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Common Tread

Ari and Zack race the Isle of Man (but not in the TT)

Aug 09, 2019

The Isle of Man has thousands of years of history that would fill an encyclopedia, but the part that we motorcyclists tend to focus on is the past century or so. Since 1907 the small island has hosted an open race on closed public roads, known as the Tourist Trophy, that has become one of the most intense and famous motorcycling events in the world.

Whether you’re deeply familiar with the annals of the TT or you only know it from the mind-bending onboard footage that pops up all over the internet, you probably understand that the Isle of Man is a unique place. In motorcycling, it is holy ground.

This story is based on the latest episode of Throttle Out, now available at MotorTrend On Demand. You can find Ari and Zack on social media at @arihenning211 and @zackcourts.

For each episode of Throttle Out, the mantra is to do rather than watch. We aim to participate in the many different facets of motorcycling because we believe it’s the only way to truly understand the experience. That said, we had to rethink our approach when it came to the Isle of Man. We simply don’t have the bravery and ambition needed to attempt a lap in anger of the 37.7-mile loop of the island. But as enthusiasts of all things two wheels we knew we had to make the pilgrimage to the little rock in the Irish Sea, so we came up with another way to ride the Isle of Man — one that involved knobby tires.

Ari and Zack at the Isle of Man off-road
This isn’t the social-media photo that most folks imagine when they think of visiting the Isle of Man. Combining a visit to the TT with a rad off-road adventure is an excellent way to experience the island. Photo by Spenser Robert.

As it turns out, the Isle is streaked with incredible two-track trails, so we cooked up a plan to rent dual-sport bikes and plot a route that would allow us to “race” the TT competitors to the finish line in Douglas. The two of us would attempt to cross the island off-road as the racers completed their multiple laps on the road course. That was the idea, anyway, but first we had a lot of miles to cover and homework to do.

For a fan of motorbikes, just arriving on the Isle of Man feels special. Everything reeks of racing, from the telecom billboards at baggage claim to the flags flying outside houses and cafes. Some of the cues of a massive event are subtle — thin padding on a light post or chairs stacked in a church yard — and others are not. The gaudy carnival set up along the main drag in Douglas illustrates what a massive influx of commerce the TT creates and how important the event is to the island. It immediately feels like a snapshot of a society every motorcycle nut has imagined, where bikes matter more than anything else.

KTM 530 EXC and Honda CRF450X
It makes sense that an Enduro champ’s rental fleet would include serious race equipment. For our ride, Knighter supplied us with a KTM 530 EXC and Honda CRF450X. The bikes were vastly better than the blokes riding them. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Getting off the IOM pavement

Our first order of business was to make contact with David Knight, who would help us scout a route for our off-road TT challenge. “Knighter,” as he’s known, is an Isle of Man native and multi-time winner of both World Enduro and GNCC championships, which predictably meant he was a tough tour guide to keep up with. Better that than the other way around. The bikes he had for us to rent were well used but not lacking in capability — a KTM 530 EXC and a Honda CRF450X, both with burly engines and more off-road chops than a couple of roadracers like us knew how to use.

KTM 530 EXC and Honda CRF450X on the dirt roads
Zack’s 530 EXC had wheel-lofting stomp right off idle, whereas Ari’s CRF450X concentrated its power in the upper rev range. For inexperienced newbies like us, the KTM’s torque was more appealing. Photo by Spenser Robert.

On day one, we followed Knighter into the hills above his shop in the town of Sulby. Dual-sport riding on the Isle of Man has become much more popular, he explained, as a way to see areas that historically only he and other locals knew about. There are gates scattered everywhere to contain the roaming livestock, but the dirt roads and trails are mostly public and as long as you make sure the latch is closed after you pass through, there are no hard feelings. David also opined that dual-sporting can be safer than being on the roads during TT week given the myriad of overzealous riders who are charged with adrenaline from watching their heroes defy death and physics all day.

riding on the roads
The IOM is famous for its road course, but we only rode short sections of pavement to link up sections of trail. As Knighter pointed out, traveling around off road is a safer way to see the Island since you avoid all the squids on the street. Photo by Spenser Robert.

For our first taste of just how extreme the racing is, David took us to a section of the course called Skyhill, along one of the northernmost points of the course. We trundled down a dirt lane, leaned our bikes against an embankment, and trudged through the underbrush to the edge of the asphalt.

