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best book there is, part 3: tour guide Christian races on the Isle of Man

Sunday, January 17, 2021 | Thomas Ritt | News / Europe

The Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man is the oldest, most dangerous and therefore probably the most legendary motorcycle race in the world. Of course, Edelweiss has repeatedly offered tours there, in the 1990s even on a large scale. We had contingents of ferry tickets and hotel rooms, divided the training week and the race week into blocks and sold them, mainly to riders from German-speaking countries who came with their own motorcycles. Meeting point was Liverpool. Every year we brought up to 200 guests to the Isle of Man.

In 1997 I led a tour there, together with my colleague Jörg. On Mad Sunday a part of the Mountain Course may only be ridden in one direction, there is no speed limit and all visitors are invited to twist the throttle on the course. So "Mad" hits the mark, after all, there are about 20,000 bikes on the 60 km long course at the same time and they're going full throttle, especially on the one-way section.

We didn't want to miss this fun either and mingled with the crazy folks. Riding in a group was obviously not possible, so it was every man for himself. Jörg and I rode one lap and then lined up again in Ramsey, where police controlled the traffic at the beginning of the one-way section. But the track remained closed, an accident said the police officer. Very bad.

Back in Douglas the news already made the rounds. Two local couples were at the track to watch the action. Husband number one also wanted to ride a lap, but his wife didn't. For couple number two it was the other way around. So, wife 2 took a seat behind husband 1 on his motorcycle and off they went. At Windy Corner they crashed, and both died at the scene of the accident. Their partners in Douglas waited in vain.

Pretty upset by this tragic accident, Jörg and I finished the day's riding and went to the pub. While drinking frustration beer I told him that I would avoid Mad Sunday in future. Too violent, too crazy, I said, I'd rather participate in the real race, it's certainly less dangerous. He agreed with me, we ordered another pint.

 

A few months later. Fuzzy, Operations Manager at Edelweiss back then and responsible for the tour guides, called me and said: "I heard you wanted to take part in the Tourist Trophy. That's what Jörg told me." Me: "Oh, it was just a figure of speech." Fuzzy: "Do you want to or not? Edelweiss would sponsor you." And once the bug gets in your ear, it won't stop buzzing.

So, I called the Austrian OSK (Supreme Sports Commission) and asked if I could get a racing license for it, an international one. As a former participant in the Motocross World Championship I had a World Championship license and that, I was told, would be sufficient. Next I had to apply to participate in the TT, because of course you can't just go there and take part. In the application documents you are asked all sorts of questions, your racing experience, your expectations (i.e. what rank you think you can achieve), why you want to take part and where you take the self-confidence from to believe that you could crack the necessary qualification time. For this purpose, your time may not exceed the time of the race winner (!) from the previous year by more than 10 or 15% (I don't remember exactly). These times are known, and so I was able to calculate by comparing my times on circuits known to me with those of the respective race winners. Result: should be possible. I wrote that I "want to qualify and finish the race". My application was accepted and soon afterwards I received my starting number, the 43. With my Honda CBR 900 RR I was registered for the "Production 1000" class, which is now called "Superstock".

At that time, I was leading an Edelweiss tour in the USA and when my brother called to tell me about the arrival of the starting number, I got a little nervous. My tour guide motorcycle was a BMW K75, I was riding the endless straights of the West, you couldn't call it training for the TT. I had no time for real training thanks to my already very full schedule at that time. Well, it was what it was.

Back at home I persuaded my brother, who happened to be the proud owner of a large motorhome, to accompany me to the island as my mechanic. I also brought my Honda XR400 as a scouting vehicle. Just before I left, my then 14-year-old son asked me not to go racing because it was too dangerous, but it was too late to pinch out now. I promised him to be very cautious and not to try to win the race. And anyway, just this once!

 

On the ferry to the Ise of Man, surrounded by thousands of completely crazy motorbike freaks, I also met other participants. Dennis Winterbottom, a very experienced and good rider and participant in four classes, gave me invaluable tips and I was even able to persuade him to explain the key points to me on-site along the route.

We drove along the course by car, I had a dictaphone with me and he explained: "From here to down there it's flat out". Really? From Governors Bridge to Quarter Bridge, always full throttle. Sounded incredible. In many places he told me how fast you can ride there, it sounded more and more incredible. This chicane here, he said, is no longer a chicane if you ride it properly. But if you ride it the wrong way, you're dead.

"This section is flat out with a 600, but not with a superbike.

"This section's flat out for me, but for you, I don't know.

For each curve of the more than 60 km long course he explained exactly the ideal line, I filled the tape of the dictaphone and listened to it again and again, all night long. The next day I took the XR and looked at everything again, twice, three times. Dennis' tips were incredibly valuable, it would have taken me years to learn all this myself.

