Close Encounters of a Deadly Kind… Freedom, Riders, Road Racing and Risk

David Walton

The brain is such a wonderful instrument (until God sinks his teeth into it). Some people hear Tiny Tim singing when they go under, and some others hear the song of the Sausage Creature.

Extract from Song of the Sausage Creature by Hunter S. Thompson [Fig.1]

The Sausage Creature strikes again

The above epitaph was Hunter S. Thompson’s way of describing the fate of those of us who are attracted to what he called “the curse of speed” (Thompson, 1998: p. 44-45). Hunter S. Thompson’s “curse” is related to his love of riding fast motorcycles and, as the title of this study indicates, this paper explores a number of themes related to the risks involved in pushing oneself to the limit. It explores the general notion of “the risk society” and how contemporary Western societies try to minimize and control risk-taking. It then focuses on risk-taking on motorcycles and investigates why, despite the possible dangers, everyday riders choose to ride and then moves on to the more extreme cases of risk-taking on two wheels: i.e. road racing (using the Isle of Man as the main point of comparison although there will be some references to MotoGP). This facilitates an analysis of risk in existential terms linked to the roles personal liberty, escape mechanisms and resistance as possible consequences of the highly rationalized, bureaucratized, controlling societies in late modernity. This, in turn, dovetails into an exploration of the sociological notion of “edgework” (linked to the idea of “bio power”) to further tease out the themes outlined above and offer some tentative conclusions. In short, I pose the difficult question of why one rides (despite the risk of injury and death) and explore various philosophical-cum-sociological approaches as possible answers to this question.

By way of contextualizing what I write about roads, road racing and risk I want to begin with a personal anecdote, which will help to explain how it was I came to think about these things. Attitudes about the dangers inherent in motorcycling abruptly entered my thoughts in November of 2006 when I became a victim of Thompson’s Sausage Creature.[1] I remember lying in bed in Southern Spain in late 2006, the sun shining through the window, and I dreaming of jumping on my Triumph Speed Triple 1050 and heading out to snake through the esses. Great weather, and the good roads, blue skies and the multiple colours of a varying landscape, framed by mountains on so many sides, that had drawn me out so many times before. There it was, that longing again to breathe in the air, wind the throttle open, flick through the gears, dip the triple into the turns, feel the weightlessness in the middle of a corner, the heady drive off but…


An intimate portrait of the author’s inner self. [Fig.2]

The bed I was in was a hospital bed and I could hardly move. How did I get here? I was on my way to the track at Cartagena in Spain to see some friends compete in an endurance race. It was first thing in the morning and I was tipping the triple into a long, fast right-hander with minimal throttle to coax it through. Before I could even get back onto the throttle the back wheel lost grip and started weaving. Surfing on tarmac. Not so bad. Not a high side and I was not tumbling. Damn, they’ve been widening the road and there’s a metre deep channel been dug in the middle separating my lane from oncoming traffic. A weightless feeling and I’m down, and by some malign miracle the bike has managed to curl round and follow me in the channel. Lights out.

I was in an emergency ward for nearly a week before the surgeons could operate because of the internal bleeding and a damaged lung. Now I had ten ribs broken and multiple fractures in my lower back. My left leg was dislocated because my pelvis was broken in a number of places, made worse by the fact my pubic bone had snapped. Couldn’t use my right arm. Body was horribly black from the bruising, tubes were pumping all kinds of fluids into me, keeping me nourished, keeping the antibiotics flowing, the blood circulating and, thanks to morphine, keeping some of the pain at bay (will someone give the pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner a medal?). Oh, and did I mention that I have seventeen titanium screws and three plates holding my pelvis and pubic bones together? Nine years later and they are still there.

It took me three months to get out of hospital. Three months in a hospital gives you a lot of time to think. So, why, after such a bone shattering accident, was I dreaming about getting back on the bike before I’d even got out of hospital? Why am I so attracted to riding motorcycles, taking risks? Why continue to ride? I could list my own reasons, but thought there must be many answers out there. This led me to think about why anyone would want to take risks on a motorcycle and I began to think of much more extreme cases than my own.

