Isle of Delight - Riding the Isle of Man

If the TT is too OTT for you, Stuart Barker discovers there are 48 weeks every year where things needn't be 'Mad Manx'

Imagine an island where car drivers are actually aware of motorcyclists and pull aside to let you pass. Imagine an island where bikers are actually welcomed and valued rather than shunned and looked down on.
Think of a place where pubs are decorated with pictures of bikes and bike racing, where almost every corner shop sells biking videos, where the local supermarkets use posters of Neil Hodgson as a marketing tool, and where the local ale is called 'Blade Brew.'

Now conjure a country where there are no tankslapper-inducing cat's eyes on many of the roads, where special grippy paint is used for road markings, where bike theft is almost non-existent and where there are no speed cameras. That's right: no speed cameras.

Sounds too good to be true, right? There is such a place and it's right on your doorstep: it's called the Isle of Man. An independent country with the oldest parliament in the world, the Isle of Man has long done things its own way. And when its parliament permitted car (and later bike) races to be held on public roads in 1904 when the British Government would not, a biker-friendly nation was born.

The TT and Manx races may provide some of the best biking entertainment in the world for four weeks of the year, but two-wheelers are welcome all year round on Mona's Isle and that's what makes it such a great place to tour.

And at just 30 miles long and 12 miles wide, it's possible to see most of the island in a weekend trip, which means you can keep your costs down while still having a great break.

It goes without saying that if you want to see the Island avoid the manic TT period, unless partying and watching the races is top of your agenda. Thankfully, my other half is Manx born and bred, so I couldn't have had a better guide to help me find the best roads on the Island (the locals always use a capital 'I' when referring to their country).

I based myself in the capital, Douglas, because that's where there's most happening and its two-mile promenade is still one of the finest anywhere, as long as you avoid braking on the horse-shit-strewn tram rails!

There's all you could want from any decent sized town to keep you amused and practically everywhere is biker-friendly, from pubs and clubs to restaurants and shops. The people of the Isle of Man have been born and bred to bikes and it shows. I mean; where else would weaning babies be wakened at 5am to the sound of racing two-strokes?

Route One & Two

Route One - Tholt-e-will & Sulby Glens

7 miles approx

Roll out of bed, full English (sorry, Manx) breakfast, breathe in the fresh sea air on Douglas prom and ride up to the famous Bungalow corner on the top of the TT course, which is actually the A18 at this point in normal everyday life.

From there I take the A14 down towards Tholt-e-Will Glen, keeping in a low gear as the road is bumpy and narrow and I seem to be attracting the close attention of the local sheep population, many of whom bring their entire families out onto the road to meet me and admire my Yamaha XJR1300. Being Scottish, I have no problem with sheep, ahem, but I'm not so sure about the sheer drop of several hundred feet down to my left. But the views are superb - all mountainside, forestry, lakes and the Irish Sea in the distance. There are few better ways to wake up in the morning than riding a bike, visor slightly open to allow in fresh air, through scenic countryside all on your own. Perfick. The view actually becomes so distracting I'm forced to stop to take it in, otherwise I would have run the very real risk of riding straight off the edge of the hillside. But then, there's no rush anyway. Life on the Isle of Man is lived at a much slower pace than on the mainland and I'm all for that.

Back on the XJR, which is proving surprisingly adept at tackling tight little roads given its muscle bike looks and hulk of an engine, and I'm just beginning to get the hang of dodging sheep shit and roads that fall away into lush green voids when I'm thrown another challenge - a demonically tight, downhill, left-hand hairpin that could be the original model for all such-named turns. I run wide, clench my butt cheeks involuntarily and breathe a sigh of relief as I make it round without encountering any oncoming traffic. In fact, I haven't seen a car yet on this stretch of road. Bliss.

Having just had breakfast, I pass up the opportunity for another coffee or light snack in the little café that nestles at the foot of the glen, keen to press on with the day's exploring. Riding over old stone bridges, under the cover of overhanging trees and beside a small river, I began to think I had stumbled onto the Hobbiton set from The Lord of the Rings, but there's no sign of any Hobbits - for now, that is. More of which later.

