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Dead by Christmas – my GQ feature about me, bikes and the TT.

Nice article I spotted in GQ yesterday about a UK Journolist who becomes a Born Again Biker explaining the biking feeling & the TT to normal people who know nothing about bikes.

Was good to read & remember the feelings of near uncontainable excitment when i got into biking.

Dead by Christmas – my GQ feature about me, bikes and the TT.

Dead by Christmas – my GQ feature about me, bikes and the TT.
Motorbikes Add comments Apr 26

This is a feature I wrote for the British GQ magazine, which appeared in the May 2010 edition.

If you’ve never been, the Isle of Man TT is one of the most spectacular sporting events you can imagine.

It makes the Monaco Grand Prix look about as dangerous as a game of bloody Scalextric.


It is with regret that Honda Motorcycles announces the journalist Matt Kelly was seriously injured/killed (delete as appropriate) this morning during a lap of the Isle of Man TT.
Mr Kelly was completing a lap of the Mountain Course under full closed-road racing conditions, on a motorcycle ridden by former TT champion Phillip McCallen. More information will follow as soon as it becomes available.

The big yellow digital clock above the start line clicks another second.
10:44:00. T minus sixty seconds.
I’m perched high on the pillion seat of a Honda FireBlade sportsbike, arms clutching tight at the leather-clad waist of a man I first met not half an hour ago.
Before us lies Bray Hill. As ordinary a small-town street as you could wish for. Traffic lights, bus stops, two facing rows of nice tidy little semis. Kerbs. Walls. In less than sixty seconds, we’ll be accelerating down this road at 140 mph.
It plunges away so sharply, you lose sight of it below the horizon. From where I’m sitting, right now, it looks like the edge of the world.

The man I’m clutching is Phillip McCallen, eleven-time TT champion and, thanks to his willingness to run risks where other men dare not, known throughout the world of road racing as Mad Phil McCallen. Or plain Mad Phil McMad.
When that big yellow clock clicks to 10:45:00, we take off for a flying lap of the Mountain Course, probably the most famous circuit in motorcycle racing. Certainly the most lethal. Two hundred and twenty seven people have been killed in the 103-years of this race.
Every stretch of these thirty-seven and three-quarter miles bears witness to the inevitable horror of what it means to come off at the TT, and a little earlier, the Honda press officer gave me a glimpse of how my own contribution to this grim history would be announced. A press release has been prepared (“merely a precaution, you understand”) should the accident that has been stalking me in my sleep become reality.
I don’t tell her that I woke with a start at four o’clock, consumed not just by fear, but by the foolishness of what I’d agreed to do. How I’d stared from the hotel window out across Douglas Bay, watching as the dawn slowly stained the horizon and wondered how it was that I, in my fortieth year, a married man with two young children at home, a man who six months previously had never even heard of a FireBlade, how it was that I had arrived here at the Isle of Man TT, about to risk my life on the back of one. For what?
Instead I just smiled at her, and then asked a friend for a cigarette. I gave up smoking seven years ago. The cigarette is the second gift I’ve taken from this same friend. The first was the loan of the suit of a kevlar body armour I’m wearing beneath my leathers. He once raced in the TT and cooly told me I must be mad to do this. As mad as Mad Phil himself. Madder, perhaps.

“At least he’s got his hands on the handlebars. At least he’s in control. If you can call the way he rides control.”
10.44.50. T minus ten seconds.
It’s odd, but it had never occurred to me how many people would bear witness to this act of idiocy. In my dreams, our twisting hurtle along this 37 mile ribbon of country lanes, town streets and mountain passes had been a private affair, but here on the start line is an entire grandstand of people staring down at me, bemused, amused, some pointing, some laughing.
There’ll be tens of thousands more along the route. As soon as we finish our lap, the first big race of this year’s TT gets underway.

10.44.55. T minus five seconds.
Phillip twists the throttle and the screaming engine drowns out the sound of the crowd and I think about my wife and two toddlers in north London. About what they’re doing this very moment. It’s a crisp sunny day across the whole of the country. They’ll be in the playpark, I think. On the swings, probably. I should be there. With them.
But I’m not. I’m on the start line of the TT. With Mad Phil. On a 185mph FireBlade.
How on god’s earth did this happen?