My mind wandered and I thought about road racing and those who risk everything once a year during the Isle of Man TT races. 2006 and John McGuiness had taken his first hat-trick winning the Superbike, Supersport and Senior, breaking records on the way and, during the Senior race, maintaining an average speed of 126.178 mph on the 37.73 mile course. Two riders had lost their lives chasing their dream of winning, bringing the total number of deaths (since 1907) to 223. In 2015 it’s now up to 246 and I’m not even thinking about all those left with scars, prosthetic limbs, crutches and wheelchairs. Now that is risking it. Maybe the Isle of Man TT had some answers (but, to limit myself, I decided to focus on recent years). Now I had a context, but before I began to explore the TT I needed to think a little about the notion of risk. The idea of risk led me to reflect on things as diverse as attempts to legislate against dangerous pursuits, freedom, the psychological role of danger, doctor philosophers and dilemmas and sociological attempts to explain limit experiences (hence my interest in the concept of edgework).

The risk society

According to many contemporary critics (Lupton [1999], Adam [1998], Barbara [1998], van Loon [2000] and Mythen [2004]), risk has become an omnipresent part of contemporary culture, whether that be associated with environmental dangers, globalized economic meltdowns or military conflicts or, at the more local level, parenting, crime, health, employment or forms of transport. Riding motorcycles on the street, of course, is associated with high levels of risk to personal safety but I shall need to consider the greater risks of riding motorcycles in such a way as to deliberately flirt with the possibility of the ultimate personal risk: death.

To contextualize my arguments a little more I want to begin with Ulrich Beck’s notion of the “risk society” (Beck, 1992 & 1999). For writers like Beck Western cultures are fundamentally dominated by negative risks and, in Anthony Giddens’ terms (1998), attempts to control them. Paul Virilio has a similar negative view of the risks of technologies: for him they are all disasters just waiting to happen and will very likely lead to an apocalyptic “integral accident” or disaster (1999: 281–98). Risks, then, arise from the technologies and lifestyles of late modernity itself, which creates high levels of anxiety and a general preoccupation for safety. However, as Mythen (2004) suggests, risk taking can also be read in more positive terms (see Giddens, 1999: 2; Lupton and Tulloch, 2002). Positive risk is usually understood in terms of gain (especially economic), but it is not habitually understood in existential terms or with relation to the notion of expressing personal liberty and for this reason I will put special emphasis on these approaches with relation to the question of why people ride motorcycles (despite the hazards) and return, by way of a conclusion, to the more general notion of risk in contemporary society.

Why ride (on the road)? Liberty and Resistance

Here are some of the results of my looking into the common answers to the question of why ride a motorcycle (or continue to ride despite the risks). Answering this question, of course, has many possible answers (too many to include in an article of this length), but some of them are summed up by Bryan Carroll’s documentary Why We Ride (2014) where all kinds of riders, regardless of gender, race or age, give answers like it’s fun, a release, a kind of medicine, something in your blood, “a bombardment of the senses,” a love affair. It also has something to do with Hunter S. Thompson’s point, repeated by so many, that it’s a kind of drug or addiction (as seen in the title of the documentary Isle of Man: A Dangerous Addiction, David Niblock, 2012). Of course, the addiction is often linked to speed. For example, as Craig Bourne has written, “Life may begin at thirty but it doesn’t get really interesting until 150” (2007: 77). Hunter S. Thompson’s enthusiasm for riding fast motorcycles was manifest when he wrote, “Some people will tell you that slow is good […] but I am here to tell you that fast is better […] Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube” (Thompson, 2003: 173).

Yet this addiction wouldn’t have the same mesmeric power were it not linked to trance-like states or elation. Arguably, Melissa Holbrook Pierson has been one of the most eloquent voices when describing the experience of riding a motorcycle. She speculates that now “when we have reached the industrialized apex of assured safety from myriad harms, the challenge becomes how to put ourselves in danger again” (Holbrook Pierson, 1998: 94), something that I shall explore later with relation to the sociological notion of “edgework” (I assume “we” refers to those of us well off enough to ride and maintain motorcycles). She continues, “You can imagine that a good game of Scrabble might provide the pleasure of total concentration, but only something that wagers life against death could lead to ecstasy” (94). She also states elsewhere that “If you continue to ride in the full knowledge that you could lose your life in so doing, then you are asking not for death but for immortality” (Holbrook Pierson, 1997: 48).

