From mountain tops to village high streets, over bridges and past miles of houses, phone boxes, lampposts and stone walls.
From the frantic start and the arrow-like blitz toward St. Ninians Cross, through to the wide-open expanses of Windy Corner and the spine-tingling, full-throttle dip right through Ballagarey, the challenge never lets up.
The madness of the Isle of Man TT, the ultimate event in the motorcycle racing world, plays out on a circuit unlike anything else in motorsport. Over the past 100 years, the Snaefell Mountain Course has gained a reputation as one of the most legendary strips of competitive tarmac on the planet.
Save for the occasional piece of road widening, since 1922 the course has remained unchanged. The immense challenge of fighting a racing motorbike along its sinuous ribbon of corners and dips still challenges the finest riding talent that lands upon the island each year.
But unlike most circuits nowadays, once the racing ends and the few makeshift barriers are drawn back, the track opens back to the public. Buses and cars ferry locals and visitors around, and life on the Isle of Man returns to normal.
During my week at this year’s TT I completed nearly 10 laps of the course. Not in a frantic charge trying to emulate the racing giants I’d watched, but rather to complete mundane tasks, like going to the shops, dropping off friends or visiting the pub.
While motorsport can so often exist away from the hustle and bustle of the area it finds itself within, the Isle of Man is different. The roads used are some of the main arteries across the island, so when the track is live travelling along the West Coast is impossible. Save for a coastal trunk road, the main link between Douglas and Ramsey is the race’s legendary Mountain Road.
The Race To Ramsey
The irony of the Isle of Man TT course, and how it interacts with its environment, begins at the start line. As the riders line up to take on a track that claims lives with startling regularity, behind the wall lies the island’s main graveyard and crematorium, the operation of both taking precedence on Tuesdays and Thursdays delaying racing till at least 11.30am.
Located on Glencrutchery Road, the start is flanked by the vibrant TT paddock, and immediately recognisable thanks to the imposing grandstand and iconic pit lane.
Directly ahead lies St. Ninians, a crossroad named after the church that sits to the left, yet riders barely blink as they pass through the lights at nearly 150mph (241km/h). Ahead is the first major dip of the lap, the fearsome dive down Bray Hill. It looks steep on video, but the reality is so much more severe than imaginable. This is a serious drop, yet once more this is a full-throttle area.
But then, most of the TT is.
Bouncing through the bottom of Bray Hill, the immediate rise and crest that is Ago’s – a leap named in honour of eight-time TT winner and 15-time world champion Giacomo Agostini. The bikes, still with their throttles pinned, squirm violently on their back wheels as air rushes under their fairings, and yet still the brakes are not used.
Dipping into Quarterbridge, the first surprise emerges as the medium speed right-hander on race day is in fact a double roundabout once the roads open. Navigating the streams of traffic, my friend Mark taking this lap as I wield the camera, the road opens towards Braddan, a left-right sequence.
Lining the outside of the corner, the imposing rows of wooden benches sit silent as the world passes by, yet come race day these are among the hottest seats on the course as the riders flick their bikes through the corner and wind their throttles back open for the road ahead.
Along the road, the scenery is punctuated by mile markers, corner boards and, rather poignantly, individual memorials marking the points at which riders lost their lives. Some show the weathering of time, others are fresher, but it’s a constant reminder of the ever-present danger of this course.
At Ballacraine, a friendly police officer waves the traffic through the junction. For a brief moment, we can follow the line of race rubber visible on the road, all veering in an ark outward to within inches of the barriers that flank the old pub on the left.
Through the trees, the sequence of bends that follow sees the new issue of light flickering through the foliage. In traffic it’s an annoyance; at race pace it must be an almighty issue. The exit from Glen Helen seems a reasonable climb in the direction of racing, but in reverse it’s noticeable just how steep the incline is.
During my stay I was able to drive the circuit in reverse, at night and even in the rain, all of which provided a fresh perspective on the corners and stretches of the course.
Passing through Crosby, the leap I had shot earlier in the week was even wilder than expected. The road ahead is completely blocked by the sizeable crest, leaving just the trees and sky for riders to aim for.
The bottom of Barregarrow is, as expected, utterly terrifying. A massive dip in the road inches from the gable end of a house right at the bottom of a hill will do that. The thought of blitzing through the high street of Kirk Michael is still remarkable as elderly residents scuttle between the village shop and community centre while the roads are open.
Ballaugh Bridge, one of the spots I shot the action from during the racing, is busy with crowds sitting in the various pub beer gardens as we pass. Similarly, the outside of Quarry Bends sees a busy car park as visitors take in the wildlife park attraction. The TT fortnight is the busiest of the year on the island, so all the attractions are vying for visitor business.
The stretches of Sulby Straight mark the halfway point of the lap. Here, the locals remind racers to ignore the normally strictly-enforced speed limits, although Peter Hickman’s new 199.76mph (321.49km/h) record during this year’s senior race will require the signage to be updated for 2023.
But just think about it for a second… Local residents can sit in their front gardens or along the opposite grass banks as 1,000cc superbikes blow by at nearly 200mph. On the Isle of Man this is accepted as normal.