Carrying on to the end of the short but scenic run, I come out onto the TT course again (the A3 stretch this time) and grab a coffee in the famous Sulby Glen Hotel. Its walls are covered with framed TT photos and the owners and staff are, like everywhere else on the Isle of Man, biker-friendly in the extreme. It's no surprise, as this pub does more than its fair share of fundraising for bike-related charities. Good on 'em.

Route Two - Over the Mountain  

12 miles

Let's face it, you're not going to go to the Isle of Man and not ride the TT circuit. But do yourself a favour - ignore the first two-thirds of the course and start your ride at Ramsey in the north of the Island.

Why? Well, TT purists will insist on riding the complete 37.73 mile course but until you get to Ramsey, it's a waste of time unless you just want to take in the names of the famous corners. Traffic lights, 30, 40 and 50mph zones, towns, villages and heavy traffic all had me seething to get going and I learned after several laps that the only place I could really do that was over the mountain section.

Taking the A18 out of Ramsey and heading for Douglas, I first encounter the famous Ramsey Hairpin and from there on, the road is all you could ever wish for. For starters, it's derestricted which means that, as long as you're not riding dangerously, you can pretty much go as fast as you want.

Remember it is two-way traffic however (the one-way flow only happens on Mad Sunday of TT week), but there are loads of corners you can see clear through, sweeping bends, a steep uphill climb to Brandywell and a beautiful downhill run from there until the finish line on Glencrutchery Road in Douglas.

Along the way, you'll realise exactly why so many riders are prepared to risk the dangers of the TT just to have the thrill of riding round here. The mountain is also safer than the other sections of the course for road riders as there aren't many hidden farm roads or side roads, so you can concentrate more on your lines and riding. Again, this is a short run (about 12 miles), but as soon as you've completed it, you're gonna want to turn round and do it all again. And again.

Route Three

Route Three - Round the Island

79.8 miles

Because the Isle of Man is so small, you can ride right round it easily in a morning or an afternoon, depending on how many stops you want to make - and there's certainly plenty to see. This route takes you as close to the sea all the way round as it is possible to get without reverting to really awful roads.

From Douglas, I take the A5 to Castletown, not forgetting local tradition on the way by saying hello to the fairies at Fairy Bridge - home of the little people themselves, you understand, and not a passing point for camp transvestites. It has to be done if you want to have good luck while on the Island and, since I'm on a borrowed bike and don't want to drop it, I play along. Can't do any harm.

Castletown itself is stunning, built as its name suggests, around a medieval castle that is reckoned to be the best preserved in the British Isles. Castletown's quaint little harbour and rinky-dinky back streets make it a regular location for moviemakers and bugger me if I don't ride right into a bloody movie set in the middle of town and actually get to see a real, live Hobbit. Pippin himself (Billy Boyd) from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Mullen (Mother Superior in Trainspotting) are filming their new movie 'On a Clear Day' and security tell me I'm more than welcome to stand and watch as scenes are acted out. Cool. And I thought all the Hobbits would have been in Tholt-e-Will Glen.

I rejoin the A5 heading for Port St. Mary and cross the start/finish line of the Billown road racing course, a 4.5 mile, even hairier version of the TT circuit where the Southern 100 meeting is held each July. The two green double-decker buses that act as the official race control buildings, indicate that this is road racing in its purest form.

I decide to follow the circuit signs and have a blast round and I'm utterly gob-smacked to find this place makes the TT course look like the M1. It's completely bloody mental and hardly a yard of it is not lined with jagged stone walls and farm buildings: the top boys get round at more than 100mph average speed!

On completing a lap, I carry on down the A5 to Port St. Mary, a charming little fishing village. From there it's on to Port Erin - ditto. After a quick fag and a ride round I decide to head for the hills, back out of Port Erin and left at the Four Roads roundabout. This puts me on the A29, which becomes the A36 after a mile or so and I can then begin the ascent up the Sloc, an imposing hill just short of being a mountain.

