The current pandemic is giving you plenty of time to plan your future travel and save for it as well. The top of Spannerman’s list is the Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling. It’s officially on again in 2022. Here’s Spanner’s A-Z guide to fire your imagination.
The Isle of Man TT hasn’t been run in the past two years (you know why) but is at the advanced planning stage for 2022. It isn’t, however, the only game in town. There’s another event rapidly capturing the imagination of riders worldwide: the IoM Festival of Motorcycling which includes the Manx GP and the Classic TT. The program is packed but it’s a more relaxed way to enjoy everything the IoM has to offer.
The Manx GP is the breeding ground for the IoM TT so you won’t know many of the riders but all the stars come out to play for the Classic TT – the best road racers in the world riding the iconic bikes of the past.
You can get up close and personal with them far more easily than is possible during the May/June TT week and while the joint is still jumping, slightly fewer visitors means it’s easier to eat, drink and sleep.
The Festival of Motorcycling takes place mid-to-late August. Here’s your A-Z guide to why you should go.
The order in which the letters appear in the alphabet is just some fascist directive from the Ministry of Conformity so we’re going to start this guide with the letter ‘W’ – which stands for ‘why?’ Why should you go to the middle of the Irish Sea in late-August for the Festival of Motorcycling? The answer is that it’s the emotional home of anyone who has ever ridden a motorcycle.
Racing on the IoM is almost as old as motorcycling itself and the values it has demonstrated almost continuously for the past century are the values woven into the genetic framework of all riders.
You may be 14,000km from Australia when you’re there but the IoM will feel strangely familiar. Muslims go to Mecca, Catholics go to Rome and bone-deep motorcyclists go to the Isle of Man.
Where does IoM racing sit in the world order? Touring car champion Mark Scaife visited for the first time a while ago to film a segment for his old TV show.
“It is absolutely just beyond your wildest dreams to think you could come here and race a motorcycle. You can stand on a village footpath and literally touch the racers going past at close to 300km/h. I’ve come here to witness the most dangerous road racing on earth.”
Scaife wasn’t the only newcomer shocked by what he saw. Mick Doohan also made his first visit recently and shared Scaife’s disbelief. Mick rode a parade lap but was blown away by the idea of actually riding fast on such an unforgiving circuit.
When you go, you aren’t just a spectator – you’re an integral part of the whole event. It’s not something you watch – you become a participant in a grand saga you’ll never forget.
The population of the IoM jumps from around 80,000 to 100,000 during the Festival of Motorcycling so accommodation is understandably tight. IoM TT Travel is the official travel partner (iomtt.com/travel – look for the Classic TT link at the bottom of the site) but you can arrange your own accommodation by examining the options available on the internet. The island gets very busy so the earlier you do this, the better.
Cheaper hotels in the capital (Douglas) where much of the social action is during the week are from around 100 pounds a night for a double room (one pound is approximately equal to two Australian dollars). Out of Douglas, the prices drop slightly. The Ginger Hall pub, for example, has doubles for around 70 quid (singles from 40 quid) but it books out early.
Cancellations at pubs are common, though, so it’s always worth asking. There’s no bad place to stay on the Isle, particularly if you have your own transport, as nothing is far away.
Home-stays are a worthwhile option. Under government supervision for quality, residents rent out spare rooms in their houses. These tend to be cheaper than pubs.
Camping is very popular. There are camping grounds all over the Isle and if you have your own tent and sleeping bag, prices start from as little as two quid per night per person up to around 20 quid for the campgrounds within a couple of kilometres of the heart of Douglas. Visit the IoM TT website and download the camping information section.
Increasingly popular are hire tents. Companies like Simpsons (15 – 19 Michael St, Peel) will hire you everything you need and www.iomtents.com will even erect and collect your hire tent at the camping ground of your choosing. This service can include everything from sleeping bags, air beds, pillows, lighting, cooking facilities to tables/chairs. Cost is around 35 quid per night per person in two, four, or six space tents.
You pay camping fees on top of this (around 12 quid) but it’s an inexpensive accommodation option without having to bring your camping gear from home. Walking away from it all afterwards without having to pack up is also a bonus.
