Putting the pieces together
37.75 miles of asphalt through small villages and beautiful Manx countryside, The goal is to complete it in under 17 minutes and at an average speed of over 135mph. Any mistake can be your last. This is the most spectacular race track in the world. This is the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course
Learning your way around the Isle of Man TT course is a mammoth task. There is literally too much going on for your brain to comprehend it. When riders talk about the course they piece together section by section. Where are the bumps? Where are the traffic lights? Where are the road signs? Where are the painted kerbs?
At some sections there’s too much to take in riders only remember what matters to them. The Ballacraine comes at the end of the Gorse Lea section and leads the riders from the opening stretch of the circuit, where it’s open and easy to learn, into a technical section. For one rider Ballacraine doesn’t have a name. It’s simply, “traffic lights right.” It does exactly what it says on the tin. A first gear, 90 degree right hander at the traffic lights.
There’s ways and means to learn the Mountain Course but what happens when you truly know it? What happens when you’re 100% ready to commit to the TT? Last year the answer to that was something amazing when the bike was in the hands of Peter Hickman. The 32 year old was the man of the meeting with two race wins, a new lap record and his final lap of the Senior TT was one for the ages.
EMBED YOUTUBE VIDEO OF HICKMAN’S LAP
Learning the track is a huge challenge. Riders spend months travelling back and forth to the island in the lead-up to the TT so that they are fully up to speed. From their first lap riders are now ready to tackle the course. Road Racing is dangerous but riders are now better prepared than ever for their first outings.
Paul Phillips and the team behind the TT make sure that riders now are ready for the challenge of mastering the mental gymnastics of the Mountain Course. Any mistake, hesitation or uncertainty is punished on this course. The stopwatch never lies and if a rider isn’t 100% committed they lose a lot of time. Learning the course takes time and that’s why, for most riders, the first two or three years are solely about getting ready to get the most out of themselves.
For Hickman the first year that he raced on the roads he said that “The Northwest 200 was my first road race. I went out and immediately I was pushing. I was going at 200 mph and it was fantastic but I was ready for it. I’d studied the track and I knew where it went and what I had to do. I was ready for it.”
The endless trips to the island, driving around in rental cars, doing laps with Milky Quale and then going home and watching on board videos leaves riders with a mental imprint of the TT course. Riders can then spend their first couple of years at the TT putting those lessons to good use. They learn their Road Racing trade and the biggest challenge for most is not to rush it.
“It’s a road race and there’s a race to win. That creates pressure…but it’s a road race so there can’t be any pressure,” was how one former rider explained the process of getting ready to race on the roads. If it takes you two, three or five years to learn the course and feel comfortable pushing to your limit that’s the time it takes.
The top riders all have a photographic memory when it comes to the course and can recall the tiniest of details that go into making a perfect lap. Hickman changed the game last year with the first ever 135 mph lap. Breaking that barrier was completely unexpected last year but the game keeps moving on. Hickman has forced a change in mindset for the TT.
He has raised the bar and now more and more road racers are racing full-time in the British Superbike championship to keep bike fit. Being ready to push the bike as hard as you dare takes bravery but being able to feel comfortable on that limit takes time and practice. “The days of being able to turn up and ride for two weeks a year are long gone,” was how Lee Johnston summed it up.
There’s something special about the Mountain Course. When the roads close in preparation for practice or racing a magical feeling comes down on the track. Suddenly-with no cars or trucks or buses or bikes on the road-it gets wider. It stops being a public road. It becomes a race track. It becomes the Isle of Man TT.
That lap will start at The Grandstand and when Peter Hickman was asked about his favourite sections of the course the Englishman smiled “It’s all about The Grandstand! When you start until when you come back it’s unbelievable. I love the whole lap. It’s not like anything else in the world.”
INSERT YOUTUBE VIDEO OF MILKY QUALE
There are some sections of the lap that are crucial and none more so than The Grandstand. It leads directly into the opening section of the lap and the famous Bray Hill. Reference points are crucial for riders through this section and there are plenty to see. Riders switch from traffic lights to tall trees to kerbs through the bumps and hollows of this section. The bike bottoms out at the bottom of Bray Hill at over 150mph but there’s no time to think about that as the track rises towards the exit and Ago’s Leap where the riders have to control the wheelie along the straight towards the first big stop of the lap at Quarter Bridge.
Slow in and fast out is the mantra of the Isle of Man TT. Your exit is more important than you’re entry and corner speed because of the long straights that follow and Union Mills is no exception. The bike jumps through the bridge before the long left hander alongside the petrol station where the bike slides past spectators in a stunning section of the track. The exit of this section leads riders towards Ballagarey.
