It's a supportive crowd, but I'm still happy to have some proof of just how hard I'm riding, not to finish right freaking last. Later, we go to the awards ceremony, where I'm called up. The mayor, the governor or somebody, anyway, presents me with a finisher's medal. Nice. Heavy. Everyone at the table takes a turn picking it up, rubbing it, turning it over. Worth the effort.

Production 600
There's a rule about wearing the Newcomer's orange vest. Every rookie wears one throughout practice. Newcomers are granted an extra 90 seconds in qualifying, too. If you require this Newcomer's Allowance to make the field, you have to wear the vest in the race.

Because I lapped faster than this threshold during the Junior race earlier in the week, I'm not obliged to wear the vest for the Production 600 race on Friday. We joke about fitting an "L" plate to the CBR instead.

Friday morning. All anyone will say is, "Get the finish." But I want to lap at over 100 mph. Shit, the fast guys are doing it at close to 120 mph. Because it's a three-lap race, we refuel after the first lap. In theory, this means we risk wasting the stop--in the unlikely event that the race is shortened to two laps. In practice, it gives me a flying lap on the final go-around.

After two weeks, there are finally some long stretches where even the fast guys pass me slowly, if at all. But I'm getting killed in those sweeping bends under the trees.

A note from the Department of Irony: Intellectually, consciously, I know that if I went faster, I'd spend more time at steeper lean angles, where the Dunlops are super-planted and stable. But physically, emotionally, I just can't find the confidence to get there. I'm giving up 20 mph; it's pointless to even hook top gear. Jeez, I should be wearing the vest.

The last lap is pretty emotional. I do what I can over the rough stuff, and try to make time up on the Mountain. I've got to be averaging over 100 mph, but I've thought that before and so far I've always been wrong.

This time, I've sent my family up to the Bungalow, another spot where there's always a good crowd. I've been pushing off the road with my knee, lifting the bars to help the bike get fully upright before accelerating over the railroad tracks. (When Freddie Spencer showed me this bar-lifting move, it was subtle. In practice, I make it look like a rodeo event.) You've got to carry speed under the pedestrian bridge, because there's a dead-straight, wide-open, mile-long climb ahead.

On this final pass, I run wide. Thanks to luck, or the fairies, I just made my only TT mistake at the one point where there's actually a bit of paved runoff. (My girlfriend didn't even notice anything wrong. But it felt like I was climbing Hailwood Rise on a tractor. Later, when I realized that lap had been done at an average of 99.83 mph, I realized that my mistake had, probably, cost me my 100-mph lap.)

Nonetheless, I have my best-ever run down through Signpost. There are people sitting along the top of the berm there, on the exit. They lean out over the road, applauding, giving me the thumb's up sign, toasting me with cans of lager, glad to see the last riders safely home.

I pull into the slip road and ride back up the pit lane, into parc ferme. Threading my way through the crowd, just about exactly as I'd imagined it. There's no buying your own Guinness when you're a real TT rider.

Conclusion
After the race, everyone packed up and left. I was alone again, wondering what I'd do when the lease--and my money--ran out in about a month. When every room had been filled with people trying to sleep, I'd gotten into the habit of sitting on the stairs to check my e-mail. There was a big sunny window there, making it the warmest spot in the house. So I kept the habit of sitting there to write, even though, once again, I had my choice of empty rooms, tables and chairs.

One morning--there I was--with my computer on my lap, a coffee beside me on the carpet. Suddenly, in the middle of typing some altogether unrelated thought, I had a vivid sense of being out on the Course.

I was at Greeba Bridge. You get to the bridge after the beautiful, flowing section past the castle. You throttle back a little at the kennels, but then it's wide open through Greeba Village; the road wiggles, but it's easy to see a straight approach to the bridge, which is in the middle of a sweeping left turn. This is one of the widest, smoothest parts of the TT Course. I never noticed it on open roads, but there's a slight hump, right on the apex of the turn. For two weeks, I'd been taking it in fourth, cautiously increasing my speed each lap. But every lap, I found myself with too much road on the exit. "Too slow!" I thought, time after time.

Anyway, sitting right there on the stairs, I felt myself braking later and less, downshifting only once, instead of twice. I saw the paint mark on the bridge wall that I used as my turn-in point. I felt my left knee on the pavement, gauging a steeper lean angle and--this is the important part--I felt the bike lift over the hump in the bridge and drift wide. But I held the throttle steady. Because suddenly I knew that the road, right there, was smooth enough and wide enough that the bike would settle, the tires would grip, and I'd get through. I knew I could carry an extra 10 or 15 mph into the next acceleration zone, which is at least 1000 yards long. There were seconds to be saved there. There, again, was my 100-mph lap.

But there I was on the stairs, not on the bike where I could do anything about it.

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