Last week we uploaded a video to YouTube about the Isle of Man TT, with a few little stories from Fagan and my experiences there. It seemed to go down quite well, but since it went out, I’ve been inundated (at least three people have asked me) with questions about what it takes to prepare for a TT race, specifically, you’re first one. And whilst not professing to be the font of all knowledge when it comes to TT racing, I feel like I did get my first TT (in 2016) right (i.e. I absolutely loved it), and I feel like I’ve learnt a bit on my subsequent visits, too. So for anyone wondering how you prepare for a TT, this is how I did it.
First of all, and possibly most importantly, you need to know how to ride a bike. that comes way before you start to actually prepare for the TT. Before my first TT I’d been racing 20 years, so whilst I wasn’t a MotoGP rider, I had half an idea how to ride a bike. At the time, I was racing week-in, week-out in the British Superstock Championship, and had been doing for six years.
It was because of the fact that I’d done so much racing, at a decent level, that I was allowed to go straight to the TT, rather than have to do the Manx GP first. I was grateful for this as the Manx can end up being fairly expensive; and with it being a smaller event, it’s harder to draw in any sponsorship for.
Anyway, once I’d got my entry for TT 2016 confirmed, I got to work with the next most important part; learning my way around the 37.7 mile Mountain Course.
I’d be lying if I said I found it easy. It took me months and months of studying onboard laps, and visualising it in my head before it clicked. Rather than trying to learn the full circuit in one hit, I broke it down into sections. I’d concentrate on three or four miles at a time, before moving to the next section, eventually linking them up. I wasn’t necessarily trying to learn braking markers and memorise gear patterns at this point, I was just trying to remember where it went left and where it went right. Every night, when I got in bed, I’d watch some footage of the section I was concentrating on, and then close my eyes and go over it in my head. If I hesitated, forgot what was coming next or got it wrong, I’d start the whole process again.
Once I could get round in my head without getting lost, I started studying the onboard laps in more depth. There’s a video of John McGuiness on a Fireblade that I must have watched nearly 1,000 times. I was listening to his gear pattern, looking for his braking markers, where he was turning, everything.
And this is where the fun started. It was about Christmas time in 2015 when I felt like I knew the course fairly well. So that’s when I started booking some trips over to the island. Before this point, despite being a massive TT fan, I hadn’t really spent a lot of time on the IOM. I’d been over once or twice to watch some racing, but that was about it. I hadn’t actually done any physical laps round the place. So in 2016, for the 6 months leading up to my TT debut, I decided to head over once a month, for a weekend at a time, to really get to know the place.
I would go over on a Friday, hire a car and do lap after lap after lap. In fact what I would actually do, is do two laps, go back to the hotel room, watch an onboard video, have a little sleep and then start again. I’d quite often meet up with Milky Quayle or Johnny Barton and do a lap with them; that was always a laugh. As well as being mega helpful. Those lads know the place like the back of their hands, so I’d constantly pick their brains about anything and everything related to the TT. Not just about the circuit, but about how scrutineering works, what happens if you break down, and which bars in Douglas are the best… and which ones should be avoided!
Wheelies and pints
One of the most important things I remember Milky and Johnny telling me was just to enjoy it. And particularly to enjoy my first TT. Because, there’s never any pressure to do well as a newcomer. They told me that as long as I enjoyed it, it would be a success. And they told me to make sure I did plenty of wheelies, whenever I could, and not to be afraid of letting my hair down on an evening, and heading down to town for a few pints. Make the most of being a newcomer, they said, and not having any targets. That was some of the best advice I’ve ever had in my racing career.
A lot of people ask me how fit you need to be to be competitive at the IOM TT. And I think the answer to that depends completely on how you ride. Some people have super energy efficient riding styles, and can get away without having Olympic-spec fitness levels. Especially when your road racing (rather than circuit racing) because it requires a different riding style.
Back in 2016 I had an alright level of fitness. My general fitness was ok, I could run a marathon in a reasonable time, and I was racing a ZX-10R most weekends, so my bike fitness was good. It was for that reason that I didn’t really put any extra effort into my fitness to prepare for the TT. I was already putting quite a bit in.
What I’ve since learnt is that the fitness you need for the TT isn’t like anything else. You don’t get out of breath, like you would running or cycling. There isn’t even the same muscle fatigue you’d get whilst riding on a short circuit. It’s much more violent than that, almost more akin to motocross. When I got off the bike after my first TT, I could barely walk because all my joints were hurting. Rather than ride the bike round for six laps, it’s more like you are fighting with it for six laps; especially in the bumpier sections. Especially on the big bikes.
I think it’s more important that you have your head in the right place, to be honest. Because the TT isn’t like any other event. If you lose concentration for just a fraction of a second, it could all go horribly wrong; as it all too often does. I’m lucky to lead a fairly drama-free life, which makes racing a lot easier. I’m not sure I’d want to go racing at the TT if I had a load of stuff going on at home; like family arguments, work problems, or that kind of thing. You need to be able to focus 100% on the job in hand, and trying to race with distractions like that would be downright dangerous.
But if you want to be successful at the TT, it’s not just about how you prepare. I think you need to absolutely love it. You’ve got to live and breathe it. As well as being really, really fast. But I’d be lying if I said I knew what it takes to win a TT, because I haven’t won one… yet.