Motorcycle Travel from Milan to the Isle of Man TT with Lotus Tours
(This Tale of Two Races was printed in the February 2003 issue of Rider.)
You don’t have to be a motorcycle racing fan to dream of visiting the Isle of Man for the annual Tourist Trophy races.
More an international spectacle—like Mardi Gras or the running of the bulls—than merely two weeks of motorcycle competition, the TT is one of the last vestiges of true motorcycle “road” racing on public thoroughfares, certainly the most challenging and risky. The 373⁄4-mile course that forms a rough circle in the center of the 33- by 13-mile island runs within inches of hedges, cliffs, stone walls and buildings—not to mention spectators—in many places, and the widely varying road surface is the same used on a daily basis by the island’s population. Combine this environment with contemporary open-class racebikes and average lap and top speeds in excess of 120 and 190 mph, and the TT races can make the typical World Superbike event or MotoGP seem pretty tame by comparison. I’ve been itching to see it since I read my first account at age 17.
Except for the war years and in 2001 due to the outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, the TT races have been run on this small island in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland every year since 1907. The names of famous TT victors such as Hailwood, Agostini and Dunlop are uttered with reverence here, even by current champ David Jefferies, who recently set a new lap record. In 2002 practice and racing ran from May 25 to June 7—in addition to 10 classes of motorcycle and sidecar roadracing, there is motocross, supermoto, even drag racing to see, not to mention plenty of British/Manx-style motorcycle highjinks (these folks wear their leathers to bed) and the never-ending party that climaxes each night in the main port city of Douglas. The roads (ride on the left!), towns and countryside are full of motorcycles. About the only way to improve upon a visit would be to ferry over with a bike from England or the continent during the TT and make a lap or two of the infamous course yourself—which we did.
AFTER RIDING AND FERRYING from Milan, Italy, across Switzerland, France, Belgium and Great Britain, the 2002 Lotus IOM Tour promised to deposit us on the Isle May 31-June 3 for four days of spectating, lapping the famous course and Manx sightseeing. Then it would be back to Milan via a different route. You can travel to the TT on your own, of course, arranging the flight to the U.K., renting a bike and booking a round-trip ferry ride over from Liverpool or Heysham (near Blackpool) nine months to a year in advance (all of the ferries are completely booked by and during the TT). Nobody else offers an organized IOM trip like this Lotus motorcycle tour, however. In addition to making all of those tricky TT arrangements for us, carting our luggage and handling difficult-to-get room reservations on the IOM, the itinerary promised plenty of European castles, monuments, motorcycle museums, scenery, good meals and threeand four-star hotels before and after the races, which made it doubly attractive to wife Genie and me.
Blinded as I was by the thought of finally going to the TT, however, I neglected to second-guess Lotus and look at a map before the ride. These were mostly winding, two-lane European alpine and country roads and heavily trafficked motorways we would be on a 200-mile day there can be like 450 in the United States (and that’s when the weather’s good). Had I checked the distances beforehand, I might have at least warned Genie that the concept of riding from, say, Verdun, France, to Zeebrugge, Belgium, in time to catch a 7 p.m. ferry, with some morning sightseeing in the famous French city, a leisurely lunch stop along the way and a pleasant stroll around the historic Bohemian city of Brugge, Belgium, was probably unrealistic. More likely we’d stuff a croissant in our mouths at breakfast, make a mad dash across northern France with a quick lunch somewhere and just make the ferry—which is what we did. Most of the days were like that one, too, if not longer.
So, without going into a lot of tiresome detail, suffice to say the ride to the Isle of Man and back ended up more like another race. Fine for an experienced, solo rider willing to rise early, keep his or her meals short and at best be late for dinner, if not miss it entirely. For Genie and me and some of the less-experienced travelers in our group (fortunately, all were experienced riders, or they might still be there), it was a bit of a drone, and a disappointment to only see wonderful European cities and sites like Brugge and Warwick Castle in England from the saddle of the bike as we rode past.
Although Lotus does a good job in its literature of making it seem sensible enough to begin and end such a tour in Milan, the only reason it does so is that its MotoGlobal alliance partner and motorcycle rental agency, Mototouring, is located there. In reality, covering such a distance in eight days—with two of the nights spent on ferries—is a marvel of logistics but a pretty grueling ride for someone supposed to be on vacation. None of us on the ride had time to take in the Birmingham National or Sammy Miller motorcycle and automotive museums as promised on the Lotus Web site (and in fact, we never got anywhere near them), nor some of the other attractions besides the Isle of Man itself that had prompted a few on the tour to take it in the first place.
This was in addition to all of the usual last-minute itinerary/hotel changes that we’ve come to expect on organized motorcycle tours, and the surprisingly high ratio of mediocre hotels on this one. To be fair, some were indeed four-star and exceeded our expectations—those in Verdun and Arnay Le Duc, France, for example—but the majority were not what we’ve come to expect from Lotus in Europe. We were given maps that covered some of the route, but not all, and those maps often lacked enough detail, causing a few riders to lose their way several times on already long days. But the cardinal sin was when we finally arrived at the port in Heysham, England, to catch the 10 p.m. ferry to the IOM and were told that—rather than here, as our tickets indicated—our departure point had been changed some weeks previous to Liverpool, much too far to ride to in time. We were told we might get on sometime early in the morning on standby, and were left to wait frustrated and confused in the ferry terminal. To add insult to injury, our guide (whose tickets were correct!) had gone ahead with our luggage on an earlier ferry to the IOM, so we faced the possibility of roaming around England until his uncertain return with only the clothes on our backs. If we hadn’t been put on the 2:45 a.m. ferry the next morning, I’m fairly certain more than one in our group would have gone completely postal.
