A typical motorcycle tour goes from A to B, and in between is the territory you cover, whizzing past you then quickly receding in your rearview mirror. It’s a familiar recipe, but it doesn’t leave much opportunity to be a tourist, to really get familiar with an area, which is exactly why Eligio Arturi put together the Benelli Vintage Tour.
A native Italian, Arturi ran sailing trips in the Mediterranean and Land Rover expeditions across North Africa before BMW hired him to lead adventure motorcycle tours in the early 1990s. The BMW linkup inspired Arturi, an avid motorcyclist, to focus on motorcycle tours, and since forming MotoTouring in 1994 he’s led rides across South Africa, Morocco, New Zealand, South America, Japan, Singapore and more.
A vintage bike fan, Arturi decided to tailor a tour of Italy for the vintage crowd, combining classic Italian bikes with classic Italian countryside. For bikes, he turned to the Registro Storico Benelli, literally “Register Historical Benelli.” It’s the official Benelli club, located in the sole surviving workshop of the original Benelli factory in Pesaro, Italy. Club members agreed to provide machines, and in 2013 Arturi held the first Benelli Vintage Tour.
That first tour’s success prompted a second, and when former Lotus Tours operator Burt Richmond got involved he convinced me — and by extension another 14 enthusiasts and Motorcycle Classics readers — to fly to Italy to ride vintage Benellis.
An afternoon arrival found our group getting settled into our home for the next 10 days, the Alexander Museum Palace Hotel, a quirky art-themed hotel in Pesaro’s resort district on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. The evening was spent at the Benelli club meeting our guides and getting acquainted with our bikes, which ranged from a Sixties Benelli 250 Sport Special single to a pair of Seventies 6-cylinder 750 Sei’s. In between was a smorgasbord of vintage Benellis, including mid-‘70s 500cc Quattros and 250cc 2-stroke twins, a 1971 650 Tornado twin, plus an early ‘80s 354 (350cc, 4-cylinders) and 654 (same logic). Also available were a late model Ducati ST2 and a 1957 Ducati 250 single.
Most in our group were lifelong riders, like 53-year-old Portland, Washington, fire fighter Tim O’Mahony, a regular in the West Coast CB160 race scene who has ridden since he was a kid, and 60-year-old Chicago-based business man Sam Oliva, a street rider since 16. Riders were assigned bikes based on preference, which is how I ended up with a lovely 1975 500cc Quattro, mechanically an almost perfect clone of a Honda 500cc four. With Quattros rare as the proverbial Hen’s teeth in the U.S., what better opportunity? Besides, swapping bikes during the ride was encouraged, so I was sure to get some saddle time on a big Sei. After meeting our bikes’ owners and receiving a full rundown on our machines we headed back to the hotel, psyched for the next day out on the road.
The first thing we discover is that riding in Italy is not like riding in the U.S. For starters, Italian drivers aren’t scared of motorcycles. Motorcycles and scooters are the norm, so drivers just expect you to be there — unlike in the U.S., where drivers seem dangerously unaware of motorcycles. It’s a little terrifying at first, because you’re not sure what to trust; your instincts or the body language of the cars around you. After a bit, a basic rule comes into focus: If there is a void in traffic, it will be filled — either by you or the driver next to you, but it will be filled. That means when there’s a break in traffic and you take it, nobody’s surprised. Nobody flips you the bird. Nobody acts like you came out of nowhere. You filled the void.
It takes a bit to learn this, however, and as our group heads out for our first full day we’re all leerily watching traffic. Our Benelli club guides leapfrog our group as we work our way through the dense traffic of Pesaro into the open countryside, jumping up front to stop traffic when we go through the ubiquitous Italian roundabout then dropping back to cover our rear. Amazingly, most drivers obey our guides when they pull into the middle of an intersection to stop traffic, their bright orange vests lending them apparent authority.
