Analysis: All sports have their highs and lows and for two riders from Wellington, the unforgiving Isle of Man TT circuit showed on Sunday that in motorsport, the opposite of triumph is tragedy in the truest sense.
Just hours after motorcycling fans worldwide were hailing the emotional return of cancer patient Bruce Anstey to the winner’s circle in the Lightweight TT, tragedy struck.
Wellington schoolteacher and amateur racer Chris Swallow, 37, died in a crash during the Classic Senior TT.
According to race officials, the experienced TT rider crashed at Ballaugh Bridge, one of the 60km road circuit’s most famous points where riders approach a hump back bridge at high speed, brake heavily and take to the air as they change direction.
He has left behind a wife and children.
* Kiwi motorcyclist Bruce Anstey wins at Isle of Man after overcoming cancer
* The nine New Zealanders who have lost their lives at the Isle of Man TT
* New Zealander Chris Swallow killed at Isle of Man TT motorcycle race
Sadly, it is a familiar story. Motorcyclists have been challenging death on the TT “Mountain Circuit” since 1907. In that time 260 have died. Countless hundreds have suffered serious injuries.
Unlike on modern circuits, where crashing usually means a rider slides across asphalt and rarely suffers serious injury, the TT is ruthlessly punishing. It’s on every day roads. A crash usually means hitting a house, a stone wall, a tree or a bank.
And usually at phenomenal speed. The TT is a very fast circuit, with average speeds far in excess of those seen in modern MotoGP racing.
The first New Zealander to win a TT, Rod Coleman, died early this month aged 93. In 1954 on a by today’s standards primitive 350cc AJS, he won at 147kmh. It’s a speed that would get you in big trouble if caught on an empty motorway but that was Coleman’s average speed. Today the lap record is an average 218kmh.
There are regular calls for the event to be banned on safety grounds, but so far Isle of Man authorities have been deaf to them. They’re often accused of defending the indefensible out of fear of losing the island’s biggest tourist draw – the main TT races in June, and the Classic meeting for historic machines, draw tens of thousands of visitors from around the world.
Their argument is that every rider who comes to race knows the dangers and welcomes the challenge. And certainly, ever since the races ceased being rounds of the grand prix world championship in the 1970s, which many at the time thought spelled the end, they have flourished.
Road racing appeals to a particular type of racing motorcyclist. They back their ability to judge the fine line between success and disaster. At the TT they have to memorise 60kms of public roads and know every bump, every change in road surface and adjust as they race as shadows move and temperatures fluctuate, affecting the grip of their tyres.
While top riders can make a reasonable living, they don’t earn the millions of top grand prix and World Superbike stars. Most riders struggle and have to have day jobs. They do it for the challenge and dream of maybe being good enough to get the glory too.
The fans who flock to watch appreciate their skill, their courage and their willingness to risk all for the love of the purest racing experience imaginable on a course that drips with motorcycling history at every signpost.
Which is why the joy that greeted Bruce Anstey’s win ran so deep. Social media was awash with hardened bike racing nuts admitting to shedding a tear.
Anstey, formerly from Wellington but now based in the UK, is a modern TT legend. He was won 12 TTs as well as the Zero TT for electric bikes. Only six riders in the event’s 112-year-history have won more. And he returned to the island this month with three Classic TTs to his name, as well as lap records in the Classic Lightweight and Superbike classes.
He made his name in New Zealand as a 250cc racer but was hit by cancer in his 20s. He rebounded and switched his focus to the road racing circuits of Europe.
His first appearance in the Isle of Man in 1996. The results weren’t anything to write home about but that’s because people who arrive in the island and try to win make up a large proportion of those who’ve left in a coffin. His first win came in 2002.
From the moment he arrived at the Isle of Man he was a fan favourite. He’s shy. He avoids the celebrity scene and runs a mile from reporters. But it seems nearly everyone in the Isle of Man has shared a selfie or reported bumping into him and finding he has all the time in the world to talk to anyone who shares his love of motorcycle racing.
It’s said it never pays to meet your heroes. No one who’s met Bruce Anstey agrees.
In the Isle of Man he is not Bruce Anstey. He is just “Bruce”. The cover of the Classic TT race programme featured a photo of Anstey on his bike and a big headline: Bruce is Back!
Back … from a second bout of cancer. When he made it public early last year he’d be out of racing because cancerous tumours were all over his spine, few thought he’d be seen in action again.
He was back at the classic TT last August and rode a lap of honour. The common view among fans was that that was Bruce’s farewell to the circuit and his fans.
It wasn’t. Through two years of what Anstey called “tough times” he did not give up on the dream to return. And here he was this month, back in the island aged 50, the cancer not beaten but his fitness good enough for him to ride again.
And on the opening day of practice on his 250cc grand prix Honda, he comfortably topped the times.
“On the second lap it just clicked and away I went. It just felt like normal. It felt like I hadn’t been away.”
Millions of fans were no longer content just to celebrate Anstey’s return – they were willing him on to make the fairy tale come true.
On Sunday morning Anstey was never headed. As smooth, understated and fast as ever, he won by more than a minute.
“Greatest achievement today: Bruce Anstey winning the Lightweight Classic TT,” former TT winner and leading motorcycling journalist Mat Oxley posted on Twitter.
“Unreal. Rivers deep and mountains high of respect. Bruce Almighty!”
*Hugh Barlow is a Morning Report deputy editor and a lifelong follower of motorcycle racing.