Racing to Retreat: An Island’s Extremes

By Susan Carpenter
Los Angeles Times

ISLE OF MAN ~ If I had been able to sleep on the 10-hour overnight flight, it might have been a good plan. But I didn’t, which left me riding a motorcycle on the wrong side of the road in the rain while jet-lagged with no idea where I was going.

My destination was the Isle of Man, a tiny island in the middle of the Irish Sea off the northwest coast of England. It’s best known for two things: its status as a tax haven and a 102-year-old motorcycle race called the TT, which is run on real roads by unsung racers who whiz, at speeds approaching 200 mph, within inches of stone walls and spectators.

I planned to catch the tail end of the legendary TT, then enjoy the island in its natural state – that is, not overrun by motorcycles. I just had to get here, which meant flying to London, renting a motorcycle, biking 250 miles across England and taking a 3 1/2-hour ferry ride to the port town of Douglas.

It was quite the slog but worth it.

The Isle of Man, a British crown possession, is a mythological place, especially for motorcyclists, who revere its embrace of man’s need for speed and the talented risk-takers who live for it. Nowhere else does the government shut down 37.73 miles of its roads for two weeks to host a gruelling race that probably will result in death; 224 racers have died on the course – including one while I was here – yet the race endures.

Its fans swarm the island every year in late May and early June, loading their sport bikes like pack mules to sprint around the island imitating their idols. When I arrived in Douglas in June, the island was in full TT swing. Cars were in the minority. The streets were a cacophony of up- and down-shifting motorcycles.

The parking spaces along the seaside promenade were jammed handlebar to handlebar with candy-coloured race-bike replicas, and the sidewalks were shoulder to shoulder with bikers, who hadn’t bothered to change out of their full leathers and race boots as they strolled the cobblestones while eating ice cream – one of the specialties on this largely agricultural island.

I felt among my tribe. But I was also exhausted. I squeezed my Honda ST1300 into one of the few remaining vacant parking spaces and checked in to the Admiral House, the first in a long line of inns along the city’s main drag. This being the TT fortnight, I paid about US$350 a night instead of the usual $175. Still, I felt grateful, having booked my trip eight weeks earlier. The best accommodations start to sell out 10 months before the TT.

My third-floor suite was smack in the centre of the action. Looking out of my alcove window, I had a bird’s-eye view into the beer tent that was serving Bushy’s Piston Brew and Manx Bitter – the island’s local ales – and shots of a paint-thinner-esque whiskey called ManX Spirit, the only locally distilled alcohol.

Manx is the name for the 81,000 people who inhabit this island nation. About half of the people who live here are from the Isle of Man; the rest are so-called “comeovers” from nearby England, Scotland and Ireland who, I was told, came here because it is safer than their native countries. Few people lock their house or car doors.

Rolling down to the Bushy’s tent after a short nap, I met a nonbiker from Scotland who lived on the island and worked in banking, the island’s main industry. The second person I met was from Ireland.

Both conversations were cut short by the Red Arrows, a stunt show by the Royal Air Force Display Team, a pair of bi-wing planes topped with scantily clad women doing quasi-calisthenics over Douglas Bay.

Such displays aren’t the usual Wednesday night fare in Douglas, the island’s capital, business centre and only real city. It was part of the TT-week entertainment, along with performances by the band Whitesnake and Celtic-flavoured cover acts such as the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.

The entertainment pickings were less than slim, so I chose to stroll. At 8 on a weeknight any other time of year, all of the shops would be closed, but not during the TT. Walking along the Loch Promenade, I stopped for a “whippy with a flake” – a towering, extra-creamy, vanilla soft serve ice cream with a candy bar shoved in its side – at Davison’s Manx Dairy Ice Cream Parlor, then wandered the island’s main shopping district, where many of the windows of cellphone shops, clothing boutiques, beauty salons and art galleries displayed motorcycles along with their usual merchandise.

In celebration of the TT, Sayle Gallery had an Ace Cafe mods and rockers exhibit as well as pieces from a local named Adam Berry. I bought three of his Summer of Love meets Isle of Man prints, which blend speeding motorcycles with come-hither vixens and TT racecourse checkpoints, such as Black Dub, Ramsey Hairpin and Glen Duff.

