Between the Hedges
by Lissa Golden
Let me start by saying that I know nothing about racing. If someone had said to me before I left Minnesota “between the hedges racing” I wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. The roads are very different here on the Isle of Mann. The hedges are tall and right next to the road. I mean RIGHT NEXT TO THE ROAD. There is no shoulder on many of the roads and the hedges scrape the cars and trucks–it’s relatively unavoidable and one good reason to ride a bike. They have these hedge trimmers that come around to clear the roads, kinda like a vertical mower. Driving between these hedges makes me feel like I’m in a maze that’s the size of an entire country. It’s difficult to get a glimpse of the countryside because of it. I was beginning to think that all the photos I had seen in all the travel propaganda were actually just computer generated to allure the unsuspecting traveler as a means of devising a source of revenue for the country. I know that’s why they had to come up with those double decker buses, to get the tourists to quit complaining that they couldn’t see anything.
The Isle of Mann is a lot like the Sturgis rally, lot’s of motorcycle enthusiasts and riders just waiting for the chance to show off their riding prowess. The only differences are that the leathers have a major amount of color, as a matter of fact, the all-black leathers really stand out in this crowd, the bikes sound a lot different too, there’s hardly any Harley Davidson’s, it’s almost all sport bikes, there are many more languages spoken here, there’s a different currency and I think there’s a queen involved somehow, although I never saw her (perhaps just more propaganda). Another thing that’s different is that there’s an opportunity to see big, tough biker types vomiting BEFORE they’ve had too much to drink as they travel to the island on the boat. OK, so it’s really nothing like the Sturgis rally after all.
One of the most attractive things that entice motorcyclists to this race is that during the week of the TT races people are allowed to ride as fast as they want. There are police everywhere along the race route, not to control speed, but to be present when the crashes happen. The racing schedule is set up to run every other day so that if it rains the race can be run the next day. This is nice for the visitors because it gives them time to ride the course and see other parts of the island, which is rich in history. So there’s plenty of time to ride the course considering they only close it off a half an hour before the race starts and reopen it immediately after the race ends. The fact that you can sit right along the racetrack is also very engaging.
I didn’t have a bike while I was there but I did bring my helmet and made it a habit to carry it in case I could get a ride from someone. I made it to the quaint thatch roof village where Waking Ned Divine was filmed and realized I had caught the last train out only after I had arrived, so I decided to see if I could hitch a ride back to Douglas. By the way, the train ride to the town was a real treat. I figured it would be just another cold and impersonal modern train but it was a vintage steam engine train with private compartments that wandered through the countryside of velvety green hills, sprinkled with sheep and divided with rustic stone fences. It really felt like I was transported to not only another town, but also back in time as well. I found a group of eight German men that were kind enough to take me back to Douglas. Not having any real high speed experience (I drive a Harley, after all) I couldn’t tell if the sloppiness through the curves was due to technological shortcomings of the motorcycle, a Suzuki 1200 Bandit, or driver error. Judging by the rough and jerky execution of his braking and acceleration I decided it was the latter. I’m not too proud to admit I was more than just a little afraid for my life when I could feel the rear tire slide excessively through a few curves.
The next day I found myself in need of transport again but everyone that stopped wasn’t going to where I wanted and it finally dawned on me that they were all going that direction because it was the race route. I decided to just opt for the next ride even if it wasn’t going my direction. True to form, the next group of five bikes, a 996, three R1’s and a Honda equivalent, were also going to ride the race route. When I asked if I could catch a ride with them the leader said they’d be driving “insanely fast” and didn’t want me to ride with them. He explained that they were there to film what it’s like to ride the course at race speeds and then pointed to the cameras attached to the bikes. I was about to say thanks anyway and move on to the next person when he remembered that his friend Paul wouldn’t be riding fast and pointed to the camera-less bike. He said I could ride with him if I wanted to. So off we went. (I dont lurn two kwickly).
Paul and I started in the lead and it didn’t take long before we reached incredible speeds and I thought they were just joking with me about him riding slow. Then his friends passed us. Paul was obviously a seasoned racer; it was apparent from his efficiency of motion and smoothness. There’s a part in the course that, if you’re going fast enough, will cause the bike to catch air. At that point we had slowed down a bit and at 130 mph it was a casual enough speed for Paul to turn around and tell me to hang on. I had total confidence in his ability and no fear whatsoever. We were going MUCH faster than the ride I was on the day before and I knew Paul wasn’t pushing this beyond what he was considering a comfortable speed. It was then that I KNEW yesterday’s rider was at fault for the sloppy riding. The difference in riders was glaringly obvious. I now have a better understanding why people can get hooked on speed. It’s really fun.
We came around a curve and had to stop because there had been an accident. Right after we passed the accident Paul pulled over and stopped and told me it was “one of the lads”. His “lads” couldn’t have been more than 20-30 seconds ahead of us and already the paramedics had beaten us to the scene. He and all his friends efficiently and stoically jumped in and started helping. His friend had a broken neck and his bike was in the hedge. One of the lads came up to me and said “that’s why we didn’t want you on the back of our bikes.”
Once all was underway and they were waiting for the ambulance Paul decided to take me into town. When he dropped me off he told me that four weeks previously Paul had crashed the bike we were riding and the front end and front brakes were “a little off” and that he had just recovered from a broken collar bone from that crash. He said he didn’t want to tell me before so as not to scare me. He also told me that last year that same friend of his had crashed that bike and broke his neck, shoulder, rib and punctured a lung. I realize now that they were so nonchalant about the accident because they do enough of this to expect the inevitable accident. These were all Isle of Man natives and they knew the course, their ability and their bikes well and yet, accidents still happen.
This between the hedges racing requires a vast amount of skill. Unlike a race track, the roads they ride on are roads used for everyday traffic and are full of imperfections. If the rider makes a mistake they won’t just tumble into a sandpit or sandbags, they may hit a stone fence or go into a hedge. Although I’ve never been to a race before (some first race huh?), unless you count the Kentucky Derby, I’ve gained a huge appreciation for the skill these riders need to have to race a course like this one. The skill and bravery required for this course transcends all others.
That I didn’t make it to my destination seemed insignificant after this experience. I hope his friend survived.
A good web site to gander at regarding the TT is: http://www.iomtt.com/tour/1rider.shtml