Backmarker: Meeting Michelle Duff

March 20, 2015
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Bruce Jenner’s in the news again. And Amazon Studios’ ‘Transparent’, starring Jeffery Tambor, is a breakout hit. Middle-aged men becoming middle-aged women is a thing in the media these days. Which reminds me…

Mike Duff at 15 in Toronto.

Mike Duff was born in Toronto in 1939. He was a bit of a loner as a child. Desperate to fit in, at 13, he snuck his big brother’s motorcycle out of the garage. He figured being seen on it would make other kids think he was cool. It worked, too, until he was caught. His parents grounded him, then his brother pounded the crap out of him.

It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction to motorcycles but within a few years he was one of the fastest racers on the rough and ready Canadian airport circuits of the day. American road racing was hardly more developed, so he set off for England. He was briefly taken aback by the speed of the European riders, but he adapted quickly. He got his first World Championship start in the Senior TT, in 1960. Over the next two or three years, had factory rides with MZ, Bultaco, Gilera and Yamaha.

In 1962, while racing in Finland, he met and soon married a Finnish girl. “He was like a prince,” she recalled, “kind, quiet, and tough.” In short order, they were traveling the Continental Circus with two little kids.

In 1963, Geoff Duke (who had been given access to Gilera’s stable of GP bikes) offered the use of a four-cylinder 350 and 500 to Mike for the TT. Tired of trying to keep up with the Honda and MV multis, Mike readily agreed.

Duff had been riding for Tom Arter, who’d become as much a friend as sponsor. He called the farm equipment dealer at his home in Kent, to tell him the good news. Arter was uncharacteristically chatty; full of enthusiasm about developing a new G50 for Mike to ride at the TT. Realizing that Arter would be deeply hurt by the knowledge that he had agreed to ride someone else’s bike, Mike hung up without mentioning Duke’s Gileras.

Then he called Lew Ellis at Shell, and begged him, “Please don’t release me from my contract,” knowing that Duke was already contracted to use Castrol products. That gave Mike a way out of his short agreement with Duke.

His greatest moment came on the factory Yamaha RD56 Twin at Spa in 1964. He won the Belgian Grand Prix, setting the 250cc lap record in the process. He averaged over 120 mph on public roads. At Monza, Duff finished second to his teammate Phil Read. After a poor start, Mike set the lap record, passing both Agostini and Jim Redman. By finishing ahead of Redman on the Honda Six, Duff handed Read the title.

Read and Duff raced for the Yamaha factory in 1965, too. Phil won the Championship again that year, at the Ulster GP. Duff then beat him in non-championship races at Oulton Park, Silverstone and Brands Hatch, prompting some to speculate that the Canadian had been following team orders.

Mike Duff with the Canadian Race Trophy at 16.
Mike Duff with the Canadian Race Trophy at 16 years old.

The next year, while testing at Suzuka, he crashed into an Armco barrier feet first. The impact drove his left femur three inches through his pelvis. Surgeons replaced his ruined hip socket with a steel cup.

There’s grainy film footage of Duff’s comeback; he hobbles down the track on his useless hip, desperate for the Yamaha to fire, while the field streams past. Searching for an advantage to offset his terrible starts, he fitted his RD05 with the front brake from a Mini—the first disc brake ever on a Yamaha. But the factory’d lost confidence in him. He spent most of the season on a private 250.

1967 was Canada’s Centennial. For once, Mike had a ‘home’ Grand Prix at Mosport, near Toronto. The printed program hardly mentioned him, even though he was far and away the country’s most successful racer. In the race, Agostini and Hailwood streaked away on vastly superior machinery; Duff, on an Arter Matchless, lapped almost the whole rest of the field.

When the race was over, Mike decided to stay home. He had contested 47 Grands Prix, and scored top-three finishes in more than half of them. It would be ten years before another North American did as well.

Although he’d earned decent money racing, he was broke. For a while, he tested bikes for Cycle World, but he was too restless to hold that gig down. In 1972, Yamaha pulled a few strings, helping Duff set up a small dealership in Toronto. It wasn’t too profitable, but his service department soon had a fine reputation, for work Mike did himself.

He divorced, remarried, and had another son. He wrote a monthly column in Cycle Canada, in exchange for free advertising. Anticipating the crash of the Canadian motorcycle industry in the 1980s, he closed his shop.

For a few more years, he bored cylinders and balanced cranks, down in his basement. The wheels fell off marriage number two. His artificial hip wore out, and needed replacement. Without the glorious distraction of Grand Prix racing, he looked at himself, and hated what he saw. It was a bad, bad time to be Mike Duff.

After almost 40 years of denial, Mike finally confronted the fact that he wanted—he had always desperately wanted—to be female. Although he was a middle-aged man, his life had come to the point where he could see only two choices: go through with sexual reassignment, or commit suicide. He chose to have a future; ‘Mike’ became ‘Michelle’.

I never met Mike Duff; by the time I rode out to find her, 15 years ago, she’d already been Michelle for 15 years.

