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Life-changing questions tend to be couched in similar terms: "Have you ever…?", "Would you like to…?", "Have you tried…?" The question that interested me and, more importantly, motivated me to take action, opened with the words, "Hey, pal, d'you fancy…?" and ended with "TT". That's what brought me to spend a week under canvas on the Isle of Man, and this is the man who asked the question.
To protect his anonymity I shall refer to him as "Dave". We've been good mates for quite a few years now, having shared track days, various race meetings and the odd beer or two in between. As you can see, he's a cheery kind of fellow and he's not on any sort of diet.
Dave had invited me to go to the Island with him a couple of times before, but for one reason or another I'd been unable to make the trip. However, in 2017 I was freed from the shackles of working for a living and, when the invitation re-surfaced, I was able to say "Yes!". I have to add that he looked a bit crestfallen when it sank in that I'd actually accepted his invitation, but, being a decent bloke, he bit his tongue and let me tag along anyway.
To put it mildly, I was like a kid getting out of school so great was my excitement. After years of daydreaming, I was going to "The Island"! I set about buying soft towels, body moisturisers, perfumes, high heels (in case we went to dine "au restaurant") - all the necessary accoutrements. I also gave the R1 a quick wipe over as the Blackbird was too big for Dave's van. All I was lacking was a so polder. (I managed to drag this one out for days… nobody could figure out what I was talking about. If anyone asked, I just told them "It's a polder, for holding so", and left it at that.)
Eventually the great day arrived when, fully-packed, we headed off to Heysham for the ferry, all the while "Whatsapping" updates to those left behind or, in some instances, responding specifically to suggestions made by certain individuals who shall be nameless here.
Please don't be offended by the gesture (unless you are one of those "individuals", in which case…)
Onboard the ferry there was a difference - a different vibe from crossing the channel. These were veteran visitors to the TT; Dave's been going for twenty years or more, and others even longer. They've seen all the greats who have graced the Island with their talent - and some with their lives.
Over the years, many race fans have chosen to attend the Manx GP in preference to the Tourist Trophy (TT) Races, which have become increasingly overcrowded and increasingly expensive as rented accommodation becomes harder to find - not to mention the madness that seems to take hold of some of the "civilian" riders who visit the Island to see the TT.
Also, to my surprise, other bike fans have referred to "the real TT", or, "the proper TT" whenever I've mentioned my first visit to the Island and I remain genuinely mystified, not only by their choice of words, but also by their lack of appreciation for the levels of skill and bravery required to navigate the TT course quickly and successfully. I've also been regaled with tales of "Mad Sunday" (when the course is opened to the public as a one way system) and of escapades at racing speeds involving "near misses" and "close calls": but the tellers don't seem to recognise that they survived their encounters mainly through pure, pure luck, and luck alone.
The great contrast to all of this is the unobtrusive way in which the vast majority of the visitors to the Manx GP are always open to demonstrate, not only their great knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for their sport, but also their respect for the Island itself, for the TT course and for the competitors.
For me, that's "the difference"; clear, deep and true: respect.
It's a four-hour journey from Heysham, but the time passed quickly and I got my first sight of Douglas under a blue, cloud-flecked sky that lulled me (and, no doubt, millions before me) into a warm, snuggly, beautifully contrived and utterly false sense of security because it looked like we were in for a nice, pleasant, sunny and dry time ahead!
Whatever the weather, no matter how many big, daft grins have passed this sign in years gone by, I bet mine was the biggest and daftest of them all! Boyhood dreams are never better than when they come true.
We'd be camping at Douglas Rugby Club, Quarterbridge - even the name had me smiling and shaking my head in wonder. All those times that I'd listened, as a schoolboy, to the voice of Murray Walker as he described the approach of Mike Hailwood, or Giacomo Agostini, to that place: and now - I was there! (Well - I was almost there. When we arrived practice was still under way, so we couldn't use the road to get to the campsite entrance, which was just a few hundred yards away - but at least we could see the club's sign and the clubhouse - all that cold, cold beer, just yards away. It's a good job we were right next to the pub!)
When practice ended we booked into the campsite, picked out a spot and unloaded our bikes and the rest of the gear from the van. Dave's an experienced camper and it took just about ten minutes to throw together the small tent he'd so generously provided for me. Then we spent most of the remaining daylight erecting Dave's accommodation, which included a sauna, a plunge pool, an open-plan living area with interior and exterior (covered) seating, a wet room and a fully-fitted kitchen with a refrigerator/ice box. Obviously, I never got to see much of the inside because he wouldn't let me in, but, from the one or two glimpses I managed to steal, it looked very, very nice indeed!