That Near-Death Thing

That Near-Death ThingPhil: I don’t do sports. Growing up being the last one picked for every sport at school put me off taking part in them for life. I can’t stand football, don’t understand cricket, can watch snooker but only if Ronnie O’Sullivan isn’t playing ‘cos his fans are all rude noisy w***ers.

I do have a soft spot for motorcycle racing however. Unlike Formula 1 cars, there is overtaking and real tension. The best racing though is to be found on the Isle of Man. For just over 37 miles, riders on motorbikes hurtle around a small and beautiful island in the Irish sea travelling along normal roads dodging walls, lampposts and other solid trackside features. Driving around the course is an awe-inspiring experience, especially when you realise your car is travelling at 30mph at the same spot man in leathers will be doing nearly 200.

21 years ago, I first visited the Isle of Man. It was during the TT practise week and every evening the streets of the capital were turned in to a race track. Standing outside a newsagent shop at a point where there was an S-bend in the road, I realised that the racers on their sidecar sets were pointing at me for a fraction of a second. Since there was a slight hill crest in the middle of the bend at this point, the wheels left the tarmac. I moved behind a green telecoms box on the pavement, a wholly inadequate shield, but the best on offer.

Listening to the local radio at the hotel each morning, there were always reports of deaths on the course. Not from those racing, but from fans who thought after a few beers that they could ride windy, complicated roads in the dark. Sadly, they found out that it takes skill not alcohol to do this, something that would go through their mind as they ploughed in to a stone wall.

The TT course is dangerous, but no one likes to talk about it.

Except Rick Broadbent. He has written a superb book on the race – not looking at nerdy details but talking to the characters who battle each year to win a TT.

Each man, and one woman, have their own motivations for taking on the challenge. The common factor seems to be not a death-wish but the feeling that you get living on the edge of disaster. They all know how tough it is. They all know the risks, but those risks are integral to the challenge.

Now, I’m pretty risk-averse. I’ve never ridden on a motorbike and have no interest in trying one. I am fascinated by the people who are very unlike me in this respect.

We meet lots of characters: Guy Martin is well-known as TV companies have picked up on his “character” and shoehorn him into different formats, mostly ones that once would have been sent to Fred Dibnah. He’s always struck me as a top bloke who would make excellent company over tea and beer. Well, if you don’t mind talking old engines and spanners anyway. In so many ways, he is TV gold and sadly that can seem to get in the way of being a professional racer. Guy has yet to win a TT after years of trying.

John McGuiness used to be a cockle picker in Morecambe. He travels to the TT in a motor home and has won it many, many times. The exact opposite of a sporting superstar, slightly overweight and middle-aged, he currently holds the lap record with an average speed of 131mph.

Ian Huthinson managed the remarkable feat of winning every TT race in 2010. Later that year he was involved in an accident that nearly ended his career and kept him from serious racing for 3 years.

The Dunlop brothers come with history and something to prove. When your Uncle Joey is the most succesful racer in the events history and you have to pass a statue of him on each lap, everyone expects you to do well.

Conor Cummins is the Manxman who was poised for greatness in 2010. Leading the TT, he fell off his bike. And then off a mountain. The whole things was captured on film from a helicopter (Don’t worry, there are no gory bits). The book takes us through the accident and his subsequent recovery and it’s here that we see just how all this matters to the people who take part. Interviews reveal that the injuries aren’t just physical, although these are bad enough, they are mental with Cummins struggling to come to terms with not being able to do the one thing he loves.

Beyond the racers, we meet the families, the wives and partners, the mothers and fathers. Those who support and worry. Even the ones who mourn like Bridget Dobbs who travelled from New Zealand with her husband Paul to take part in the TT as they had done for several years. 2010 was the year he didn’t finish the race. It finished him. You might expect bitterness but instead there is passion. She firmly believes that her husband died doing what he loved and that life is better live in a blaze of light for a short period than it is simply existing as a dull glow.

That’s what this book is about – Character. People. The people who do something extraordinary yet when you see inside the helmet, profess to be very ordinary.

I don’t do sports books, this is probably the first one I have ever read. It’s so good though that I couldn’t put it down. Broadbent introduces the character and lets them talk. It’s no hagiography, we see them warts and all. Unlike the excellent film shot during 2010, there is a lot less Guy Martin than you might expect. The author knows he’s a character and excellent content, but we also see the side of riders who wonder why a man who has never won the race gets all the attention.

There is a bit of nerdy detail but very little, just enough to provide background for anyone unfamiliar with the TT. This is about people and emotions and all the better for it.

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Filed under Books, Phil, Writing

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