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Meet the plucky privateer primed for a major Isle of Man TT first

By Ollie Barstow

Content and Features Writer



Meet the plucky privateer competing in all 8 TT races… including sidecars


"No. Not at all. Why would I want to put myself through that? How do you even see what you're doing, where do you even look? Ridiculous."

You wouldn't get many motorcycle racers reacting in such a way at being offered the opportunity to put their skills to the test in one of the world's highest profile events… but then the Isle of Man TT is no ordinary event.

For Mike Russell, watching on-board videos of motorcycles pounding the rev limiter around the snaking 37-mile Mountain Course as nature, buildings and spectators merge into a peripheral blur was eye-popping enough for him to say 'thanks, but no thanks'.

So how then did this 41-year-old from Oxfordshire get from vehemently dismissing the notion of ever giving it a go, to standing on the cusp of making history as the first rider to contest all eight races of the 2022 Isle of Man TT?

"Road racing was never, ever on the cards, which my Mum was quite happy with, but it was all a misfortune of timing," he says with a hint of sarcasm.

However, the TT is as notorious as it is alluring. Get it wrong and the bite is fierce, taste success and you're etched in history.

But ask any road racer and they'll tell you the intoxicating appeal of the Mountain Course is such that it takes just one lap to crave another, then another and another…

Before long you're spending 50 weeks counting down to the fortnight spent satisfying a unique high-speed, high-adrenaline craving. Call it an addiction, call it passion, all Mike knows is that it was the 'best-worst' decision of his racing career…

"As soon as I did my first sighting lap as a newcomer at the Manx GP there was nothing else that would ever compete with riding that circuit. So, yeah, it pretty much ruined my motorcycling career!"

That was in 2009, when the first hit of the Mountain Course left Mike hooked. Nevertheless, while he may caustically consider his initial surrender to TT temptations as ruinous for his racing career, some 13 years later Mike is now poised to mount a career-defining bid to tackle one of sport's most demanding disciplines… multiplied eight times.

A serving member of the Royal Air Force since 2002, when a posting to Iraq in 2009 put Mike's short circuit plans on ice, the chance to race at the Manx GP he initially refused became an offer he couldn't resist.

"I had aspirations of doing British Superstock, but I was sent off to the desert for four months, which scuppered my short circuit year. However, the military has a steeped history with the Isle of Man and at the time a lad named Gordon Blackley was competing well at the TT and BSB representing the RAF.

"He was retiring, and he got in touch to ask if I fancied doing the TT. I had watched it for years and bought every VHS review since 1996, I'd seen those ridiculous on-boards, so it was a case of 'thanks Gordon for the offer but no chance'.

"But I got back a week before the Manx GP and perhaps it was one of those 'misguided errors' of everything lining up, so I thought if I can't do any short circuit, I'll give the TT a go.

"I pitched up on the boat and that was it. Now getting back to doing the TT course is all I can ever think about."

Dovetailing his limited annual race outings with a career spent largely overseas - most recently in the Falkland Islands - Mike has become a TT regular, cultivating an impressive repertoire that belies his part-time racer status by notching up three top ten finishes at the Manx TT and Southern 100, plus fastest laps in the Lightweight class and two victories on the Classic TT. His fastest lap time is a hugely credible 122.506mph recorded on a Kawasaki ZX-10R in the 2017 Senior TT when he finished 23rd overall.

While his modest budget may not see him tussling it out with the likes of Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison this year, a combination of passion, dedication and an enthusiastic habit of 'giving it a go' has thrown up the opportunity to carve a little bit of TT history all for himself.


Mike Russell Isle of Man TT 8 Races_02


Timing is everything

If Mike describes his road racing debut as a 'misfortune of timing', then perhaps it's fitting some 'good fortune of timing' was all it took for this plan to immortalise himself in the TT annals to unfurl.

As an event with a history stretching right back to 1907, there aren't many first-time TT accolades that haven't been ticked off at some stage in those 125 years.