The cheapest airfares from Australia to London are usually available during October/November for the following year. Booking early can save you a few hundred dollars but COVID -19 is expected to play havoc with pricing. Check the itinerary of the cheaper flights as some of them can keep you in the air or waiting at strange airports for extended periods. No amount of savings can justify turning a 22-hour flight into a 35-hour marathon.
Here’s your big chance to break out of the lager culture and explore the pleasures of real beer. Most IoM pubs will have a range of beers but you’ll be hooked after your first few pints of local bitter. It finally explains why beer has been such a popular drink for so long – it can have genuine flavour. Make sure you try Bushy’s Manx Ale as it contains local hops and malt. You want more? Try Oyster Stout which is made with real oysters.
The official description of the IoM climate is “temperate” with the average temperature during the Festival of Motorcycling weeks being around 18 degrees C with a low of 11. As it rains on average for 14 days in August, you’ll cop a bit of that but it tends to be patchy. Despite its tiny size, the climate varies in different parts of the island.
Because of the length of the race circuit (60.73km), the weather can vary during the race. People can be sitting in the grandstands in Douglas with t-shirts on in bright sunshine but the race can’t start as it could be bucketing down in Ramsay or on top of the mountain. It will rain while you’re there but it’s seldom overcast as, according to the locals, “the fierce winds that plague the Island keep the clouds moving”. Take some warm clothes.
The Isle has both Viking and Celtic heritage and boasts the world’s oldest continuous parliament, Tynwald. Despite being technically a British Crown dependency, it makes its own laws and has its own language, stamps, coins and banknotes.
When IoM isn’t being trashed by motorcyclists, it operates as a finance and information technology centre and is also a major player in cattle breeding.
It’s small – 33 miles in length and 13.5 miles wide, but there are plenty of cultural sites of interest. English currency is widely used and English is the official language.
There’s always something on during Festival of Motorcycling week when racing isn’t taking place. Racing is scheduled for every second day as it gives the organisers some options if the weather isn’t cooperative. Douglas, the capital, hosts a foreshore carnival which runs all week.
A highlight of the festival is the Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s week-long rally which includes the (VMCC) Festival of Jurby. You can sign up for the daily rides with the rally group around the IoM or simply turn up at the Festival of Jurby and pay your seven-pounds-fifty entry fee. The Jurby event is massive with 5000 bikes on display and 10,000 spectators. You can also register for some hot laps on the Jurby race circuit (which is really an aircraft runway with a return road).
There are usually a couple of headline music acts during the week but make sure you attend the Purple Helmets motorcycle stunt/comedy show which is held at the Orchan Stadium. The Helmets started out as a drunken, often nude rabble about 20 years ago and have progressively declined since then. It’s a genuinely funny experience in a daggy, country-show kind of way and well worth the modest entry fee.
The race course is open when racing isn’t on so there’s plenty of entertainment to be had recreating the feats of your heroes or just touring to the island’s beautiful set of towns and pubs. The castle at Castletown is well worth a visit, as is Peel Castle.
Although you can fly in, take a fast ferry from Liverpool or even hitch a ride on a fishing boat making a day trip from Belfast, most people choose to arrive on a Steam Packet ferry. The holds will be full of bikes and the riders will be introducing themselves to Manx ale in the bars above the waterline.
Steam Packet ferries (or Steam Racket as the locals call them) leave from Liverpool and Heysham on fast rotation and are regularly booked out over the Festival of Motorcycling period. You’ll always get on just as a foot passenger but if you intend to take a bike to the Isle, you need to book as early as possible.
As a last resort, you can just turn up at Heysham and put yourself and your bike on a stand-by list. The Steam Racket company doesn’t advertise this but most riders who do it this way get a passage although, of course, it’s not guaranteed.
The ferry is expensive – expect to part with around 280 quid for the return trip. The journey takes around four hours and it’s a good opportunity to buy a FoM program on board and do some planning.
With some exceptions, food isn’t the high point of a visit to IoM. It’s essentially British cuisine which is another way of saying not much cuisine at all. Most places do a competent “full English” breakfast (ask them to go easy on the black pudding) and conventional food is readily available. If the Isle has a ‘traditional’ dish, it would be local smoked kippers – cheap and tasty.