Flashback eight months. I’m on the forecourt of a Texaco garage near Canary Wharf. It’s a cool early autumn evening and I’m pouring eighty pounds of petrol into my 4×4 Lexus.
At the pump ahead of me is a guy on a scooter. He’s just filled up for a fiver, which starts me thinking. But it’s the way he casually turns the ignition and cuts a swathe through the double lane of backed-up traffic like it wasn’t there that seals the epiphany. I need to get one of those. I’m on the road to Islington, but it might as well be Damascus.
Never in my life has it crossed my mind to ride a bike. Quite the opposite. As far as I’m convinced they are noisy death-traps. And yet… a single moment on a Texaco forecourt and everything changes. Only I haven’t quite begun to realise by just how much.
A month later, proud owner of the necessary documentation and a shiny new 125cc scooter, I just know that this little buzzing machine isn’t going to be enough.
My wife stands by, aghast, as over the course of a couple of months, what began as a rational, explicable economy drive transmogrifies into an irrational, inexplicable obsession with motorcycles. And not just any motorcycles, but sportsbikes.

There are as many things to do on a bike as there to do with a ball.
Motocross, speedway, endurance, trials, cruisers, long-distance touring, rally .. Wall of Death. All absorbing in their own way. But whatever switch has been flicked in my genetic make-up, it was triggered by the thrill of speed.
Ewan McGregor describes the sickening anticipation of a track day, and certainly I notice the churn in my stomach as I arrive at Silverstone for my first track day. It’s more than an absence of breakfast…
I’m here far too early, way before the seven-thirty registration, before the Midlands mist has burnt away from the circuit, and I wait in the corner of the car park for the others.
Then they start to arrive, in ones and twos, bikes snorting, old dark leathers worn matte by the abrasions of high speed falls and tumbles, they appear from the fog like wraiths. Suddenly, the brand new, bright red leathers I was so puffed-up about in the shop, seem utterly ridiculous. Here comes the new boy, they declare with every creaking step.
Nervous, I strike up a conversation with a friendly looking bald man unloading what seems to me to be a battered old Ducati from the back of a pick-up truck, helped by his teenage daughter. I ask him about the bike. It looks like it’s been through a war, held together by swathes of duct tape. He looks at me, then sends his daughter to fetch him a cup of tea from the machine.
As soon as she’s out of earshot, he begins circling the bike, pointing and reeling of figures.
“Those wheels, carbon-fibre. Two grand. The exhaust, three grand. Brakes off a 2004 superstock bike. Cost me four grand, worth plenty more than that. Forks, three grand. There’s about five grand’s worth of carbon fibre on the bodywork. You’re looking at about thirty grand’s worth of bike there.”
I’m speechless. His daughter is coming back now, tea in hand.
Thirty grand I think. About three years in a pretty good school.
As though he can read my mind, his voice shifts to a lower register and he says: “It’s all a bit much, to be honest.”
I desperately want to ask him what he does for a living. I hope I’m wrong, that he’s a multi-millionaire, that his girl goes to Cheltenham Ladies College. That thirty thousand pounds is a drop in the ocean.
In the end I don’t need to ask. At the end of the day, he asks me how I got on and tells me if it wasn’t for the escape of track days, his job as a planning officer at the council would drive him insane.
It seems as though he feels the need to explain the price of his obsession. He really doesn’t need to. The day has been one of the most exhilerating of my life.
I’d expected to discover fear at high speed. The cornering bike gripping into the planet via a contact patch of rubber roughly equating to the size of your hands. The thought that it could let go at any moment.
I’d expected to find excitement. The heat from the engine burning into your ankles, the vibration of the pistons numbing your fingers, acutely aware of the processes taking place a foot or so directly below your crotch. Oxygen and petrol sucked into a chamber and exploded to fire a piston from a cylinder faster than a bullet leaves a gun. Directly beneath your crotch. I never thought about internal combustion that way before. The Lexus might run on fairy dust for all I know. But motorbikes run on fire and air. It’s elemental.
I’d expected to find humility. Flat out into the straight, fists gripped on the bars and head pinned low behind the paltry protection of a sportsbike bubble screen, only for an fat man on an old and lumpy BMW touring bike to swoop past me with all the easy elegance of a diving swallow. Bikes are great levellers.
But I never expected to find serenity. Yet it is there, right at the heart of this new life; a beautiful, pure stillness found at very high speed.
A curious thing happens at speed on a motorcycle.
Far from speeding up, it’s actually as though the world has slowed down, almost to a standstill. As you travel faster and faster, the amount of data your brain can process becomes narrower and narrower, compressing into a point of focus so intense, it’s overwhelming.
