Pleasure Island - 2003 TT Test

We took the four road-going versions from 2003's TT winning bikes together with two TT specialists, back to the home of road racing

Driving the 37.73 mile TT course with three-times TT winner John McGuinness com- mentating, is a sobering experience, but it also shows the absolute dedication and fanatical attention to detail that is required to come even close to mastering the island course.

He knows every bend by name, every bump in the road, every brick that sticks out of every wall, every natural spring that creates a permanent puddle of water on the road and every small imperfection in the tarmac that has to be avoided.

But it's when he starts talking about the friends and fellow racers that have lost their lives to the island that the dangers of the course are brought home, very sharply. At virtually every corner McGuinness mentions the name of a rider and points to a spot where they, or their bike, ended up. To someone like myself who doesn't know much about the history of the TT and has only been there once before it's a scary ride.

But this year's TT was harder than most for the racers. During the Thursday afternoon practice session TT legend, and one of the most liked riders in the paddock, Dave Jefferies was killed when he hit some oil and lost control of his GSX-R1000 at close to 160mph. The man who had set the out-right lap record of 127.29mph was gone.

McGuinness was the first rider on the scene and quite how he managed to carry on racing that week let alone win a TT race having seen the body of one of his best friends lying in the road demonstrates the mental toughness needed to compete at the TT.

Joining TWO on the Island nearly two months after the close of the festival was the first time McGuinness had returned to the scene since the racing finished, it was also the first time Gus, another of DJ's closest friends, had been to the site. On the first night they both spent a few quite minutes at the scene in Crosby to pay their respects.

But in the bar afterwards the sadness is forgotten while Gus and John swap stories, many too rude to repeat, involving DJ and the times they had raced together and the shenanigans that they had got up to afterwards. Both myself and Evil Jim were left in hysterics as a more and more drunken McGuinness and Gus kept reeling off the stories until late that night. But it was the antidote we all needed because not only were we remembering DJ but also another TT legend Steve Hislop, who was meant to be joining us on the test but was tragically killed just a week earlier in a helicopter accident. Two of Britain's greatest racers who will be sadly missed.

Continue for the TT Test

The next morning four blurry eyed riders emerged from the Empress hotel to be greeted by the fifth rider, a considerably healthier looking Jason Griffiths. Being a Manx citizen Jason didn't have to sleep in the same hotel room as Gus, whose snoring set off earthquake alarms in Japan, or try and control a pair of vodka and Red Bull-fuelled racers as they searched for more alcohol at 3am.

Although Jason hasn't yet managed to notch up his first TT win he is regarded as one of the best riders of the course and was fourth on a Yamaha Moto UK R1 in this year's Senior and F1 race.

Beginning the day at the start of the TT course seemed the logical thing to so it was off to the grandstand at Douglas.

The four bikes we chose for this test all won their class in the 2003 TT races. Suzuki's GSX-R1000 has dominated the TT in the last few years, mainly at the hands of Dave Jefferies. Not only does it hold the outright lap record but in 2003 DJ's team-mate Adrian Archibald won both the Formula 1 and Senior TT on his TAS GSX-R1000 while Shaun Harris scooped the Production 1000 TT. Suzuki's baby GSX-R, the 600, won the Production 600 TT with Shaun Harris again at the controls while TWO guest tester John McGuinness took a Honda RVF400 NC35 to the Lightweight TT win. Finally the Triumph. New Zealander Bruce Anstey brought Triumph its first TT win in 28 years when he brought the ValMoto Daytona 600 home in first place in the Junior TT.

Having never been to the Isle of Man when the TT races aren't on I assumed that the start/finish straight would look like any other road on the island. Not so. The Pits area still has the metal re-fueling rigs set up and the huge scoreboard still stands looking over the road, devoid of numbers and the Manx scouts turning the dials to let anxious teams know where their rider is on the course.

Looking down the straight Jason explains that once you cross the line you just hold the throttle wide open until you reach the braking point for the Quarter Bridge. Riding down the route trying to imagine travelling between the houses at nearly 190mph is terrifying. "On a big bike the front lifts over every crest," reckons McGuinness, "sometimes you have to steer while still on the back wheel."

A few photos later, and a quick moment for thought at a bunch of flowers left in memory of Steve Hislop on the start/finish straight, we headed off past the Quarter Bridge towards Greeba Bridge. The riders reckon this is the fastest section on the TT course as for the three miles between Braddan Bridge and Greeba Castle the riders don't shut the throttle at all. When John told me this I assumed that it would be a virtually straight run on smooth tarmac. Not a chance, this is the Isle of Man after all. The road has several sweeping corners, which I suppose could be taken flat out, but it's the surface that surprises. Far from being the billiard smooth tarmac I was expecting the road is full of bumps and ripples that unsettle a bike at 50mph, let alone 150mph. "Yes it's a bit bumpy, you need to get the bike set up for it otherwise you lose loads of time," reckons McGuinness, "one bike I rode a few years ago was so unstable I could only do 150mph through here, I was getting overtaken by 600s!"