Depending on your accommodation, you might end up cooking for yourself on a regular basis and supermarket shopping will give you a chance to eat things you actually like.
Pub meals are usually of a higher standard. The seafood platter at the Peel Inn is a must as it introduces you to some seafood the existence of which you were probably previously unaware.
English fish ‘n chips are universally awful, as are most of the cuts of meat.
You won’t go hungry, though, and prices are reasonable. The experience will sharpen your affection for Australian food.
Car racing started on IoM in 1904 as the British government wouldn’t allow it on the mainland. IoM has its own parliament and makes its own rules. Bikes started racing there in 1907. It was first run on a 10-mile course with much pedalling required to get up Creg Willies Hill. The Snaefell Mountain course was introduced in 1911 and early laps took around three-quarters of an hour. Cameron Donald and David Johnson have done it in about 17 minutes, although they don’t have to dodge sheep.
Motorcycling’s World Championship started in 1949 and the TT course was one of the official rounds. It lost this status in 1976 as a number of prominent riders believed the course to be too dangerous given the speed of modern bikes and the impossibility of protecting riders from stone walls and buildings in the event of crashes.
Racing on the Isle has survived as the world’s most prominent road race meeting and its heroes are a roll call of the world’s best: Harold Daniell, Geoff Duke, Bob McIntyre, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Joey Dunlop just to name a few.
The Manx GP started in 1923 and jumped the gun with women’s liberation with Gloria Clark racing in 1989 and Carolynn Sells winning a race in 2009. It’s considered the amateur rider’s alternative to the TT. The Classic TT only started recently but has the potential to overtake the popularity of the traditional TT.
The first Sunday of race week has significant elements of craziness about it because the population has peaked and there’s no racing on the mountain circuit, meaning visitors can ride it and get a sense of what the racers experience. The less populated area of the circuit, the section across the mountain, has no speed limits and is designated for one-way traffic. Think of it as a production race with 10,000 entrants of varying ability.
The police close the circuit to clean it up every time there’s a significant crash which means riders bunch up at Ramsay in the pubs and garage forecourts. When the road opens again, everyone races to the next crash. Inspector Derek Flint who often manages police response isn’t too upset.
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he said. “There may well be people alive on Monday who owe it to the crash that held them up.” The best time to experience the circuit isn’t on Mad Sunday but just after daybreak on any non-race day.
The most pleasure will be gained from your visit if you take a bike. Options include taking your own (getrouted.com.au), buying a bike in England (somewhat complicated for a short stay), renting a bike in England (not as expensive as you might think and convenient) or going on foot and renting a bike on the Isle just so you can do a lap of the circuit (expensive and silly).
The Get Routed package suits riders who intend to include the TT or Classic TT in a longer motorcycling holiday in the UK and Europe. For more information, visit www.getrouted.com.au or call (03)56259080 or 0412689849.
You can rent a large capacity Triumph, Honda or Yamaha from Raceway Motorcycle Rentals UK based in Shepherds Bush (London) for around 400 quid a week. This includes insurance and unlimited kilometres. Around 10,000 bikes go to IoM for the FoM period and you’ll see just about anything you can imagine – it’s a week-long vintage, classic and modern motorcycle show.
Particularly impressive are the blokes who take their expensive treasures – Vincents and the like – and just punt around the traps with the rest of the visitors.
Entry to the pit area near Douglas is free and you can see the race bikes (and riders) up close and personal. The pits are also usually full of classic race bikes being prepared for demonstration and celebrity laps.
The iconic bike of the TT is probably the 500 single Norton named after the Island, the Manx. Manx Nortons were built from 1947 to 1962 but Nortons raced continuously from 1907 until well into the 1970s, making the company the most successful marque of the TT.
The Isle of Man constabulary is very accommodating of visitors but there are limits. There are no speed restrictions on the long mountain section of the course but speed limits are loosely enforced in the towns and villages. Around 100 people were booked for speeding in 2019.