For a blissful moment, it feels like you are flying. But it’s also the most dangerous moment of them all.
At the Isle of Man, John McGuinness, a charming, unassuming, plump Morecambe man who happens to be a 15-time TT champion, second in the history books only to the late Joey Dunlop, described to me how he had once been entranced by a bead of moisture rising slowly up the inside of his motorbike’s screen as he tore down the backside of the Mountain Course at around a hundred and eighty miles an hour. Then he snapped out of it, back to reality, just in time to make a corner and avoid disaster.
“You’re mind does wander. If you look at when people have died recently, it’s always been the last lap of the last race. People start enjoying themselves, thinking it’s over. They get distracted by something. The smell of a barbecue, spotting a face you know in the crowd. Then…”
The “then” doesn’t need spelling out.
McGuinness holds the lap record at the TT. An average speed of 131mph around the 37 mile circuit. At times he is riding at around 200mph, on country lanes little wider than a tractor, at speeds that literally suck rabbits from the hedgerows. Suck rabbits from the hedgerow. To behold it is otherworldy.
And like most riders who put the TT at the centre of their lives, he’s lost many friends to the Mountain Course – seen some ghastly things.
His best friend, another TT hero, David Jeffries died in awful circumstances in 2003. McGuinness, riding a few minutes behind him, was forced to pull up when he arrive at the wreckage. He knew instantly what had happened.
“A crashed plane couldn’t have caused more damage. He’d hit a wall. The wall was all over the road, there was a telegraph pole in the road. David was laying in the road, the bike was in millions of bits. I’ve not seen anything like it in my life. And then came the weird smells and I saw all sorts of horrible bits and pieces. At least there was no suffering. He was gone in a breath. I know that much, because I saw what was left.
“That was it. I couldn’t possibly continue. And then straight after, I spoke to his mum and she was the strongest person in the pits. She told me, ‘you must ride again. For Dave. Just keep going. He knew what the risk was like.’ And I thought fair enough.”
Nowhere so exemplifies these extreme paradoxes within motorbike racing as the Isle of Man. That breathtaking grace and beauty of speed when it goes right. The horrific carnage and devastation when it goes wrong.
Now that he has achieved everything he needs to, has nothing to prove, what stops him packing it all in? It can’t be the allure of the paltry £20,000 a man gets for risking his life over six laps of this deadly course and winning.
“It’s not the money. The money’s rubbish for what we do. I can’t really answer the question. It’s just like there’s this amazing magnet that draws you to this hunk of rock in the Irish Sea,” says McGuinness, the poet.
Until you witness the TT, it’s impossible to understand what would draw in hundreds of thousands of bikers from across the world year after year.
As a young boy, growing up in Liverpool, I would watch each year at the Pier Head as thousands of motorbikes embarked the Isle of Man Steam Packet Ferry for Douglas. It seemed then like some sort of pilgrimage, yet felt alien to me and I sought escape in other places, in mountains and on rock faces.
Ah, to think what I’ve been missing, all these years.
If only I had the facility of words, I’d bring the whole island alive on these pages.
The way you can lean over a stone wall at a corner with riders passing at 160mph, so close you could reach out and touch their helmets, and the way the bikes leap in the air and wriggle like salmon at a bump in the road at Milntown so innocuous you don’t know it’s there when you’re riding the course in a car.
And the Germans and the Austrians, who seem somehow more battered and grimy than the rest and look like they’ve crossed several continents to be there, refugees from some Sven Hassell novel and pile their green beer bottles into high pyramids in the campsite behind the pit lane.
And Mad Sunday, when any fool can try his luck at the limitless speed of the course, and the logjam of bikes, hundreds of them, waiting patiently at the foot of Snaefell mountain, closed for a moment while the paramedics scoop up one more fool and the police brush the remains of his bike from the road. And the log jam that night, the same faces, now waiting less patiently to get into Colours below the Hilton, the comically dreadful nightclub time forgot, but which becomes the centre of celebration on the island, night after night, long into the early hours.
And I’d try to capture the look on the policeman’s face, torn between indignation and amusement, as he barked at one of the three grown men tearing around the island on a single poor abused scooter to get off and walk. And how that long trudge back to the hotel felt.
The taste and the smell of the barbeques in the pub car parks and the crowds yelling for you to do something rash on your bike to give them a cheer.
And the noise of the bikes. Especially the noise. The way you hear them coming in your deep heart’s core, long before you hear it in your ears. But there’s no way to capture that noise in words, so you’ll have to go hear it for yourself.

