Classic motorcycle racing, Italian style
Riders enter the town of Ragusa, Sicily during the 2007 Motogiro d'Italia.
First race: 1914
Number of competitors: 52
Race distance: 2,376km (1,476mi)
Latest race: 2007
Number of competitors: 187
Race distance: 1,200km (744mi)
Our Hero’s noble effort begins with the whispered dreams of far off places and mystery machines. A contest of speed and endurance, the Motogiro seems almost enshrouded from the devotees of big British twins or vintage American iron. Details of the Giro are obscure at first. It was a race in Italy. At some point it stopped, and then it was revived. It involves small bikes. Small Italian bikes. Sexy, small Italian bikes. And breathtaking scenery, riding cobblestoned roads through ancient villages and wildflower-covered countryside. The roads don’t appear to bludgeon the landscape with the air of eminent domain, but rather embellish the natural curves of hills and streams and flat valley floors.
Once discovered, Our Hero learns the Motogiro doesn’t wait for late comers. What to do? Through a connection in Italy, a cache of Giro-worthy motorcycles is sourced; chief among them is a 1957 Ducati 175 Sport. With the euro beginning to demoralize the dollar, the purchase of the Ducati is not exactly inexpensive, but assurances are given that the best possible deal was struck. The transportation of the Ducati is taken care of, and the next step is to find airfare and actually register for the Motogiro. All of which takes place on the deadline day of registration. With a few precious weeks to go, there is no turning back.
Backdrop to the Giro
The Giro’s roots stretch back to 1914, with the inaugural run of Il Giro Motociclistico d’Italia. The first race covered 1,476 miles and fielded 52 racers; 17 finished. The race continued on and off until 1931, but European politics and events surrounding World War II put an end to the race until post-war industry could get back on its feet.
In 1953 the race was reborn. Called simply the Motogiro, protagonisti raced 1,864 miles for nine days through the countryside. Organizers, motorcycle companies and racers knew that winning the Giro could create heroes out of mere motorcycle riders. For a country as poor and un-motorized as post-war Italy, the locals might as well have been watching spacemen flying rocket ships through their villages: The Giro captured the dreams and hopes of a nation.
Top class in the Giro was 175cc. This was a large step up from the 125cc road bikes that found use as workhorses in Italy. The Giro was a flat-out race from the start of each day’s leg to the finish, with checkpoints strategically located to ensure racers followed the predetermined routes. Gasoline pit stops, breakdowns, sabotage and civilian traffic were all part of the race. To win a leg of the race was an achievement: To keep momentum going for nine days with machine and rider pushed to the extreme was something much more.
The glory years of the Giro lasted only a short while. In 1957, after a tragic crash in the famed Mille Miglia car race claimed 10 lives, the Italian government issued a decree putting an end to all racing on public roads. Italy’s most popular motorcycle race ended just as it was getting started.
The Giro — revived
In 2001, Dream Engine, a Bologna-based firm, teamed with Ducati to unveil the newest edition of the Giro. Unable to open the roads to a full-tilt race, the Giro was revived as a timed road rally. Protagonisti would ride each day’s leg aimed at reaching checkpoints at prescribed times. Deviations — early or late — would accumulate penalties. Take offs, finish lines and certain checkpoints would have rider skill tests involving slow speed trials to add to the challenge. The new Giro would not only push vintage machines to new endurance heights, but also challenge riders in a stopwatch induced, strategized battle of wits. This was not going to be your average half-day ride on waxed and readied show bikes. This was the Motogiro d’Italia.
The five-day 2007 Giro (running May 20-24) began in Sciacca, Sicily. May 19 was scheduled for registration — and any late arrivals or lost luggage that might magically appear — while the cordoned off tennis court-turned-parc fermé hosted early morning tech sessions. Gli Scozzesi Volanti (The Flying Scotsmen) brought their blushing array of MV Agustas, and there was no missing the Spaniards with their flags and bull’s head, and toreador trailer. Not content to ride small displacement Italian bikes, national pride spurred them to bring a matching pair of Bultaco Tralla Super Sports. The 125cc two-strokes sounded like castigated Chihuahuas but looked every bit as beautiful and graceful as flamenco dancers. The grounds of the hotel became hot lap test beds with last minute forums for friendly advice.
Following the afternoon registration, and a bit of confusion over just where his motorcycle had been delivered, Our Hero took possession of his 1957 Ducati 175.
New for 1957, Ducati’s bold line of production motorcycles had true race lineage. Chief engineer Fabio Taglioni had designed an overhead-cam bevel-drive system for the sole purpose of winning the Motogiro in 1955, and the 1957 175 Sport was ahead of anything in its class.
