The Isle of Man Snaefell Mountain Course is 100 years old this year and between 5–7 May an International group of IBA riders made it their own as they challenged themselves to complete the ‘TT1000’ – 27 laps of the famous circuit in 30 hours.
Having enjoyed weeks of glorious spring weather (record breaking high temperatures and no rain) the weather forecast was sadly not encouraging. We had good weather for our ride up to the ferry but showers were forecast and on Thursday morning as we opened the door of the hotel we saw a very wet and bedraggled Belgian resident as he came in from his bike; we tried not to laugh but failed. Definitely waterproofs time.
As we made our way up to the ‘pits’ and hub of operations at the Bungalow it was still raining. Heavily. We could only hope that it would improve.
There was a staggered start with riders starting any time they liked after 9:30. At the pits each rider was given a number to help identification – ours was 12 – and their starting odometer reading taken – ours was 7808. We were waved on our way at 10:40 by the verifying team of Chris, Bev and Dave. More riders and verifiers were to arrive over the next 12 hours as ferries and work commitments allowed. I didn’t bother to get my camera out as it was too wet. Even though it is waterproof it can’t stop the water from landing on the lens and spoiling the pictures.
We made our way down the mountain and into Douglas where it was surprisingly busy. Mrs Sat Nav directed us round the course and we had a good run until we came back to the mountain section where we were met with very heavy fog. We couldn’t see a thing. Kevin navigated by the central white lines and we made our slow way back towards the Bungalow. We rode across the train lines not realising that if the lights are flashing amber it indicates there is a train approaching (unlike the normal red flashing). We were lucky not to have had a close encounter with it as we couldn’t see anything either side of the road.
One lap completed. Our odometer was read (7846 – obviously quite accurate) so they knew we had completed the lap properly and we were waved off again, a pattern to be repeated many more times. That first lap took us 61 minutes.
The next four laps were pretty much the same. It was still raining and the fog on the mountain waxed and waned but was always there.
We’d been concerned we would be bored after a few laps but by lap five the heavy rain was scattered rather than all the way round the course and we had identified the weather pattern. Thick fog on the mountain – always round the Bungalow, often starting at Waterworks and sometimes as far down as Signpost Corner – rain, sometimes torrential, and occasional glorious sunshine. This was the first time we’d ridden the TT circuit and Kevin was getting to grips with the roads as his lines improved and he had more confidence in the overtaking places.
At our second petrol stop, eight laps and around eight hours in, we had a longer break to have a McDonalds and make use of their facilities. By then I was quite chilly so put my electric liners in and continued to use them on low to keep myself warm. The temperature was 7°C (44°F) and surprisingly it was 7° at night too.
The petrol stations aren’t open 24/7 and the latest we could get petrol was 23:45. Just after eleven we made our last petrol station stop of the day and found ourselves there with half-a-dozen other bikes. This was the first time we’d really seen many others as we were all spread out. Over the next few hours we were to encounter more riders. At one point we were actually riding in a small group but as time went on and we rode at our own pace the group broke up.
Riding the course at night had its own special challenges – somehow all the roads looked different in the dark. One place in particular, the sharp right-hand bend at Sulby Bridge, was especially interesting as it had recently been resurfaced. There were no lights, no road markings and a very dark bridge which seemed to result in a black hole that sucked all the light from the headlight. Entry to the bridge at night was often a best guess (Kevin told me afterwards!).
Middle of the night and 16 laps completed; time to fill up again, this time from the stash that had been arranged for us at the pits. It was very unpleasant up there, it was (surprise, surprise) still very foggy and very windy. Several of us commented that it should be impossible to have fog, high wind and torrential rain all at once but somehow the mountain delivered!
The verification team was brilliant: they refilled the bike, offered us hot drinks and made sure we were OK. The last riders had arrived and a barbeque had been set up together with a huge selection of fruit and other foodstuffs to help keep us all going. We’d ridden all of our previous Iron Butt rides on our own so participating in an event with a large number of other riders was an unusual experience for us. There was a very good esprit de corps among the riders and verifiers. If anyone was stopped at the side of the road other riders always checked they were OK.
I got the camera out and as we set off for our 17th lap the sun was just beginning to tint the sky and we had a great lap as the landscape turned back from its night time hues to its daytime colour. This time of year the miles of gorse hedging and other patches swathing the hillsides is in bloom. Overnight the headlights picked out the yellow and the landscape looked quite surreal in places.
We had a strategy for our lap counting. I’d make a mental note which lap we were on and had some target laps. 5 (because it’s a good number), 7 (because it left a nice round 20 laps), then 10 (double digits), 14 (half way) then 17 (only 10 left). As we left on our 17th lap we decided we’d start counting down to zero. Afterwards we were chatting to other riders and discovered many of them also turned their count round. I guess it all helps.
The roads were still very wet as we had another petrol and breakfast stop at 08:30 and shared our table in McDonalds with Dave who only had another three laps to do. How jealous were we as we still had seven.
