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King of the road--and the garage

If the motorcycle gods in their infinite wisdom were limited to selecting one last person for sainthood based upon his or her loyalty to the biker life it might be an affable, gray-bearded sixty-four year-old veteran mechanic named Bill Gifford.

They would find him in a dingy, grimy two-bay garage on Church St. in Whitinsville, a place he describes as “a walk back in time.” He would be almost indistinguishable in his blue jeans and black shirt from much of the paraphernalia that constitutes the atmosphere of the place: oil drums, tool chests, a Citgo sign (a replica of the one that hovers in clear view near Fenway Park), tires, motorcycle-inspection equipment, a street sign tellingly bearing the name “Gifford Ave.” and still another sign which signifies the existence of the Mass. Pike with an arrow pointing to who knows where.

The latter item is most appropriate, since Mr. Gifford logs up to 15,000 miles a year with trips accompanied by cronies to such far-flung destinations as the Blue Ridge Mountains, Nova Scotia/Cape Breton and—before 2015 is out—Nashville.

The motorcycle gods would be impressed with his knowledge of his craft, which equals and no doubt exceeds even that of Robert M. Pirsig of the enormously popular, philosophical “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”—a book Mr. Gifford is familiar with (it advocates do-ityourself upkeep and repairs amid an ongoing individualistic search for “Quality”).
They would like the fact that he is safety-conscious. Discussing the attention he pays to keeping himself free of busted bones or worse, he says “people are pre-occupied today. I think some people have forgotten what a stop line is. It’s maddening.” Once, he relates, “my wife Denise and I totaled a motorcycle” when a motorist abruptly and inappropriately made a left turn in front of them (he describes Denise, who still bears remnants of the injury she suffered, as “one of the best kitchen designers around”). So experience has taught him to be ever-attentive to the many hazards of the highway, like the time he encountered a black bear in New Hampshire. “It tripped over the guardrails and stumbled across the road. What a sight!”

The motorcycle gods would be further swayed in making their determination—as Mr. Gifford’s customers are—by his cordiality; as for instance when he remarks by way of endorsing a relatively new restaurant in the neighborhood “have you eaten at Kyoto’s yet? Delicious!”

It would come as no surprise to anyone who has patronized Mr. Gifford’s shop that he issues inspection stickers for and maintains hundreds of motorcycles each year. Mostly Japanese bikes; since, he notes, “there are Harley shops everywhere.”

“I’m as busy as I want to be,” he says of the demand for his services. “If it was twenty years ago with kids I’d be a lot hungrier than I am now.” He has been on-site at Trinity Auto, which is owned by prominent Whitinsville businessman Kenneth R. Couture, since the early 2000s after previously operating a car lot “up the street in the old George Ebbeling building, me on one side of the street and Paul Hendricks on the other. I serviced cars here and one thing led to another.”

Enthusiasm for motorcycling—the pastime’s heyday—may never “go back to what it was the 70s,” he says. “From the early 2000s to about 2009 there was a big uptick in cruiser bikes.
Harleys! In the late 2000s I ran out of inspection stickers.” A lot of these riders, he says, “are aging” now. “There’s a lot of gray hairs. But what’s great is a lot of women are riding.”
Mr. Gifford has owned his share of motorcycles over the years. His pride and joy at the moment are a Yamaha FJR sport touring bike and an antique Honda Gold Wing.
He got into motorcycling young and has not regretted it for a minute.

“I bought my first bike at the age of sixteen, a 650 Triumph,” he says. “My mom was away. It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission!”

Rod Lee is a longtime observer of the Blackstone Valley scene and current president of the Webster Square Business Association in Worcester. Email him at [email protected].