Michael Clark at the controls of his Virago. Click image to enlarge
By Michael Clark
I’m trying not to draw as much attention to myself.
That phrase may seem counter-productive to survival aboard my Yamaha Virago test bike. To clarify, I am definitely “being seen”: proper lane positioning, reflective piping on riding gear, and a what-was-I-thinking? motif on the hard crunchy shell of my HJC helmet. (It was on sale.) The attention I no longer seek is the obvious point-and-laugh finger that accompanies jerky starts, overflowing throttle twists, and general brain farts that have occurred behind the handlebars. I’m trading in my rank beginner card for at least novice.
I wouldn’t expect the training crew at the ‘Gearing Up’ course to respond with a collective “by Jove, I think he’s got it”, however I do believe they would feel confident enough to turn their back on me and not end up wearing my tire tracks down their backsides. I’m trying to point to a day, a moment, some pivotal revelation. I think it was the Beretta.
My Chevy Beretta is a well-worn ’95 with almost 300,000 klicks. I’m usually behind the wheel of a press vehicle for evaluation purposes, so I’ve adopted the attitude of many of my colleagues by adding an “in-between” car to the stable. You can park it anywhere, let nature wash it, and simply adjust the radio volume control to drown out the creaks and groans. It’s a four-banger stick, and there’s a little bit of clutch left, right at the top of the pedal. A new driver would be reduced to tears trying to effect smooth transitions. I’ve driven enough garbage over the last 21 years to make this Chevy feel like an automatic.
That early garbage involved many a three-on-the-tree. I learned to drive a clutch on a ’67 Beaumont. Well, perhaps “learned” is too strong a word. I learned how to stall, grind, chatter, and lurch in the Beau. When my ’56 Chevy hit the driveway in ’86, I was bent on one goal; they (and there was a lot of them) must never know it has a clutch. No jerks, no stalls, holding the pedal at just the right point to grip a hilltop at a red light. I nailed it then, which made the Beretta equally chatter-free. Now if I could only do the same with my left hand on the Virago.
Think of your first clutch lesson. Put in the clutch, engage first gear, let out the clutch. Oh, you let it out alright, and the car tried to jump off its frame. Hit the throttle too hard, and you ran the risk of tearing the fabric of the space-time continuum. The saddle of the Virago made me feel 16 all over again, without the hair and 29 inch waist. Even folks who never rode a motorcycle could tell I was a newbie. In the first few kilometres of the old Yamaha XS400, I chalked up a lot of the oopsies to the bike’s 1981 vintage. The Virago made me realize just how tight the 400 was.
I slowly started to unlearn my harsh habits. One of my initial problem areas was gearshifts. In retrospect, I was exerting far too much kick, be it up or downshifts. My first thoughts were to resort to feather-touch inputs with my left boot. Imagine effecting a perfect first-gear takeoff in traffic, only to bog down after 30 feet as you realize your upward gear tap was just enough to land you smack dab in neutral. I may not count out loud anymore, however I am internally logging my downshift taps at traffic stops to ensure the reduction of embarrassing second gear start-stalls.
The clutch lever on a motorcycle does have a friction point, much like a car. What has come to light is the minimal amount of lever snap required to effect a gear change. I was constantly using a full lever-to-handlebar squeeze for shifts, signalling another visit from my old friend Lurch. I’ve backed off the squeeze by at least half, with no complaints from the Virago – and none from my spine either.
My throttle twists are far less abrupt; I know the power is there when I need it. I still remember forgetting to down-twist the throttle on gear changes; that was a convention of Lurches, and could easily be enough to topple a new rider. Unless you are in dire need of Our Blessed Lady of Acceleration, less is definitely more in the area of throttle input. Dare I say it, but I’ve found the pressure points on the Virago that make it seem like an automatic. Which would then make it a scooter, and we’re not going there.
Smoothing out these inputs builds obvious confidence, especially with low-speed turns. Too much speed could mean a lot of explaining to the Yamaha rep about the Virago you just put down, or launch you into the opposite lane which may or may not be occupied. The Virago’s 250 cc mill doesn’t provide much gear depth, which means a 1-2 upshift for many traffic light left turns. Let’s all go check our Google maps for Henderson Highway North. There’s a little causeway here called the Chief Peguis Trail, with two left turning lanes and a dedicated signal. The speed also jumps from 60 km/h on Henderson to 80 km/h on the Trail, and the ‘cages’ want to get there in a hurry. I’ve tried a prolonged first gear burst; it just feels like I’m hurting the Virago, and it’s well past the useable torque band of the V-Twin. As I negotiate the arc, I enable my new-found finesse with clutch, gearshift, and throttle to effect a seamless 2nd gear placement. A stout throttle twist, a few more gears, and the ‘cages’ in my rear-view mirrors all start to look like little ants very quickly. And that’s fine by me.
Reaching this new threshold of riding prowess has other distinct advantages; namely, making an entrance. I used to park the Virago on the street in front of Ma and Pa Clark’s homestead. That driveway may be a mere 20 degrees of incline, however it was downright Gibralter-esque before my new squeeze-play. To those who pass, be it rider or wannabee, there is an understanding that it had to get up there somehow. And I’m too lazy to push.
Read Michael Clark’s entire series!