Our first stop is the ancient walled town of Urbino and the incredible Palazzo Ducale, a 15th century palace fortress and site of the Urbino Cathedral. We’ve only had to ride some 40 miles to get here, but it’s been the perfect introduction to our old Benellis and riding the back roads of Italy. While most of our group own and ride vintage machines, it takes saddle time to learn the idiosyncrasies of a “new” bike. A few riders are having trouble adjusting and a few bikes are balky, but my Quattro is excellent: It really is an Italian Honda CB500, right down to the engine sound and power curve, requiring lots of rpms to get things moving.
More twisting roads take us to nearby Urbania where we visit the Church of the Dead, a macabre display of 18 mummies, disinterred from village burial spots following an 1804 edict that moved all cemeteries out of towns. After a group photo in the center of Urbania we ride 60-plus miles of picture-perfect two-lane roads to Mombaroccio and the Museum of Rural Civilization, housed mostly beneath the Church of San Marco.
The next few days blur together. The days are long — we leave at 8 a.m. and don’t return until 7 p.m. — but incredible. The central Marche region of Italy is astoundingly beautiful, a rich tapestry of farmland and ancient villages, with cobblestone streets guiding us through each small town we ride through. One of our riders hits the pavement when he locks the front wheel on a slow, tight turn, but thankfully the damage to rider and machine is slight and he catches up with us later. Some of the bikes in our group are acting up, which is not especially surprising given their age, but my Quattro continues to perform perfectly.
We visit the incredible Basilica della Santa Casa, a 16th century cathedral in the hilltop town of Loreto, plus make an unexpected stop at the Bimota factory in Rimini. The piazza and basilica in Loreto are spectacular, but the Bimota factory draws our group like flies to honey. Our guide, Maria, lets anyone who wants to sit on a new Tesi, and then fires it up — inside — so we can hear its beautiful exhaust note. Nobody is more excited than Bimota DB4ie owner Marc Rosenfeld, who suggested the visit; he returned to the factory later for a test ride and is now awaiting delivery of a DB6 Delirio.
From Rimini we head toward San Marino, a spectacular hilltop fortress city that claims to be the world’s oldest sovereign state and constitutional republic. The ride is fantastic, a weaving, power-on romp up San Marino’s steep slope, and the views at the top are incredible. San Marino is a huge tourist trap, but that doesn’t matter to us because there are good restaurants and the views are glorious, making it a perfect lunch stop.
Twenty miles later, we trade the crowded streets of San Marino for the monastic quiet of San Leo. There are few tourists, and we tour the 12th century St. Leo’s Cathedral, with the fortress of San Leo looking down on us from high above. It feels like walking back in time, and it’s the most beautiful town we’ve seen.
The day’s demanding schedule sees some of our group opt for a shorter ride back to Pesaro. The rest of us take a more circuitous route, and it’s one of the best rides of the week. Our smaller group turns the wick up a bit and we fall into a faster pace, swinging through turns with something approaching mild abandon. It’s exhilarating, and at the bottom of a particularly amazing section of switchbacks we stop to revel in the ride. “I had not experienced that kind of riding freedom on the street since I was 20,” Tim O’Mahony says later, “and for 30 minutes or so in the hills around Pesaro, I was 20 again.”
Trial and error
We’re all starting to feel more comfortable on our bikes, and with Italian culture. Italians in this part of the country don’t seem particularly interested in learning English, but communicating our rudimentary needs — food, water and gas — isn’t difficult and our Italian hosts seem gratified by even our poor attempts at the language.
We visit Gradara and its famous 12th century fortress before a leisurely run to Tavullia to have lunch at Italian GP hero Valentino Rossi’s restaurant, riding past his private test track on the way. It’s Mecca for Rossi fans, and the cappuccino is served with Rossi’s famed number 46 spelled out in chocolate. Italians love their GP heroes, as a visit to the Simoncelli Museum, a shrine to rising MotoGP star Marco Simoncelli, killed racing in 2011, shows.