Passing through Crosby I can't help noticing the bunches of flowers tied to a fence next to a broken wall. You don't need to be told what happened here and both Gus and John slow down as they pass the spot.

Further up the course we pass the first marshal post at Glen Helen. It's little more than a wooden shack and is where TT commentator Maurice Mawdsley sits at the first commentary point and is where the riders get their first signal board. "By the time you get here on your first lap you know if you're doing well, you can make up a lot of time on the start as some riders take a while to switch into race mode," said McGuinness.

This obviously isn't a problem for him however. Jumping on board the Triumph to do a few photos after a roar of approaching exhaust, he bursts into view, clips a branch hanging over the corner then disappear out of view leaving Gus, Jim and myself speechless. It looks insane, and is, but the truth is that McGuinness is used to doing it far faster in a race situation.

Switching to the GSX-R600 he then disappears off down the road leaving us well behind. Despite there being no official top-speed limit the police are very, very keen on enforcing the 30 and 40mph limits and as we pass through the next village there is a Manx policeman stood in the middle of the road aiming a speed gun at us. Luckily at this point we had been following Jason who, being a Manx local, is more than used to the police's keenness to enforce limits. Personally I don't think this is any bad thing and all the locals seem to stick to the limits in villages and leave the silliness to the open roads.

Once again stopping for a few photos it's instantly apparent the different riding styles between McGuinness and Jason. Riding the TT requires a combination of precision and balls-on-the-line trust in your machine control as well as knowing exactly where you are going. Jason has a reputation as being smooth, inch-perfect and a thinking rider, where as McGuinness is a much more aggressive natural rider. Following McGuinness on the road it's a case of every crest is an excuse to pull a wheelie and every corner is attacked at what looks like full-on pace to a 'normal' rider like myself, whereas Jason is smooth and always looks in perfect control. Both have levels of both machine control and knowledge of the TT course that I can only dream about but looking at the differences in style you can't help wondering which works best. If results are the only guide then McGuinness with his three wins tops it, but it can only be a matter of time until Jason gets his first trip to the top step.

Having been well and truly left in his dust on the 600s we decided to give McGuinness the 400 for the next few miles to be in with a slight chance of keeping him in sight. After a few miles he pulled up at the side of the road next to a small bridge at the bottom of Barregarrow Hill. "This is scary," he explains, "you approach down the hill and this dip makes the bikes grind their sumps out. The worst thing is you can see the corner from half-way down the hill so you have loads of time to think about it and wait for it to happen."

Back off down the course and after a quick hop over Ballaugh Bridge, where we met the only miserable sod in the whole island who took offence to us jumping the bridge and threatened to call the police, we carry on up towards Quarry Bends.

Just before the bends McGuinness pulls up beside a house on the side of the road. "This is where Gwen lives," he says. "Every year at first practice she holds up a sign wishing the riders good luck." Looking through the windows of the house you can see that every wall is covered with pictures of riders spanning back many years. Then at the window appears Gwen. Despite seeing her every year when he races McGuinness has never actually met Gwen so when she invites us in for a cup of tea it seems as good an excuse as any to get them formally introduced. Despite being the wrong side of 80 Gwen is still as sharp as a button and proudly shows us around her house and the pictures of all the riders. Most of the photographs are signed and nearly everyone has popped in for a cup of tea at some point. It's an amazing shrine to the TT. Then just as we are about to leave Gwen shows us her most treasured possession, her MBE awarded for services to the TT. A quick kiss from us all and it's back on the road.

A few photos at Quarry Bends, where once again McGuinness has us all frightened at the speed he goes around, and we head to Sulby Bridge and then on to Ginger Hall.

Both Jason and John agree that the next section is the bumpiest on the TT course. "Through Kerrowmoar it's so bumpy it can knock you feet off the pegs and the bike feels on the edge of a tank-slapper," reckons Jason. "When you get near the School House the bumpy bit ends and you are on smooth tarmac so you can relax a bit," agrees McGuinness.

Up until now it had been hard to really test the bikes because of the speed limits on the island, but as we exited Ramsey and started the climb towards the mountain section the fun started.

If you have ever been to the Isle of Man you will know just how much fun the mountain section is. From the exit of Ramsey to just beyond Creg Ny Baa there is no speed limit and you can really open the bikes up, especially when you have a TT racer as a guide. Once again we gave McGuinness the RVF so the less experienced Jim, Gus and myself could follow behind, unfortunately Jason had to go back to work. I bagged the Daytona because as it's my longtermer I'm used to it and I had the feeling the pace was about to up, considerably.

