Riding Man

by Mark Gardiner

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Any one of us who has seen a pack of puck-draggers chasing each other around a short circuit track has had dreams of dicing it around corners with the best of them.  Mark Gardiner, who had already raced on short circuits, decided to make another dream reality: to race in the Isle of Man TT. 

The TT road circuit [see article elsewhere in this issue] isn’t just difficult, it’s “the least forgiving environment in sports.”  In his memoir Riding Man (preceded by a documentary, One Man’s Island in 2003), Gardiner recalls the economic and personal sacrifices, the ever-present fears, and the ultimate joy of dedicating oneself to realizing a dream.

Gardiner, a compact bespectacled man in his forties, raised in Switzerland and Canada, looks like a particularly intense history professor.  More unlikely still, he used to make his living as an ad agency creative director.  He used his generous salary to fund his passion for racing, something that began in high school. “I spent so much of my high school on crutches that years later I’d run into people from my class who were amazed to realize I was not simply a cripple.”

Over the years he acquired an AMA Expert license, having raced in over 100 races, crisscrossing Canada and the States in a van, usually alone.  Clearly possessing the requisite skill and passion, he discovers that neither is enough to grant him  entry to the TT. “There are basically two ways to get into the TT.  British riders (who make up most of the grid) all come up through the Manx Grand Prix [a race held on the Isle of Man in September].  A win there is a guarantee of acceptance, as is a record of steady finishes with good fast lap times.  International riders can apply for direct entry to the TT, as long as they have a Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM) International race license and the approval of their national federation.”

Gardiner sells everything he owns and plans to move to the Isle of Man to compete in 2001, only to be thwarted by the ban on island racing owing to Foot and Mouth disease.  Holding it together as a consultant, he lands on the island the next year, rents a house, and begins bicycling around the course, stopping to draw sections of it in his notebook.  Working with financial and mechanical supporters back in Canada, as well as new friends on the Island, Gardiner begins his quest to qualify based on lap times.

Seeing in lampposts, walls and buildings the consequences of coming off, he also realizes the payoff in being a road racer. As motorcycle racers, “we ask ourselves, ‘where’s the edge?’ and constantly need to confront the fact that after removing every possible variable we’re going to be left with this reality: the best performance is inherently the most dangerous.  This is the source of a unique self-knowledge.”

The race, having its status as an internationally sanctioned event removed in the 70s owing to the number of deaths and serious injuries, still has a special purity for racers: “it’s the amateur world championships.  And it doesn’t matter who knows or acknowledges it, because the only people they want to impress are going to be lined up with them on [the start line on] Glencrutchery Road in a couple of days.”

I’ll leave it to Gardiner to give you the rest of the story, whether he qualifies for or finishes the 2002 Junior TT and the Production TT.  Without giving anything away, I can say that Gardiner had a chance to realize his dream at the TT.  And, as he notes, “the TT is brutal.  But the TT is not simple.  When all its nuances are appreciated, it is beautiful.”

Four out of Five Helmets

Both Riding Man and One Man’s Island are available from http://www.ridingman.com.