Just like that, our boots were inches from the most famous roadracing course on the planet. No crowds, just a few other people in off-road and mountain-bike gear and a handful of marshals. Superbike practice had just been waved off on the opposite side of the island, so we knew the bikes were coming, but the waiting proved a point all on its own. The grass across the road danced in waves of breeze, and the trees swished quietly over our heads — a picture of bucolic, peaceful landscape, straight from an oil painting. It was a lovely and calm illustration both of how quaint the Tourist Trophy event remains to this day, as well as the brilliance of spectating on dirt bikes.

With a faint whine, the top few riders announced their approach. The first bike howled past on the left side of the tire, the rider posting on the footpegs briefly to soak up a bump at more than 100 mph, then pitched the bike right and peeled out of sight, on the throttle again. Over the next minute, all of the big names flew by — Connor Cummins and Dean Harrison burned over the rise and dove into the right-hander nearly nose to tail, John McGuiness nearly blew our eardrums on the Norton V4 and Michael Rutter’s Honda RC213V-S crackled toward Schoolhouse Bend with the sound of MotoGP in its wake. We were as stunned as Isle of Man newbies always are, and David could see it on our faces. He made us feel better by telling us that he still gets goosebumps every year when he watches riders go by for the first time, even though he’s been watching for more than 40 years.

Peter Hickman at the Isle of Man TT
Hickman and his BMW S1000RR. Airborne, wheels out of line, and only inches from a stone wall. The Isle of Man course is 37.7 miles of unforgiving public roads. Racing it takes precision, talent, and nerves of steel. Hickman has all three in abundance. BMW photo.

With our first taste of the TT still on our tongue we suited up and followed Knighter along more trails. From fast and smooth dirt roads, to muddy, rutted singletrack, the dual-sport options on the island are as diverse and varied as the road course. We charged up rocky descents, across fields of pillowy heather, and through boot-high bogs that pulled at our wheels. As soon as we adapted to one surface we’d dip into a forest or dive into a gully and the terrain would change yet again. It made for exciting, challenging, and scenic riding that matches anything we’ve ridden in the States.

riding off-road on the Isle of Man
That’s the village of Ramsey below us, with England just visible across the sea. Escaping town is as easy as turning up a dirt road. The key is knowing which road to take and which gates you’re allowed to open. Photo by Spenser Robert.

We climbed relentlessly for about 10 minutes, eventually stopping alongside Guthrie’s Memorial, overlooking the northern coast and the town of Ramsey. Aside from Skyhill, this spot was essentially as far north as we could get. From there we trekked back to the bottom of a hollow, which was crawling with ducks for some reason, and up an especially rocky ascent to the Mountain Box. Just down the road from Hailwood’s Height, the Mountain Box (at about 1,300 feet above sea level) was the highest elevation we could get to via dirt roads, Knighter explained. It felt like we had found our start line, but the rest of the route was still up in the air.

Mountain Box on the Isle of Man
Some names on the Isle of Man seem plucked from a Tolkien novel, others are surprisingly literal. The boxlike structure next to the road gives Mountain Box its name, and it’s where we decided to start our off-road race. Photo by Spenser Robert.

So we pressed on, riding west along hilltops and down a dirt road with ruts big enough to swallow a motorcycle whole, eventually stopping at an overlook above Kirk Michael, which sits near the western coast and is one of the marquee villages on the TT course. From there we turned due south, bounding across shaley roads and empty moors along the spine of the island until we made it to a tall crest sighting down a valley to a town in the distance. On the ridge to our left, a road was etched in the hillside with airfence just visible in a couple of the bends. That was Windy Corner, David told us, and the stretch of curves leading down to Keppel Gate and Kate’s Cottage. The town in the distance was Douglas. Our finish line.

off-road riding on the Isle of Man
Off-roading on the Isle of Man isn’t only for dirt bikes. We saw quads, side-by-sides, mountain bikes, and even this beautiful Defender taking on the hills of the island. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Making it all the way to the grandstands (and official TT start/finish) in Douglas would mean riding through a rocky, unforgiving descent and some tricky navigation through the suburbs, but we liked the symmetry of a top-to-bottom route and David figured it would take us about an hour. That would have made us clear favorites to “race” against a typical four-lap TT event, but the weather had screwed up the schedule and the Superstock race we had chosen to use as a benchmark was shortened from four laps to three. So, we would be up against the best riders at the event, on 1,000 cc machines, who would take around 55 minutes to complete their race. We were going to have to boogie.

off-road riding on the Isle of Man
Blitzing across the island trying to beat the Superstock racers required plenty of focus, especially considering neither of us are very experienced enduro riders. The riding is tricky in spots, and the scenery is almost always stunning. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The "race" is on

Luckily, on race day the Mountain Course was dry and Team Throttle Out was ready for action. Riders at the TT get the green flag in 10-second intervals, so we had to pick one person to use as a benchmark for our made-up competition. We considered Connor Cummins, number one on the road and local hero, as well as Michael Dunlop, a perennial favorite and holder of the most famous surname at the TT. In the end we chose Peter Hickman, because he was (and still is) the current lap-record holder and had already won the Superbike race earlier in the week. (In the video below, he narrates on onboard lap of the course.) Hickman started number 10, so we gave it 100 seconds after Cummins left the line and then bolted down the steep hillside from the Mountain Box.

