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.