She lived in a small cottage next to a lake, deep in the woods north of Toronto. There was a tidy Yamaha FZR600 in a scruffy shed out back. She showed me a little 35mm film container, affixed inside the fairing, that held a tiny damp rag she used to clean her goggles. “I started doing that on the Isle of Man,” she told me. “The flies were terrible.”

I wanted a riding photo. She got into leathers, and onto the bike with some grief from that bad hip. We rode back out to the nearest asphalt road, and she told me where to stand. Exactly. Then she came past for a few camera passes. She was still fast as shit, and rode the same line—I mean, to the inch—each time. It was, like, meeting some grandmother who could kick my ass.

She was forthright about the decision that changed her life. “I hate the cliché, ‘A woman trapped in a man’s body’,” she said. “I never felt that I was trapped, I just felt different, and thought different, than my male peers.”

Mike began a series of hormone treatments, electrolysis and hair transplants that took over a year. To qualify for ‘sexual reassignment surgery’ he’d first have to live as a woman. He only told a few people, who he thought would remain his friends. Within a couple of weeks he got a letter from Hugh Anderson in New Zealand, demanding to know what the hell was going on. Mike’s column disappeared from Cycle Canada; John Cooper, the magazine’s editor, wrote a fairly sympathetic column of his own explaining things as best he could.

‘The Fifth Estate’—Canada’s ’60 Minutes’—sent a reporter to interview Mike (by then living as Michelle) before and after the surgery. By 1985, ‘sex change’ operations were hardly news, but Mike’s macho background made this one especially titillating.

After the reassignment surgery, the camera crew returned. The reporter asked Michelle Duff—now legally female—how she felt. For a moment Michelle was almost radiant, “After all this time,” she said, “when I look in the mirror, what I see finally looks right.” Not to be outdone, the reporter then said, “I think you were a more attractive man than you are woman.” Michelle knit her eyebrows, paused for a moment, and quietly replied, “Well, I didn’t think I was going to be a beauty.”

That first time I sought her out, I spent two days in her tiny front room, flipping through scrapbooks and asking questions. I’d come to map out the connections between the lives of Mike and Michelle. I wanted to know if Mike had raced to overcompensate for a perceived weakness, or if he’d had an advantage on dangerous circuits like the Isle of Man because he was suicidal. Michelle pondered these questions, but the answer was ‘no’. “The great thing about racing,” she ventured, “is that it requires absolute concentration. It was a complete escape from the rest of my life.”

Michelle liked to sit where she could watch the squirrels and birds that come to the feeder on her porch. The place was cluttered with stuffed animals and kitsch objects. But there, on a high shelf, sat 10 silver replicas from the Isle of Man TT. Beside the TT Replicas, there was only one other trophy on display. I asked her about it, and she said, “That’s my only trophy.” Since I knew she had hundreds of Mike’s old trophies in storage, I didn’t get it, until she added, “It’s from the Centennial Classic TT; it’s the only trophy I’ve won as Michelle.”

Michelle Duff enjoying the lake next to her small cottage north of Toronto.
Michelle Duff enjoying the lake next to her small cottage north of Toronto.

In 1998, Yamaha painstakingly built an exact replica of Mike Duff’s RD56. It was sent from Japan in the care of Mike Duff’s old mechanic, Kaneyoshi Suzuki. The Centennial Classic TT was to be the largest gathering of old Grand Prix bikes and riders in history. Michelle worried about how she would be received by her racing peers, until Giacomo Agostini walked into the Yamaha pit and asked, “Where’s Michelle Duff?”

Ago grinned, hugged her, and said, “It’s nice to see you again.”

A while after I first met her and wrote about her, Michelle and I met again on the Isle of Man. That was the year I raced there. She mentioned that she’d seen me come through in two different sessions, watching me once at Brandywell and once at the 32nd Milestone (since renamed ‘Dukes’).

She said, “You didn’t look too good at Brandywell, but the next session you looked a lot better at 32nd Milestone.” The thing was, she was dead right. I never felt that I ‘got’ Brandywell, but I loved the 32nd.

We’ve stayed in touch, on and off, ever since. Once, when I was talking to her about something, she said, “Wait a minute,” rummaged around for a shoebox sized carton of Kodachrome slides, all shot in Grands Prix paddocks in the ’60s. I realized that Mike Duff was an avid amateur photographer, with good equipment and a good eye. That’s a trove of rare color pictures, taken by someone who had unparalleled access. One of my bucket-list items would be to publish a book of those photos.

After that Assen appearance, Michelle rode in a few more “laps of honor”, always at near-race pace. But she stopped riding after a hard fall at Spa in 2008. She recently told me that she’s still got the FZR; can’t bear to sell it and maintains the fantasy that someday, she’ll ride it again.

She’s written a few children’s books and a memoir, ‘Make Haste Slowly: The Mike Duff Story’, which is a great first-person account of Grand Prix racing’s Golden Era. It’s available at Amazon.