But when a minor - almost incidental - tweak to the schedule was announced for the upcoming 2022 TT, it set in motion plans for a quite extraordinary never-before-attempted 'TT Full House' aka. starting each of the Superbike, Senior TT, two Supersport, Superstock, Lightweight and two Sidecar races.

"It's going to be manic! It's been on my mind for a few years. I'm very excited, really looking forward to the challenge."

Indeed, if it is remarkable to learn that not a single rider has attempted to enter eight races across six categories over the last century, the reasons as to why is by contrast rather unremarkable. In previous years, the ACU stipulated a rider was only permitted to complete a capped number of laps per day, which combined with the erstwhile schedule ruled out hopes of completing practice, qualifying and race in all eight events without exceeding the threshold for track time.

However, after organisers announced a minor change to the 2022 TT timetable, it wasn't long before Mike was doing the calculations and making an excited call to the ACU as his ambitious plan morphed from unattainable impossibility to a genuine possibility.

"As soon as they moved the schedule, I rang the ACU and asked 'with you moving this race to another day, by my calculations - and I am a driver in the air force, I'm not the cleverest person – does this mean I can do this?'

"It came back and said, 'Yes, you can, there's nothing actually stopping you doing it'. That's when the ball came into motion and we started thinking 'I need so many bikes, I need so much support'.

"There will be certain days where I won't be doing the practice laps, but if we can get a successful practice weekend there'll be no need to put extra mileage on the bikes and we can just concentrate on those races on those days. Then it is away we go."

Once an event contested by foolhardy gung-ho racers on bikes that arrived in the back of the van, the TT of 2022 is now a mega-bucks, highly-professional and technology advanced motorcycle racing centrepiece, certainly at the pinnacle where the likes of Peter Hickman, John McGuinness and Dean Harrison et al. reside.

Ironically, despite the mammoth preparation that comes with attempting eight TT races, Mike's historic bid dwarfs the 'shoestring' privateer platform on which it's mounted.

"We're doing the whole TT, every class on a budget of less than what Pete Hickman's front forks probably are. So, we are on a shoestring budget. As a privateer, I save up all year. I ride as much as I can, which is not very often, just to tick those boxes to get back to the TT course.

"I ride a bike four times a year. Unfortunately, I ride very little competitively. It costs so much to do the TT that I can't afford to do British Superbike Championships or Endurance racing or anything like that. It means the first time I get on the 1000cc bike each year is when I am coming down Bray Hill at the TT.

"The TT is my main focal point, if we've got any money leftover at the end, we'll do the Southern 100 and Scarborough but, for me, the be all and end all is the Isle of Man TT."



A sideline in Sidecars

At the heart of Mike's bid is the unconventional decision to combine solo racing with entries into the Sidecar class, a pursuit he took up three years ago with a view to tackling the TT.

Demanding a different skillset to that of racing a motorcycle, transitioning back and forth between just one conventional two-wheeler and a sidecar is testing enough… and not just because you have another human throwing shapes to the side of you.

Moreover, this is then amplified further when you consider Mike's challenge is taking place on the TT.

Beyond the hefty demands of the racing itself, Mike will have just minutes between sessions to transition from the sidecar to any one of his three different specification motorcycles, during which he'll need a change of leathers and to recalibrate his mindset before setting off down Bray Hill once again.

"When we got involved with three wheels the first question was, can we race at the TT with three wheels as well as two? The answer came back as yes, you can

"The transition of jumping from a solo bike at a TT, that I think is going to be quite hard because we're going to be doing two or three laps on the solo bike, jumping off, changing leathers, changing helmets because I'll be dripping out of my ass sweating, drink some water and an energy drink to recuperate, and then 20 minutes later we'll be jumping into the sidecar and off we go down Bray Hill

"The transition of jumping into the sidecar I'm not worried about, but I'll be used to clipping apexes and kerbs on the two-wheel bike, so then I've got to remember I'll have another two or three foot on my left-hand side."

Fortunately for him, Mike will have an experienced hand alongside him to inspire confidence in Manx local Julie Canipa, who teamed up with Maria Costello at the most recent 2019 Isle of Man TT.

"We've been very lucky, Julie knows the TT course like the back of her hand. She's been doing it on and off for around 20 years and she will be a fantastic passenger for me as a newcomer.

