What could be more badass than speeding down the snakey sharp curves of Highway 9, with its potholes and low-hanging trees, as fast as you can on a motorcycle made for doing jumps in the dirt?
How about riding up to 135 miles an hour in a street race on Britain’s Isle of Man, commonly called the most dangerous in the world, alongside 80 competitors on a course where 247 riders have been killed since 1907 and terrifying storms can cascade off the ocean in the blink of an eye, and where riders name each of the 350 sharp curves on the course, knowing that if they don’t handle each one perfectly, their life could end?
That’s where Santa Cruz amateur rider Yuri Barrigan, 43, is headed right now. Barrigan is one of only four Americans to be invited to the prestigious race of the most skilled European riders of expensive, well-honed bikes, and he says he’s the first from Santa Cruz’s popular and enthusiastic motorcycle community.
The race, and a week of time trials, run from Aug. 22 to Sept. 3 and can be seen on European television and the Internet.
“Every serious rider dreams of going to the Isle of Man,” says Barrigan, who has been training for it since he was almost 16. “Before the Internet, they used to release videos of the race and everyone who rides used to watch them and dream about going.”
As soon as Barrigan got his motorcycle license, half a year before he could drive a car, he took off on Highway 9, hitting the curves and studying the roadway. He rode every day after school, until 10 p.m. As the years went by and he worked as a hardwood floor installer, he would come home to build bikes and get ready for the race of his dreams. He saved up $10,000 just to get his bikes shipped over and pay for his own transportation. It’s his first vacation in nine years.
SPEED RACER Yuri Barrigan with one of his dirt bikes. He has spent three years modifying the dirt bike he will ride in the TT Races, where he says years of riding Highway 9 could give him an advantage: PHOTO: BRAD KAVA
“You cannot crash,” says Wade Boyd, 59, a San Francisco bike racer who has done this 150-mile Isle of Man “Tourist Trophy” race 17 times. He’s Barrigan’s mentor and inspiration, his Frosty to Barrigan’s Jay Moriarity. “You will destroy your bike. You will destroy yourself. They will put you in a box and they will send you home, saying ‘He didn’t survive his adventure.’ They are very English that way.”
Boyd says he compares riding the hilly course to the TV commercials that feature bobsleds in the Olympics.
“This is the Olympics for motorcycles,” he says. “There’s a rider every half a second. They go by so fast you can’t even read their numbers. What the videos don’t show you is that the roads are so narrow, you would have a hard time getting two Cadillacs to pass on them. If there’s a sidewalk, it’s two feet wide. If you go off the road, it’s probably over for you.”
On top of that, there are plenty of new riders who aren’t as aware of the intricacies of each turn and can kill veterans with a mistake. There aren’t supposed to be people or animals on the course, but one rider’s career ended when he hit a rabbit and flew off his bike.
One year, Boyd’s engine “scattered” at 150 miles an hour. It blew up, covering him in oil, and pieces flew all over the road. It took him half a mile to stop and when he did, he was smiling. “I’m really happy to be here,” he told someone after the crash. “If I had hit the brakes or done anything, there’s no telling where I’d be.”
Few Americans make the race because of expenses and the complicated logistics of entering. One has to compete in six sanctioned races beforehand, and there is only a short window of time between when riders are chosen and the deadlines for them to ship bikes over and make reservations for flights and lodging.
Engines blow out all the time from being pushed too hard, so most competitors bring a second bike. Europeans dominate the event, and for a while, the race focused on those with more means—18 wheeler haulers and $1 million bikes—but it’s now reaching back to encourage rootier lightweight and improvised bikes like Barrigan’s.
Barrigan built or modified every piece of his dirt bike to make it tougher on the road. His hand-built engines are made of more durable metals. His gas tanks are modified to hold enough to get him through two laps, or 75 miles, he hopes. He’s spent every night for years modifying his Yamaha YZ450F, the only one of its type in the race, and he thinks his years of riding Highway 9 will give him an advantage.
Matter of Course
Boyd says it takes years to learn the course, and even then, it’s nearly impossible to remember every curve. Beyond that, there are even smaller details to memorize, like the six-inch bump at Ballacrye—any rider who doesn’t hit it perfectly straight at 150 miles an hour could careen off the road or into another bike.
“If you get it wrong, it will make you cry,” Boyd says.
There’s another corner where riders aim for the second floor of a house and as they get near it, they bank to the right, flat out in fifth gear, then bank again to the left and again to the right to make their fastest time safely. They have to remember the precise location of each weight shift.
Boyd has lost a few friends in the race. One was a rookie with him on his first day. He didn’t make it past his first lap. Another two crashed during the slower “parade,” or victory lap. One died. The other has needed full-time medical care ever since, living what Boyd calls a “horror flick” in La Honda, California. “He knows enough to be frustrated,” Boyd says of the rider’s brain injuries.
So why do these badasses do it?
“It’s a celebration of life and a protest against negativity,” says Boyd, who is now a steel fabricator for artists. “There is a battle, and it’s on the track. You aren’t fighting some funky war for some funky king. You can’t make any mistakes. You have to keep your focus and learn as much as you can. You can’t hurry or rush. You have to do your job: 1, 2, 3, nice and calm and get ready to go. As soon as you cut a corner, it’s over.”
Barrigan’s motivation is less poetic, so far. He wants to do something no one else has done: qualify and compete in a road race against million-dollar motorcycles with a dirt bike and open the race to new competitors.
“It’s one thing to have a dream and think about it for three years,” says Barrigan, who first heard about this race from riders at the Woodside biker’s mecca Alice’s Restaurant. “But I’ve worked on this every single moment of those years. For me, it’s a trailblazing situation. Everyone has one of these bikes in their garage. My full goal, my bottom line, is to show that it can be done with one of these.”
DIRT DEVIL Santa Cruz's Yuri Barrigan will race his Yamaha YZ450F dirt bike in Britain's notorious Isle of Man TT Races, beginning Aug. 22
More on Yuri here