Of course, many of these ideas and feelings may describe many kinds of activity described as extreme sports (whether it be base jumping, hang-gliding, mountain climbing, underwater cave diving, etc.) or dangerous professions (military personnel, firefighters, rescue workers, etc.). So it’s not surprising that there is a certain crossover when describing the experiences of different activities that hover between excitement and extinction. Just to quote one example, Charles Lindbergh was a keen biker but wrote of his love of flying planes: “It lay beyond the descriptive worlds of men—where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane” (1953/1995: 255). He could just as well been describing riding a motorcycle. I will return to this later because, to some extent, Lindbergh is describing his experiences as ineffable, something I shall need to take account of in my conclusion.

The reason why it may be worth paying the price of injury, immobilization, disability or worse (whether that be for fan, ordinary rider or professional racer) is neatly summed up by what Steven Thompson has called the “The three fs of Motorcycling: Fun, Freedom, and Flying on the ground” (Thompson, 2008: introduction). I am tempted to say that this means that riding a motorcycle is F’n good, multiplied by three. Riding motorcycles, then, gives many riders the sense of affirming themselves through living on the edge, something I shall emphasize throughout this study. However, before I do I shall discuss the question of danger and its affirmative role in a more focussed way: with relation to road racing.

Risk in existential terms: the expression of personal liberty. Close encounters of a deadly kind…

Against attempts to limit the freedom of individuals both on and off the track are the justifications for the continuation of high-risk motorcycle sports among fans and racing professionals. The case of road racing championships, like the Isle of Man TT, are especially interesting in this respect because, while representing the worlds of amateur and professional racing, they are also held on the streets rather than purpose-built tracks.[2] I would argue that the road race on the streets offers not so much a displaced fantasy of the absolute liberty to risk oneself by traveling at any speed for the biker, but is that fantasy literally played out before the spectator’s gaze. Or, on Mad Sunday on the Isle of Man (where members of the public can try their hand on the official course) the spectators themselves can realize their fantasies of risking everything—in this case, not even for prize money. I ride a motorcycle despite the fact that it’s dangerous, yet it seems that a significant number of road racers race because it’s dangerous. A general question that can be raised here is up to what point should citizens be allowed to put their lives at risk practising what is, after all, a legal championship?

To begin to answer this question in a wider sense, I shall refer to the sociologist Robert Castel. When considering the regulation of madness, a point he makes in this context is relevant to my analysis. Castel explores the tension between risk and danger and points out the dangers of obsessive modern “ideologies of prevention” which attempt to eradicate risks of all kinds (including road accidents) to the point where “administrators of happiness,” driven by the “absolute reign of calculative reason,” render life largely meaningless because it is one in which “nothing happens” (Castel, 1991: 289). This seems to sum up the mentality of many ordinary bikers who justify their own everyday flirtation with danger by riding a motorcycle on the roads (rather than using safer vehicles) to those who risk their lives racing motorcycles or those fans or professionals who justify the continuation of motorcycle sports.

Trailing books and documentaries on road racing events it is easy to find justifications for the manifest risks of competing on motorcycles. For example, in the short documentary The Road to Legend: A Story About Road Racing (Metzeler, 2013), the Australian racer, Josh Brookes, states the case for riders when he says:

It’s my sense of freedom because everything in life now seems quite controlled. The tax you pay from your income and the speed you have to drive on the road. Everything in life seems to be someone’s telling you how to do it and when you do it and what to do.

In the same documentary James Hiller notes that the point of racing is “to push and live on the edge” (something also articulated by Michael Dunlop in Michael Hewitt’s and Dermot Lavery’s recent documentary, Road [2014] and by a number of riders in Richard de Aragues’s documentary TT Closer to the Edge [2011]). Rick Broadbent’s book on the Isle of Man TT, That Near-Death Thing (2012) is also full of top-level riders emphasizing the “buzz” of risking themselves. In documentaries like the ones mentioned above (and Joey, The Man Who Conquered the TT [John Mathews, 2013]) a number of riders, including the 26-times winner of the Isle of Man TT, Joey Dunlop, his nephew, Michael Dunlop, and other multiple winners like John McGuiness have talked about doing it not for the money but for the “craic” (given that road racers are paid comparatively little versus other sports). Of course, doing it for the adrenalin rush is hardly surprising and there are safer ways to get adrenalin fixes but it is the uniqueness of the Isle of Man course that creates that special high (one only has to listen to Milky Quayle in TT Closer to the Edge).