A year ago, I promised myself the passing of my 40th year would go untainted by any noticeable change in behaviour. Yet here I am, six months after passing my bike test, Mr Midlife Crisis, fresh from central casting.
The family Lexus gathers dust as I commute in to and from work on a machine that would achieve nought-60 in less than 2.5 seconds if only I could find a road long enough to do it.
Thanks to the occasional blog I write about this journey – unofficial title “Dead By Christmas”- there’s no shortage of bikes to test, or adventures to sample.
The box room is now filled with leathers, and boots and gloves and helmets. The absorbing paraphernalia of this new world.
My children hold scooter TT races between the kitchen and the front door. The Sky Plus is permanently filled with highlights of Moto GP and British Superbikes.
My wife occasionally threatens to leave me. But then that’s nothing new.
“What on earth do you think you’re playing at? You’re going to die,” becomes a frequent conversation opener in the Kelly household as each new level of my infatuation unfolds.
“It’s fine,” is my stock response. “It’s not half as dangerous as it looks.”
The truth is, I have no idea what on earth I’m playing at. All I know is the noisy death-traps have a hold of me. What’s changed? Certainly not the bikes. They’re as noisy and as dangerous as when I saw them at the Pier Head thirty years ago.

So that just leaves me.
All I can fall back on, by way of rationalisation, is physics. The pure physics of cornering a motorcycle at high speed demands that momentum is increased if traction is to be maintained.
Or in other words, when you’re in the middle of the corner with the bike leant over at an angle that feels impossible to sustain, and when every instinct for survival in your being is screaming at you to shut off the damn throttle, to slow down, for christ’s sake, before the back wheel slides away from beneath you, before you go and dash in your skull – that you do precisely the opposite.
Because in another, cooler, better-informed, part of the brain, you know that to shut off the gas would be catastrophic. To try to slow down at such speed, with the bike leant over at such a severe degree, can have just one result. Instability, loss of grip, crash!
The answer, actually, is more gas. To go faster, harder out of the corner, to drive that hot sticky rubber deeper into the road, to keep that rubber hotter and stickier. Not for the sake of bravado, but because you know this is the only way you and this bike are going to get out of this corner in one piece.
This is the moment you discover, as Joey Dunlop put it, whether you can grit your teeth, or not.
To hear that inner voice screaming at you to slow down. And then to ignore it and open the throttle. And to do all that in the blink of an eye. It’s this momentary, fleeting mastery of my inner coward that has me addicted to bikes.
That, and of course, the leathers.

10.45.00. Blast off.
The marshal pats Phillip on the back and we plunge down Brae Hill.
It takes about three minutes of teeth-gritted terror until I learn to relax a little and appreciate the flow of the bike. From that point on, it is nothing but pure exhilaration. McCallen is an extraordinary pilot, flowing from corner to corner, it feels more like a dance than a dice with death.
Hurtling along the narrow road, past the houses, the lamposts, the occasional bales of hay – “more to soak up the blood than protect you,” as a marshall later jokes with typical black humour – and the bike banks just inches away from stone walls that would mean certain death if we brushed them, and yet I feel no fear.
Instead, I find myself transfixed by this narrowing ribbon of tarmac road above Philip’s helmet, this rushing, myopic hurtling view that’s suddenly become my world, wondering just where exactly is it going to take me.


Other links
Mad Manx! A lap of the Isle of Man TT with race legend Phillip McCallen

Full lap of the Isle of Man TT: Phillip McCallen on board Honda Fireblade and Matt Kelly pillion

Havent read any of his other articles yet but you can find them here

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RE: Dead by Christmas – my GQ feature about me, bikes and the TT.

I was about to say repost but then looked at the date :p

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3,551 Posts
RE: Dead by Christmas – my GQ feature about me, bikes and the TT.

Thanks Kenny, you know I love this shit.

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