Motorcycle racing is not all about the biggest being best. Tandragee is a small unassuming town in Northern Ireland that is probably not on anyone’s vacation destination wish-list. Scratch below the surface, though, and you will find a town of friendly people who know how to squeeze the very pips out of life. They love to party hard and know their motorcycle racing like the backs of their hands. It is a way of life for the town’s residents, as much as the Sunday visit to church.
The race takes place on a 5-mile (9-km) openroad circuit which, put simply, you would be mad to race on at 50 mph (80 kmph), never mind the 150 mph (240 kmph) the racers reach and exceed. Scars of tractor tire imprints mix with dripped remains from slurry tankers to create a slippery slime. The narrow roads boast spectacular motocross-style jumps, projecting man and machine into the air at over 100 mph (160 kmph). If there is an edge, then the riders are right on it. One mistake and it is likely to be their last.
The TT Races boast a purpose-built, ticketcontrolled complex of paddock buildings where bikes and competitors prepare. At Tandragee, the paddock is a more charming open-access field, where, in the past, buckets of water have been supplied to scrub mud from slick tires.
Half-a-dozen races entertain the appreciative crowds, with everything from the buzzing 120-mph (192-kmph) 125 cc “smoke burners” to the 200-mph (320-kmph) Superbikes. Visitors burrow into hedgerows and climb trees that line the circuit. When the bikes go by at speed, the true fan is only a few inches away in the undergrowth, camera in hand and heart beating fast in case the rider is off-line and on a collision course.
FORGET THE ISLE OF MAN TT RACES?
The Isle of Man TT, with 100 years of racing history behind it, is the ultimate challenge for any pure road-racer – it is the Everest of the biking world. It is held once a year, with practice during the last week of May and the race during the first week of June.
The Isle of Man is a costly event to travel to. Accommodations can also be a problem unless you book almost a year in advance. Each lap lasts around 17 minutes, so there is a limited number of opportunities to see your favorite riders in action. Racing takes place every second day, so to make it worthwhile, you need to stay at least for a few days.
Book as far in advance as possible, as it fills up as soon as the previous TT ends. You may be able to find a room with the residents of the Isle of Man, who, as part of a “Home Stay” project, rent out spare rooms to visitors. Hire a vehicle to get to the vantage points on the 38-mile (63-km) circuit.
Getting There and Around
The airport closest to Tandragee is in Belfast (Belfast City Airport), which is about 30 miles (50 km) from the town. From there, it is best to rent a car, as Tandragee is a little off the beaten track. However, if you plan on traveling by motorbike, you can take the ferry from Stranraer, situated in western Scotland, to Belfast. Alternatively, you can board the ferry from Holyhead in Wales to Dublin, located 80 miles (133 km) from Tandragee.
Where to Eat
Moneypenny’s Restaurant in the Montagu Arms (www.montagu-arms.com) offers a cosmopolitan menu along with traditional “Ulster fayre.” You should try the steak, prepared from local beef cattle, and the salmon, which is served fresh from the coast.
Where to Stay
Self-catering accommodation is available in the form of a quaint gate lodge located on Tandragee Road, which is a short drive from both Tandragee and another town called Markethill.
The riders all set off at once, not in a time trial one-at-a-time format as in the TT. Perhaps part of the appeal of watching the massed start of the race is the close association with danger and death – it is as tangible as the smell of two-stroke oil. The TT offers a certain amount of danger and excitement in a sanitized-health-and-safety controlled sort of way; Tandragee is back to basics, raw by comparison, and all about passion.