Yet the intensity of the high is combined with the sense of liberty mentioned above. The title of Broadbent’s book (That Near-Death Thing) quotes Guy Martin’s words describing the TT and Martin also states that “everything’s been so sanitised with bloody PC nonsense and health and safety that there’s nothing else, is there?” and concludes that “If it was dead safe I wouldn’t do it” (Broadbent, 2012: 5). When asked by a journalist why he loved something that could kill him, Martin replied that “There isn’t really anything left in the world where you can go out and actually kill yourself” and he emphasized the importance of being in control of his own destiny: “You can go out racing on your bike, make one little mistake, and that’s it: you’re dead. I love all that. Being so near yet so far” (Lamont, 2014). Also, since 1976, when the TT was deemed too dangerous to be part of the Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship, no one is obliged to take part in the races. This distinction is often used by riders and fans alike to justify the dangers (which are often actually downplayed by many racers). Guy Martin, in an interview in 2010 stated it like this: “No-one’s holding a gun to my head; I know what I’m doing and unlike other sports if something goes wrong, it’s only me that suffers; I won’t take anyone with me […] but the TT is unique. It’s all about the challenge. There’s nowt to compare it to. This is more like climbing Everest; it’s an accomplishment–and there’s nowt else in this world compares to the rush” (Lieback, 2010).

This libertarian message is often shared by fans. An eloquent example of which is represented by an American aficionado of the Isle of Man TT in de Aragues’s documentary TT Closer to the Edge:

There’s no question that the Isle of Man TT represents kind of a last bastion of freedom of choice and to come to a place like this and have something like this, you know, truly potentially dangerous… would be welcome, really. It’s refreshing; it’s charming. It’s all of the things that should be allowed to go on in other places. I mean, we’re human beings. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. You only get one lap. Why not make it a good one?

It may come as no surprise that riders involved in dangerous motorsports and the fans who follow them insist on the personal liberties that enable their perpetuation, even while lamenting the tragedies that accompany them. However, it may shock some readers to learn that there are health professionals who not only encourage the continuation of these high-risk sports, but make every effort to allow motorcycle racers to race even when recovering from severe injuries. This leads me to take a short excursion into the world of MotoGP and the case of Dr. Claudio Costa and his medical teams, who have had a very real influence on riders’ ability to continue racing in championships even after injuries. Dr. Costa may be considered as someone whose professional practises have, at least indirectly, contributed to riders’ triumphs but also, in the extreme cases (and again indirectly), their deaths.

Doctor’s Dilemma: The curious case of Dr. Costa

Dr. Claudio Costa is the man who, in 1977, created the travelling hospital known as the Clinica Mobile, set up to offer medical assistance to injured riders during world championship races.[3] This is the doctor who, when Mick Doohan suffered his terrible accident pursuing his dream of winning the MotoGP world championship in 1992, surgically joined Doohan’s dying leg to his healthy one so that, aided and abetted by Costa and his team, he could compete only forty days later (Costa, 2009: 188f.).

In his book, Grand Prix College, Costa’s justification for helping riders to continue racing is part of a multi-pronged critique of the way a highly rationalized society coerces people into lives dominated by conformity and predictability; one where reason is educated at the expense of emotion and where politicians have failed to offer adequate solutions. In this he echoes Robert Castel’s ideas insisting that “schools today are slaves to the industrial economic system, they want to train specialised workers with no heart or soul” and turn them into “obedient robots and servants of technology.” For Costa the modern school is an “awful, merciless institution” that “drains hearts, attacks souls, and mows down its victims,” a place where teachers are “a horde of know-it-alls, capable only of training schoolchildren in those protocols and procedures that the economic and technological system haughtily and arrogantly demand” (Costa, 2009: 178).

Costa reflects the concerns Castel outlined and which riders and other writers (like Hunter S. Thompson and Holbrook Pierson) where the avoidance of risk renders life anodyne. Costa locates the problem of contemporary society in what he calls “the eternal clash” between the individual and society (something else we saw in Castel’s work). Racing motorcycles offers a unique kind of schooling where young racers, through speed and an engagement with risk and possible pain and injury, can learn to listen to “the furore of their hearts and comprehend the thrill of their spirit” (8).