Otherwise known as Ballascary it lives up to it’s billing as a super-fast right hander in fifth gear. This is the most important corner on the entire circuit because it sets your speed for the next two miles. Having the confidence to set the bike on its side and ride through this section is a real challenge but talking to riders this is one of the most rewarding sections because of the run that follows towards Crosby and Greeba Castle.
“I love the run from Greeba Castle all the way through to Ballycraine because you’re closed in and running through the trees,” was how Dean Harrison describes it and with Gorse Lea it also offers some of the best viewing experiences of the TT. It’s also one of the most rewarding corners for riders because of the speed through the right hander. Under the trees it’s hard to pick out your turn-in point but once you do it unlocks a lot of laptime.
The opening sector of the lap ends at Glen Helen. The track is fast and flowing but it’s also bumpy and off camber making it very easy to loose the front. From the opening sector of the lap riders than need to find good drive towards Lambfell and the Cronk y Voddy straight. It’s the first time in minutes that the rider actually has a chance to relax and force themselves to breathe. For John McGuiness it’s a crucial section to try and wiggle his fingers and toes to get the blood flowing. Over a six lap Superbike race this could make all the difference.
From the Cronk down towards Handleys sees riders head towards McGuiness’ own corner. From that the run towards Barregarrow is thrilling. A three part section of track riders come through a crest and then run downhill towards a 130mph jump where they’ll be on their pegs to avoid loading the bike upon compression because immedatiately they pitch into a fast left hander at Barregarrow Bottom. It’s a spectacular section of the track to watch because it requires total commitment; if you drive through the corner the bike stays stable but if you ease off it’s easy to catch the bumps. This requires total confidence in yourself and the bike.
The run towards and through Kirkmichael is fast and flowing as you dance through the shopfronts of the village. From there the jump of Rhencullen awaits. It’s a bumpy section of the track where riders are fighting the physics of manhandling their machine. Once through Rhencullen the run to Ballaugh is the next thing on the riders mind. The humpback bridge offers an ideal photo opportunity but it’s also where time can be lost. Once the bike is back on the ground it’s all about accelerating towards the jump at Ballacrye. It’s fast through the left hander leading to the jump and the riders will hit this at 160mph in a thrilling section towards Quarry Bends. This is a section where Steve Hislop was incredible in the early ninties and this is one of the most sections of the lap.
The Sulby Straight, and the speed trap, follows quickly and having a good exit is crucial because, like at Ballygarey your exit speed dictates your speed all the way to Sulby Bridge. It’s easy to get sucked into the right hander onto the bridge and Ginger Hall. This is the bumpiest section of the lap with the speed building all the way along Sulby Straight and the following section.
Under the trees from Ginger Hall is a challenge for every rider and it’s all about maintaining momentum for as long as possible for the run towards Ramsey. Through the Conkerfields and the Milntown jump the speeds are immense.
Into Ramsey the riders head down towards Parliment Square, the slow first gear right hander that leads you towards the hairpin and the start of the mountain. It’s easy to lose time through Ramsey with a series of off camber and bumpy corners. Under the tress of the Ramsey Hairpin riders get out of the hairpin and start their initial climb towards the mountain. The run towards the Gooseneck is easy to loose time on but once you come through the slow right hander it’s all about maintaining your momentum for the fabled mountain.
The start of the mountain climb sees riders reach the 26th milestone and this section is bumpy and takes experience to master. Guthries is the most important corner of the mountain section. The whitewalled double right hander sets your speed for the next mile and exiting it cleanly is the name of the game.
The triple left hander leading into Guthries is eying a needle and with the camber falling away through the right handers it’s easy to loose the front. Tucking yourself into the bubble it offers another opportunity to try and relax. The Mountain Mile offers an opportunity to relax before the run towards to the finish line.
The Veranda is a quadruple right hander that riders need experience to learn. It’s all about carrying momentum through the Veranda before running across the tram lines at the Bungalow. From here the riders head towards Hailwood’s Rise and Brandywell. This section is as fast and flowing as any other on the Mountain Course and as always it’s about being able to maintain your momentum and driving through the corners.
Once you come through Kates Cottage the run towards The Grandstand truly starts again with riders scratching through the Creg na Baa pub. From there riders head through a super-fast right hander where it’s easy to loose speed. Experience counts in every section of the TT course this is no different. While Signpost, Bedpost and The Nook may not have the same thrilling nature as other corners they are just as important.
Once through this section you’re back underneath the trees at the end of the lap and it’s easy to push too hard and cost yourself time because the track conditions can be very different in the shade. It’s easy to miss your markers and run into too hot. Goveners Bridge is the final corner but exiting it is crucial because it sets your speed to the line and Bray Hill where it all starts again!