Featuring a whip-free chassis and a dry weight of just over 200lb, the Sport’s 14hp four-stroke engine delivered a claimed maximum speed of 85mph. With fuel consumption close to 100mpg, the 175 Sport was the detuned, urbane, over-the-counter stepchild of the famous Marianna racer.
Our Hero’s 175 Sport appeared every bit the two-time Giro veteran it claimed to be. Nicely patina-ed, and equipped with clipons and rearsets, the Ducati looked like a contender. Of the three Italian men helping set up the bike, Signiore Palmauro took charge of the delivery inspection. Thirty minutes later, only two words had been completely understood between mechanic and new owner: bene and rapido.
On the first test ride, the 175 Sport beckoned Our Hero to lean low, cradling his arms in close to its "jelly mold" tank. Even the racer-mod bump seat was a perfect fit. The engine’s throaty exhaust has to be heard to be believed: A 175cc engine has no business producing such a contemptible tone. It was given some safety wire and paint marks during scrutineering, and was cleared to compete.
An anxious air hovers over the dining room at breakfast. For riders already in their leathers, leering over route maps, food is an afterthought. The starting gate is set at the Piazza Scandaliato under the shadow of the Church of Saint Domenic. Our Hero sets out from the hotel, following a small group of riders into the town of Sciacca. Ardor takes the better of complacency on a straight-away as he passes everyone in a quizzical display of how much power the Ducati holds in reserve. He then leads the group well past its intended turn-off, headed in the wrong direction. Coming back into town from the opposite way, the guiding arrows aren’t visible and the group passes the city center, again. Finally running into riders following the correct path, Our Hero manages his way to the start with 15 minutes to spare. It isn’t until helmets are taken off that he realizes he has led 1956 Motogiro winner Giuliano Maoggi on a wild goose chase through the outskirts of Sciacca.
Riders gather around the official time clock to synchronize their stopwatches. Most of the competitive riders keep at least two stopwatches mounted to the handlebars of their bikes. Timecards are dispersed with each rider’s start and checkpoint times. Nerves and adrenaline mix with pomp and circumstance as riders parade through the piazza.
Some of the more colorful characters wear vintage one-piece leathers with pudding basin helmets painted in red and white concentric circles — a tribute to the Ducati factory racers of the 1950s. Some riders use modern leathers with body armor. Our Hero wears vintage flat-track leather pants with the name "Larry" stitched across the backside, and a remarkably unused pair of Malcolm Smith motocross boots from the early 1970s. Due to the previous owner of his leathers, Our Hero was erroneously called "Larry" throughout the event. Yet, motorcycles seem to identify people more than names or nationalities, and Our Hero simply became "the kid on the Ducati," rather than the American with the wrong name on his pants.
Once announced at the starting grid, riders perform a skill test and are on their way. Our Hero departs Sciacca shortly after 9 a.m. on his way east toward the next checkpoint. The first portion of the ride is on a main autostrade, straight and wide open. Posted on street signs, orange "Motogiro" arrows guide protagonisti along the route. The arrows have a way of showing up just as a rider is convinced of going the wrong direction. The autostrade gives way to narrow, winding, blind-corner cutbacks, and the ballet of motorcycles begins. Momentum being the key for small-displacement bikes, no one wants to slow the group when speed is such a commodity. Especially uphill, riders keep the throttle pegged as much as possible.
Riders are warned at a pre-race meeting that Sicilian roads are slick. Add farm machinery and delivery trucks taking wide berths in the middle of blind corners, and you have riders facing precarious situations. Many riders drop their bikes in the turns, pick them up and keep riding. Some endure collisions with local traffic, and some are treated to rides in the follow truck. No one is seriously hurt, but there are quite a few bikes dropped on the first leg. Our Hero emerges unscathed.
The second leg of the Giro takes riders from Sciacca to the eastern coast of Sicily. At just over 196 miles it is the longest stretch of the week. Much of the day is spent on the autostrade with the bikes pinned at full throttle. But once a rider reaches a checkpoint, time takes a more leisurely pace.
One of the strategies of any timed rally is to arrive at your destination early. Bathroom breaks and gas stops aside, it is better to have time to burn before checking in at a checkpoint than to rush to make up that time on the road. City center piazzas are littered with leather-clad riders, grinning like children, sucking on oranges — Sicily’s famous citrus — and using their hands to help describe their latest near escape. As enthralling as any story might be, an eye is invariably kept on the clock. Bikes are readied as timecards are stamped, and riders thunder off to their next destination.
Situated on a small finger of land on the southern end of the Golfo di Catania, finish line flags fly over the Castello di Brucoli. Our Hero finishes the second day 14th in class, 16th overall. He feels almost guilty for not having to work on his bike. The Ducati has run perfectly the entire route — there has been no major loss of oil and the electrics are fine. The hotel parking lot, however, begins to fill with tired riders trading their leathers for wrenches, racing the daylight.
