I walked down the stone path towards the arriving taxi. He looked tired. After missing a flight, J had rebooked his entire trip from Vancouver to the Isle of Man. I, on the other hand, had arrived on schedule, more than twenty-four hours earlier. As I led him back towards the hotel lobby, a group at the bar waved and shouted, ‘Pam from Canada!’ J looked at me, confused. In the day he’d lost, I’d become an international sensation.
A year earlier, we’d begun planning for a trip that would take us to the Isle of Man for the globe’s greatest motorcycle road race, the TT. It’s more than a hundred years old and draws those who want to test themselves against a 37.73 mile course – all on public roads with a mountain thrown in for good measure. Everyone else comes for the atmosphere.
We’d used air miles for one ticket, but couldn’t get a second paid seat on the same flight. I’d left first, headed for London. J should have been several hours behind, catching me at Gatwick. But he’d missed it and I’d travelled the rest of the way alone. The other passengers had eyed me suspiciously. One even leaned over and asked if I was on the right plane. There was good reason. I was surrounded by burly, tattoo’d, motorcycle riding brits, and I was the only woman.
When I finally arrived in Douglas, I was relieved to see a man holding a card that read Saunders. I’d been trying to figure out what I would do in this moment, standing in an airport without the name or address of the hotel we’d booked. When he missed his flight, J had called ahead and ordered the cab.
I collapsed into the backseat and closed my eyes. I was already thinking about a good cup of tea as I pulled my suitcase through the glass doors of the hotel – and spotted a familiar face. It was the guy from the plane beckoning me over to the table he shared with four friends. They had to know my story. So, I traded it for a drink.
That first day in Douglas was an assault. On my senses and my expectations. The streets were lined with motorbikes. It was the world’s biggest show and shine. Every model, colour, combination of graphics you could imagine. Norton’s, Triumph’s, Harley’s. I’d planned to grab something caffienated and wander the rows. But my North American proclivity for rushing was quickly knocked down by the lady behind the counter.
“We don’t do that here. You’re going to sit down for a proper cuppa.”
I spent the next hour (and a bit) sipping tea and eating scones with clotted cream while she entertained me with tales of TT’s past. I think it was her way of keeping me still for as long as she could. It was good. Back on the street, I navigated the town, talking to people and taking pictures. And then I saw them again. The boys from the bar, crossing the street. I smiled and tipped my head forward.
I told J the whole story as we walked through the hotel. He laughed, but it was short lived because that wasn’t the only thing I’d been waiting to tell him. We had a problem. This was originally going to be a father and son trip. J and his dad. I’d decided to come along and add another couple weeks so that we could see Scotland, York and London. There were actually three of us walking down the hall in that moment towards the room he’d reserved. It had two single beds, and a cot. That was how J had booked it. But in the UK, cots aren’t camping accessories. They’re cribs.
There were no more rooms, in this hotel or any other on the island. We had to push the beds together and make the best of it. Let that sink in. Seven nights, sharing a bed, with your father-in-law. Think undershirts and earplugs. It’s the stuff of afternoon therapy appointments. I shrugged my shoulders. What are you going to do? Besides, it was time to take in the action.
The TT races run every other day. Junior, senior, lightweight, even sidecar. In-between, we explored. There was the motor museum, Snaefell mountain railway, Laxey Wheel and Purple Helmet stunt show. We searched out the best vantage points and caught the action from carved grass grandstands. It was mesmerizing. Bikes whizzing by. Almost too fast to see.
Racers die every year. Visitors too. More than 250 in it’s history. It’s considered the most dangerous motorsport event in the world. And yet, I dug it. For eight days, the entire island is transformed. In 2018, more than 44,000 people travelled here for the TT, accounting for a temporary 50% increase to the population. Most come from the British Isles, and about a fifth bring their own bikes.
When it began in 1907, the TT was the solution to a lack of British-built champions in the sport. They needed a home race to improve their standings and the Isle offered an unusual advantage. UK laws around speed and street closure did not apply.
In the decades since, the race has been regularly referenced to as the world’s most dangerous. The streets are raw, with only a few bales of straw separating a rider from stone walls and sprawling pastures. Alongside, there’s everything you’d expect on your daily drive – bus stops, telephone polls, even the odd pub. At the Ramsey Hairpin, riders must slow from more than 195 mph on uneven pavement to walking speed, before heading straight up the mountain. The smallest mistake could be fatal.
It’s intoxicating. A cultural phenomenon. And being there was the ‘once in a lifetime experience’ every traveller chases. I’d arrived knowing nothing of the sport and found myself instantly caught up in the carves, counter-steers and catwalks. Years spent listening to my father-in-law talk about ‘motorcycle Tuesday’ manifested as flesh and blood men, driving their knees into the pavement at each corner.
The Saunders men are measured. They can seem aloof, slow to smile. Standoffish. Speed changes everything. It lights them from the inside. Rally cars, mountain bikes, ATV’s, snowmobiles, there’s a need. Flat out, hair on fire. Surrounded by spectators, leaning in to the sound of roaring engines and the smell of 2-stroke, they became boys.
We spent each day immersed in this world. Real life fell away. There was only the race. I expected to be on the outside, trying to translate, but they pulled me in, made me a fan. I even bought a shirt. Crawling into bed every night, I kind of hoped it could last forever. But then…I’d hear a snore from the opposite side. I make the hotel reservations these days.
Photo by Dane Deaner