Taking it to the Manx

Touring the Isle of Man is a top-gear trip

For any motorhead, the Isle of Man is hallowed ground, but if you happen to be a motorcycle enthusiast, blasting around this tiny spit of land in the middle of the Irish Sea is a dream come true. A lonely place much of the year, the little island becomes a circus of fast bikes, smoky burnouts and drunken debauchery each June. The nearly 100-year-old Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) races unfold over a two-week period, attracting zealous fans from every corner of the world.

The circuit measures 37.73 miles and winds through villages and mountains, with more than 200 turns. For many enthusiasts, courses like this one are closer to the true spirit of roadracing than race-specific venues. To say that they're more dangerous would be an understatement; the day I arrived, perennial TT front-runner David Jefferies was killed in a horrible accident--the 109th fatality in TT history. The course is closed to the public during all races, but open for a friendly sprint between events.

A chance to ride the world-famous TT circuit is impossible to pass up, and each day, when the races end, it becomes the most popular road in England. Bill Roughton, gregarious owner of Bike Tours UK, a motorcycle tour company whose services I'd relied upon to get here, takes me around for the first time--me aboard a new Triumph Speedmaster and Roughton on a Japanese rocket. As we speed off Bill shouts in his lilting Yorkshire accent, "Watch it--there are nutters out there." Before I can catch my breath we're "breaking the ton." The speedo on my Triumph reads 120 mph and I struggle to keep up with Roughton's slippery Honda. I didn't know the Triumph cruiser could go this fast.

The hooligan in me is set afire at these triple-digit speeds, yet many vehicles pass me like I'm standing still. With no speed limits, Manx drivers run flat-out as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I take to checking my mirrors every five seconds. On the A3 out of Glen Helen, Roughton leads me through the idyllic countryside at a wicked pace. My butt feels the burn, though, and the Triumph's short-travel suspension voices complaints about the rough tarmac. I'd read in some brochure that the island has excellent roads, but I'm starting to think this may be true only at walking speeds. Around a few more bends, the tree-lined roadway dumps us through crushingly narrow Kirk Michael village, where locals' front doors literally open out onto the street. Thirty-mph restrictions are the rule in towns like this, and it's harshly enforced with dastardly speed cameras. Reluctantly, we ease off the throttles.

The slow sprint through Kirk Michael leads to Ballaugh Bridge--the shrine at which TT enthusiasts worship. New York has its Brooklyn Bridge and San Francisco has the Golden Gate, but when it comes to motorcycle racing, Ballaugh outshines them all. Originally built to cross the village ford, its severely humped crown immediately established itself as one of the racing circuit's major hazards. I inadvertently confirm this when I hit the hump at speed and feel the heavy front end of the Speedmaster go airborne.

Shaking off an ungraceful landing, we accelerate out of the village into lush countryside. I strain to focus on the green meadows, but the Triumph's gearbox demands constant attention, and I decide the sights are best absorbed peripherally. Rushing along the roadway with its fast turns and short straights, it occurs to me that this would be one of the greatest riding roads on the planet even if it weren't famous. But that thought dissolves into my helmet's wind noise on wicked Sulby Straight as would-be racers blow past my mirrors, reminding me to keep to the left. Before I can form the words, "I'm thirsty," we're halfway to Ramsey.

The Isle's second-largest town is dusty and down on its luck, but it's not without charm. Ramsey's one of the few places on the island without any real antiquity, though the harbor sports a handsome old iron swing bridge and a couple of famous pubs. We're feeling a bit peckish, though, so we duck into the Royal George Hotel near the harbor and order up the cheesiest lasagna I've ever eaten.

Outside Ramsey the road begins its climb up May Hill to the Mountain section of the TT course. The rolling hills become more pronounced, and as we gain altitude near Snaefell (the island's only true mountain and highest point at 2036 feet), I feel the wind through my jacket. Thanks to fog, visibility is down to 20 feet. I shudder and curse myself for forgetting my electric vest. The good news is we've started our descent, and a sharp sweep past Creg-ny- Baa puts us on the home stretch. I make out the warm lights of Douglas, where I'm staying during the week, and heave a sigh of relief.

The hub of island activity--and home to half its population--is this main burg, rooted on a crescent-shaped harbor facing the southeast coast. Although it looks like a handsome 19th-century English town on the surface, closer inspection reveals a jumbled mix of fading Victorian architecture over a peeling waterfront promenade. The southern edge of the prom morphs into a lively pedestrian area in the older part of town, crowded with eateries, retail shops and pubs.

