Though I started this record last week as a daily account, I immediately found it impossible to continue in the same manner, once the competition started. The reason for this is that there is simply too much splendor each day to describe and too little time left after riding, eating and sleeping. The roads, the motorcycles, the people, the towns and the piazzas are overwhelmingly glorious and recurring.
I will try in vain to do some justice to all that has happened in the past few days. Yet, no matter how well I execute, I am confident it will not be enough to properly depict the spectacle I have experienced. It was a profoundly joyous adventure and some things are just too transcendent for words to do justice to. If I could commission professionals to do this missive for me I would choose Margaret Mitchell, Earnest Hemmingway and Hunter S. Thomson to conspire on the narrative. Unfortunately, they’re all dead. Yet even such a literary triumvirate might have a difficult time depicting the romance, beauty, adventure, madness and scope of the Motogiro d’Italia.
Lorraine and I were equipped with a yellow 2001 Ducati ST4. It had about fifteen thousand kilometers on it when we picked it up. After a bit of inspection, suspension tuning, tire pressure check and chain lube, it was ready for action. Some of the Ducati-provided rentals suffered from a disgraceful lack of maintenance and setup. Ours was not too bad, but some were really dodgy. It seems that the shiny newer bikes I’d seen back in Bologna were long gone by the time it came to this group of machines which were delivered for pickup in Rimini. Nevertheless, this would be an exciting mount for me, as I had never clocked any substantive miles on a modern motorcycle. I was looking forward to experiencing a contemporary dose of horsepower.
We were assigned to the yellow Tourist Class riding group. Each group was identified by a color and the appropriate color sticker was placed on the front of your bike to indicate which group you were assigned to. Our group was comprised of participants from the USA, with one exception, and all but one of us rode various models of rented Ducatis. The ST4 was predominant. We had a police escort and two Motogiro staff riders who accompanied us the entire event. With few exceptions, they would be in attendance every kilometer, every meal, and every hotel.
Each of the five legs would begin in the overnight city’s piazza, where the Motogiro and Dream Engine staff would set up the inflatable archways and prepare for the departure timing of the Vintage and Taglioni class competitors. This provided an exquisite opportunity to see the scale of the event and to snap photos. The townspeople would always turn out to witness the spectacle as well. Among the riders, staff and locals, there was guaranteed to be a crowd of several hundred each morning and evening.
I had falsely presumed only one stop per day for the Tourist class. This was just one of several inaccuracies in my understanding of how things would be. Each day there were four to five official stops and almost every one of them was in a picturesque town with more charm than Cary Grant. Local citizens, happy to be part of the festivities, hosted each stop. Food and drink was always provided. Sandwiches, salamis, bruschetta, cheese, pastries, pasta, bottled water, soda and wine were typical. One of my favorite stops was in the town of Mogliano, where the local motorcycle club, Motoclub 46, was the host. They had hung big yellow club banners from everywhere and they’d prepared fresh pasta, sheltered tables, sandwiches and an immense portion of friendliness. It may also have been the most photogenic of the small mountain villages we entered. I have to mention that one stop was a wine tasting spread at the facilities of Umani Ronchi, one of the Motogiro sponsors. Can you imagine that back in the United States? Besides the wine, they served stuffed pork tenderloin and a special regional variety of soft salami. A Motogiro rider may get saddle-sore or overcome with fatigue, but will never go hungry or be thirsty.
This brings me to misconception number two. The riding is not easy. After discovering that the average daily distance was a mere 150 miles, I thought that this was going to be a cakewalk. I can hear Master Po now, “Grasshopper, the difficulty lies in the road ahead, not the distance traveled”. Even when I chose to lay back in the pack and take a slower pace, the roads insist you spend your energy and expertise to safely navigate them. Of the eighteen or so riders that started with our group, three had get-offs and one retired after the first day due to the daunting nature of the ride.
This year’s route was not for the unseasoned rider. You didn’t necessarily need to be fast, but you did need to be experienced. I’ll get back to that fast attribute later because it does have its place. I can’t say how typical this year’s Giro was, or was not, but a large percentage of the roads were 1st and 2nd gear work. According to one of our group’s GPS readings, on day three our average speed was just under forty miles an hour. That reading factors only the amount of time you are actually moving and is not diluted by the time spent at stops. Loads and loads of switchbacks and hairpin turns contribute to the low overall speed. It seems you just can’t get up to the mountains in Italy without paying some dues on sharply winding, narrow roads. The capper was the aforementioned third leg, which was filled with steep, badly potholed roads and lots of surface gravel. This third leg was the most paradoxical. The poor roads made looking ahead almost impossible and the riding laborious. The payoff was at the summit where we found the most splendid mountain scenery of the event.