The police are very approachable and act mostly as visitor guides. There are no random breath or licence checks and as long as you don’t invite their attention, you’ll be left alone. If, however, you’re asked to do something by the police (“Go home – you’ve had enough to drink”), just do it.
There’s no fine, for example, for drinking in a park but if you’re asked to move on (because you’re behaving like a knob) and you don’t, you’ll be arrested.
The Manx Bus Service is extensive and you can get a bus to just about anywhere on the Isle. The routes wind around the small villages so progress can be indirect and slow, although there’s always something to see out the windows.
Taxis are available and, due to the Isle’s small dimensions, the most you can probably spend going from one place to another is around 40 quid.
Douglas to Port Erin (south) is serviced by a steam railway built in 1874 which still uses the engines and carriages from that time. It’s an adventure.
Racers and racing
MotoGP riders who visit the IoM, including Cal Crutchlow, Nicky Hayden, Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi and countless others, are extremely respectful of the road race fraternity. Joey Dunlop’s untimely death in 2000 (ironically at a circuit race in Estonia where he was leading a 125 race) robbed road racing of a genuine star but others (including family member Michael) have risen to the challenge.
Among the current crop, John McGuinness is outstanding for his consistent speed although his near-fatal crash in the 2017 TT event on a Honda has kept him quiet until now. He’ll be one of the riders in the 2022 Classic TT. Australian riders have always figured prominently in IoM events. To give you an idea of what’s involved, here’s Cameron Donald’s outline of his ‘normal’ TT week.
“For me, it involved 16 laps of practice and 25 laps of racing around a 60.7km circuit with more than 250 turns per lap on closed public roads. That works out at 2488km of riding three different motorcycles through approximately 10,250 turns all at an average speed of over 200km/h.”
No wonder circuit racers like Mick Doohan find it astounding. Cam has ‘retired’ from TT racing but is regularly involved in TV commentary.
Racing is scheduled for every second day of the event which allows for rescheduling if the weather is bad. With few actual races on race days, it requires a new approach to spectating. Patience is a virtue worth developing before you arrive.
During a four lap race, your favourite will pass you (at high speed) once every 18 minutes or so and the race will last for over an hour. Strangely, it’s very exciting.
It’s worth investing four quid on a throw-away battery radio so you can tune in to Manx Radio to get race commentary – otherwise you’ll have no idea what’s going on.
Your personal safety on the Isle of Man is almost entirely in your own hands. North of 250 racers have died over the years if you combine the Manx GP with the TT. Nobody really knows how many visitors have died but it probably exceeds the number of racers.
The lack of speed limits on the mountain section of the course is a (welcome) invitation to play but you need the maturity to ride within your limits and the wisdom to keep out of the racing line if you aren’t really trying.
The main danger will be behind you (crazy Europeans riding on the wrong side of the road – hello Germany) so watch your mirrors.
The police make quite a few arrests over the week, most of them for incidents involving alcohol. If you avoid the alcohol hot-spots, you have very little chance of finding trouble.
Otherwise, the Festival of Motorcycling is a picnic and probably less dangerous than spending a week in any of Australia’s capital cities. Oh, and if you need to see a doctor, it’s free. You only really die on the IoM if you choose it.
The X Factor
The future of the traditional IoM TT is under continuous threat. While it makes a significant contribution to some sectors of the Island’s economy, many locals consider it an inconvenience and the huge influx of visitors creates many problems for other sectors, notably the cattle breeding industry. The 2001 TT was cancelled due to fears of the spread of Foot and Mouth disease.
The government does its best to minimise publicity around rider and visitor deaths but the event is massively out-of-step in the context of the safety and insurance concerns which dominate motorsport events in the rest of the world.
The Festival of Motorcycling presents itself a viable alternative. The Classic TT, in particular, appeals because speeds are lower but the visual spectacle is still there and you get to see the best road racers in the world. In an ideal world, you’d go to both the TT and the Festival of Motorcycling but if you had to put money on which will survive, go with the Festival.
If you’ve always had a desire to go to the IoM, the plot should be to do it sooner rather than later while it still exhibits the untamed, primitive charm which has always made it so attractive to racers and riders alike. It truly is unique.