Like the new Manitoba Hydro tower, Michael Clark's motorcycle-riding skills are still a work in progress
Like the new Manitoba Hydro tower, Michael Clark’s motorcycle-riding skills are still a work in progress. Click image to enlarge

by Michael Clark

I wonder if I’m the only one pacing back and forth before a ride.

I’m starting to cut a groove into my sunflower-medley linoleum. This is what I call the ‘psych-up’ phase; the gear is on, the helmet strap is tight, and the Velcro flaps and straps are clinging to each other like, well, Velcro. I’ve lost count of the laps, gazing out the window at the new Virago in the driveway as I pivot. It’s a big day for this novice motorcycle pilot. There may be 140 kilometres on the Virago’s odometer, however those were relatively easy klicks by comparison. The next 47 would be surrounded by ‘cages’, two-wheel-speak for cars and trucks. Just a couple more laps around the kitchen.

I did pad the odds a little, waiting ’til the evening rush hour had dissipated, as well as choosing a mid-week day to avoid the nightlife set. The drive south down Henderson Highway was relatively uneventful, with a confidence level that certainly didn’t exist with the initial adventure on the old 400. The V-twin may be a scant 250 cc’s in displacement, however the Virago never felt lethargic as I snicked through the gearbox. My clutch control was improving by leaps and bounds; it recalled my first three-on-the-tree experiences in my ’56 Chevy. The mental questions were identical to the queries of my then 17 -year-old mind; how smooth can I engage the clutch? Can I enable a downshift without causing a lurch? And how long can I wait to ‘clutch-in’ as I approach a stop sign, riding the ragged edge of a stall?

The Disraeli Freeway is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more a collection of bridges, traversing the waters of the Red River and the neighbourhood of Point Douglas. The spans mimic two eyebrows in elevation, with a view from the Virago seat that has escaped my numerous commutes, both hardtop and soft-top. I reached the crest of the last hill, enjoying the countersteer input as I pressed on towards the light at Main Street. This is where it would start to get tricky.

I had planned ahead for this turn, placing the Virago in the centre lane as I rolled to a stop. Chalk it up to being a life-long Winnipegger; no one in the median lane at this particular turn ever chooses the median lane as they turn onto Main. The reason is that most of the ‘cagers’ have just remembered they want to head west on the approaching Portage Avenue, a two-lane jump. Being in the right is one thing when you’re trading fender paint, and a completely different thing when it’s a minivan against your Levi’s. My centre lane choice was the last of the turning lanes, which allowed me to point the Virago into the lane to the right of the centre lane. (If I say ‘lane’ one more time…) As expected, the median minivan performed its signal-less drift to the centre, without me under it’s wheels.

I twisted the throttle, making the necessary signals and head checks to acquire a right-turning lane position as I approached the smattering of skyscrapers at Portage and Main. This was an excellent lesson in the advantages of a motorcycle’s power-to-weight ratio. To choose optimum lane positions for safety, simply twist the throttle and watch how quickly the cages to the rear get smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirrors. There are certainly particular cars and trucks that could give the Virago a run for this money, with shrieking tires and the aroma of burnt clutch. Luckily, Thursday night in the ‘Peg isn’t Viper night. A gentle right, and my tires touched Portage Avenue for the first time.

My plan was to take Portage to Memorial Boulevard, heading south through Osborne Village. This is when I realized that drivers aren’t the only ones to ignore a motorcycle; there are also daydreaming pedestrians. Even with a full-green left turn signal, there were a couple of jaywalkers who were quite surprised to see my approaching headlamp.

Multiple lanes of traffic can lead to multiple confusion. Where should I be? The Gearing Up course was quite specific about avoiding centre lanes for prolonged periods. I wasn’t looking to be the meat in a minivan sandwich, so I stuck to the median with a more distinct space cushion. South on Osborne, approaching the neighbourhood of St. Vital for a little bit of show-off to a couple of friends. Both were absent, which was actually a good thing as the sun started its downward dip. In Manitoba, the beginner stage of the graduated license program prohibits night driving. There was one more stop I had to make before I stowed the Virago for the night. North on Main, to Mom and Dad’s.

There are few parents who welcome the arrival of a motorcycle to their driveway, especially when it is carrying their offspring. Mom is wearing her “I hope you’re being careful” mask, always quick to work the tale of a couple she knows that possess only one leg apiece from a motorcycle crash. I’m just glad she still worries. Dad’s reaction to the whole motorcycle saga is intriguing. He’s never admitted to riding a motorcycle, and it was certainly never promoted in my young driving years. It’s just the way he looks at the bike, with a sense of knowing that perhaps culminated in a few blasts aboard an old Norton in the late Fifties. He knows too much, which probably explains why this is getting easier for me with every passing mile.

NEXT WEEK: A smaller version of your stuff; Michael lifts the cargo embargo on the Virago.

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