My next misconception was my false impression that the police escort would only lead the groups out of the originating cities each morning, then travel ahead via a direct route to the destination, where they would be waiting outside of town to escort the group at the end of the day’s ride. As previously mentioned, they were with us every kilometer of the way and this turned out to be a marvelous thing.
In conversation with our police escort, we found that to become a police motorcyclist of his type, you must first study as an apprentice rider for five years, then work in the motorcycle motor pool for four years. If you are good enough after all of this, you have to be sponsored by an incumbent officer for promotion to the riding staff. Our police escort was a big man with a clean-shaven, round and friendly face. He rode with homicidal speed on a BMW R1150 RTP. His name was Marco and it took him very little time to earn our respect and admiration. I have to think being assigned to the Motogiro must be pretty good duty for these officers and vice versa.
I was told that the Motogiro staff guides are often Ducati factory test riders who have been commissioned by the organizers to act as group leaders and guides. However, I believe our guides were riding instructers from the Italian motorcycle school of Curve & Tornanti. Their names were Carlo and Leo. They looked to be about thirty and forty years old, respectively. Carlo would take the lead and Leo would ride clean up, in the back. I did not have much opportunity to gauge Leo’s acumen but I suspect he could ride circles around me, if he was anything as skilled as Marco and Carlo. These men can only be described as fabulous riders.
Now to the type of riding that was to be had. Picture a Presidential motorcade on Italian sport bikes, going at least twice the speed limit everywhere it went, all day, for five straight days and you will begin to get a feel for what the so-called “Tourist” class was all about. To put it succinctly, we rode like stink. And all of it with the good graces of our police escort who was leading the charge. Marco would blast ahead of our pack, to block traffic, wave trucks to the side of the road or clear intersections. All so that we could ride with impunity, in complete contempt for all speed limits, traffic signs, lane dividers and other motorists. This was absolute motorcycling fantasy of the highest order. It was impossible not to get caught up in the speed of the pace from time to time, no matter how I tried to stay conservative. Pausing a few minutes on the side of the road to take pictures, or just admire the scenery and wait for vintage riders to roll down the road would allow me to disengage from the pace, but as soon as I was back in the saddle I would find myself flogging the motor, attacking the road and gleefully playing catch up. Without having to worry about any riders immediately in front of me, these were some good sprints.
The Ducati made the most delicious sound above seven thousand RPM and it just kept pulling to ten thousand. I suspect this Euro version may have been more freely aspirated than the California exported models back home and its roar was addictive. I found I could slide the rear wheel by being too aggressive with the throttle when exiting the apex and the front wheel would lift slightly if I took too much throttle all at once, when passing traffic. These discoveries both frightened and delighted me. I suspect better tires would help the rear wheel grip, but in any case, this machine had great gobs more giddy-up than anything I own, including my ‘77 SS. Mind you Lorraine was not on the back during, and thus spared, most of these exuberant moments. On one of the legs she followed the course in the retired rider’s bus, which picks up participants whose machines have quit, so for that day I was riding solo.
At the end of each day’s leg we would make our way to the provided hotel, where we had barely enough time to shower and change for the 8:30 PM dinner. The hotels were a pleasant revelation. One of them was even a sprawling luxury spa, where I expected at any minute to see Robin Leach fawning over his microphone. The least impressive was the hotel in Ancona, yet it still provided a nice view of the Adriatic, recently renovated rooms and perhaps our best meal of the three hotels that were booked on the race. We dined on perfectly done seafood risotto, spaghetti with mussels and a third course of grilled calamari. There was wine, bottled water, bread, salad, coffee and desert as well. Hotels alone are hardly the reason for attending such an event but their surprising quality added pleasing punctuation to the end of each day’s ride. If I had any energy left after dinner, I would make my way to the parking lot where all the other classic motorcycle fiends were doing what we love to do – look at old motorcycles and talk with others who share your affliction. There were so many fine bikes there that it was impossible to absorb them all, but you do what you can.
On the fifth and last leg of the Giro, a seemingly spontaneous gathering occurred at the final stop before the finish line in Rimini. My best guess is at least one hundred and seventy bikes from all the classes were congregated there. The next thing you know the police escorts were coordinating a mass ride to the finish. With the police sirens blaring their high-low pitched tune and the exhaust notes of a hundred classic bikes chiming in, we traveled the final 18 kilometers like a swarm of locusts and took the city of Rimini by storm. It was quite an exhibition as we made our way to the seaside and it all happened in the middle of rush hour. As usual, all traffic was pushed aside by our police escorts and we ran every light, every stop sign, rode on the wrong side of the road and honked our horns like drunken New York City cab drivers, until we arrived at the finish line. It all ended with as much excitement as it had begun.
I had the time of my life.