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One for the Road: Life lessons

By Shadow

Some folks like to say that the basic Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes just teach you how to ride in a parking lot. That may sound harsh, but many, if not most, RiderCoaches believe that completing the MSF Basic RiderCourse is only the first step in a lifetime of learning.


I knew that once I earned my motorcycle endorsement, I would buy a Sportster, which to me was the embodiment of the Harley-Davidson name. Besides, it was the lightest and smallest bike Harley offered, so I figured it was just the right size for me. I visited Steele’s Harley-Davidson in Bloomfield, about 10 miles from where I lived, where Sales Manager George Wenzel told me that a Luxury Rich Red Pearl XLH would be part of the next month’s shipment. I didn’t mind the wait because my Basic RiderCourse wasn’t scheduled until the end of the week.


The day of the BRC came, and although my skills left something to be desired, I passed the course. So the next day, I went back to Steele’s and put a deposit down on my new baby. After the paperwork was signed, I sheepishly admitted to George that I was nervous about riding a bike that big. The motorcycles used in the MSF course I took were small metric models, and I knew I wasn’t prepared to ride an 883cc Harley. Having heard this confession many times before, he immediately jotted down the name and phone number of an instructor he recommended highly.


Clyde Threadgill had been teaching people to ride long before the MSF courses really took hold in New Jersey. The state requires that motorcycle permit holders must ride with a licensed individual, including riding to and from the DMV testing center to take the licensing exam. Clyde realized that many, if not most, of these “riders” really didn’t know how to ride at all, so he began offering lessons. Over the years he’d taught more students how to ride than anyone could remember.


As soon as I got home, I gave Clyde a call and we set a date for my first lesson. When the day arrived, I drove to Newark where Clyde lived. He greeted me warmly, trying to put me at ease. We went in back to his garage, and he pulled out two bikes from the dozen or so that were packed inside. My bike was a small metric model, and he showed me how the controls worked and handed me a helmet. Hands trembling, I followed him up the street to Branch Brook Park, just a few blocks from his house.


Early on, we practiced only on the roads inside the park. I began to gain confidence and even started having fun. I couldn’t believe it! I was finally riding! We practiced starts and stops, turns, figure eights, riding in small circles and much more. I don’t remember how many lessons I took, but my progress was more or less steady. The “less” came in when I dropped my practice bike—not just once, but many times. I had trouble mastering the technique of turning my wheel straight before I came to a stop. Each time the bike hit the ground, a mirror would smash. I’d offer to pay for it, and Clyde always refused to take my money. He’d say, “I get them at the junkyard for a few bucks each.”


Clyde finally deemed me ready to leave the park and ride some of the local roads, even giving me a taste of what it was like to ride on an Interstate and tackle a toll road. He was extraordinarily patient, and his teaching methods helped me improve my skills dramatically. I’d forgotten about one technique he used in his instruction until recently when Jay Toussaint, a manager at the now-defunct Steele’s Harley dealership, reminded me. Clyde observed over time that a fair number of his students were overly concerned with the speed at which they were traveling. So he taped over the speedometer glass, preventing us from focusing attention on the little needle rather than the road ahead. This little trick was certainly unorthodox, but it helped immensely.


When my new bike came in, I asked Clyde to come to the dealership and ride with me to my house. He was happy to oblige. Nine months later, I got into an accident when an unobservant senior citizen ran a stop sign and I hit the rear quarter panel of her big ol’ Buick. The first person I called was Clyde, who also ran a motorcycle towing service.


The cost of the classes was incredibly reasonable. I always had the feeling that Clyde would teach for free if he could, just to help others, but he had bills to pay. Through those lessons we became friends. He expressed the desire to keep in touch, and invited me to ride with him and his buddies anytime. Sorry to say, I never did take him up on that offer.


We did speak once in a while after that, but eventually fell out of touch. One day, some years later, I walked into Steele’s and began chatting with Rep, the parts manager. I asked Rep if he’d spoken to Clyde lately, wondering how he was doing. Rep gave me an odd look and said, “Clyde died a few years ago. You didn’t know?” I was stunned. What a loss. He was a big, big man, both in girth and generosity, and left this world at way too young an age.


So Clyde, this column is dedicated to you for helping me realize my dream. Godspeed, my old friend.


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