"She weighs next to nothing, and she knows her way around, so I can in my head trust her that she's in the right place at the right time, and we can push on and get some result."

Amusingly, when asked whether his newfound passion for Sidecar racing would ever extend to a 'job swap' with Julie, Mike responds with a resolute 'not a chance', adding he remains baffled by the concept of 'racing on the back of a tea tray with one grab handle'.

"Genuinely, I do not know how or why or what possesses people to do it," he says before asking me if I'd like to give it a go (the answer was 'sure', but I think I meant to say 'no').

"As a racer, I'm trying to go as fast as I can, push the boundaries of that bike as best I can. These guys are willingly getting on the back of that bike.

"I've done one lap and that was enough. I tapped the driver and was like, just stop. This was a very sedated lap. It wasn't even the TT course, this was just around the short circuit track, and that was enough. No chance. Nope. You can quote me on that. Not a chance will I ever race on the back of these sidecars."

Though all eight races will be contested under his own Russell Road Racing banner, Mike only owns his Sidecar, with his Superbike, Supersport, Superstock and Lightweight models being supplied.

With the two-year hiatus brought on by COVID, Mike has overhauled his machinery for 2022. He will ride an ex-ILR Racing BMW S 1000 RR campaigned by Alex Olsen in SSTK 1000 for both the Superstock and Superbike classes and the Meala Racing Honda CBR600R in Supersport.

However, the Lightweight category is where Mike has enjoyed most success at the TT, prompting him to invest in a brand-new Aprilia RS 660 for this year's event.



Pushing the limits

Competitiveness is one thing though, for Mike will need to juggle it with endurance as he prepares to enter uncharted territory to discover exactly how physically demanding such a packed programme can be.

Indeed, if eight races over two weeks doesn't sound so extraordinary on paper, the immensity of his challenge over the ten days becomes clearer as you break it down.

Assuming he completes all eight races, Mike will have raced a total of 34 laps, which multiplied by the full revolution of the 37.730-mile Snaefell Circuit means he'll put 1,282.82 miles onto his personal odometer come 10 June.

If that figure isn't enough to make you sit down to catch your breath just reading it, this doesn't even take into account the practice and qualifying laps he'll complete in preparation. And yet, despite the prospect of a potential 2,000 miles of high intensity, muscle stretching and focus testing racing ahead of him, Mike is taking things in his stride.

"Racing a bigger bike around there is physically hard work. Unless you are really bike fit, it really is hard work.

"When I was over in the Falkland Islands, I lost two stone in COVID weight, so I got down to 11 and a half stone. I am a lot stronger, though I've still got to get on the bikes to strengthen those muscles specific to racing.

"But I think for me, mind over matter is going to be more demanding than physically demanding."

Targeting a Top 15 finish in the Lightweight class and a Top 20 in the Superbike/Superstock categories, while Mike is satisfied, he won't be challenging 'Hicky' et al. for overall honours, his efforts put him in a category all of his own… for now, anyway.

"I thought I need to try and do this, because Dean Harrison is phenomenal on three wheels, and it won't be long before he has a go. He said he will, but he won't be doing it just now

"So that was sort of a spurring point for me because there's no way I can compete with Deano. It's only a matter of time before Michael Dunlop or Deano turns around and says, 'let's do every single class in the year'.

"They'd be on for winning every class, because they are fantastic riders."

It's what makes Mike's 'Magic 8' endeavour such an engaging tale, in that it evokes a purist TT of old, a time when steel-coated nether regions talked louder than money.

Physically demanding, a test of mental fortitude, executed on a shoestring budget, a project fuelled by pure passion… eight TT races certainly isn't for the faint hearted but for Mike, it is absolutely worth the shot.

"I'm a privateer, so from that point of view, yes, it is an accolade to say I'm going to be the first person to do it.

"It's a big thing to push the boundaries financially, mentally, physically… but I'm excited and most definitely up for the challenge."


You can discover more about Mike Russell's career in road racing and the RAF in his new book, 'Middle of the Road'.


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