It's bumpy and fairly narrow again, but the views are stunning and the Irish Sea is clearly visible on three sides as I climb to almost 1400 feet, feeling almost God-like as I look down and survey the little kingdom from whence I just came.

At the Round Table crossroads I bear left onto the A27, back down towards the sea and decide to try my luck at Niarbyl Bay where it's common to see huge basking sharks close to the shore.

I play the cello score from Jaws over and over in my head as I survey the waters for an ominous dorsal fin, but my shark-charming powers are waning. So I throw a leg back over the Yamaha and head for Peel, still on the A27 but in a bit of a huff. Bloody sharks.

A positively evil downhill, left-hand hairpin entering Glenmaye almost has me cursing those damned fairies for not looking after me, but I get away with it and swop Basking Sharks for Manx Kippers for lunch in the Creek Inn, down by Peel harbour. Straight off the boat and into the smoke room, Manx kippers are at their best in Peel - if you like 'em, of course.

I remove my kipper-breath (not nice when you burp in your helmet) with a famous Peel ice cream and wander round the grounds of the hugely imposing Peel castle, another medieval relic that dominates the town's skyline. I'm told the sunsets here are out of this world but I can't hang around to witness one, and instead take the A4 north to Kirkmichael where I briefly rejoin the TT course (there's no getting away from it really).

After a pathetic three-mile stint at pretending to be a TT rider, I veer left immediately after the famous Ballaugh Bridge and hug the coastline as close as I can on the A10. Again, the roads are bumpy and slim but still good fun.

At Bride, I hop onto the A16 which, incredibly for an A road, is less than two miles long, but it's a great little road and leads to a dirt track that takes me to the Point of Ayre, the most northerly point in the Island. I shout my 'hellos' across to the family in Scotland, which is clearly visible (as it should be at just 31 miles away), and nip back onto the tasty little A16 before picking up the A10 again for Ramsey, the second biggest Manx town.

Just before reaching Ramsey, I spot a small sign pointing down to the promenade and round a corner that takes me straight onto the prom that hosts the Ramsey Sprint during TT week. I get all excited looking down the mile-long strip of smooth Tarmac and change down a gear ready for a drag race against myself only to notice the 30mph signs that spell an end to my fantasy. Bugger.

Like just about every town on the Isle of Man, Ramsey is pretty, neat and well-kept but there's not as much going on as in Douglas. So I move swiftly on to the coast road run back into the capital. It's called the A2 and features some mad-as-they-come cliff-top corners where there's a cliff face on my right, an electric tram line on my left and then a drop of several hundred feet to the Irish Sea after that. I make the most of the luscious bends and find myself grinning under my lid.

Laxey is another pretty little seaside town like so many others in the Isle of Man, but it's home to Lady Isabella. Unfortunately, she's not a stunning local madam but rather the biggest, and oldest (150 years) operational water wheel in the world. I stop in at The Queen's having heard it's a bit of a shrine to the TT races and I'm not disappointed; the walls are literally covered in biking paraphernalia. Do go have a look.

The six mile run back to Douglas takes in some of the most extreme cliff-riding action of the whole trip and there's nothing but a scrawny wire fence between me and the deep blue, so I keep it on the rails here - and I don't mean the electric tram ones, which are now running on the inside of the road.

If you ever decide to follow this route, you'll pass through Onchan on the way into Douglas and the end of your trip. As you do, shout hello to the village's most famous resident - one Neil Hodgson Esquire, erstwhile WSB champ and now MotoGP campaigner. Sure, it's for tax reasons, but other 'comeovers' as they're called include Dougie Lampkin, Steve Parrish and the late, great Steve Hislop.

So, do you really need any more convincing that this really is the biking capital of the world? If you do, try popping over during or just after the Manx Grand Prix, which is held between August 21st and September 3rd.