From rush-hour traffic in Siracusa to the Autodromo race track to the country lanes of eastern Sicily, nothing quite matches the breathtaking city of Ragusa on Sicily’s southern coast. The town has been built vertically, and the road sweeps up from a surrounding basin, almost spiraling toward the center at Piazza Repubblica. Riders with time to kill are afforded a precipice view of fellow protagonisti approaching the checkpoint.
Forty kilometers from the finish at Brucoli, Our Hero suffers a catastrophic failure. Crunching noises from the bottom end and a loss of power are enough to keep Our Hero from wasting time trying to kick start the bike back to life. He knows it is serious. His ride is done.
There is nothing to do but wait for the follow truck by the side of the road outside a town named Sortino. Fellow participant Vicki Smith suffered a similar problem with her Ducati 175 Sport on the first day. Not willing to surrender to a back seat in the tourist bus, she rented a scooter and rode the entire third leg on a commensurately sized engine. She happens upon Our Hero as his bike is being loaded into the support truck and tells him he has two options: Wait for the motion sickness to grip him in the back of the bus or hop on the back of her scooter for the push into Brucoli. And so it is that Vicki Smith and Our Hero ride tandem to the finish line at Piazza Castello in Brucoli, both in full riding gear.
Surrendering his respectable points standing, Our Hero’s dejected spirits are amplified that night at dinner when awards are handed out to people whose bikes still run. The tricolore jersey is presented to the overall leader, Gianni Mostosi, who is given a standing ovation for his peerless effort piloting a 1952 Moto Guzzi Motolegerra through the first three legs of the Giro. Gianni rides this Giro’s smallest displacement motorcycle. His two-stroke 65cc Motolegerra produces 2hp and a claimed top speed of 30mph. Every day he starts first and finishes last, but along the way he gains the respect of everyone involved.
The schedule for the fourth day of riding takes the protagonisti up Europe’s tallest volcano, Mt. Etna. Greek for "I burn," Etna is the world’s most active volcano and made headlines just weeks earlier with an eruption. The road ascends only one side of the elevation, and it is thankfully lava-free. From the small town of Pedara, the road evolves into high-speed switchbacks of perfect radiuses. The air grows colder as the riders climb past the timberline and the terrain transforms into a bizarre black lunar landscape. The majestic view from the road’s summit covers most of the eastern coast of Sicily.
Our Hero spends the day poolside with the local girls, doing his best to construct pickup lines from phrase-book Italian.
Day Five: The end
The tone is quiet and subdued at the start of the last leg in Brucoli. The protagonisti are well aware this will be their final day of the Motogiro. Gianni Mostosi wears a montera attached to the top of his helmet. Traditionally worn by matadors, it might well signify his will to persevere, or perhaps the hat is a tribute to the paella and sangria fiesta thrown by the Spaniards the night before.
Long and straight, the last day runs west to Caltigirone, then south to Gela. Riders then hug the southern coast all the way back to Sciacca.
The first group of riders to finish includes the tricolore jersey-wearer, accompanied by 1956 winner Giuliano Maoggi and 1957 winner Remo Venturi. The riders have one final, very simple skill test; not touching their feet to the ground before handing in their time cards. Documentary crews take interviews and each rider is announced crossing the finish, with photo opportunities and cheers from fellow protagonisti. Congratulations are offered as hugs and handshakes fill the tiny square. No one wants to leave.
A score of Italians take home the hardware, including 2007 Motogiro overall winner Marco Tomassini on his 1955 Gilera 150 Super Sport. A notable exception is Penny Rye from Australia, winning the final leg of the Giro. The first woman ever to win a leg, and only the second non-Italian to do so, Penny rides a Ducati 175 TS.
It’s hard to imagine anyone taking the Motogiro more seriously than the Italians. The event itself is so sublime and uniquely foreign, that beleaguering oneself with tenths of seconds and stopwatch calibrations seems almost too much. Nowhere else can you drink the kind of coffee, eat the type of food and see — let alone ride amongst — such rare vintage motorcycles all in one place.
Erwin Vanden Broecke, who hails from Belgium and was riding a 1953 Parilla 175 Sport, may have said it best when he noted, "The important thing is to ride the Giro. You cannot beat the Italians. So you just ride the Giro."
Motogiro InformationThe Motogiro d’Italia is open to all motorcycles authorized for road use. There are three classes:
Vintage Racing Class
With a limit of 120 participants, this class features bikes of up to 175cc manufactured prior to 1957. Competitors are subject to timed, competitive ability tests en route.
Taglioni Memorial Class
Open to street-legal bikes of all makes, 350cc or higher, produced between 1968 and 1978. Competitors in this class take part in ability trials.
Open to riders of newer bikes wanting to participate on a more relaxed, non-competitive basis. Competitors in this class do not take part in ability trials.