Motorcycle racers live like bygone heroes: they are free, valiant, noble and show “immense spirit” and become fully aware. For this reason, despite the risks, he recommends motorcycle racing, even for young boys, as a “300 kph kindergarten” (119f.). As he explains in his autobiography, Costa sees in the pain and misfortunes riders suffer the great human resources so important to survival and a life lived to the full. The motorcycle becomes emblematic, a “perfect metaphor of unsuppressible desire” and the means by which identity is forged (Costa, 2002: 39). Riders confronting reality with their dreams challenge the everyday monotony where choices are imposed on the individual that are, all too often, “sterile or damaging” where people are exposed to “inexistent needs and a diluted philosophy of passive survival” (42). With this searing critique of contemporary society it is hardly surprising, then, that Costa has been seen as a doctor philosopher.

Costa’s dilemma, as a doctor committed to saving lives and a man who believes in helping racers achieve their dreams, is summed up when he considers how he helped the Finnish rider, Jarno Saarinen, get back to racing after a serious knee injury in 1973. Costa’s treatment was successful which enabled Saarinen to get back to racing and win more races. However, forty-two days later Saarinen died in a terrible crash at Monza. Costa, given his philosophy of life, is divided by an “irrepressible need” to save lives which is in conflict with the “noble mission to help a human being respect his individuality, his inclination and his innate talent” (51). Of course, Costa tries to save lives whenever he can and is devastated by the deaths of his heroes (all racers are heroes to him). Yet, despite death on the track, Costa has chosen, sometimes very controversially, to put riders, however young, back on their bikes. This is summed up by what Costa says of Barry Sheene: “He used to smile at the endless list of fractures he’d suffered during his long career—he knew that it was better than the monotony of a dull life” and this seems to sum up the attitude of so many of the racers he has helped to limp back to the pits in an attempt to achieve their dreams (2009: 199).

Costa’s vision of the importance of risk borders on Kierkegaardian and Heideggarian themes of existentialist fears of nothingness and the abyss. “To gaze into the abyss may well fill us with terror,” Costa writes, “but it may also hold the key to life” and give it meaning (2009: 22). Inspired by Nietzsche, Costa sees humans defying danger to achieve recognition and “drive away the fog of boredom and monotony, the yoke of daily repetition.” Risk is “the bright seal of freedom from slavery worn by all those who have the courage to remove the yoke that society has bound them to, condemning them to a life of shameful servitude” and boredom (22). Like Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Costa sees the world of motorcycles (in this case motorcycle racing) as a magical world which confers immortality on its heroes, something exemplified in his book which commemorates Marco Simoncelli, the MotoGP star who died practising the sport he loved (Costa: 2012).

This tends to reflect the cliché where, after a motorcyclist has died after a road accident, people say, “well, at least s/he died doing something s/he loved.” This links in to not only what Costa feels, Castel theorizes and many fans of motorcycles and racing claim: that motorcycle racing (and even riding a motorcycle on the street when a person’s income permits other forms of safer transport) is justified by the sense of freedom, the challenge of mastering the technical skills involved and the sense of exhilaration that come from riding a vehicle balanced on two wheels.

What I refer to as Costa’s “doctor’s dilemma” seems to be shared by a very broad sector of Western society, including academics who have dedicated themselves to an analysis of risk society. In his critical introduction to the risk society, Gabe Mythen states that, from an existential point of view, “we might question the value of a culture that attempts to disconnect itself from danger.” He goes on to suggest, drawing on Lupton (1999) and Lyng (1990), that in Western society subcultural groups may attempt “to mobilise risk as a tool for flouting convention and challenging authority,” which certainly seems to describe bikers who use the roads as if they were racing circuits. Yet Mythen also makes the point that, at the margins, “one person’s risk may constitute another person’s pleasure” (Mythen, 2004:182), a point which helps to pinpoint one of the deep ambiguities that many riders live with on a day to day basis. If risk were only a source of anxiety it would very likely be easier to manage socially, but given its status as a possible direct source of gratification (or a consequence of other gratifications), it is much harder to persuade those who flirt with it to give up anything which is connected to its sources. This, in turn, can be linked to a point Mary Douglas (1985: 26) has emphasized that, in Mythen’s words, within “non-western cultures, risk taking may be used as a mechanism for performativity and a source of social cohesion (Mythen, 2004: 182). However, I would argue that this could be said of groups within Western cultures, not only at the macro level but also within subgroups involved in the practice of extreme sports (including racing motorcycles), those who use vehicles on the road, whether they drive or ride at breakneck speeds or drive well within the laws and simply accept the everyday risks of riding a motorcycle. To conclude, this leads me to what I see as one of the most persuasive sociological theories that has attempted to explain risk.

