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Surviving "Mad Sunday," and the deadliest race in the world


Surviving "Mad Sunday," and the deadliest race in the world

I’ve never been swarmed by thousands of angry bees, but I guess this must be what it’s like. A brief glance in my rear-view mirror tells a scary tale. They’re everywhere. I look at the speedometer. It reads 130 mph – on a treacherous mountain pass, no less. Speed limits? There are none. This is “Mad Sunday” during the Isle of Man TT. A time for mere mortals to venture onto the 37.7-mile course, likely hung-over, aboard two-wheeled missiles capable of 200 mph. It’s fun to pretend you’re John McGuiness or Joey Dunlop, at least for the day. But for me, rocketing down the country lane in my dad’s two-seater sports car – with hedges, trees and quaint Manx pubs blurred beyond recognition – it’s bloody terrifying.

A group of six or seven bikers fly past my British racing green TVR. A 5.0-liter V-8 lies beneath the fiberglass hood. A TVR Griffith weighs just 2,300 lbs., but its handling characteristics scare me more than a quiet dinner for two with Mr. Lecter. “Oh Clarice,” I imagine. Nope. Not nearly as terrifying as carving an off-camber curve around Keppel Gate, with mobs of suicidal bikers tucked into my exhaust smoke.

“Mad Sunday” isn’t exactly safe, or regulated, and it definitely is not sensible. But it’s one of the main reasons 30,000 people from around the globe visit a tiny piece of rock measuring just 33 by 13.5 miles, situated within the Irish Sea. It occurs during the two weeks of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy motorbike races. With week one devoted to practice, “Mad Sunday” sets the stage for week two’s competition. Of course the “racers” are all professional riders, with professional teams and sponsors. “Mad Sunday” is for the general, beer guzzling public. The racetrack is open, and once out of town and into the grueling mountain section, there are no speed limits. The traffic is directed one-way, and bikes, cars, trucks — any form of wheeled transportation — is permitted. Naturally the roads are littered with motorbikes, with those in cars becoming paralyzed by the madness surrounding them.

The night before, I had dinner on the Douglas promenade – a nice but not great pizzeria adjacent to the beach. For the TT, the prom is loaded with beer tents, and police patrol the street keeping everything in order: “Were you planning a wheelie there, Sir,” said one cop to a German-looking fella who was revving his lime green Kawasaki Ninja.

“Nein Sir, I vas not,” he replied.

I watched from our table on the patio, expecting a nasty outcome. Like most riders, the guy had probably imbibed a bevvie or three.

“Well,” said the cop in his broad Manx accent, sounding like a cross between a northern Englishman, an Irishman and a Scot. “We only let you ride on the promenade if you can wheelie for more than 20 meters. If you can’t, you’ll have to take the back roads.”

“Vaaaattt?” said the confused German.

“Wheelie. You must wheelie. So make it a good’n,” replied the law.

Being a proficient wheelier isn’t the only way to ride along the prom during race week. Bikers with female passengers can enter too, but only if said female will go topless. It’s one big party, and the police are the Pied Piper. Not all the cops play games, of course. I imagine the ones promoting the mayhem are there to paint a glossy image of the Island — a place of no inhibitions, where beer is cheap, girls come easy and biking rules. In reality, plenty of tourists are arrested each year for alcohol-related incidents. But on the prom, this feels like the greatest country on earth.

Country. Yes, the Isle of Man, despite its miniature size, is not part of Great Britain or the United Kingdom. It’s self-governed, with its foreign relations and defense the only aspect handled by the British government. It was once the prime tourist spot for pasty Brits in search of ocean, sand and stunning topography. Basking sharks sized like school buses patrol the shallows. Cliff faces seemingly painted from J. R. R. Tolkien's imagination line the shore. It’s a magnificent place, with friendly people, many of whom are escaping the mainland’s high taxes, all seeking a small haven nestled between England and Ireland.

But tourism has slowed over the decades. Today, you can fly to the south of Spain for the same price as the Island, and Spain’s weather is decidedly less nippy. The TT is its main attraction, its only form of proper tourism. It’s a dangerous event, with competitors dying most years; in this year's race, there has already been two racers killed with five days left of action. Riders race on the Island's streets. Safety measures include a dozen or so hay bales, perhaps a sand bag, and an old bloke waving a flag to warn you of the ever impending danger. In other countries, it wouldn’t be allowed, but on the Isle of Man, there’s a wonderful attitude towards risk assumption: Those who take to the track know of its inherent perils. Spectators lining the unguarded roads understand what befalls should a biker get it wrong. If you deem the risk too high, stay home. It’s that simple.

“Mad Sunday” amasses the most casualties. Thousands upon thousands of amateur riders share the circuit with other motorists, all seeking a glimpse at what their heroes endure. Through town, the roads are as normal, with traffic patterns in effect and speed limits governed. Most of the time you sit in a queue, and in the case of my TVR, with a left leg bordering on cramps due to the lead-like clutch pedal. It’s only when you turn the sharp uphill hairpin exiting the town of Ramsey that things begin to move. What lies ahead is miles of unrestricted mountain roads where there are no limits to how fast, or stupid, you can pedal. Oncoming traffic is banned, so you have both lanes at your disposal. It often rains in the mountains when other parts of the island are dry, meaning conditions can change without warning. And you can’t travel slowly. Doing so would be even more dangerous.

I drop to third gear, blipping the throttle with my right heel. Walls line both sides of the road and the TVR squirms. A biker appears around the outside of me, knee grazing the tarmac. “Jeez, around the outside,” I think. “Brave man.”

Another biker on a red Ducati 916 with matching leathers flashes into vision. He’s lay flat, seemingly defeating physics. Clearly he possesses a death wish. I wonder where he’ll go; after all, it’s a narrow road and I already have a biker on my outside.

Elbow scraping, he rides perilously close to the wall. Around he goes, on the outside, around the other biker, too, who appears completely unfazed by it all. My mirrors display a pack of other riders in pursuit. I want to stop and pull over, but I can’t. Slowing down, increasing the closing rate, would be suicidal. I must drive as fast as I dare until we drop back into town. With bikes hitting 160 mph on the open stretches, over bumps and blind crests, anything less than 130 won’t do.

On many occasions I see ambulances stopped by cliffs. Bikers, and drivers, fly by without concern. It’s part of the game that is “Mad Sunday.” Again. You knew the risks coming in. So don’t complain.

That year, dozens of amateur riders were killed or injured during those few hours of madness. In 2013, officials rejoiced because that number fell to just four. It remains a bucket list item for thrill seekers worldwide, the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing what Joey Dunlop felt when he won the TT a record 26 times over.

“Mad Sunday” shouldn’t exist. It’s inhuman, irresponsible, and puts countless lives at risk. By all reasonable logic, it should be banned. And yet it exemplifies what makes this tiny island so special. It’s like going back in time, before Big Brother watched over us. In this world, cars won’t soon drive themselves. Gladiators will be left to fight. And bikers will rule. Millions and millions of swarming bikers. Like bees, wheelieing down the promenade.