On the mountain climb the Triumph struggled a bit with its lack of mid-range. Jim on the GSX-R600 with its stronger mid-range was edging ahead and Gus on the GSX-R1000 was already in the distance, despite McGuinness being on a 400 he had apparently forgotten what the brakes were for and was keeping ahead of the 600s. But once on the flat the Triumph's solid and dependable handling made it the perfect tool for unfamiliar roads. The GSX-R has always felt just that little bit too rough and ready to really allow the rider to relax. Through the faster corners the Daytona's excellent chassis means that should you suddenly notice the huge drop on the other side and decide that it really isn't a good idea to go over it the Daytona happily changes direction mid-corner or leans over further so you can tighten your line. Also the Triumph's brakes are brilliant for the road. Speaking to McGuinness, who rode the factory Triumph at the TT, he told me that the team used an identical brake set-up on the racer and only swapped the pads and fluid for racing.

McGuinness was waiting for us at Creg Ny Baa and so we swapped bikes for another run over the mountain. John instantly grabbed the GSX-R1000 from Gus and disappeared towards Kate's Cottage on the back wheel, obviously relishing the extra power over the 400, while I swapped with Jim and took the GSX-R600. As soon as you pull away the familiar GSX-R feeling returned. The motor vibrates quite a lot and although it feels more powerful than the Triumph, especially in the mid-range, it isn't as nice to use. Also the riding position leaves you in no doubt that it is a race bike and it expects you to ride it as such. Your weight is pushed more onto your wrists and the pegs feel high.

Over the mountain the steering damper, which is fitted as stock, made the Suzuki feel a little sluggish compared to the Triumph turning into corners although once in it was every bit as planted. Unlike the Triumph, which has a truly horrible gearbox, the Suzuki simply snicks into gear with minimal fuss and no grinding or false neutrals.

Another run over the mountain completed and after physically having to wrestle McGuinness off the GSX-R1000, I hopped on the RVF. I owned an VFR400 NC30 for four years and I don't remember them being this small. Sitting on the NC it feels as though the seat is too low and the bars too high. It's really strange compared to modern bikes and is probably due to its design which still lies in the '90s. On the move the RVF feels dated. The suspension is too bouncy and wobbly and although it turns light lightning it runs out of ground clearance almost instantly and develops a nasty bouncy weave through corners. Gus spent a bit of time fiddling with the suspension to firm it all up but in truth I think that my six-foot plus frame and over- developed waistline was causing most the problems. Also I found the brakes completely crap, wooden, lacking in power and basically just plain useless. Some of this could be down to the bike being a few years old and a bit of TLC and careful suspension set-up would sort it but for the £4500 price you could get a secondhand 600 and enjoy it a lot more. But one very good thing the RVF has going for it is the motor, which is brilliant. The little V4 revs forever and makes a surprisingly large amount of torque for such a small engine. It's easily the best part of the whole bike and reminded me why I chose the NC30 over the other 400s when I originally bought mine.

So with a few laps of the mountain under my belt I felt confident enough to brave the GSX-R1000. Whenever I ride one of these on the road I always find myself questioning the sanity of owning one. I mean, what use is 145bhp (or in this case 160bhp thanks to a Yoshimura system), when the speed limit is 60mph? Well, take away the limit and the GSX-R makes sense. Oh yes. Riding the mighty Suzook over the mountain was a fantastic experience. Where on the 600s, and especially the 400, you were having to continuously change gear to keep in the power the GSX-R was simply a case of stick it in one gear and use the huge amounts of power by rolling on and off the throttle. In some ways this was a bit of a double edged sword because as it was so easy to ride you did find yourself not concentrating as much and when you are travelling over 120mph this isn't a good thing. But I'll take it any day. The Suzuki's chassis is brilliant and turns almost as fast and is as planted as the Triumph, but without the hassle of having to get the right gear everywhere. Because of its size the GSX-R is comfortable to ride, the radial brakes stop you before your brain has worked out that your fingers have pulled the lever and the suspension is excellent. Any complaints? Well only one, I'm not a good enough a rider to do what John and Jason can on it.

Sat at the Creg Ny Baa, er, bar,  we chatted about the day. Having ridden around the course I am still in complete awe of the riders who actually race there. When I asked McGuinness about the risks he simply said "every track has its risks, when the TT is good it's the best track in the world, but when it's bad..." and at this point he changed the subject. Which is understandable. When you race the TT you don't want to think about the dangers, you concentrate on the good points. All the racers know this, but the buzz of racing the most challenging circuit in the world must be worth the risks. For this great men at least...

As we headed back into Douglas I realised I had left my wallet somewhere and the only place I could remember seeing it was hours earlier at the grandstand. It says a lot about the Manx people that my wallet, complete with money, cards etc, was at the police station.

The Isle of Man is a special place. There aren't many places in the where you can turn up on a bike, feel welcome and then give it the berries on the road. But a word of warning, the TT course is dangerous so take it steady and don't speed in the villages. Treat the Island with the respect it deserves and it will look after you, if you don't you've only got yourself to blame.