Edgework and sociological knowlEdge

To account for risk taking with relation to danger, sociologists often refer to what is known as “edgework,” which describes those who actively and willingly flirt with danger whether that be for leisure or professional reasons. One of the reasons why some of these sociologists are convincing comes from the fact that many of them actually practise (or have practised) high-risk activities so they have an ethnographer’s insider view. This is the case of a number of the founding theorists of this particular way of thinking like Stephen Lyng and Jeff Ferrell who raced stripped-down Harleys and, in the case of Lyng, was a jump pilot for skydivers (Ferrell in Lyng, 2005: 75).

So, let’s see what edgework entails in more detail. According to Ferrell (in Lyng, 2005: 76) the term was coined by them after reading Hunter S. Thompson’s account of riding a motorcycle at the limit:

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right… and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred […] The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it… howling through a turn to the right, then to the left […] There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others—the living—are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.

(Thompson, 1967: 345)

But, Thompson added, “the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In.” So it was that Ferrell and Lyng “stole Thompson’s notion of ‘the edge’” as edgework as shorthand “for that uncanny blend of precision and abandon” (Ferrell in Lyng, 2005: 76) that seems to sum up so well what appears to be happening when motorcycles are ridden on roads at the absolute limit. This flirting with the limit or edge is something we’ve already seen above with Holbrook Pierson entitling an essay “To the Edge: Motorcycles and Danger”, de Aragues naming his film TT Closer to the Edge, Broadbent coining Guy Martin’s phrase “that near-death thing” for the title of his book, and riders like James Hillier and Michael Dunlop (among others) using the idea of playing with the edge (as absolute limit) to describe their experiences of riding road races.

While people outside the motorcycle fraternity may feel those racing on the roads are dominated by some kind of Freudian death wish, writers like Lyng and Ferrell see these riders (and all those placing themselves at the limit) as part of communities that are not only living in such a way that death can snatch them away at any moment, but actually expressing affirmative drives. Risking everything at the limit is about living life in the most passionate way possible and practitioners are actually motivated by reiterated moments of intense pleasure. As a member of the Gravity Girls once said of why she repeated base-jumping: “You never get enough… to just be snatched from the jaws of death… But it isn’t a death wish like everybody thinks it is. You know you’re alive when you do this; every sense is working. … You want to live so you can do it again” (in Lyng, 2005: 79). This comes over very clearly in documentaries like TT Closer to the Edge where, after terrible life-threatening accidents, both Guy Martin and Conor Cummins immediately talk (while still in hospital) about returning to racing (just as I dreamed of getting back on a motorcycle from my own hospital bed).

In a sport where death looms so large tragedy often seems to overshadow joy, but, as Bridget Dobbs underscored after her husband was killed at the Isle of Man TT in 2010, the point is the excitement and the thrills, which are by-products of risk.

Of course, it is exceptionally difficult to assess how far riders are motivated by suicidal tendencies, but to those who would accuse edgeworkers of having a death wish (Barry Sheene once said of the Isle of Man TT races that there are easier ways of killing yourself) the notion of edgework helps to show how those endangering themselves are addicted to the pleasures of placing themselves in limit situations. Addiction is a very common way that riders speak about why they race, so much so that a documentary was made in 1992 entitled The Isle of Man TT: A Dangerous Addiction.

