Willy Williamson on his Road King. (Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press)
Saturday morning I’ll join more than 1,500 local motorcycle enthusiasts and participate in the 11th annual Telus Manitoba Motorcycle Ride for Dad.
Over the past 10 years, the popular ride, organized by the Winnipeg Police Association, has raised nearly $2.1 million, with proceeds staying in Manitoba for prostate cancer research and education.
This year’s ride starts at Earls Polo Park and continues with a police-escorted parade west on Portage Avenue to Assiniboia Downs, then on to Selkirk, Gimli and back to Winnipeg for the wind-up event at Cowboys, Canad Inns Windsor Park.
It promises to be a fun day, filled with handshakes and hugs. I’ve participated in every local Ride for Dad and always have a great time. There’s also always moments while I’m riding along the route where I’ll think about my dad, David Williamson, who lost his battle with cancer at 62 in June 2005.
Back in 1976, when I was nine years old, my dear old dad brought home a shiny 1969 Honda Z50A. That bike will forever be known in my heart as the Zed 50.
The deal was the bike had to be shared with my big brother, Allen, who is 18 months older than me. But he was already too big for it, so basically it was mine. All mine. Allen might disagree, but let the record state: it was MINE.
I’m not even sure where it came from, but I do know it showed up at my dad’s buddy Eddie’s garage one sunny summer afternoon. My dad and Eddie were what were known back then as greasers. They spent every minute of their spare time wrenching on old cars in Eddie’s garage near Starbuck, a tiny town around 45 minutes southwest of Winnipeg. Both my dad and Eddie may be gone now, but I smile when I think of them.
The Zed 50 learning curve was quick. Figure out how to turn it on, work the choke, kick it over and ride away. That first day, while barrelling down the highway after being explicitly told not to, I was in a low-speed chase with a Mountie. He had a big moustache and a hideous purple Ford and he scared the crap out of me, so I took off. When I roared down the driveway of Eddie’s place with the police car in hot pursuit, I figured my dad was surely going to kill me. Turned out he and Eddie thought the entire episode was hilarious, and they also knew the policeman, who just wanted to remind me to stay off the road. Lesson learned. My dad must have repeated that story a hundred times. It got funnier every time. Apparently, despite my first scrape with the law, I passed the test. The bike came home with me that night in the back of dad’s Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon.
There were train tracks behind our house in St. Norbert, and yeah, we lived on the wrong side of them. So from then on, I could make high-speed runs along the CNR line right out of our backyard. The tracks led to a wooded area loaded with monkey trails and ended at a spot us local kids simply called The Hills, basically piles of dirt from all the basements dug to make the homes we lived in.
Initially, my riding gear consisted of a crappy old snowmobile helmet, bell-bottom jeans, a hand-me-down hockey jersey, work gloves and North Star sneakers. Not long after getting the bike, a local motorcycle dealer named Honda Hut closed shop. Dad took me and Allen to the liquidation auction. Allen says that’s pretty much the exact moment I became a motorcycle junkie. My eyes lit up as a white Arai helmet crossed the block with a pair of goggles, face mask and visor already installed. The face mask was called an Iron Jaw, and it looked so badass it made my knees weak. Dad bought the helmet for me and I wore it home in the car.
The Zed 50 changed my young life. I remember waking up early in the morning, laying in bed waiting for the birds to start chirping so I could get outside and ride. I vividly recall being alone and quiet in the kitchen as the sun came up, making a ham sandwich on white bread with mustard and carefully wrapping it in wax paper. I had a small canvas bag I’d pack with my sandwich, a bottle of Pepsi, and my trusty Vise-Grips wrapped in a red shop rag. I’d fix the pack on the handlebars with a bungee cord like I’d seen real bikers do, all set for a day of riding. It’s funny the little things you remember so many years later. I still carefully pack my gear the same way and I still love ham sandwiches on white bread, with mustard.
The cool older guys I met at The Hills rode the lightning-fast and colourful Japanese machines of the era. I was no match for these teenage daredevils, so I’d sit on my little Honda and watch them rip around the makeshift track and fly over the hills. The intoxicating scent of Bel-Ray two-stroke oil filled the air and it was there, sitting on my Honda, that I knew all I wanted to do from that day on was ride a motorcycle. At night, I’d read Dirt Bike magazine under the covers with a flashlight. At school, I’d draw motorcycles in my notebook.
Being a husky kid, ultimately the little Honda did start to reveal its shortcomings. The clamps that allowed the handlebars to fold down gave way, so my dad welded them in place. Then the frame started to crack. Dad kept on welding it. Each day before I’d ride it, my Vise-Grips were used to tighten up, and ultimately strip, all the bolts that kept coming loose. I remember wrapping the hand grips in black hockey stick tape, my first custom work.
I’d like to tell you otherwise, but truthfully, in the end it was a stripped and seized hunk of battered scrap. It was covered in scrapes and dents, held together with baling wire, and the rear frame was covered in massive globs of welding slag. Although dad could weld, he definitely wasn’t a welder. The Zed rusted away in a heap with bald tires that had gone flat and a torn seat, abandoned in our backyard.
Then one day, like it had magically appeared, the Zed was gone.
Fear not, though, I was on to a bigger and better bike. On a chilly fall afternoon in 1979, three days after my 12th birthday, Dad bought me a shiny new Yamaha GT 80. Wow, it’s hard to believe that was nearly 40 years ago.
Over the years I’ve owned more than 50 motorcycles, and have eight bikes in my current collection, including the 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide I’ll be riding tomorrow. I may look a little different nowadays, but beneath my leather vest and helmet I’m still that same happy-go-lucky kid, grinning from ear to ear and thanking my lucky stars for all the amazing times I’ve had on two wheels.
It’s been a hell of a ride, and I owe it all to my dad!
Ride safe everyone, and for all you dads, enjoy your day!
Willy affectionately called his first bike, a 1969 Honda Z50A, the Zed 50. (Supplied)
Willy also has a helmet collection. (Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press)
Some of the bikes in Willy's collection. (Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press)
Willy will be riding his 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide during the Ride for Dad.