By now the island had woken up again and the lovely quiet night laps turned back to being busy. Not only were there lots of cars, there seemed to be a lot of Learner (and ‘R’) drivers going slowly. As they were learners we didn’t want to spook them or show them too many bad habits so that slowed things down a bit. On the whole the Manx drivers are excellent – they are clearly used to bikes and make it easy to get past. The traffic lights were back on day-light timing and seemed to be programmed to spot us and turn red! I swear the one in Douglas just after the Grandstand was red every time we approached it and it’s a lonnnggg red light as various entrances to the junction get their turn.
The road surface on the circuit is generally very good but as the TT is on in a few weeks there were quite a few road works getting the roads ready for the racers. One section of road was scheduled for closure overnight and sure enough at the allotted time it shut and we were diverted round. They were very efficient and in a few laps it was open again and you wouldn’t have known it had been done (except there were no road markings on that section). As the new day started three sets of road works opened up, some digging the road, others painting the stripes on the roadside. As we passed the workmen time after time they began to realise that we had been round before. By the end of the day we were practically dating!
Thinking about the racers I’m even more in awe of them now than I was before. We averaged around 56 minutes per lap – last year the fastest TT lap was a tad over 17 minutes! I know they don’t have the traffic to deal with and they can take the best lines but having been round the circuit it’s a really scary thought to think how fast they would be going. With the fog over the mountain and the low visibility when it is raining it is easy to see why they postpone the racing if the weather is not good.
The countdown continued and we only had five laps left. It felt good and thinking of it as five laps rather than another five hours helped. This morning the fog on the mountain was particularly thick and very bright. It was like riding into cotton wool. Kevin’s favourite trick was to let a local car overtake and then follow their lights but they rarely had rear fog lights on which meant we had to travel quite close to see them at all which was rather uncomfortable. Sometimes they went too fast and it was back to following the central white line just in front of the headlight.
Then there were three laps to go. We were dawdling and were overtaken by Paul (Tydee) giving us a much needed ‘come on pick it up’ sign. Good move, thanks Paul. We followed him for a bit, picking up the pace. Kevin got in the groove again and everything gelled. The laps seemed to be going round quicker, perhaps because we knew what was coming up. Here the house wall jutting out into the bend that needs to be approached at a certain angle, remembering to avoid the squashed hedgehog just round the corner; here the Sulby Bridge ‘black hole’ this time taken nicely; now we’re passing the impossibly green grass of a very posh-looking house that means we’re approaching Ramsey and those other lights that are always red. Hairpin, better this time. Now the mountain. Wonder if the fog’s gone? It hasn’t. Back to the Bungalow and another lap completed!
Two laps to go. Nearly there. We had a couple of gallons of petrol left at the pits so rather than stop mid-lap at the petrol station we emptied the cans and used it up. It was enough to finish and it was good to be off the bike, even for a few minutes.
One. Last lap!!! We rode down past the Grandstand where tomorrow we would all be meeting for our group picture. The sun was out and it looked great. Coming out of the town Kevin pulled into a lay by and announced “I’m not wearing my waterproofs for this last lap” so we stripped them off, ate our ‘emergency’ Twix and were very pleased to get back on the bike pounds lighter and with summer-weight gloves. We had nearly an hour spare and were going to enjoy this lap.
As we went round there was a slight tinge of nostalgia as we passed landmarks that had become as familiar to us as our own road. By now our friends at the road-works had packed in for the day. The schools were kicking out – it was the weekend and the kids were skipping down the road. We passed a large group of bikes ready to tackle the mountain; I wondered if they realised they might not be able to see anything when they got there.
We finally turned onto the mountain and passed my favourite tree (it’s so wet up there it looks like it has grown its own umbrella) and started the countdown to the Bungalow. Milestones 26, 27, 28 – all clear. 29 – this is the one that was always covered in fog but for this, our last lap, it was almost clear. As we approached 30 the fog was back so we didn’t quite get a clear lap but we did see bits of the circuit we’d never seen before and it had cleared again by the Bungalow. Finally the last few bends were passed, we went over the train tracks for the last time (no train) and turned right into the lay-by for our final pit stop. At 15:54 we finished our challenge with an odometer reading of 8847 (1039 miles).
Cups of very welcome tea and coffee were proffered and we stood round for a while watching some of the other riders coming in, some to finish, many to continue on. We decided that, hard work though it had been, it was the guys stuck at the Bungalow who had the raw deal – they’d had 30 hours of fog and wind and it had been really cold up there. At least we had enjoyed the wonderful scenery and quite a bit of sunshine on the other side of the island.
Our ride was over and we returned to the hotel for a long shower, an early dinner and an early night. Guess who slept like logs.
We finished the few days with a group photo on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately it was pouring with rain so we all look a bit bedraggled but that was fitting given the conditions we’d been riding in.
Chris McGaffin (IBA Ireland) had the inspiration for the TT1000 in the first place and the organisational head to make it happen. The ride was truly international with riders from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA and Wales. Of the 26 bikes that started 21 completed the challenge.
A Big Thank You to everyone involved in the verification and refuelling (of bikes and people) operation, for making the turnaround times as quick as possible, for the drinks and food and most of all the encouragement. None of us could have completed it without your help.
If you would like to see some more photos the TT1000 album is in the order the photos were taken and clearly shows the sun/fog/rain dimension of the ride.