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The world of motorcycle racing turns its spotlight on the small island once a year

The nation's charms and history take a back seat to the din of whizzing bikes during the TT.

August 02, 2009|Susan Carpenter

THE ISLE OF MAN — If I'd 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 this tiny island's embrace of man's need for speed and the talented risk-takers who live for it. Nowhere else in the world does the government shut down 37.73 miles of its roads for two weeks to host a grueling race that probably will result in death; 224 racers have died on the course over the years -- including one while I was here -- yet the race continues.

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-colored 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.

Coming from a place where motorcyclists are a minority, 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 $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 center 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 people who inhabit this island nation of 81,000. About half of the people who live here are from the Isle of Man; the rest are "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 center and only real city. It was part of the TT-week entertainment, along with performances by the band Whitesnake and Celtic-flavored 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 in town 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 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, who is now my favorite artist. 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.

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