Michael Clark's Yamaha waiting for the fledgling motorcyclist to summon the courage to venture onto Winnipeg's busy Henderson Highway for the first time.
Michael Clark’s Yamaha waiting for the fledgling motorcyclist to summon the courage to venture onto Winnipeg’s busy Henderson Highway for the first time. Click image to enlarge

Part Four – Why is everyone trying to kill me?

by Michael Clark


It may seem far too descriptive for travelling down Henderson Highway at 65 kph. Most people are engaged in cellular phone conversations, makeup touch-ups, or possibly lunch at those speeds. I was the wide-eyed pilot straddling a black, 25 year-old Yamaha 400. Oh crap!

Before I receive a sound washing of my tongue with soap from my beloved mother, let me explain how the whole potty mouth thing got started. This particular Saturday morning saw the arrival of my recently-tuned Yamaha to my driveway. I played it safe, enlisting the help of Alf Kollinger and his Moto Tow delivery service to ferry the bike home from Headingley Sport Shop. I donned my gear, and performed the safety checks that were entrenched during the Gearing Up course from the Manitoba Safety Council. Set the choke, pull in the clutch, engage starter. The Yamaha was awake.

I sat there for what seemed like an eternity. I twisted the throttle about as many times as the twin’s displacement. This old Bill Cosby bit kept rolling through my head; something about the mind and the body not always getting along. At that particular moment, they were on strike. And my arbitration skills weren’t working.

What was I so afraid of? I had the gear, the training, even watched ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ the night before. The trip odometer quivered at zero, waiting to be filled. I could almost see the digits start to roll, each with an ever-changing outcome to the story. There was the possibility of a close call, a mechanical problem, or perhaps an outright crash. There was also the chance to feel connected to the road in a way that I had never felt before. I slowly let out the clutch, and proceeded gingerly down the back lane. First gear; it’s alright.

This was my first time on two wheels since the Gearing Up course, and the ensuing brain cramps proved it. It took a few side streets to get my clutch control back, along with braking inputs and gear selection. I was surprised at how well the bike worked, considering its vintage. It took a few embarrassing moments to learn the nuances of re-discovering first gear at an intersection. As a card-carrying member of the Bold and Male, I pretended on a couple of occasions that the problem was the bike, not me. Step one: pull off to the side. Step two: turn off the bike, dismount, and adjust a spark plug wire or poke at something engine-related that isn’t piping hot. Step three: get back on, start the twin, and hope that you can leave the curb with minimal jerk. If you stall it again, repeat steps one through three.

The side streets in Winnipeg were practically deserted. There’s only one problem; side streets eventually empty out onto busier cross streets. The first encounter was Raleigh Street, via Linden Avenue. Gear down, apply the brakes equally, gingerly. The entrance to Raleigh was a little steep. Remember your first experience with a car, an incline, and a clutch? Translation: stall. The twin easily re-started, however the brain told the body to apply more throttle upon releasing the clutch. The brain wasn’t specific enough. I entered Raleigh at a much wider arc than requested, still within my lane, but waaaay to close to the old Crown Victoria in the opposite lane. Not everyone gets to say “oops” on a motorcycle and stay intact. I was spooked enough to take the first right past Centennial Park, onto Dunrobin Avenue. I stuck to the side streets for the next few minutes, waiting for my heart to re-start.

I wanted to practice the art of counter-steering, and the only corners in East Kildonan that I knew about were on Kildonan Drive. I received a large break in traffic, crossing over at Helmsdale Avenue. Helmsdale dumps into Kildonan, presenting a fairly sharp right hand curve not suited for counter-steering. Kildonan Drive isn’t a speedy stretch; about 35 to 40 kph is as fast as you want to go, which still draws disapproving stares from the retirees walking their killer poodles. The first arc was to the left, near Oakview. I pushed ever so slightly on the left-hand handlebar, hoping that the whole counter-steer story wasn’t some cruel gag played on first-time bikers. The counter-steer invoked just enough lean, and the Yamaha and me pushed on in search of more curvy goodness.

The drive called Kildonan seems an eternity to traverse when I throw on the Nikes for my bi-monthly jog. Even at a leisurely 35 kph, the road disappears rather quickly. After reaching its Northern point at the old Bergen cut-off, I decided to head south to complete another lap. The plan was to turn around at the southern-most tip, however a moving truck was blocking the road. The only choice was to turn left at Canterbury Place, assuming that I could use the backlane to avoid Henderson. It was busy, some sort of family-do taking priority. I applied the brakes, and looked to the North. The only traffic was waiting at the red light at Kimberly. The light went green. It was now or never. Oh crap.

I twisted the throttle, and launched the Yamaha onto Henderson, heading south. This meant that my leisurely days of 40 kph had come to an end. Sure, the signs say 60, which means everyone does 70, and the idiots do 80. First geeeeeeeeear, second geeeeeeeear, third geeeeeeeear. 50, 60, 65 kilometres per hour. Darn near 40 miles an hour, the fastest I had ever gone on a motorcycle. This was my first encounter with the force of the wind. Not a crosswind or a blustery day; this felt like a five foot, eight inch hand trying to push me off of the Yamaha. The gap between the slight opening of my visor and helmet slammed shut. I leaned forward to cheat the wind as I approached Munroe for a left turn out of harm’s way. Do they see me? Is my signal bright enough? Please let me find first gear.

I turned without incident, my heart pounding. The rest of the first 53 stuck to more side streets, and a few parking lots for low speed manoeuvres. The number kept rolling through my head, just like the numbers falling away on the trip meter. 65 km/h, with nothing to protect me but my good judgement. It was terrifying and exhilarating, all at the same time.

The clutch lever operation had become second nature as I slowly rolled into my driveway. I couldn’t take my eyes off the Yamaha as I entered the house, stopping for a moment to admire it through the rear window. Thresholds; this is what motorcycle proficiency is about. Reaching new ones with every passing mile. There’s a lot of speedometer left on that old 400. It’s time to go exploring.

Next week: 90 km/h, curvy bends, and new friends.

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