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That Near-Death Thing
Inside the TT, the World's Most Dangerous Race
A fascination with the riders who risk their lives in the Isle of Man TT led Rick Broadbent to write a book asking what motivates them to take part
'It's that near-death thing,' said Guy Martin. It was such a good answer to the eternal question about a race that is too often terminal that I stole it for the title of a book.
What drives men and women to do something as dangerous as the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy? They do not do it for money and most do not do it with the remotest chance of winning. As Martin, a lupine, tea-drinking maverick said in the wake of the crash that nearly killed him: 'If it was dead safe I wouldn't do it. And I do get off on the pain. I look back on my crash and, yeah, it did hurt. I had to dig my teeth out of my nose. My chest was caving in and they put this drain in, threaded it through so you could feel it moving around your innards. Hey, hey. That's life.' I wanted to write about these bikers at length as soon as I met them.
Martin was one target. Then there was Conor Cummins, the local boy who fell off a mountain, broke his back in five places, suffered depression in the aftermath and, one year later, returned to ride in the TT again.
Derek Redmond, the former Olympian on the island this week where he is running a TT motorcycle team, can see similarities between his enduring fame as a result of a torn hamstring and the case of Cummins.
'Courageous acts will always outweigh medals,' he says. 'It's people who fight back when things have not gone their way that deserve credit. Conor Cummins is a great example. He was like a rag doll when he crashed and may never win the TT, but he will have as much respect from riders and fans as John McGuinness who has won 18.'
Redmond says there comes a point in the injured sportsman's life when he finally sheds the self-pity. 'I am sure Conor went through the same. There are people worse than him, people who have not walked again, people who have lost limbs, people who have not woken up. He probably ends up thinking, 'I'm one of the lucky ones,' but you can't tell people that. They have to find that themselves. No amount of counselling will do it.'
Perhaps most extraordinary of all TT histories is that of the Dunlop family. Twelve years ago Joey Dunlop, the doyen of derring-do, was killed racing in Estonia. Eight years later his brother, Robert, died in practice for the North West 200 in Northern Ireland. The next day the family held the wake. The day after that Robert's son, Michael, left the house, his father still lying in his coffin, and won the race.
The next day they buried Robert.
Any tragedy is seen as a loss not a waste, and the ugly truth is that it is one of the most life-affirming things in sport. The most astonishing events I have witnessed as a sports writer are Usain Bolt's head-wrecking 100 metres in 2008, Liverpool's impossible comeback against AC Milan in 2005 and the TT every year.
Threading the stories of Martin, Cummins, Dunlop and McGuinness into a dirty historical romance has been a hoot. It's not all death and destruction in the Irish Sea, and while the drama is unreal, the people are bound by a unique camaraderie.
Why do they do it? Martin again: 'It's so fast and long, the thick edge of 200mph, sucking rabbits out of hedges. I saw a guy about my age, in a people carrier, kids in the back, steam coming out the engine, wife giving him all that. What's he do at the weekend? Mow the grass? Wash the car? How can I explain something like this to someone like that? It's just not in his DNA.'
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