Away from the glare of the MotoGp paddock and its glitz, or even the increasingly professional BSB paddock, a large group of motorcycle races do battle on circuits that most of us would think twice about before attempting to ride on our road bikes. These are the road racers of Britain, and especially, Ireland. Now, we use the term road racing to delineate our tarmac-based efforts from those of our dirt-obsessed brethren, but, in the British Isles, road racing means literally that, racing on public roads.
Most of us will be at least a little aware of this area of the sport through exposure to the Isle of Man TT races, raced on public roads on the island, and the North West 200, also raced on public roads. But there is a whole thriving sport raging away there that rarely, if ever, comes to our notice unless (and this is all-too-frequent) someone dies in attempting these very difficult events. There is a small cross-over between the two tar disciplines, notably with people like John McGuiness, but, by and large, the “real” road racers (for that is what they call themselves) stick to the roads and leave purpose-built circuit racing to “lesser” mortals than themselves.
Some years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Taylor, one of the ambassadors for the Manx TT and he gave me some amazing insights into what happens on the roads. While admitting that the TT course was dangerous, he contended that the danger could be ameliorated by time, practice and discipline. The ROAD courses, though, were another thing altogether. Sadly this erudite gentleman paid for his passion for the roads with his own life a few years after I spoke to him, something I found pretty hard to take.
But the real road courses are just that, sections of public road, closed off for the weekend and given over to the pursuit of speed. And, being public roads, they lack pretty much all the safety precautions that we associate with a proper road racing course. The roads are bumpy, narrow and filled with all the hazards that are part and parcel of the rural laneways of the area. Dave told me that, at Skerries, for example, if you could take both hands off the handlebars at the same time while going down the main straight, you could stretch out your arms and touch the hedges on BOTH SIDES of the road at the same time.
And it’s not just how narrow and hazardous the roads themselves are that makes real road racing such a fraught endeavour. At the TT, riders are not racing against each other, as I’m sure you know. The races are time trials, where bikes are sent off two at a time with a time gap between them. It is entirely possible to win a race at the Isle of Man without actually ever seeing the riders who finish second and third behind you because they started at a different time to you and you and them never occupy the same portion of track as you at the same time. This, said Dave Taylor, is one of the factors that makes racing on the Island much safer than when you race on the roads. You are always just racing against the clock and that is all that concerns you.
The real road races in Northern Ireland, however, feature massed starts of the kind that we are accustomed to at “our” races. Imagine, if you will, 30 bikes barrelling down to the first corner all together on a road that is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. This is a usual part of the road racer’s life. No racing against the clock here, it’s elbows in the face and devil take the hindmost.
The weather also plays a huge part. This year’s TT races were hugely interrupted by rain and fog on the mountain causing constant re-jigging of the timetable in order to get the races completed at all. Further north than the Island, the weather is even more brutal and races regularly take place in fog and rain and on roads that are steaming wet as a result of these climatic factors.
Is it any wonder that the real road racers are regarded as true heroes of motorcycle racing by fans and fellow competitors alike? And right up at the top of the list of those heroes at the moment is Michael Dunlop. Now he isn’t known as “Iron Mike”, that nickname belongs to a truly unsavoury character from another arena altogether, but, for the purposes of this article, I’ll call him that and you probably already know why. Michael is the surviving member of a family who, over the years, has given its all to road racing.
Eldest of the two Dunlop brothers, Robert, died while competing in the North West 200 in 2008, younger brother, Joey, the undisputed king of the mountain, died in Estonia in 2000, competing at a nothing road race meeting there on a 125. And Robert’s son William, died just a year ago, July 2018 while competing at the Skerries 100 event.
Left of the family is Michael and he has had more than his fair share of close calls as well. On the 12th July while racing in the Southern 100, Michael crashed and sustained severe injuries which included a broken pelvis. Despite the pain and being told by the doctors to take an extended period for rest and recuperation, Dunlop signed himself out of hospital and turned up at the Amoy Road Races just 16 days later, determined to race. Still using a crutch to help him to walk, he put it aside, climbed on his bike and won both of the Superbike races AND finished 2nd in the Supersport race. Having sustained similar serious injuries myself and knowing what the pain and inconvenience is like, I just can’t get my mind around what it must have taken for him to do this.
Iron Mike indeed.
Away from road racing, but sort of related, news out of the US during the week that the organisers of the Pikes Peak hillclimb will not be allowing motorcycles to compete in 2020 while an audit of the situation is being done. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the “audit” will recommend a permanent ban on motorcycle competition on the mountain. It is looking increasingly likely that Australia’s Rennie Scaysbrook will be the last man to have his name on the trophy for motorcycle competition on Pikes Peak. The solution, in my mind at least, is very simple. Rip up the tar and return the road to its gravel form that it was for much of the race’s history. Speeds will be reduced and the unique character of the event will be returned. Sad to say, I am pretty sure that common sense will not prevail.