Michelle Duff - A career with a twist

Many years ago I went to the pictures in Douglas, and the supporting film was an account of the recovery from terrible injury of a Canadian rider called Mike Duff. Half way through the film of the operation on his leg, I slid under the seat!

As someone who dealt with all kinds of nasty injury at race meetings, I couldn't watch it, and flaked out! I never forgot the courage of the person concerned, and, while I was surprised to hear "he" had become Michelle, I was sure that the strength it took to deal with that change would have been readily found.

Incidentally I loved her description of how she had felt about her gender over the years…"I know that for my entire life I was wearing my shoes on the wrong feet". A couple of years ago I went to Assen to the Centennial Classic TT, and there she was, riding around on a works Yamaha, still stylish and fast.

I must admit to a bit of heroine worship here.

Here is Michelle's own story.

My father and mother were competitive people, he on bicycles and she on horses, so it seems I was conceived to ride something on two wheels that was self propelled. When I was 15 I saw a local motorcycle race and enjoyed it. I rode a 500 Triumph Tiger on the road, and acquired a racing version as a basket case.

I thought I would take a year to rebuild it, and then I might be mature enough to make some decisions at 16….4 weeks later it was built, and my parents reluctantly signed a consent form for me to race at 15. I never liked the American style of riding dirt track and TT riding. I preferred the gentle art of European Grand Prix racing, and looked to the European scene for my guidance. Geoff Duke and Bob McIntyre were my heroes. Typically for a young man, I bragged to my friends that I would go to Europe racing. In 1960, to my mother's horror, I called my own bluff and took the plunge.

I had been racing for 5 years in Canada. By the end of 1961, I began to think I might achieve some degree of success. Being Canadian was a novelty, and may have gotten me a few starts. However, once I got the starts, I showed the ability to justify them.

After my double win at Nurburgring in 1962, I could get a start anywhere. I had a product to sell…myself…but I did not know how to market it.

Motorcycle racing is perceived as being macho only by those who watch. Most riders are small in physical stature, large in perceived stature.Fully dressed in leathers, helmet , gloves and boots, I weighed in at 154 pounds…slightly smaller than Phil Read, but about the same height as Phil and Jim Redman. Unlike some riders who had to work at staying slight I had no trouble even with my voracious appetite for good food. Don't I wish I could do that now.

There were few bikes I disliked to ride. I rode because I loved to ride and was willing to ride just about anything. I think my favourite was the little twin cylinder 125 RA97 Yamaha. It was one of the fastest in its class, but not too fast, so many gears it was like pumping up a tyre..9 gears.

It handled a treat perhaps was the closest I was going to come to be competitive enough to win a world title. It was fun to rides and my results on it seemed to reflect the joy. The Yamaha 250 RD56 twin was also a great bike to ride carrying with it a degree of prestige in its very presence, but it could be a pig at times and really frightening. In the Island it was a real handful. Once I got accustomed to its idiosyncrasies , tying itself in knots at some corners, I realized it was not dangerous. It reacted consistently; it was predictable.

However, the 250-4 was another story. It was one bike I did not like. It was big, awkward and dangerous. The latest version, which I never rode, was, I understand, a treat to ride, and was, perhaps the best racing bike built up to that time.

The 7R has a special place in my memories of "bestest" bikes and riding one at the Centennial Classic TT in 1998 refreshed my memory of what a super bike it was for a private rider, the G50 Matchless too, but with the bigger thump it needed a little more care in throwing it from footrest to footrest. By today's standards both of these were big cumbersome bikes.

Tom Arter was a super guy, for me perhaps a father figure. We hit it off from the very beginning. I miss him. Bob McIntyre was my hero. He unwittingly gave me the title for my book "Make Haste Slowly". I was on the boat going to the Isle of Man in 1960 and got talking to him.

He asked if it was my first year, and I confirmed it was. "Ah! Make haste slowly, laddie!" he said. I remembered what he said to me on that day, and it seemed appropriate as a title for my book.

