Isle of Man motorcycle races highlight British islands

Christy Karras

The Isle of Man appears as just a blip between Great Britain and Ireland on the European map. But to motorcycle fans, it’s a place of pilgrimage. For more than 100 years, they have flocked to the island for the heart-pumping, crowd-pleasing Isle of Man TT Races (May 25-June 7), set against a bucolic backdrop of countryside and seashore.

Competitors will take on a “seemingly never-ending series of bends, bumps, jumps, stone walls, manhole covers and telegraph poles” — all at speeds reaching 200 mph. Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Aprilia and BMW bikes, some with sidecars, tear through the 37-mile Mountain Course, leaning into curves and accelerating through straightaways past farms, hedgerows and rocky coastlines.

Thousands of fans descend on the island, lining the course’s winding country roads and filling pubs and music tents with raucous good cheer. Lodging can’t keep up with demand, so many race fans camp, while others stay with local families in a government-approved home-share program.

If you miss this weekend’s festivities, there’s always the Classic TT at the end of August. Centered on the Festival of Jurby, the event brings back vintage motorcycles and previous race winners along with enthusiasts for a carnival of motorcycle nostalgia. Of course, the event includes races, too.

The races are both a celebration motorcycles and a chance to introduce the Isle of Man — one of three British crown dependency islands — to the world.

An island apart

The roughly rectangular Isle of Man, a mere 32 miles long and 14 wide, lies in middle of the Irish Sea. Hilly, green and sparsely populated, it feels a world apart from the mainland bustle.

Being a crown dependency means its people govern themselves while Britain handles foreign relations and Queen Elizabeth II is the official head of state.

Its traditional culture is a mix of Gaelic and Norse influences. Its ancient language, Manx, is similar to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It has the oldest continually existing parliament in the world, the Tynwald, formed in 979.

The TT races aren’t the island’s only draw. All year, the Isle of Man is a relaxing escape dotted with forests and parks for leisurely walks. Many of its historical sites, including prehistoric burial grounds, old forts and early churches, are accessible via railways or cycle paths.

The island also boasts unique attractions like the Great Union Camera Obscura, a Victorian sightseeing camera originally opened in the 1890s on a headland above the beach. Even back then, most people used it to spy on scantily clad sunbathers and necking couples.

Offshore interest

Other culturally distinct islands near Britain are also crown dependencies. Jersey (for which New Jersey is named) and Guernsey (recently made famous by the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”) and a few smaller islands make up the Channel Islands, which have similar relationships to Britain. They lie to the south in the English Channel, much closer to France than England.

Over the centuries, England and France traded jurisdiction over the islands, and their current language, laws and attitudes trace back to both. Many place names are French, for example, although English has long been the official language.

The islands’ sandy beaches, small port towns and relatively mild weather make them prime tourist destinations. They also celebrate their agricultural heritage, evident in roadside stands selling flowers and fresh produce.

While motorcycles are tearing around the Isle of Man this weekend, the Jersey Food Festival (May 23-26) will attract equally enthusiastic crowds of foodies. The Battle of Flowers, the second Thursday in August, is one of Jersey’s biggest festivals and features a flower-themed Moonlight Parade.

Guernsey is rich in military history: visitors can explore clifftop Castle Cornet, a keystone in the English Civil Wars, as well as the remnants of heavy coastal fortifications the Germans built during World War II, when the Channel Islands were the only occupied British territory. Getting around is easy: even many locals often take gently undulating and well-maintained walking paths rather than drive to visit their neighbors.