My home base on the Isle is the Bushmills Bed & Breakfast in Douglas, a guesthouse good for a hot shower and a warm bed. A converted Victorian sitting just four blocks from the hubbub of the promenade, the townhouse is run by an incredibly friendly Irish couple, Geraldine and Liam O'Neill. As hosts, they are a prize package--full of information and always at the ready with a pot of coffee. Liam, a veritable encyclopedia of Isle history and cultural lore, informs me that the island's turbulent past was formed by the Celts and Vikings, and most recently colored by English influence. Still, the Isle remains a unique, self-governing kingdom--technically a Crown dependency that doesn't belong to the United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the Isle can seem quirky and isolated, and I'm amazed that this gorgeous slip of land in the Irish Sea isn't on every location scout's shot list. Its beauty is indisputable--the 33-by-13-mile area contains more than 10,000 years of history, as well as unspoiled countryside and pristine beaches. A sense of the past is palpable; go down one road and you'll stumble across ancient standing stones; turn a corner and you'll run into an 11th-century castle. Half the fun becomes finding treasures on the map and figuring out how to get to them.

I'd made a long list of sites to visit, so I strike out on my own one morning along the A2, taking in the roller-coaster shoreline. Thirty minutes from Douglas I spot The Great Wheel of Laxey--a photogenic wood-and-stone Victorian structure built to pump water from local mines. It remains the largest working wooden water wheel in the world, and I can't resist taking a couple of snapshots.

North of Laxey, I head to the historic village of Maughold under heavy gray skies. The town's 11th-century graveyard is packed with eroded headstones and a stunning collection of Celtic and Norse stone crosses bearing ancient inscriptions--it's like an open-air museum. As the clouds begin to disintegrate, a line of stately cliffs appears on the eastern horizon. I sit down next to a headstone and take a few moments to drink in all the rich antiquity.

Pretty soon I'm back on the road and passing through Parliament Square en route to Peel. The narrow, winding lanes of this medieval village are atmospheric and welcoming, but the real attraction is the magnificent 11th-century Peel Castle overlooking the harbor atop St. Patrick's Isle. This settlement has always lived off the sea, and your nose tells you they still salt and smoke herrings here, transforming them into famous Manx kippers. They've been a tradition on the Isle of Man since the 1800s, but kippers are a taste I've yet to acquire, so I duck in for a proper burger and chips at the Peveril Public House instead.

Glen Maye is arguably the most beautiful part of this area, and it's just south of Peel, so that's where I head after lunch. I'm aching to experience a real glen, and this one is supposed to be a gem. I park by the picturesque Waterfall Hotel, push through a thick stand of trees and emerge into another world. My jaw drops as the shadowy scene bursts with a riot of moist greenery and mossy, rock-lined pools dripping as far as the eye can see. A spectacular waterfall cascades beneath a slim wooden bridge and I half expect to spot a leprechaun scrambling through the brush. The pulse-pounding pace of the TT course seems a universe away from this idyllic spot.

The southernmost tip of the Isle contains its oldest village, Cregneash--an entire agricultural crofting settlement preserved as a museum. Down the hill is the Sound, where the sea runs between the Isle of Man and its accompanying uninhabited islet, the Calf of Man. The wind whips fiercely here, so I grab a cup of hot coffee. As I stand sipping, lost in the view, a local remarks, "'s lovely, ihn it? People're happy to live here and wait fer God."

Although my warm, friendly bed and breakfast is nice, locals let me know the real action is at the campgrounds near the circuit, so I join up with Roughton at Glenlough, a European-style camp with showers, toilets and a small cafe for my last night on the Isle. It is indeed the perfect place to feel the camaraderie of the TT. The field is packed with riders, and clusters of bikes are scattered everywhere. All makes, models, years and countries of origin.

The shriek of kettles and the hubbub from groups of leather-clad campers huddled around portable stoves are reassuring sounds in the morning, too, no matter how pounding your hangover is. Eggs and bacon are stuffed into rolls for a simple breakfast, and it's somehow divine. After clearing the crumbs, we take quick advantage of the clear morning, since we know a thick layer of fog will invariably roll in by afternoon and chill the air.

Our motley group ducks past the Union Mills churchyard (where little old ladies serve tea and sandwiches to race spectators) on a shady lane into the island's interior. We're heading to the other coast to watch the sidecar portion of the race from a fresh vantage. Picking our way through a fantastical network of narrow lanes and horse trails, we find ourselves slowed by a series of metal gates built to contain grazing farm animals. The etiquette is to open the gate, ride through, and close it after the last bike is in. Passing through a gate, I suddenly find myself in a sea of gnarled wool--a skittish flock of sheep has panicked and is blindly surging around me. It's a surreal mob scene, and I throttle away with tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.

The island's interior is an orgy of colorful fields, but with few signposts. Without a detailed map, we'd be lost. Luckily, one of the group members is in possession of an Isle of Man Ordnance Survey (OS) map--this intricate piece of paperwork precisely indicates each motorway, secondary road, footpath and cow pie to be found over the expanse of these rolling hills.

We find our way to Ballaugh Bridge just in time to see the first sidecar go flying over the humpbacked crossing. After viewing a few spectacular leaps, I stroll over to the nearby Raven Country Inn for lemonade. The 18th-century pub is all original, with a low-beamed ceiling and a wealth of artwork on the walls. Some of these are cheesy landscape paintings, but the bulk of the frames feature photos of motorcycle racers: TT greats and unknowns, amateurs from the Manx Grand Prix and riders who have stopped by for a bite. It's a living, breathing blast from the past.

