That Near-Death Thing – Inside the TT

Jim-Bob reviews Rick Broadbent’s moving and revealing book on the Isle of Man TT and the men and women who ride, watch and hope…

The issue with reviewing this is perspective. A biker who loves road racing will read the book very differently to a non-biker who hasn’t a clue. The triumph of the book is that it works for both, but that doesn’t help me decide how to go about a review. In the end I’ve settled on the latter; an everyman approach. So fellow riders should forgive me being a little broad-brush. As is the way with many sports books these days the publisher is looking to produce a cross-genre read which lifts the lid on a closed world to the general reader, and it seems fairest to review it like that.

For most people the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy races (or the TT for short) are a news story which crops up each summer. It’s a simple story involving death and tragedy, followed by calls for a ban on the event. Since it began in 1904 more than 240 riders have lost their lives. The book’s dark subtitle is no hollow claim.

The issue is the conflagration of two things. Firstly, speed. A top end TT bike will hit 210 miles per hour on parts of the course – faster than a Forumula One car. Secondly, the course itself. A F1 race track might have 12 or so corners, wide, smooth tarmac, huge run-off areas and no obstacles. The TT course, run on public roads, is 37 miles long, has 263 corners and is packed with kerbs, telegraph poles, walls, phone boxes and buldings. Most races are six laps. To put the way these two come together in to perspective, top riders achieve an average speed around the 17 minute course of more than 130mph. That’s average.

Broadbent sets out to do two things. Firstly he wants ordinary people to understand what makes young men and women take such stratospheric risks for little, if any, money, and no fame whatsoever. Many, even at the higher levels, work normal jobs all year just to be able to afford to race and are, consequently, on a shoestring and have no idea what they will do when the racing is over (not just financially, but emotionally and in terms of feeling fulfilled).

What do they have that we lack, he asks; or what do we have that they don’t, perhaps.

Secondly he tries to paint a picture of a mythical as well as physical island, a place of immense danger in a world obsessed by recognising and controlling risk. He tries to explain why the TT is special.

 

The book focuses on four riders.

Connor Cummins is a young Manxman of real promise. Michael Dunlop, nephew of the great Joey Dunlop and son of the equally famous Robert (both killed racing), is fast but seems consumed by his demons and the weight of (with his brother William) continuing to carry the Dunlop name. John McGuinness is a working-class hero who became the “King of the Mountain”, the most successful TT racer of the last two generations, but now faces a battle against age and the dying of the light. And finally Guy Martin, eccentric TV personality, lorry mechanic and the people’s champion, but a man full of contradictions and often shunned by fellow racers as his fame and fortune have grown. Constantly on the podium, Martin has never managed a TT win. Is he a fame-hungry chancer or simply misunderstood?

Set against the background of the 2010 and 2011 TT races, Broadbent follows the four both on and off the island, trying to get to the heart of what makes a road racer. It’s not easy. Martin: “I was driving down the duel carriageway and saw a guy about my age, in a people carrier, bonnet up, kids in the back, steam coming out of the engine, wife at his side giving him all that. What does he do at the weekend? Mow the grass? Wash the car? I mean, how can I explain something like this to someone like that? It’s just not in his DNA.”

Pretty much everyone is a man of fewer words than Guy Martin, whose machine-gun delivery betrays a mind which hops from subject to subject dozens of times a minute.

Multiple TT winner Dunlop, though, is a man of fewer words than just about anyone. “People think I’m one of them arseholes. They’re right; I am one of them arseholes.”

The central contradiction is danger. TT riders are quick to reject as frivolous allegations that they are adrenaline junkies akin to base jumpers or big wave surfers.

Yet as Broadbent befriends them they begin to let slip, perhaps to themselves as much as him, that there may be truth in the accusation. Yet all, with varying degrees of success, talk more movingly of a “place”. Not a physical place, but a place in the mind, the body and the soul. A place that can only be found wrestling a motorcycle from corner to corner at 180mph for minute after minute. One suggests that this is a quiet place, despite the screaming engine, the squeal of tires and the cheering of crowds. It’s a place they feel most at home, most alive and, ironically for most of us watching the madness from without, most at peace.

