The Canadian racer broke bones and boundaries throughout her career and after.
The Isle of Man TT is a race known for its challenges, its triumphs, and the number of lives it's claimed over the course of its 113 years. Names like Hailwood, Dunlop, and McGuinness are etched in the tarmac of the Snaefell Mountain Course—just three among hundreds.
Living your life in a genuine manner is also challenging. There’s a chance the wrong move, event, or person could upend everything about your existence and lead you away from who you know you are. Yet, if you can hold the line, the genuine life led holds more triumphs than you could ever want.
Michelle Duff is a woman who has led a genuine life. She faced down Death at the Isle of Man TT during her short riding career, then flourished in her personal life upon coming out as transgender in 1984. Since June is Pride Month—a month born from one of the greatest uprisings in LGBTQIA+ history at the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969—it’s only fitting to look back upon Duff and her legendary life.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, on December 13, 1939, Duff began her Grand Prix career at the 1960 Isle of Man TT in the 500cc class. Alas, her Norton 500 couldn’t conquer the mountain, leaving Duff to regroup for the 1961 GP season.
At the peak of her career, Duff claimed a ton of top-five spots atop machines from Yamaha, AJS, and Matchless, including three first places. At the ‘65 Isle of Man TT, she snagged two thirds and one second-place spot on the podium. To this day she remains Canada's only Motorcycle Grand Prix winner.
“Considering my past occupation, I am lucky I made it this far when so many of my past friends and fellow riders did not,” Duff told Australian Motorcycle News in 2018. “The ‘60s was a great time to be active in GP racing, but it was also one of the most dangerous eras.”
Unfortunately, her ‘65 season ended in near-tragedy when she wrecked her Matchless 500 at the Suzuka Circuit during the Japan Grand Prix. Though she lived through the crash, Duff underwent extensive hip surgery and physical therapy to return to competition at the 1966 Dutch TT. Her final race was the first-and-only Canadian GP in 1967, where she took third behind Giacomo Agostini and, in his final FIM competition, Mike Hailwood.
“My years in GP racing were well-timed,” Duff said. “A rider of totally unknown ability (like me) could arrive on the scene, write to organizers and begin a professional racing career with just $2,000 - 3,000 to buy a pair of Manx Nortons or a 7R AJS and G50 Matchless. And if he or she had any ability, they might in a year or three be signed to one of the few factory-sponsored teams and maybe win a GP or two, or better yet, a world title.”
Away from the track, Duff brought her experience to the pages of Cycle World as a reviewer, followed by a few years running a Yamaha dealership in Brampton, Ontario. However, a downturn in overall motorcycle sales in Canada, combined with, as she told Motorcycle Mojo, her true self “really asserting herself,” led Duff to her next life transition. By 1984, she had left the two-wheeled world behind to focus on herself and truly become Michelle.
At the dawn of the 90s, Duff returned to riding after attending a motorcycle rally. Soon, she and her Yamaha FZR 600 were racking up the miles, which prepared her for a return to competition in 1998. Per Motorcycle Mojo, Arai Helmet founder Ferry Brouwer invited Duff to ride in the Centennial Classic TT in Assen, Netherlands. A year later, she wrote an autobiography about her time riding in the top-tier of motorcycle racing, titled Make Haste Slowly; the book was republished in 2011.
In the decades since she embraced her genuine self, Duff’s knocked out a few milestones on the road of life. In 1994, she was among the second-ever class of inductees entered into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame. She was also inducted in the second-ever class entered into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame, which occurred in 2007.
She also saddled up on the same Matchless G50 she rode to third place in the sole Canadian GP ever held, this time for the 50th anniversary of the event in 2017. She told Australian Motorcycle News that ride—made possible by a New York-based collector who owned the bike—was likely “[her] last hurrah on a proper racebike.”
Duff’s legacy on the track, and away from it, make our world better. May there one day be a transgender/non-binary/agender rider competing at the level Duff once did, while also not needing to worry about the bastards of life holding their genuine selves back.
Photos courtesy of Australian Motorcycle News
Cameron Aubernon is a freelance writer and automotive blogger from Virginia, not far from the biggest NASCAR tracks in the Southeast. Her work has appeared on Hagerty, Corvette Forum, Dispatches Europe, Automotive News, and MSN. She also is the founder of Aubernon Highway, where she takes new vehicles on big adventures. Perhaps, one day, a motorcycle will be among them.