All Good Things
A bleary 4:30 a.m. ride down to the car ferry marks the end of my adventure. I climb up to the deck, stepping over sleeping bodies curled up on the floor, leathers and helmets strewn everywhere. The boat ride is four hours to the mainland, and there's nothing to do but nap. The massive Steam Packet ferry docks in Heysham and all the bikers crowd downstairs to retrieve their bikes. The cargo hold is a zoo, stacked with machines and stinking of gas. Finally, I ride down the steel gangplank into a rare, warm, sunny day in England, already searching for a way to experience the Isle of Man all over again next year. There are simply too many limits in the outside world.

Tour: 11-Day Isle of Man TT Tour
Location: Birmingham to Isle of Man, U.K.
Tour Company: Bike Tours UK
Contact Info: 00.44.0115.846.2993, www.biketours-uk.com
Cost: $1300--$1570
Tour Includes:Bike rental, ferry tickets, accommodations, support van
Time Required: 12-13 days
Riding Season: April-October, but the 2004 TT Tour is in June (and may be sold out)
Avg. Mileage: 100-200 miles per day
Gear & Goodies: Rain gear, fleece liner, warm gloves, waterproof boots, Ordnance Survey map
Other Activities: Hiking, boat tours, narrow-gauge trains
Roads: 5 stars
Scenery: 4 stars
Eats: 3 stars
Digs : 3 stars
Bikes : 3 stars

How To: Isle of Man
The beauty of the Isle of Man is that there's no language barrier, so you can peel off from the pack with the confidence of knowing you'll be able to decipher signs and maps on your own. The hospitable Manx will gladly help you navigate the pathways crisscrossing the Isle.

Ninety percent of the Bike Tours UK itinerary encompasses secondary and back roads, most of which are well-paved. Tour groups are generally made up of 6-12 people, so leaders will set the pace accordingly (though this tour is not for absolute beginners).

Give yourself a day to adjust to the whole left-hand side of the road thing--don't rely on old riding habits. City traffic can be vigorous at rush hour (especially at roundabouts), but most drivers are quite civilized--it's testosterone-crazed bikers during TT week that'll create the occasional hairball moment. Roads in the island's interior tend to be very narrow and generally reserved for farmers and their flocks, so keep an eye out for free-grazing ewes.

Shoulders are frequently nonexistent; focus so as not to run wide on turns. And even though there are no speed limits on portions of the Isle, many towns have installed controversial, Big Brother-ish speed cameras. Don't get heavy-handed in the villages.

You'll get basic maps from Bike Tours UK, but familiarize yourself with the locations of main towns on the Isle before you set out; road signs indicate the way to the next town, not in which direction it lies.

If you're going off the beaten path alone, you'll need to buy an Isle of Man Ordnance Survey map--primary roads are easy to navigate, but you'll be lost without a detailed chart if you wander the interior. These smaller paths are trickier to negotiate, but worth the extra effort.

Bike Tours UK trips offer quite a bit of flexibility; you can bring along a passenger, and you might want to do so for the TT--accommodations, parking and ferry space are tight, even for bikes. It'll save you a substantial amount of money, and if your passenger doesn't mind alot of seat time and is comfortable with your skills, she'll have a great time. Bike Tours UK has a small fleet of bikes available for hire, including Yamaha FJ1200s and Suzuki Bandit 600s, or they can make arrangements for you.

Tourist Visa & Passport
You'll need a valid passport, but if you're staying less than six months, visas aren't required for travel to the Isle.

Funny, the English spoken on the Isle is surprisingly similar to that of our American vernacular (though the "old" language, Manx Gaelic, is not). I was able to communicate with Manx natives quite easily, though some of the brogues were so thick as to be undecipherable.

The exchange rate was brutal for Yanks in May 2003--1.65 U.S. dollars to the Isle of Man pound--and it only got worse at press time (1.847 USD to 1 IMP). Carry cash and credit cards--many small establishments on the Isle don't accept credit, but you'll still find plenty of ATM machines in larger towns. Be sure to get rid of all your Manx money before returning to the mainland--it's pretty much worthless anywhere but the Isle. Luckily, the races are free.

Bike Tours UK is a fine way to get a taste of the TT Festival (and a bit of England, too) without feeling too much like a tourist. Allow for a bit of flexibility, bring bike locks (the black market is thriving) and you'll have an absolute blast.

Racing's the thing at the Isle of Man. Racers negotiating the narrow course regularly hit triple-digit speeds while hurtling within feet of die-hard onlookers who come from around the world to gawk.
Of course, things move more slowly in the Isle's interior.
Parking and accommodations are a pain during TTweek.
Save yourself some time (and cash) by checking out one of the four campgrounds on the Isle--we had a memorable TTexperience at the Glenlough campground near Union Mills.
Be sure to visit the Church of Maughold too, built on the site of a seventh-century monastery, even if you don't seek sanctuary there....
Megalithic burial sites like Cashtal Yn Ard compete with the lowbrow theatrics of the Purple Helmets drill team for your attention.