North by North West
The North West 200 is a road race. For motorbikes. Road races are few and far between: apart from this one, set in the so-called 'triangle' area between Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine, there's the Isle of Man TT and... um... err, well, nobody really knows many others. They tend to be off in exotic places like Macau and eastern Europe. Many countries regard racing on actual roads, with hedges and telegraph poles and no proper run-offs at the side of the road as too dangerous. And this year's race started ominously with the death of Robert Dunlop, younger brother of the legendary Joey, during the Thursday night practice.
As we got the bikes ready for the journey on the Friday morning we listened to the radio to see if the race meeting would be cancelled. There was a sombre tone to the atmosphere—even the postman, on seeing our bikes, shook his head and said 'sad day'. But the decision was made to continue with the racing, but cancel all the usual festivities like fireworks etc. We set off at about lunchtime and rode up to the coast in rather glorious sunshine, and inched our way along with all the other bikers and sundry traffic past the pits.
My parents, handily enough, live practically on the course, with loads of space at the back to park the two bikes safely. I managed to panic myself about the gravely lumpy state of the back lane, and in the resultant loss of confidence I dropped poor Peanut as I turned. Ooops! My poor panniers do take a lot of punishment. Lunch al fresco, complete with my Dad's industrial strength G&Ts, set us up for a stroll out to the paddock, about a mile away. The huge video screen above the podium was showing pictures of Robert Dunlop, who'd had his 15th North West win in 2006, and had been looking in good form for this year's race. There was still an air of shock and disbelief about the place, as mechanics busied themselves with sprockets and machines that went beep, and the greasy smell of burger vans competed with the salty tang being blown in from the Atlantic Ocean.
We dined that evening at Shenanigans, a very friendly and good value wine bar on Portstewart prom, and as the pubs filled up with visitors from all parts I found myself having to explain in French why there were no fireworks. We pub-crawled our way home via the Ice House and the York Hotel, before falling into bed.
What a Race!
Saturday morning dawned not quite so sunny, and a little breezy, but at least it was dry. Great conditions for racing, in other words. If it's too sunny there can be too much glare into the riders' eyes. We found our seats on the York corner grandstand, and I procured myself a welcome cup of tea. There was a minute's silence for Robert Dunlop. The first race was the 250s—where Robert had been expected to do well. There was amazement in the crowd as the tannoy announced that Robert's two sons—William and Michael—were on the starting grid. However, William's bike gave problems on the warm-up lap, and so it was only Michael who started the race. The crowd cheered and yelled their support every time he passed the corner, neck and neck all the way with last year's winner, Chris Elkin, and when he crossed the finish line first the crowd rose to their feet spontaneously and cried with joy. What an amazing achievement! I was so inspired I began composing a poem—it's a bit like an old Viking saga, or swash-buckling tale of derring-do, but I have to admit, it's hard getting the tone of the poem right without it becoming too corny and tacky.
What a Guy!
My hero is Guy Martin, a personable 26 year old who hails from Kirmington, and who comes across on camera as chatty and enthusiastic. He sports the most fantastic sideburns, and when being interviewed I can make out about one word in three of his broad Lincolnshire accent. His sister is his second mechanic—good girl herself! He led the first Superbike race for the first three laps, before being pipped at the post by Michael Rutter on the NW200 Ducati. Oh well, a podium position at least.
The York corner is a fantastic place to watch the race from. For a start, it's about two minutes from my parents' place, so in between races we could nip up for a glass of wine and some humous on crackers, and never had to queue for the smelly portaloos. In addition, the view of the race is great—you can see the bikes leaping over the hill at Juniper before slamming their brakes on to get round the hairpin at the corner itself, and sometimes failing to time it right and coming off. Poor Rutter came a cropper in the Superstock race, and though he tried valiantly to get the bike going again, in the end he had to give up, and started to walk back to the pits, signing autographs all the way, accompanied by an appreciative ripple of applause. In the second Superbike race Martin again led for the first three laps, and had a great lead on the rest of the pack when bike problems forced him to retire in lap 4. In the 600cc class he had an even worse time, and spectacularly crashed his bike near the University. Amazingly, he walked away unhurt, but it was a disappointing end to the day for him. My nephew Marcus was well pleased that his hero, Steve Plater, had managed three wins, as we compared notes and thoughts over a few beers that evening.
As we strolled down to the paddock for a final look at all the stalls, and for Dai to have yet another burger from a greasy van, the traffic was bumper to bumper. A policewoman had stopped the traffic on the main road while she let out some traffic from a field where tents and caravans had been stationed. The battered red transit at the head of the queued traffic wound down his window, and in those familiar Lincolnshire vowels said 'Oi love! Ah've got a furry ta catch!' I quickly whipped out my mobile to capture dear old Guy, so unassuming he drives his own transport.
Long Way Round
Sunday dawned bright and sunny again, and we decided to take the long way home along the coast road. I'd driven this road many many times, but never ridden it on my bike, where the view of the scenery is even more wonderful, and the smell of the ocean is even better. There were many bikes on the same route, and we waved and nodded our way the whole way home, stopping only for toasties at a little café in Ballycastle.
I'd taken my camcorder with me, so when I got home I set about sorting out the various footage and photos that I and Dai had, and make them into a coherent story. Choosing music was hard. I didn't want anything that would take away from the sombre feeling about Robert's death, but the opening of Sam Sparo's 'Black and Gold' struck the perfect minor key, with a not-too-jolly feel, and it's a long instrumental intro, which meant there were no vocals over that bit of the film. I managed to segue into Elvis Costello's 'Pump it Up' for the racing parts, and hopefully captured some of the atmosphere of the event as well.
Good luck for the TT Guy—Go Big!