After crossing a slick, two-foot-wide bridge spanning a massive bog, we navigated through huge, muddy ruts. Not more than five minutes in at this point, Ari hooked his front tire on the grassy edge of a wheel track and managed to announce over the headset, “I’m going down!” before landing in the Manx shrubbery. Our first setback, and probably a good illustration of why we couldn’t be trusted on the real TT course.

riding off-road on the Isle of Man
The roadracers face bumpy corners and blind, blistering-fast bends, we faced footpeg-deep ruts and other dirty obstacles. The interior of the Isle of Man is a treasure trove of amazing trails. Photo by Spenser Robert.

We soon got into a rhythm with opening and closing the many gates that cut through the Isle’s pastoral scenery, hustling over puddles and through patches of forest. As the miles and minutes clicked by, we fought through arm pump and tried to stay focused. Zack bounced the front wheel of the KTM off a rock and nearly flew into a ditch just as he was wondering out loud how quickly the leaders were lapping the course. We were hanging on by a thread.

riding in the forest on the Isle of Man
If you ride the Isle of Man off-road, get ready for gnarly terrain and impossibly green and lush forests. The island offers heavenly dual-sport riding. Photo by Spenser Robert.

By the time we cleared the hilltop and Douglas came into view, we could see bikes streaking through Windy Corner, sounding like TIE fighters on the attack. But, we knew it wasn’t the leaders. Even with his mandatory pit stop Peter Hickman would be on his final lap now, powering away from Quarterbridge or even flying through Union Mills. We had about 15 minutes to scamper down a long hillside of rocks and rutted grass, and spent a lot of it thanking the moto gods for 11 inches of suspension travel and knobby tires. The bikes were clearly much better at this than we were.

riding in the forest on the Isle of Man
Hey, it’s steeper than the camera makes it look! Attempting to beat Peter Hickman to the finish line meant navigating through dozens of gates and intersections, but also putting the power down on some slippery, rocky climbs. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The insanely picturesque St. Luke’s Church passed by on our right and we were on to the final stretch. Just a few miles of pavement would lead us to the finish line. After only a couple of wrong turns in the neighborhoods leading to the start/finish we quickly parked the bikes as high-pitched blurs screamed by at more than 150 mph. We anxiously asked if we had just missed the leaders, and one fellow simply replied, “I’m not sure, I was watching you guys.” No thanks to that particular fan, we eventually learned that Hickman had crossed the finish line around 30 seconds before we arrived. Damn.

Peter Hickman celebrates with fans
Hickman high fives fans after winning the 2019 Superstock race. IOM TT photo.

In the end, it was hard to feel bad having been bested by Hickman, since everyone else in the race lost to him, as well. Then again it’s only fair to point out that the other riders in the race actually went head to head with Hickman, whereas we came up with a silly, pretend race so that we could explore the island and see the sights. And what an amazing place to see, whether you like motorcycles or not. The surprising thing to us was that spectacle of bikes whizzing by at crazy speeds on public roads was only one piece of the charm.

Peter Hickman
Peter Hickman competes in the British Superbike Championship, FIM World Endurance Championship, and various international road races. He won three races at the 2019 TT, including Superbike, Superstock, and Supersport. IOM TT photo.
The beauty and history of the island, especially coming from another continent, is immense. There are pubs older than America, castles that date back to the Vikings, and utterly hilarious names for food (more Jammie Dodgers, anyone?). Hearing Knighter’s accounts of growing up on the Isle of Man was special, too. As a boy he would wake up to the sound of two-strokes ripping by on the Sulby Straight. He’s celebrated successful TT outings with friends and also lost them to the course. It has given him, and many people on the island, a unique appreciation for life and why it’s worth living.

To some, the Isle of Man TT is just a dangerous spectacle, but to those who participate and are surrounded by it every year, it is the most important and beloved cultural tradition that has ever come ashore. With all due respect to the Norse invaders, it seems to us that the true legends here are the ones who end up on the podium.