In just over 10 minutes, the fastest bikes have made it to Ramsey, and are hard on the brakes passing the petrol station and pub as they aim for the right-hand apex at Parliament Square before powering off past the former Mazda dealership. At road speed, our progress is considerably slower, reaching Ramsey in about 45 minutes.
Taking On The Mountain
Twenty-four-and-a-bit miles in, the chance to complete a full lap or not depends on the scene that awaits once around the barrier-lined May Hill bend. A smiling and waving police officer is a good sign – a roadway full of bikes, cars and buses turning around is not. When the mountain is closed you need to go the coast road, but if it’s open, you are in luck.
Easily the most iconic stretch of the Isle of Man TT course, the glorious ribbon of tarmac across the island’s highest points is a stunning place in normal times, but come race fortnight, it’s automotive catnip. It’s rightly been described a free mini Nordschleife.
Marshalled by police at either end, it’s a weird feeling passing the lines of patrol cars knowing what’s in store. The road is turned into a one-way system, with no speed limits.
Yes, you read that right, the police stand and wave as you head to what is essentially a tarmac special stage where everything is possible.
Starting at the Ramsey Hairpin, the slowest corner of the whole circuit, the opening mile is single-lane and still retains a speed limit right up to the exit, Gooseneck, the true start point. With Ramsey and the Irish Sea stretching off into the mirrors, the white sign denoted with a single black stripe sets the heart racing.
Now, full disclosure, these laps were completed in a 2006 Audi A6 Avant, my budget-friendly daily, so there’s was no highly-focused driving or apex-hunting. But the ability to run in the outside lane into corners took a bit of time to build up to. Like on a track, your eyes are glued to the mirrors for fast-approaching bikes or cars, some passing at rates of knots that would immediately make the Audi feel stationary even with the speedometer needle creeping past 100mph.
Rising through Joey’s and Guthries, the scenery reveals itself further and further as the luscious sides of Snaefell shimmer in the summer sun. Roadside batons mark the point where tarmac and scenery swap roles become closely followed.
The Mountain Mile, Mountain Box and the Verandah fly by in a buzz. It’s along here the race bikes begin to outrun the camera helicopters, and you can see why as the corners flow so wonderfully it could nearly be mistaken for a series of bends like those at Spa or Zolder. Blood flowing, the heart pumping and the confidence building, there’s suddenly a quick flick back to sensibility when a single lane of cones emerge as the Bungalow approaches.
Life goes on even during the madness, as even with an open road, priority is given to the electric tram heading for the summit of Snaefell, or to those pulling out of the junction from one of only a very small number of access roads that meet the mountain. I’d used the road to Brandywell during race day, but the narrow lanes are also some of the finest roads on the island and a backbone of events like the Manx International Rally.
At the Bungalow, as the circuit crosses the tram tracks and rises through Hailwoods, an exciting new business has flourished since my last visit in 2019. The Victory Café is a biker’s dream; the former Cold War-era RAF radar station has been transformed into a boutique experience where food and shopping mix with workshops, open fires and a remarkable cinema with airline seats. Here, we oddly sat and watched an interview with TT legend John McGuinness that had been recorded in the very same room.
Outside the door of the café and overlooking the course, stands a memorial to Joey Dunlop, the King of the Mountain. The greatest rider to ever tackle the TT, the statue of the Ballymoney ace is lined by bricks marking each of his 26 wins. Up close, the statue is finished in incredible detail depicting his 2000 Formula 1 TT Victory aboard the legendary Honda SP-1.
Back on track, and past another member of the Manx police force waving us on, the Mountain Road continues. The police presence, while always friendly, is in place ready to respond to incidents on the mountain, and the frequency at which the road is closed is testament to the never-ending workload the frontline services deal with.
Continuing along our way, through Windy Corner and onto Kepple Gate, it’s not until the left-hander at Kate’s Cottage and the approach to Creg-ny-Baa that the cones reemerge, and the free ride is over. It’s wild to think that all these signs, cones and traffic measures are in place right up until 90 minutes before racing, a frantic scramble by the IOM council sees the transformation from public road to racetrack.
The Creg is a great place to pull in and watch the word pass for a while. The famous pub on the bend is a favourite meeting spot for riders out enjoying the course, and the road outside is a constantly revolving display of some of the finest two-wheeled machines.
From here, driving the course returns to a sense of normality, and the stop may assist is getting calmed down and reacquainted with speed limits and on-coming traffic. The run into Hillberry is top of my list to experience in the future. Here, the top bikes trail-brake at 170mph (273km/h) just inches from the spectator-lined walls.
As the road signs start pointing towards Douglas, the final miles of the TT course become more and more built up as housing estates and everyday life begins to line the road once more. Under the bridge at Bedstead, and seeing the 37th and final mile marker, the end of the lap is intriguing as it includes sections closed to the public.
The only parts not used by everyday traffic, The Nook and Governors Bridge, are preserved solely for the continuation of the 100-year-old track layout, but the installation of newer roads and a roundabout has diverted the traffic away from these few hundred meters of the course.
Turning right onto Glencrutchery Road, it’s a straight run to the line and the end of a lap of the Isle of Man TT course. Over 37 miles and 80 minutes later, lap one is complete. It was only about a 45-minute drive back to our accommodation in Ramsey, but it would have been rude not to get another half lap in on the way, right?