John Crellin raced past me as I sat at Greeba Bridge. Minutes later, he was dead.
“Found him about 100 yards from his bike”, says Dave, one of the marshals. “He was just lying there twitching.”
The Isle of Man TT motorbike race kills people. On average, more than one person will die every year. Sometimes, even marshals are killed. This year there was only one death, but also a handful of serious accidents that landed some unlucky riders in intensive care. Despite the obvious risk I let Dave and John, another marshal, take me around the course on the back of John’s 1000cc Honda Fireblade (a slightly tweaked version of which was ridden by this year’s overall winner, John McGuiness). If I had come off at140 miles an hour on the narrow mountain road…well, I didn’t.
“You don’t think about coming off”, says no. 48 Tommy Montano, “I knowingly take the risk when I get on the bike. What else would I do, bowls?” You do get the sense that these speed freaks are souls in harmony. Sure, they race for the win, for adrenalin and prestige. But there is more to it. They simply must do this. But if they accept the risk to themselves, what about their responsibilities to others, what about their families?
“Yeah, sometimes I do say to myself, you gotta slow down Tommy. And I am. I can’t beat the kids any more. They push too hard. You come back here, you make friends, it’s just a great event. But I’m almost done.”
And then there is the quest for the perfect lap. Going smooth. Not fighting the bike. The TT demands respect, but also intimate knowledge of every turn, wall and rise. This is knowledge that none of the bikers share. Popular opinion is that you need to race in the TT for four or five years before you can even think about competing. The smoothest riders know the course like a lover, and it is a superlative aesthetic experience to watch them move.
A lot of people have called for the TT race to be stopped because, well, people die. But I don’t think that is a good enough argument. “As soon as there is life there is danger”, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. If celebrating life means accepting the ever-presence of death, so be it.
My ride was exhilarating. I had what Tyler Durden refers to as a “Near-life Experience”. Graham, an oil-rig worker from Inverness calls it “The Pinnacle of Existence”. Rudi, a social worker from Belgium, agrees: “If I die on my bike, I die with my boots on.”
“Yeah,” says Graham somberly, “there is death here.”
Rudi looks at me.“And art,” he says.