The first Manx International massed start Road Race was held on 18 June 1936 and apart from interruptions during the Second World War, it ran continuously until the demise of International Cycling Week in 2003 with Mark Lovatt of GB being the last winner.
Well known Coventry Sports Journalist John Wilkinson, who was brought up on the Isle of Man was a regular visitor to International Cycling Week, which he covered for Cycling Weekly. He wrote the following article about the TT course and the long history of the event while Cycling Week was still running.
Time trials had existed locally on the circuit since the mid-1920s when the Viking Wheelers, and in particular their father figure Curwen Clague, began to explore the opportunities presented by the on-course facilities already in use for the motorcycles. The National Cyclists' Union greeted the idea enthusiastically and, wishing the race success. In his programme notes, the editor of The Bicycle, W. J. Mills wrote: 'It can be of incalculable value to the cause of English cycling in international races. For many years English riders who went abroad to compete in international events such as the world championships were at a disadvantage owing to lack of experience in massed start racing. There is no possible doubt that given a suitable opportunity, and acquiring the necessary technique, English riders will soon be able to hold their own with the world's best amateurs’.
The first race cost two shillings to enter (20p) and was truly an international affair with riders from the home countries joined by one A McCartney of Shanghai Wheelers, China! The newspaper headlines it attracted would do justice to any of today’s tabloids. 'Thrilling finish to spectacular race’….'10 out of 80 competitors taken to hospital - five detained' . . . ‘Dangers of Bray Hill'…'Riders' nasty crash at Creg-ny-Baa'.
Thousands of motorcycle racing fans stayed on to witness the race and, as the headlines suggest, it was packed with incident. Bray Hill, less than half-a-mile from the start, was the first point of trouble - a lorry forcing two riders to change direction and crash (unlike today, the roads were not closed). At Quarter Bridge one rider hit a motorcycle and sidecar and there was another spill at Glen Helen. Two more riders collided travelling towards Kirk Michael and fell off. At Sulby a broken chain produced a bunch crash in which 10 came down. One more went at The Bungalow, two at Keppel Gate, and at Creg-ny-Baa Londoner Reginald Green cornered too fast, missed the sandbags, hit a stone wall face first and broke his nose. Another rider, F Smith of Roockery Cycling Club, unshipped his chain at Governors Bridge and eventually carried his bike to the finish to generous applause.
But, despite interference by a group of motorcyclists who rode along with the leaders for some distance, 48 of the 81 starters made it to the finish where Charles Holland of Midland CAC beat Bill Messer (Marlboro AC) by a length. Scot Jackie Bone was third, at three lengths, and the lap was covered in 1 hour 42 minutes and 59 seconds, a speed of 22mph.
The race moved to two laps in 1937 when the winner was Jack Fancourt (Yorkshire RC) who, a crash victim the year before, dropped his last two rivals, Glasgow Wheelers clubmates Bone and Donald Morrison, on the final descent to Douglas. France sent a four-man team in 1938 as news of the race spread and they provided the winner in Pierre Chazaud. Messer finally mounted the podium as winner in 1939 before war intervened and brought a halt until 1946 when the programme was expanded.
Some of the greatest names in the sport, professional and amateur, have since cut their teeth in the International, which was increased to three laps in 1950. Eddy Merckx rode in 1963 finishing a modest 13th behind Great Britain's Ken Hill who returned to the Isle of Man to win the national veterans' championship in 1978. The great Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe, second overall to Bernard Hinault in the 1981 Tour de France, took fifth in 1967 and the great Irishman Sean Kelly was eighth in 1975. Robert Millar lost out to Steve Lawrence (GB) in the final sprint in 1978, returning to win the race and the British professional championship 17 years later at a record speed. Laurent Fignon rode in 1980, finishing 12th, three years before he first rode into Pans in the yellow jersey of Tour de France winner.
The overseas influence has waned in recent years with only two long-distance winners since 1984. New Zealander Brian Fowler rode the final 50 miles alone at the front to win in the golden jubilee year, while after finishing second in successive years, Frenchman Christophe Mengin (now a professional), moved to first place in 1991. Commonwealth Games gold medallist Paul Curran won on his debut ride in 1985, beating Isle of Man hope Steve Porter by the width of a tyre, and again in 1988.
Wayne Randle's three-lap time of 4-42-41 in 1989 took the average speed beyond 24mph for the first time. David Hourigan was the surprise winner in 1992 and was Ireland's first for 25 years. But if the strength of the overseas contingent is diminishing, fresh impetus was added in 1993 when the International was opened up to professional riders for the first time.
Three subsequent editions of the race allowed riders who went close to winning in their formative years to fill a gap in their honours list. Adopted Manxman Brian Smith, third as an amateur in 1989, won from 1984 victor Mark Walsham in 1993. In 1994 it was Simeon Hempsall's turn, making up for his 17 seconds defeat by Mengin three years earlier. And in 1995, when the race incorporated the British professional championship, Robert Miller returned with possibly the finest ride of all. Leaving the main field the second time up the mountain climb, he closed a gap of nearly four minutes to a leading group of six riders before dropping them, one by one, on the final ascent from Ramsey. At the line Millar was over two minutes clear, and his race time of 4-32-53 was a record by nearly 10 minutes.