Stephen Lyng has put forward a series of arguments that probe not only the psychology of risk takers but the possible social causes of this kind of behaviour, the main aim of the edgework approach being “to connect the immediacy of the risk-taking experience to social structures and processes located at the levels of meso- and macro-social organization” (2005: 5). He maintains that the “pursuit of high-risk leisure activities” or “dangerous occupations”, which offer intense sensations and a sense of self-determination, is the way that those overwhelmed by institutional constraints “seek to transcend” the limitations of their world (2000: 5). Thus, “applications of the edgework concept to various high-risk leisure sports typically give expression to some version of the “weekend warrior” thesis, in which participants in these activities are seen as seeking a temporary escape from the stultifying conditions of work life and bureaucratic institutions” (6). As shown above, this coincides with not only the feelings of many fans and riders involved in road racing (we might recall Guy Martin’s “everything’s been so sanitised with bloody PC nonsense and health and safety that there’s nothing else, is there?”) but the MotoGP doctor-philosopher, Claudio Costa.

Bio power and risk control

What edgework theorists put forward links to one of the major concepts that has been used within cultural studies to analyse the way in which citizens in Western societies have been subject to discourses and norms which attempt to direct, constrain, control and discipline or punish them. This is Michel Foucault’s notion of “biopolitics” or “bio power” (Foucault, 1990, 2008). These “technologies of government” (1990: 41), exercised within the shifting limits of governmental competences establish the conditions under which bodies move, where they can or cannot go and, for my purposes here, how fast they may travel according to the mode of transport used. At the most basic level, the justifications for the legislation of road traffic are linked to questions of the safety of drivers of motor vehicles and other road users like cyclists and pedestrians, avoiding congestion and protecting the environment from excessive contamination.[4] Of course, all legislation involves the restriction of individual liberties and raises questions (as indicated earlier) about the relations and possible conflicts between the power of the State and citizens’ rights.

While Foucault tended to emphasize the mechanisms of control, he also recognized that the discourses of power and coercion also foment the counter cultures that offer up forms of resistance (something given greater emphasis in the work of Michel de Certeau, 1988). This is part of what studies organized around the idea of edgework have tended to emphasize (and I have done above): motorcycles offer riders an opportunity to resist, rebel and defy forms authority or bio power.[5] However, returning to the theme outlined at the beginning of this paper (the risk society) other theorists in the edgework tradition (like Jonathan Simon, in Lyng, 2004: 203f.), have suggested that risk-taking activities, far from being reactions against the technologies of control, are actually in line with one of the imperatives of Western capitalist societies: the subjects of late modernism are actually obliged to take inordinate risks, whether they be associated with sports, rescue, the military or the stock market.

This returns us to the notion of the “risk society” outlined at the beginning of this piece of analysis and embodied in the work of sociologists like Beck and Giddens. Put in Lyng’s terms, advanced postindustrial societies (linked to the neoliberal, post-Keynsian socio-economic policies since the 1980s) have seen a “dramatic restructuring of institutions that manage the risks” where the responsibility for them has been “displaced” onto individuals. Risk, from this point of view, is a “key structural principle extending throughout the social system in institutional patterns of economic, political, cultural, and leisure activity” (Lyng, 2004: 7-8).

In this sense risking the self at the Isle of Man, or even on the road, is only an extension of what is expected in terms of success in societies dominated by late capitalism. I do not discount this possibility (of what might be called a kind of “indirect bio power”), and it may well go some way to explaining why some individuals are prone to risk-taking behaviour, but in the realm of researching biker cultures and, particularly, road racing, this is not something perceived by those who partake of them. This leads me on to my (modest) final conclusion.

From the Sublime to the Scatological: the ineffable

Finally, although there have been attempts at providing all-inclusive descriptions of edgework activities by sociologists like Dragan Milovanovic (in Lyng, 2005: 51f.) and the liberating pleasures that come from hi-risk activities they cannot be fully caught within academic accounts (or, indeed, any accounts) of these practices. We might remember that Joey Dunlop, who won the Isle of Man TT so often, when asked why he continued to compete (in Joey, The Man Who Conquered the TT), couldn’t really find adequate words to describe it (apart from, as stated above, that it was a good “craic”), and this is the case of many riders. Milovanovic (despite his attempts at all inclusiveness) wisely, in my view, emphasizes that many edgework experiences are actually ineffable and it is “only the momentary imaginary construction that can provide the ‘real meaning of it all’” (in Lyng, 2005: 56). This brings us back to Lindbergh’s words when describing his love of flying planes as “beyond the descriptive worlds of men.” Thus, the pleasures taken from racing and watching the TT are only ever approximations; fragments that give glimpses of what individuals get from their experiences but, ultimately, could never really sum them up. So, despite the descriptive power of concepts like edgework, it is important to recognize the limits of this, or any approach. However, as indicated above, riders and fans can and have tried to convey something of what the TT means in existential terms. In fact, representations of experience range from the sublime to the scatological with a Yorkshire competitor riding the TT because, “I’m a bloody twat, that’s why. It’s self-inflicted pissin’ torture” (in Vaukins, 2014: 3). This short disquisition by no means exhausts the possible answers (there are probably as many answers as there are riders) and I have deliberately ignored attempts at linking a fondness for risk-taking on motorcycles to our genetic makeup (see Steven Thompson, 2011), preferring to put greater emphasis on cultural questions of how different people (from different walks of life) articulate their interests, passions and desires. However, despite the limitations, I hope this essay sums up some of the more common responses and will provoke further debate.