FOR THIS TOUR Lotus rents its customers a variety of European motorcycles through the Mototouring agency in Milan. The base price just covers a BMW F650 single, however—really only adequate for a lightweight solo rider not interested in getting all the way to IOM very quickly—so everyone on the tour spent the extra money to upgrade to sport-touring bikes like an Aprilia Futura, CapoNord or Ducati ST2. We even had one stalwart rider on an Aprilia RSV Mille sportbike (who must’ve spent the same amount of time looking at a map before the tour as I did). Except for the latter, all of the bikes were well-suited to the ride, whether blasting through the twisty bits in the mountains and on the IOM or streaking across the highways of France. Genie and I rode a Ducati ST4s, and it, too, was an excellent choice—comfortable, fast and nice handling.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the CapoNord, every rented/borrowed bike on the ride suffered from one ailment or another, from hard starting to charging system woes to noisy clutches. In some cases whether these problems stemmed from the manufacturer or poor maintenance was hard to say, and to his credit our guide worked hard to keep the bikes moving down the road. But at least one motorcycle shouldn’t have been rented out in the condition it was in.
There are plenty of good things to say about the 2002 Lotus IOM Tour, of course, and in fairness, if you do the math, $4,350 for the two-week tour (including hotels, four ferry rides—two overnight in a berth—most meals, F650 rental, chase van and guide), was a good deal (Burt Richmond, owner of Lotus Tours, says he actually lost money on the tour in 2002). Although the hotel on the Isle of Man was just OK (our guide reported that his B&B there was nicer!), we did enjoy our fill of the TT races and the lovely Isle of Man, which is probably the most scenic part of the tour besides the Alps at the start and finish. We had time to explore a little of Verdun, France, miles of marvelous French country roads in the eastern Alsace wine region, as well as a small English castle and the historic, scenic town of York in the English midlands. On the way back we briefly visited Bath, Oxford and Stonehenge in southern England, and Omaha Beach and the awe-inspiring American Cemetery (remember the emotional opening of Saving Private Ryan?) in Normandy, France, the latter on the June 6 anniversary of D-Day, a major attraction of the tour. Genie and I were also able to get to Milan a day early and see some of the sights in this most historic of European cities, and our ride through the Loire River wine valley in southern France and stop at the magnificent Chateau Chambord will never be forgotten.
Had the weather been better, the route on our first and last riding days would have taken us over some of the best alpine pass roads in Switzerland and Italy, but a late snow and cold rainy skies limited us to the lower roads and tunnels. It was still quite scenic and twisty, however, and as always the roads among the Alps were some of the most exciting on the tour.
Lotus Tours has the underpinnings for a good tour here. It should make sure that the entire groups’ expectations are more realistic, and that the execution of such a complex trip is in the hands of an experienced guide. Ours was a terrific, patient fellow, but he received the assignment only hours before departing, and hadn’t been to many of the places we were going. The snow-country dwellers in our group still thought the tour was a very satisfying way to put on a lot of miles in a short amount of time, however, with the lovely, exciting Isle of Man, TT races and plenty of exotic European scenery to boot.
We took in more than our share of good winding motorcycling roads in Italy, Switzerland, France and the UK, and as always, made some good riding friends. In fact, the groups’ camaraderie, good nature and patience probably saved the tour. If nothing else, this was a true adventure, the snafus and unexpected of which can be part of the fun. Now that we know what to expect (and what not to), as Genie says, she’d do it again in a heartbeat. I would, too, assuming that Lotus will have us back again someday….
IOM or BUST: Trans-Europe in 2003.
For more than 20 years Lotus Tours has made unique motorcycle trips to Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and North America. As a result of its recently formed MotoGlobal alliance with seven touring company owners around the world (including Mototouring in Milan, which ran our IOM tour in 2002), Lotus offers riders hundreds of different sportbike, dual-sport and off-road motorcycle tours as well as an off-road motorcycle school.
Perhaps as a result of the feedback it received on the 2002 version, for 2003 Lotus Tours has renamed its May 24-June 8 IOM Tour “Simply Isle of Man and Trans-Europe,” the “Simply” referring to motorcycle rental no longer being included in the lower $2,800 cost for rider or passenger. A variety of Aprilias, BMWs, Ducatis and Moto Guzzis are still available for rent at additional cost, and everything else about the tour seems to have remained the same at this writing, including its description on the Lotus Tours Web site, which for 2002 included a lot of wishful thinking. Caveat emptor.
Travel Protection/Medivac insurance is required on all Lotus Tours at your own expense. Tour cost includes hotels, breakfast (if you don’t leave before it’s served), dinners (if you get there in time), a guide, chase van with luggage and spare motorcycle and ferry tickets. Lotus also provided very nice commemorative shirts on our tour, but I know at least two participants who would have traded them for decent maps of northern Italy, England and the Isle of Man (!), which were supposed to have been provided….
For more information contact Lotus Tours at 1723 N. Fern Court, Chicago, Illinois 60614; (312) 951-0031; www.lotustours.com.