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In memoriam - Isle of Man TT Fast Boys


WHERE THE FAST BOYS ARE


On the Isle of Man, it's motorcycle racing season again. It's a time when the local population of 70,000 seems to almost double, when speed and leather are king and, in a bad year, when the florists are flat out keeping pace with orders. Sometimes as early as the very first practise laps, flowers magically appear on the roadsides at spots where competitors or fans have lost their lives, and while some tributes are as fresh as the north wind that swoops down unexpectedly from Iceland, others are reminders of tragedies that happened years or even decades earlier.

By the end of racing fortnight, when crowds flock to the ferry terminal and island life returns to its usual unhurried pace, stone walls and windswept verges are dotted with elaborate, slowly desiccating bouquets.

All year round, along the series of roads that form the thirty-seven-and-a-quarter mile race track, tiny flags wedged into the cracks of dry stone walls remind passers-by of the multinational nature of these speed-related deaths. There are a few brass plaques, too, and, on a deceptively tranquil stretch of the mountain road, a lone wooden cross leans into thin air against the sombre backdrop of the Manx sky.

Some years ago, I was persuaded by friends to attend a motorcycle racing club dinner held at one of the faded Victorian hotels that line the sweeping two-mile curve of the promenade. The function room looked out across sunken ornamental gardens, and the horse tram track, towards the Tower of Refuge, a nineteenth century castle-like structure built in Douglas Harbour to flag the presence of a dangerous reef and to provide shelter for the crews of ships that foundered there. Loops of fairy lights sparkled along the bay as speeches were made and trophies presented.

The year had been a particularly difficult one for racing, and many of the prizes that night were collected by widows. One by one, juggling stiff bunches of flowers, and assorted silver-plated trophies, they told, in broken voices, how their husbands and partners had died doing what they loved best; it was a theme I heard repeated many times over the years. In the audience that night, muffled sobs, clenched jaws, hands urgently reaching for bottles of wine and beer; when the presentations were over, a heavy metal band ground into action and everyone got up to dance.

The remainder of the evening passed in extended bursts of numbingly loud music which included, by special request, Smoke On The Water, and in frantic dancing fuelled by outrageous quantities of drink. While part of me was horrified, some inner spirit of anarchy insisted on a grudging respect for the widows who were out there on the dance floor getting down, getting on, showing the world that they were equal to their men who had lived hard and died young. Even so, it must have been tough for them, and for their children.

I imagine that hysteria carries bereaved families through that first strike of grief. Many will still be high on waves of motorcycle fuel and applause when the news reaches them, for often those who die are winning, or just about to, having pushed the envelope a couple of revs too far. Initially, drama bounces the bereaved shoulder-high, it props them up. But later, as life returns to non-race normality, as Christmas approaches, the bleakness of their loss, its pointlessness and waste, must kick in all the harder for mothers, fathers, wives and children left behind.

After living on the Isle of Man for almost two decades I have only just heard a whisper, and then by accident, of the existence of a bikers' memorial garden. On a lump of rock eight miles wide and twenty-two miles long you'd think it would be hard to miss, but I have never seen a signpost and suspect it is one more instance of a veil being drawn over a part of local life that islanders would prefer not to think about.

Motorcycle racing is so deeply embedded in Manx culture that people tend not to dwell on the bad stuff, so bike-related deaths aren't much talked about, and there is always a sense of sleight-of-hand about official statistics. Even the road signs erected in recent years, which urge caution on the mountain leg of the circuit, only invoke casualty figures, wilfully ignoring the high number of fatalities - between 1907 and 2007 there were 224 race deaths, all of them during official practices, or races on the Snaefell mountain course.

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, simply called the TT, usually falls during the last week of May and the first week of June. In 2007, the centenary of the event drew record crowds of around 60,000, and on the final day a rider and two spectators were killed near the 26th milestone on the mountain course. Some years there have been as many as nine or ten fatalities, as well as serious injuries and countless casualties. The local hospital prepares by purging orthopaedic clinics of elderly hip and knee patients, as extra medical staff are flown in to stand by for the inevitable carnage. But even in this public hospital it is almost impossible to pin down racing-related death and injury figures.

Then, in late summer, the Manx Grand Prix is held, and in the south of the island, on a series of viciously narrow and winding roads bound by dry stone walls, the Southen 100 leaves riders no room for even the smallest wobble.

If the locals will not be drawn on the annual number of fatalities, admiration for the riders who compete is palpable; an element of heroism attaches to their deaths. The 2007 centenary came and went amid predictions that, after this landmark year, the Isle of Man would call it a day, but there has been no such sign. On the contrary, council workers have been busy working on the track as usual, smoothing out bumps and curves to make it even faster.

Motorcycles are built with such capacity for speed that there is virtually nowhere in the world where it is legal to ride them, so the Isle of Man, with its stubborn refusal to impose an all island speed limit, is one of the last free places where riders can push their skill and their machines to the limit.

Standing at a spot where riders have lost their lives there is no sense of them, in spite of the plaques and floral tributes. It all happens too quickly, here one minute and gone the next, for whatever else fast boys might do, they don't hang about.

The older I get, the more precious life becomes; where once I might have cheered from the sidelines, I now find myself fretting over the lack of an all Island speed limit, tutt-tutting over the antics of fans, and the senseless deaths of riders. But it is not the racing fatalities I mourn, after all, the professionals are all volunteers, rather it is their sons and younger brothers who are left with so much to live up to, so much to prove. Inevitably, they will try their luck. It's the kind of pressure that can wipe out whole families.

It's hard to understand why you were taken so soon, is written on a card attached to a wilting bouquet at Ballaugh Bridge. But the rider in question was hurtling along a winding road between dry stone walls at something approaching 150 mph. What's to understand? At such speeds, and in such conditions, the only surprise is that anyone ever completes a lap of the course without coming to grief.

Joey Dunlop, known as King of the Mountain having won more races than anyone else, died elsewhere, although he was mourned on the Island as if he had died there on the track where he had so often been victorious. His brother, Robert, was killed while racing in Ireland. Other top riders no longer come to the Isle of Man TT, rightly judging it the deadliest road race in the world. But there will always be a queue of hopefuls, riders for whom swagger and demeanour and the thrill of reaching death-defying speeds are everything, riders who believe with every fibre of their being that winning the Isle of Man TT is a goal worth risking the rest of their lives for.

So, no need to ask where the fast boys are; it's flaming June, and they'll be here as usual - I wish them all a safe journey over the mountain.
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