 

In fact one of the most eloquent, and moving, explanations of the risks and rewards of the TT comes not from a rider, but the widow of one. Bridget Dobbs, mother of two young children, was married to Kiwi Paul Dobbs, killed in a huge crash at the 2010 TT. She was at the course that day.

She explains why so many riders seem to take the death of their peers in their stride, open to accusations of insensitivity and callousness. It’s not that they don’t grieve, says Dobbs; actually they feel the hurt more than almost anyone, it’s just that you can’t race whilst grieving. They save it for off the island, she says. She’s back, with her children, at the TT course which killed her husband the previous year.

As Broadbent says of her: “It is curiously uplifting to listen to a bereaved woman speak in such a way about her worst nightmare, but whilst critics point to the deaths as conclusive proof that racing on the course was unjustifiable, Dobbs regarded it differently. To her it is a loss, not a waste. The alternative was a longer life, half-lived.”

In part of a statement put out in the hours after “Dobsy’s” death, his wife said: “Dobsy’s daughters, Eadlin and Hillberry, are two very special people. They have lived an honest and unsheltered life and I know they both understand exactly what this means. They will miss their dad terribly and there will be some hard times over the coming weeks, months and years. But I also know they have been shaped by having Dobsy in their lives and they are all the stronger, smarter and braver for that.”

The bright light of the thrills is constantly shuttered by the darkness of tragedy throughout the book. Perhaps this is most famously summed by what must be one of the most emotional and moving moments in sporting, never mind motorcycle racing, history.

Robert Dunlop was killed in a crash at the North West 200, in Northern Ireland, in May 2008. His bike is thought to have seized at 160mph, hurling him over the handlebars. His two sons, Michael and William, were racing in the same event. The next day both insisted on taking part. Organisers said they were in no fit state, and to be fair neither looked it; hollowed out by grief and in one case unsteady on his feet. They were barred from the race. Both Dunlop boys lined up on the grid anyway. If they were to be stopped, they would have to be dragged off their bikes.

William’s bike broke down early. Michael raced on and, after a titanic struggle for the lead, crossed the line to win his first ever major race before collapsing in a mix of exhaustion, grief and elation over the front of his motorcycle. He was surrounded by hundreds, most in floods of tears. He was 20 years old.

All of this is anathema to most people, and whilst this is certainly a book which aims to explain the extraordinary to the ordinary, it also cleverly sets the record straight about road racers (and the fans who watch them), giving the lie to the ill-informed accusation that they come for the danger. They come for the racing, says Broadbent, the danger simply makes the racing better.

Finally, and accidentally, the book is also a window on the controversial figure of Guy Martin, who became vastly more well-known to the general public as it was written. He does not help himself. “Them others hate me because I’m only doing it for a laugh” is his constant refrain. Yet Broadbent discovers a genuine man who dislikes fame and the attention which goes with his celebrity status but has a deep love of, and respect for, road racing and those within it. In moments at Martin’s rented flat the two talk for hours and Broadbent’s verdict is that Martin genuinely cares not a jot what is said about him, but secretly enjoys stirring up the rows. He’s basically just a bit odd, and there’s not a great deal more to it than that.

Of all the central characters, McGuiness remains the most impressive. Honest, hard-working (he is an ex cockle picker in his beloved home town of Morecambe, where he still lives), he is an earthy straight talker who is unapologetic about how his road racing prize money is his children’s’ nest egg.

Dunlop remains an aggressive and impressive enigma and Cummins…well, if you don’t already know you need to read the book to discover what happens to Cummins.

What you have here then is two things. Firstly a window on a select and insane world that the man on the 7.29 will never really know; a world of risk and glory and camaraderie. Second, a more in depth look at the personalities behind the race numbers for the regular fan.

I can absolutely see why it was nominated for the William Hill sports book of the year. I think it’s something anyone with hopes and ambitions, or anyone who feels trapped, needs to read. You don’t need to know, ride or understand bikes to enjoy this. You need to have dreams.

“That Near-Death Thing – Inside the TT: The World’s Most Dangerous Race”
by Rick Broadbent. Orion Publishing, £8.99 (paperback).

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