Isle of Man TT: 'Everyone's a fan, they just don't know it'

John McGuinness
John McGuinness was the first rider to lap the 37.7 mile course at an average speed of over 130mph
Isle of Man TT races
Dates: 4, 6, 8, 10 June Coverage: Reports and reaction on BBC Sport website

'Unbelievable'. Surely sport's most misused adjective.

In the last few weeks alone you could have heard it used to describe any number of decent goals on the football pitch, a high-pressure checkout at the oche or even a well-judged route back to baulk at the Crucible.

But when the word is spread liberally among conversations with some of the riders preparing for the Isle of Man TT races, you should be prepared to take it at face value.

If you are unfamiliar with the event, check out some onboard footage. Unless you happen to be a fighter pilot with recent combat experience, you may well find it - for once - hard to believe.

Too fast, too close, too dangerous? Too good?

Last year John McGuinness skirted the stone walls, kissed the hedgerows and weaved past the pubs to set a new lap record of the 37.7 mile mountain course of 17 minutes 3.567 seconds. To put it another way, he clocked an average speed of 132.701 miles per hour. Average.

Try driving from Birmingham to Worcester, or Brighton to Royal Tunbridge Wells, or Liverpool to Manchester in under 18 minutes. Without using the motorway. Well, obviously don't...

For the next week the streets of the Isle of Man become a racetrack and front gardens become grandstands as 40,000 fans descend on the haven in the Irish Sea. A two-wheeled invasion. A pilgrimage for many.

McGuinness and his rivals become rockstars playing to a festival crowd, racing the clock for a place in the history books, hitting over 200mph on parts of the famous old course. They are 227 corners away from glory - and one lapse away from disaster.

This is 44-year-old McGuinness's 20th year at the TT. But even a man with 23 race wins confesses to being nervous a full six weeks out from race day. The organisers have made the event as safe as they can - which is incredibly dangerous.

There have been 141 deaths in the event since it began in 1907. Of those, 24 have come since the turn of the century.

"If you're a lunatic you'll last two minutes here - you're dead in a breath," says McGuinness. "You can't get blase about it. It will bite you, this place.

James Hillier
A trackside crowd of more than 70,000 is expected at this year's TT

"If you're not nervous there's something wrong with you. At the start of the race I'm pretty much useless.

"The first lap of the year is tough - you go down Bray Hill and you've got the bike by the horns, you're tense and puffing and panting, your breathing isn't right. There's no slow way to ease yourself in.

"You are doing 85mph in first gear, 160 after a few seconds. There's a lot of scenery and houses whizzing past your head. You get off after two or three laps and wonder how on earth you are going to carry on for the fortnight.

"But you do, you let your grip go, you get confident with the bike and the track, hit all the apexes and start to get into a flow. It starts working for you as you go along.

"When it's finished it is a big relief and it takes a couple of weeks to get over it, physically and mentally. I need a holiday and a few drinks."

McGuinness usually earns them. He is only three race wins away from equalling the legendary Joey Dunlop's record haul.

BBC iWonder guide - Would you risk your life to race?

Leading all-time TT winners
Joey Dunlop26
John McGuinness23
Dave Molyneux17
Mike Hailwood14

Competition stronger than ever

McGuinness was Dunlop's final team-mate a month before his death at an obscure road race in Estonia in 2000. With entries in six races this week, McGuinness could yet eclipse Dunlop's run of wins by the end of the Senior TT on 10 June.

But the competition has never been fiercer, the standard has never been higher. Last year, enraged by seeing his name quoted at 16-1 in a bookmaker's window, McGuinness stormed to the Senior TT win by 15 seconds.

But five men lapped at an average speed of more than 132mph. Only 10 years ago McGuinness took 10 seconds out of the lap record to win the 2006 Senior - in a lap time 26 seconds slower than his current record.

"It's definitely stronger than ever now," says McGuinness. "There's more depth.

"The guy who finishes last is not hanging about; you wouldn't want to be sat on the back of him. You win races by tenths of seconds over a few hundred miles."

All equals on the track

Bruce Anstey
New Zealander Bruce Anstey was clocked hitting 206mph on Sulby Straight in 2006 - the fastest top speed yet

Everywhere you turn in the paddock is an unlikely story. More than 260 competitors will race, from the youngest - 19-year-old Josh Daley - to sidecar racer Roy Hanks, who is 68.

Maria Costello is the sole female racer this year but Fiona Baker-Milligan is a passenger on dad Tony's sidecar, one of a number of female sidecar competitors.

At the top end of the field the Dunlop name continues to be written through the TT like a stick of Douglas rock. Joey's brother Robert, who won five TTs, was killed at the North West 200 in 2008 but his sons remain fierce competitors.

Michael, 27, has won 11 TTs and is likely to start as favourite with the bookies, while older brother William is a regular in the top six.

McGuinness' other chief rivals include Ian Hutchinson, a man who should have had his leg amputated after a horrific accident months after winning five TTs in 2010.

Instead Hutchinson endured more than 30 operations on his mangled left leg and returned to win three races last year.

Manxman Conor Cummins could finally win, Bruce Anstey may add to his 10 victories, fastest newcomer Peter Hickman is well fancied, Gary Johnson and James Hillier... the list goes on.

Bowing out on a high?

John McGuinness
John McGuinness has won 23 TT races since making his debut in 1996 - only three behind Joey Dunlop's record

For McGuinness, who used to bunk on to a ferry as a child on his BMX from his home in Morecambe to watch the racing, this could be his final year.

After 20 years he would leave with his legacy secured and the event more popular than ever. But could he really step away?

"When I was a kid and a TT fan I never thought I'd get this far, sat here with 23 wins," he says.

"But I've got my fingertips on the record now. It's getting pretty close and it would be the icing on the cake for my career to match Joey.

"I've got the blessing of the Dunlop family, which is nice, I was with Joey's wife Linda recently and we had a good chat about it.

"But if I don't win another race I've achieved way more than I ever thought I would do.

"I don't want to go on forever. This is my 20th anniversary and I've been loyal to everybody. If ever there was a time to get out it would have been straight after the Senior last year, but it's hard to to let go. It gets hold of you and it won't let go.

"It is an addiction. On one side of the coin it's a deadly addiction, but on the other it's..."

McGuinness's eyes and voice drift away. As he prepares for this unique sporting event, the mainstay of his year, I ask him to sum up the TT's appeal to any fans yet to make the trip.

"You can't get a bed on the Isle of Man during the TT," he says.

"For everyone here there's five who can't get here. The thing is, everybody's a TT fan - they just don't know it yet.

"I don't care who you are, or whether you are into cross-dressing or tiddlywinks - if you go down the bottom of Bray Hill and see the bikes come past, inches from your face at 165mph and don't enjoy it, you're not alive."

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