[1] This piece of work has been made possible by a Sénica Foundation grant (15397/PHCS/10). I would like to thank the IJMS readers for their valuable comments. The paper has benefitted from their suggestions.

[2] Most of the tracks once used for international racing events have closed but others continue like the International Road Racing Championship (IRRC) which comprises six events that take place in four different countries, although the roads used tend to be safer than those used in the Isle of Man, Ireland and Scarborough (at least, there are fewer deaths). There are also events like The Broadmore Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado Springs, which, again, is comparatively safe compared to the Isle of Man.

[3] The origins of the Clinica Mobile go back to 1972 but it was officially established in 1977. See Costa, 2002: 58.

[4] For Britain, see, for example, “Roads: speed limits”, a parliamentary briefing paper which outlines recent thinking on legislation (Louise Butcher, June 2013). For the exceptionally complex system in the United States see the series of annotated American Law Reports.

[5] I am indebted to one of the IJMS readers for his or her suggestion that this be emphasized in a clearer way than in the original article.

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Image Attributions
[Fig.1] Thompson, Hunter S. (1995) Song of the Sausage Creature. Cycle World, March Issue, pp.70–73.
[Fig.2] Photo courtesy of the medical profession and the photo-editing skills of Andy Sotiriou.

David Walton is Senior Lecturer and coordinator of cultural studies at the University of Murcia and has taught courses on popular cultures, postmodern cultures, the history of thought, and literary and cultural theory. He currently teaches courses on cultural theory and cultural practice at undergraduate level, and comparative postmodern literatures and cultures at master’s level. He is a founding member, and currently President, of the Iberian Association of Cultural Studies (IBACS), which is dedicated to the promotion of the area on the Iberian Peninsular. He has organized a number of conferences and published widely in cultural theory, cultural studies and visual cultures. Recent books include Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning Through Practice (SAGE, 2008) and Doing Cultural Theory (SAGE, 2012), and his latest publication (with Juan Antonio Suárez) is Culture, Space and Power: Blurred Lines (Lexington, 2015). Recently, he has also published chapters and articles on new sexualities, the satire of Chris Morris, graffiti culture, the interfaces between philosophy and cultural studies and road racing on the Isle of Man TT.

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One Comment

  1. Unfortunately I know little about philosophy (except perhaps Alan Watts repeatedly dividing a grape to reveal its nature to his children), sociology or any other soft area of study limited in their ability to generate testable hypotheses. However, I recall that one of the first lessons at primary school was road safety. We were taught that there are hazards in crossing the road (more in the pre-zebra-crossing age). These hazards could be identified (in the UK) by stopping at the kerb, listening, looking right, looking left and if it was safe (no impending hazards), after a quick check to the right (the direction of the ‘nearest^’ hazard) we should march, without hesitation, to the other side. Later, in the chemical industry, such ‘preparation’ was paramount. (Failure resulted in 10 days in hospital and the near loss of sight.) There were also hazards facing the motorcyclist. Risk, a concept from probability theory – the probability of something happening or not – arose from a hazard not being recognized and not taken into account. So ignorance of or indifference to a hazard could change the odds (another term from game/probability theory of ‘er!’ … pain!. A quick glance at any programme of m/c education puts the greatest emphasis on hazard recognition and reacting to it. Motorcycling need not be any more dangerous/risky than crossing the road at 5 years of age. However, the rider can have a aesthetic experience when curve after curve is ridden ‘right’ and so becomes a moment of dynamic beauty because hazards are ‘managed’
    Just a thought, guv!

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