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
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
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
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
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
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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