To non-race fans, these names are charmingly Celtic although meaningless, but to the thousands of people who come to the TT each year, they’re the places where high-flying racers test their mettle – and their bikes’ suspensions – speeding through tight switchbacks and catching air.

I rented a bike for this trip to experience the course up close, although at distinctly lower speeds. I started my trip in Douglas because it’s home to the course starting gate, which was a mile from my hotel and, unnervingly, next to the town cemetery.

For an island that embraces motorcycling, it’s odd that motorcycles are not rented on the isle itself. Neither of the two motorcycle shops rents bikes because of high insurance rates. A bike isn’t necessary, of course. The island has excellent public transportation, both bus and rail, or you can rent a car or a bicycle. But I wanted to experience the island on a motorcycle.

I was on the island for the last few days of the races, which I viewed from the grandstand, just above the pits where the racers were speeding ear-shatteringly and so blindingly fast I couldn’t tell who was whom without the benefit of the announcer. There weren’t any big screens to show what was happening in real time, just Manx Radio, which was giving the play by play. To see the race, I had to watch the televised recap each night.

The races were over by the time I wheeled my bike around the island course. I didn’t know where I was going, but the course is marked with enormous orange signs and arrows. Many hay bales and foam pads cushion potentially deadly roadside obstacles, such as lamp posts, stone fences and trees. Even if the course hadn’t been marked, I would’ve been able to find my way. I just had to follow the steady stream of Ducatis, Gixxers and Ninjas.

It took me about an hour to ride the course during the day, when there’s street traffic. The racers do the same thing in about 20 minutes. But at my pace, I could experience the scenery that makes this island special.

Clusters of charming stone cottages in Douglas gave way to fields of grazing sheep and cows in nearby Kirk Michael, then sweeping coastal vistas and twisty, mountainous chaparral coming out of Ramsey.

It was such a gorgeous ride that I decided to ride it again – and again, which isn’t hard to do. The island is just 32 miles long and 12 miles wide, or just a little smaller than Los Angeles proper but without the traffic, so getting around is quick. After three round trips of the “track” at gradually increasing speeds, I had had my fill.

My next stop was the Fairy Bridge just outside of Douglas. According to island lore, people who pass over the bridge must say hello to the fairies unless they want bad luck. I wanted to see if the locals actually did that, so I hopped on a London-style double-decker headed for Castletown. I also planned to check out the well-preserved medieval-era Castle Rushen, from which the town gets its name, and go to the local pub.

About halfway through the 20-minute ride, the bus riders waved and called out, “Hello, fairies!” as we passed over the short bridge and under a lush canopy of trees.

One of them was Gina. We chatted about her work as a banker, the fact that she had moved to the island from England because she felt it was safer for her kids, and my plans for the rest of my stay. When I told her I would be heading around the island clockwise by bike but didn’t have accommodations outside Douglas, she called a friend about a homestay.

The next night, I was sleeping in her friend’s house in Port Erin, a sleepy coastal village in the southeast corner of the island with a stunning beach and kayak rentals. Homestays are one of the most common accommodations on the Isle of Man and offer an up-close view of island life. Sanctioned homestays cost about $40 a night, a relief given the exchange rate.

The Isle of Man is not part of the European Union. It is a self-governing crown dependency affiliated with Britain only for its defence and international trade representation. So its currency is in pounds.

Not that there’s much to buy, other than motorcycle paraphernalia and trinkets paying tribute to the Manx cats (cats without tails).  There is, however, quite a bit to do to experience the history.

The Norse occupied the isle in the seventh century, but its culture also was influenced by the Irish, Scottish and English, all of whom occupied the island for centuries at a time. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the island became autonomous, but its history of occupation by other peoples and its landscape-inspired trade is evident across the island.

My favourite place on the island was probably the Great Laxey Wheel in Laxey, said to be the largest working water wheel in the world, with a circumference of about 228 feet and once used to pump water from the island’s lead and zinc mines. It’s spectacular to see this giant red structure rising from the lush landscape.

And it was calm. It was three days since the races had ended, and the island felt like a different place. There was almost no traffic when I decided to circle the course one last time, encountering mostly trucks picking up the hay bales.

Arriving in Douglas for my last night before ferrying back to England, even this, the most cosmopolitan city on the island, felt dead. At 6pm, parking was easy to find, and everything but the pubs was closed, which made the Isle of Man seem very much like an island.

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