I was particularly friendly with Hugh Anderson. We continued to write for some years afterwards, and do now occasionally. I travelled a lot between races with Jack Ahearn, and Phil Read and I hit it off for a while. It was Phil who pushed for me to be his teammate with Yamaha, and we were good mates for a while, but then it soured. We still respect each other for what we achieved. I would have liked to keep in touch with Chris Conn, but it was not to be.

(note from Helen: I interviewed Chris a few years ago, and it was the first time he had spoken about racing since the day he retired. He specifically mentioned Mike Duff as a friend and someone he admired, but he had kept in touch with no one. He has now moved and I don't know where he is)

Racing is a lonely pastime. Occasionally, friends die. For me, coming from Canada, I had no other friends on the scene to share experiences. I made friends, but they were fleeting because of the nature of the sport. We all knew we would be going home to stay soon. In general, the paddock was a great social club with everyone sharing a single goal and love, so it was not difficult to make friends.

I have many stories . I might suggest you get a copy of my book to find most of them in detail! Time and space forbids me to write about all of them here.

However, two might be of particular interest.

We had been to the East German GP in 1965 with the Yamaha team. I had pole position with Phil read a few tenths of a second behind. Jim Redman was third on the Honda6 8 seconds slower. We thought we had the race won, but weather conditions on the day proved us wrong. Redman won going away, with Read second, and me 7th, I think, after stopping for fresh plugs.

The next weekend was the Czech GP and Read and I were out for revenge. From the start I tucked in behind Redman but the Honda streaked away from my Yamaha until we notched top gear and I pulled Redman back.

My job as second string rider was to get in Redman's way and slow us down until Read could catch up from his slow start. About mid distance he caught us and the two of us pulled away at about 2 seconds a lap. It was probably one of the few races I could have/should have won, but I let Read win because he needed the points. Read was first, I was second with the lap record. We had our sweet revenge and I cried all the way to the bank.

I knew Mike Hailwood as another rider in the paddock. I was never his best friend or anything, but we went out drinking sometimes. I had been invited to his home for a party on one occasion, but like many riders in the paddock, during the off season we might meet at Brands during a practice day and then agree to meet afterwards for beer and some fun at a local restaurant.

Mike was the best of the best, without question. He rode anything to its limit, and often won on inferior equipment because of his riding ability. I can remember at Monza in 1966, I was riding my privately entered 250 Yamaha, and was battling for the lead with Mike, and Stuart graham, both on Honda6s. mike was using me as the yardstick of how fast to go to keep the race interesting. I remember rushing past Stuart going into the first of the Lesmos, and took the lead thinking I was on the ragged edge.

Both my wheels were sliding on the road and I was using most of the track under me. I thought I was going really well, when suddenly this other bike appeared on my left going around on the outside of both Stuart and myself. It was Mike, with a big grin. As he took the lead, he turned back and lifted his arm and waved us on. A few laps later, Stuart retired, and my Yamaha went sour, leaving Mike on his own. To end the boredom he rode a bit quicker just to get the race over! He lapped something like 8 seconds faster than we had been doing together…and this was some 2 seconds inside the lap record I established in 64.

It is an understatement to say he was incredible. One did not appreciate how fast he was going until one tried to stay with him. Many tried, occasionally some came close, but most gave up or crashed.

Mosport Park is our local GP circuit. It was this race course on which the 1967 Canadian GP was run. I held the lap record at Mosport for some years. I had not been around Mosport for about 7 years when I was lent a new R6 Yamaha road bike to ride around the circuit on a fun day. The bike was standard except for an after market exhaust system. It took me about an hour to start to feel comfortable again, and I started to lap faster than I had ever done in my prime on a proper racing motorcycle. Such has been the development in bikes since the 1960s.

The Yamaha R6 has definitely struck a memorable chord in my mind. Since, I have been hinting to Yamaha that it should give me a bike, but as soon as you use the word give, they seem to lose all knowledge of the English language.

Words - Helen Gibson

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