Whoever takes part in the TT for the first time ("Newcomer") gets a special briefing and a sighting lap in the bus. Never look at the times, we were told, always just look at the line. The times get better and better by themselves as the line gets better. Also in the race! "If you qualify and finish, you have done very, very well!". We are chauffeured around the course by bus, the driver explains the most important points. After the Rhencullen Bridge the track bends abruptly, you have to turn around as fast as lightning in order not to smash straight into the wall of the house standing there. There, bales of hay are piled up as protection. "Remember", says the bus driver, "the haybales protect the house"! In the bus you can only hear a hint of laughter.

1998 was a very wet year, during practice it rained every day. At that time, we still rode with road tires, I had put on Pirelli Supercorsa, which were almost like slicks, suboptimal in the rain. In 6th gear, at full throttle on the straights, the engine spun into the limiter, that's how much slip the rear wheel had. This is not rational, I thought. But the others are riding as well. So, full throttle! A Honda factory rider, who was racing for the Japanese on the occasion of an anniversary, had an accident in the first lap of the training. He was badly injured, and the motorcycle was destroyed. At Honda's insistence the regulations were changed from 1999, racing and rain tires were allowed, also in the Production Class.

 

Due to the bad weather I had not been able to qualify in the first four days of practice, it was simply not possible to ride fast enough. Many others suffered the same fate. On Friday it was finally dry, and I was able to beat the qualifying time by half a minute. Mind you, with lap times of almost 23 minutes! The training sessions always take place very early in the morning, from 5 to 7 o'clock, all classes together. In return for sponsoring Edelweiss, I was also a tour guide as well, so I always joined the group after practice and talked about my work on the race front while my colleagues did the day-to-day business. This included guiding the group to various points along the course to watch the competitors ride. In this way, the tour participants were also able to give me valuable feedback. "Joey Dunlop rides past this manhole cover on the left, you're on the right." I tried it in the next lap - and again a tenth of a second faster! 200 coaches around the course, not everybody has that! The tour participants also visited me in the paddock, I showed them around, a great experience for everyone.

 

Finally, the race. In my class it lasted for three laps, after the second one a pit stop was scheduled. You start with a 10-second gap and normally you are willing to be overtaken, because if a rider from further back has caught up, then he is much faster and it makes no sense to ride "battle line". On the second lap I was overtaken at Rhencullen by John Henderson, an experienced racer from England. He came to a crash shortly afterwards, just in front of me.

A common cause of accidents in races on the Isle of Man is running over the inner curb. As many corners are difficult to see, you often don't hit the turning points exactly, especially at this incredibly high speed. And because the curb, unlike on "real" racetracks, is not just a line painted red and white, but the sidewalk with its 15 cm high curb, such a mistake often ends fatally. Once I also had my knee grinder in contact with the "curb" and knew that the fairing of my Honda was only a hand's width away from it. While doing 100 or 120 mph! However, nobody should be distracted by such a detail.

"Clipping the curb" is what you call the running over of the inner curb in racing lingo, and that's what happened to John Henderson, right in front of me. I saw him and I thought, "This is never going to end well! Then he lost control and hit the stone wall across the road without even putting the brakes on. He was dead immediately, his body, wrapped in green leather, was hurled back onto the road, his Kawasaki burst into a thousand pieces. Luckily, I was able to avoid a collision and continued riding, but it took some time before I was able to repress the thought. But I had to repress it, because if you are not 100% on the ball here, you are next.

At the end of the lap I rode into the pits to refuel. Coming in, I saw the green Kawasaki boys who were waiting for their rider to arrive any second. "He's not going to come," I thought and shivered inevitably, but I kept my poker face on and didn't tell my brother anything. He filled my tank, patted me on the shoulder and off I went for the third round. I did well, crossed the finish line and finished the race to the applause of thousands of fans. It was an incredible feeling and an incredible reward for an incredibly exhausting hour, during which you covered over 110 miles on narrow, winding island roads. The final position doesn't matter, just for the sake of completeness it should be mentioned that I finished 56th out of 77 starters.

Sometime after the race I was contacted by the organizers of the TT and invited to participate in the 1999 race. Obviously, I had been good enough. The temptation was huge, I had a new Fireblade in the meantime, now with 1000 cc and more power, surely a lot faster, maybe I could finish a few places further ahead. Acute danger of addiction, some sleepless nights followed. But finally, reason prevailed, and I refused. Besides, I had promised my son...

 

Christian Preining, Austria, tour guide and instructor legend since 1993

 

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