Stranger in a Two-Wheeled Land

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I latch onto rider #23 Remo Venturi like a drowning man and get a crash course in Italian traffic etiquette

The most famous words in motor racing are not, “Gentlemen, start your engines”, as the Indy 500 claims. I suggest they are instead: “He had me on power, but I was all over him in the corners.”

Nowhere is this truer than in the Motogiro d’Italia, the 1,250-kilometer, five-day motorcycle race that swarms around Italy’s byroads each May. It was revived in 2001 after a 43-year hiatus.

The 2006 race begins and ends in Rimini, filmmaker Fellini’s sun-baked hometown on the Adriatic, looping through Ancona and Ascoli Piceno. It’s organized by promoter Dream Engine, with the hefty backing of Ducati, whose first major victory came in the 1956 Motogiro. Giuliano Maoggi won that event and competes again this year at age 80. He’s still fast, though in person mellowed from his unforgettable 1956 race-face photo. Other Motogiro champions on the grid include Emilio Mendogni (1955) and Remo Venturi (1957) in 50-year-old leathers.

Chris Bushell is the U.K. agent for the event and says that while European and American entries continue to increase, young Italians are harder to convince. Not that there’s much need – the original Motogiro veterans have it covered.

Decisive points are scored in 15 timed tests and occasional arrows mark open-road transits. The event dates back to 1914, but its golden age was 1953-57, when 50 marques competed over a 3,000-kilometer course.

The race is divided into three classes. The Vintage Class attracts 112 entries from 75 cc-175 cc, all made before 1957. The Taglioni Class (named for Ducati’s Desmo designer) draws 61 bikes from 1968-78, while 44 modern bikes and 39 passengers make up the non-competitive Touring Class. Eighteen journalists buzz the event like flies.

Entries come from 13 countries (60 from Italy, 65 from the U.K., 38 from the U.S.), but bikes are predominantly Italian: Ducati, Bianchi, Moto Morini, Gilera, Benelli, Mondial, Montesa, MV Agusta-as in the old days. Crash-prone Touring Class riders find big bikes a handful in tight corners.

Three hazards can end your race: diminishing-radius turns (with gravel); locals shooting out of side streets; and-most dangerous-drivers braking while you gaze at fashion fatales. Tanned, blond girls stride by like cats, wearing skirts that look like four-inch belts.

My first day racing Bushell’s noisy #15 1958 Ducati 125 is memorable. First, I need a jump-start, then I must remember right-side shifting. Riders start one every 30 seconds, but #16 Luciano Allessandrin (behind me) takes off four places early. He seems to think official time is wrong and he appears to be correct, as he finishes second that day.

I realize all the preparation in the world can’t win this race. Lady Luck has the dice. In later conversations, veterans gleefully share tales of ambitious competitors, with lead riders to clear the way and all sorts of electronic gadgets, who still fail.

I fail early. Hot and sweaty, I’m lost five minutes into Rimini’s rush hour. I latch onto #23 Remo Venturi like a drowning man and get a crash course in Italian traffic etiquette (left side, right side, down the middle; what red light?). We make it to the hills and Venturi vanishes.

Other riders pass me. I catch a few, and we weave through hill towns and crawl up the pinnacle of San Marino. Inside the fortress gate, American Hugh Schink stares at the wreck of his Motobi. The local postmistress turned into him. Rather than confiscating his bike and throwing him in the pokey, as might happen in the U.S., the local police pitch in and get his bike fixed overnight.

I fall into the rhythm of the road, brushing hedgerows of poppies, lupins, and buttercups. The bike is steady with good brakes; I can do about 70 downhill, but uphills are second-gear affairs with the engine wailing at 7,500 rpm.

Rural roads are swoopingly empty; friendly police with red lollipops wave us through tiny towns. On the other hand, city traffic is crazy and we all get lost entering the seaport of Ancona, arriving at one intersection from all four directions. Italian cities demand the brio of a New York cabbie. Remember, you deserve the right of way; Italy is all about giving respect to he who dares be boldest. We scatter to different hotels and long muddly-lingual dinners.

By the third day I have learned to count time in my head in special sections in cobbled town squares (19.5 seconds to travel 27.6 meters round 8 cones, etc.). I’ve learned to eat a good breakfast and do without lunch. We head into snow-capped mountains up a goat track so steep I don’t know how the workers paved it, then blast through alpine meadows before entering a lethally black, curved, one-mile tunnel. As my number plate covers my headlight (smart planning), I follow #10 Ian Cockshull’s 1949 Gilera-the oldest bike in the race-very closely indeed.

By now, what doesn’t hurt is numb, meaning that wives can safely let rambling husbands take this trip. I try to ride with #14 American Rich Lambrechts, but he breaks down on Day 2 and Day 3. My ignition key breaks and I bungee it in place, then my speedo quits.

Near the end of Day 3, I am passed in Teramo by Giuliano Maoggi and Massimo D’Alessio but stay with them for a 20-mile lesson in race lines that’s worth the whole trip.

About the time I’m missing lunch on Day 4 near Petritoli, my bike quits. Bushell arrives and hopes it’s a condenser. It isn’t. Pirro the race mechanic shakes his head. I hitch a ride in the crash truck with two mechanics who don’t speak English, but like playing really bad disco on the radio. So that’s it. I’m done. DNF. Waiting for the bus in the town square at Mogliano, I feel left out. An imposter, another journalist covering the race instead of competing.

But a surprise awaits at Ancona. Bushell is delighted. “It’s fixed. A valve locknut worked loose. You’re back in the race.”

By now the camaraderie is overcoming language barriers and Briton Mike Dunlop explains a lengthy “conversation” with someone who knew no words of English, or he of Italian.

The language barrier has a final test after the triumphal return to Rimini (far fewer in numbers, it seems). The closing banquet is spectacular but the emcee is Italian comic Paoli Cevoli, who entertains the half of the crowd who can understand him. Meanwhile a lively female police officer “arrests” willing guests outside and gives rides in the police chief’s Lamborghini Gallardo. Lengthy Italian awards seem to translate to few words in English and the celebration winds up about 1:15 a.m.

Overall winner in the Vintage Class is Angelo Spinelli, on a Gilera Sport 175, who looks old enough to be my grandfather. Harrumph. He’s followed by Tullio Masserino on another Gilera and Georgio Cereda on a Ducati 175. The Taglioni Class is won by Dutchman Math Koevet on a BMW R90, followed by Tiziano Bernadoni on a 350 Morini and Enrico Piatto on an Aermacchi 250.

So where did I finish? I didn’t look at the score until the end, in case I was a) doing well or b) doing badly. Ultimately I was 62nd of 112 riders in the Vintage Class. I collected the maximum 60 points for my breakdown, but so did 59 other riders. So I was actually ninth in this sweaty underclass, though I’m not sure how to make it sound good. The numbers tell the story, anyway. Spinelli: 2.62 penalty points. Duchene: 105.36.

If you’re reading this anywhere but Italy, be aware that this race is not cheap, when you add airfare to the $1,500 cost of shipping a bike from the U.S. and the €960 ($1,220) race entry fee, which does include food and lodging. If you can find a bike to buy or rent in England, Chris Bushell, bushell@aol.com, can ship it to the start and back for about $450. Or you can keep a bike in Italy. Race winner Angelo Spinelli collected a new Ducati Sport 1000, which one might trade on a future race bike-The 2007 Motogiro will be in Sicily. See www.motogiroditalia.com for details. Come on-how many more summers have you got?

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