They’re back on the island, doing their gorgeous, crazy thing. We don’t quite understand, because how could we, but for them there is no greater expression of free will than a 200mph dance between strong stone walls on the Isle of Man .
And so to the city’s oldest accelerator, John McGuinness: the greatest driver of these roads among the living and the second if you count the lost.
McGuinness is now 50, a boy from Morecambe who never needs to buy his own beer on the island, and he has a way of describing the bike game and his ever-laden question as to why. It always comes down to the ‘why’ when the eyes of the outside gaze at the Isle of Man TT, arguably the most dangerous gig in all of sport.
50-year-old John McGuiness (pictured) is set to race at the Isle of Man TT this weekend
It begins on Saturday, after two years lost to Covid, and McGuinness does what he would normally avoid, which is to reflect on the fragility of it all. What he says may well speak for some of the 155 runners from afar who descended on a small island in the Irish Sea.
“The last two months I’ve put two mates in the ground – one had cancer and the other had a brain haemorrhage at age 52,” McGuinness told Sportsmail. ‘It’s two years away from where I am now. You know what, I’d rather have 50 great years than 60 s***e years if that makes sense.
“I love riding these bikes. I look a little tired and flabby but the old fire is burning. There are many ways to live a life.
And when it’s said like that, what else is there to say? A lot, in fact, but that will come shortly.
Saturday is a big date for McGuinness. It will be his 100th TT start, after 99 in which he has 47 podiums and 23 race wins, just short of the record of 26 held by Joey Dunlop, who died on his bike in 2000.
Isle of Man TT set to return on Saturday after two years lost to COVID
For an unvarnished gem of a guy – the kind who discusses the mechanical inequalities of motor racing, saying “you gotta p*** with the d*** they give you” – McGuinness feels more emotional than d accustomed to the idea of evoking his century. “I never thought I would get to 100,” he says. “You know, I first came here when I was 10 to watch my dad. Something was injected into my body that day that said I was going to do the TT.
‘Sport is right under your skin. Probably not a day goes by that I don’t think about the TT. It’s a way of life.’
Maybe he’ll catch Dunlop, but maybe that’s too far to whimsical. Even McGuinness doesn’t make those noises.
“I have to say with my Honda hat that I’m still capable of winning, but the reality may not be the right one,” he said. “If I’m third, I’m third, sixth is sixth. If I feel it, I’ll still crane my neck a bit, but I hope I know my limits.
Saturday will be McGuiness’ 100th start at the TT, after 99 in which he has 47 podium finishes and 23 race wins, just shy of the record of 26 held by Joey Dunlop.
And that is the key, which takes us from why to how. Specifically, how these runners can do what they do knowing graphically what can go wrong. Does a sports arena remind its competitors as often of what is at stake as the TT?
It was Thursday morning when we had this conversation; the previous evening, a 29-year-old Welsh rider called Mark Purslow became the 150th to die in competition or qualifying since the TT’s inception in 1907.
Maybe that’s the TT in a nutshell – nothing in sport can give or take so many of its heroes. And few have a broader perspective than McGuinness, a former bricklayer and clam picker who went on to see the lot.
He rode eras of his sport, received an MBE and could walk sheep through Morecambe if he wanted to. He also broke his back, manipulated a mangled leg with a wrench and was first on the scene when close friend David Jefferies fell for the last time.
Welsh driver Mark Purslow has become the 150th to die in competition or qualifying since the TT was founded in 1907
Purslow’s death triggered the kind of psychological contortions that would be unnecessary in almost any other sport. “You have a weird feeling inside and you just have to put it in the back of your head,” McGuinness says.
“It’s a different community. We are different people. We all move on (Purslow’s death) because we know he was doing what he loved to do. No one had a gun to their head.
It may seem cold, but only because it serves as a defense mechanism. “I remember 2003,” McGuinness says. He talks about his great friend Jefferies, a nine-time TT winner until it all came to a head in practice on a Thursday as he rounded the shallow left at Crosby.
You can hit 160 mph there, but it’s unclear exactly how fast it hit the wall at No. 29 Woodlea Villas. McGuinness was the first witness to the carnage.
“It still sticks with me to this day,” he says. “His mum was the strongest person here and after she told me to stop being gentle and get back on the bike – that’s what he would have wanted. We do what we do.
McGuiness rode the eras of his sport, received an MBE and could run sheep through Morecambe if he wanted to
Naturally, there are those who prefer not to frame TT around its worst consequences. And yet, it is also the sharpest way to contextualize the remarkable work of these runners.
“My mum’s advice was always, ‘Don’t go too fast but make sure you win,'” he adds. ‘Go find out that one.’
His career would suggest he followed at least some of his instructions, with his first TT win 23 years ago. “I barely remember it,” he said. “I just remember we smoked in the bar that night, which would be frowned upon these days.
“My favorite moment here was 2007, it was special. It was the centenary, the bike was epic, the sun was shining – no better feeling. It’s hard to describe to someone who’s never done it, ride this course. It’s 38 miles and the bits are just scary, scary. It takes years to learn. That year I was on the podium in every race and then I won the Senior (l ‘flagship event). Really cool.’
His punches along the way were hard, from the beards of people who doubted this burly runner could ever be great, to the falls. The worst of these came in 2017 at the North West 200 in Northern Ireland, where he broke his back and suffered a complex fracture in his right leg.
McGuiness won the Isle of Man TT in 2007 and he says it’s his best moment in his 23-year career
“I lost 52mm from my leg,” he says. “They put him in a cage (of fixator) and I had to push him back 1mm a day, so I had to keep using a key to unlock the brace every day so he would grow.” It wasn’t fun. Even when you put your leg on top of the woman, you would kick her in the shin with a 5kg cage on your leg.
McGuinness can laugh about it now. He won’t say how many more miles it will take to call it a day, but there are still goals.
“A podium this week would be amazing,” he said. “I have an agreement with my team that if I get a podium, I’ll do a nude streak along the ball. If I can do that streak and get on the ferry next Friday, that would be the icing on the cake.