Back in Pesaro we find ourselves on hallowed ground of another type; the Morbidelli Museum and the 350-plus vintage motorcycles collected by former GP motorcycle builder Giancarlo Morbidelli. Rare Italian road and race bikes of the ‘50s and ‘60s are particularly well represented, and there’s a special display of Morbidelli-built machines. It’s an astonishing collection, and Marc and I stretch the visit as long as we can as the others start suiting up to leave. Mr. Morbidelli can tell we’re not ready to leave, and through his interpreter he asks if we’d like to see his V12 prototype? Oh. My. God. Yes. A small back stairway takes us to an upper workshop, and there on a stainless steel workbench sits Morbidelli’s likely last great effort, a jewel-like V12. Displacement is probably around 1,000cc, and the engine, bolted to a Honda 6-speed transmission, looks almost ready to run. It is mechanical art at its highest level, and we can only hope it comes to fruition.
The next day we head toward the Appennino range and 5,003-foot Monte Nerone. The ride up is magnificent, the road’s serpentine path unraveling in full view going up or down the mountain. It’s cold and wet at the top, so we turn around and head back. The weather has been threatening, and we start for Pesaro in hopes we can outrun an approaching storm. It’s been another idyllic day, but reality catches up with us when one of our group goes down on a decreasing radius switchback. It’s a low-speed crash and the bike looks barely damaged. Unfortunately, the rider doesn’t get off as easily and a trip to the hospital shows broken ribs, a broken collar bone and a punctured lung.
The crash and developing storm has us all moving slower and more carefully. We get a brief respite riding through a multi-mile tunnel — before shooting out into one of the worst downpours I’ve ever ridden through. Our group soldiers on for another 10 miles or so before pulling into a roadside gas station, where we get some relief from the rain. I’m finally on a 750 Sei and it’s been glorious, but the torrents of water catch up and my electrics go dead. The rest of our group is doing okay, so I hitch a ride on the back of guide Mario’s spectacular Benelli 900 Sei, one of the last of the sixes out of Pesaro. Mario’s incredible riding style has earned him the nickname “Super Mario,” and while I normally don’t like riding passenger, I’m thrilled for the opportunity. My water-logged 750 gets picked up later, no worse for the wear.
Continuing rain pushes us into full tourist mode, with a bus ride to the famous Frasassi grotto. Only 8 miles of the believed 22-mile labyrinth of caves have been explored, including one with a ceiling some 600 feet high and the most amazing stalagmites and stalactites any of us had ever seen. We make a quick call on the TM dirt bike factory, then meet up with two-time 50cc former world champion Eugenio Lazzarini at his Pesaro motorcycle dealership for a personal tour of his collection, which includes winning bikes from his Seventies heyday. Our final stop is the Battisti Benelli collection, where our hosts start up one of 1971 GP winner Jarno Saarinen’s 4-cylinder Benelli race bikes. The sound is ear-splitting but glorious, and when the engine shuts off our group erupts into cheers and clapping.
The last official night of the tour is spent back at the Benelli club, where we’re treated to a fabulous banquet. Lazzarini is there, as are other famous ex-racers, and the club pulls out the stops in our honor. It’s humbling, and thanking our hosts we’re sad to know our riding adventure is over.
Some of us had decided to extend our stay, and the next day we attend the annual mostra scambio (swap meet) at the famed Imola race track. It’s the largest, most amazing swap meet any of us have ever seen, with vendors selling vintage bikes and parts lined on both sides of the entire 3-mile circuit. One of our group can’t resist the temptations and leaves lighter in cash but richer in machine, buying a stunning 1954 Motobi Spring Lasting, a lovely little 200cc 2-stroke twin.
The next day we head to the Misano race track for the San Marino GP, where we watch Valentino Rossi take his first win of the season. It’s an incredible race and the crowd goes absolutely wild. Leaving, we’re surprised there are no police directing traffic, yet everyone takes their place and keeps moving. Only in Italy.
Sharing a final dinner in Milan with some of our group, we marvel at what we’ve seen and done. We’ve become friends thanks to the tour, and none of us could have anticipated how memorable the trip would be. Discussing where we’d like to go next, talk turns to the Isle of Man Classic TT, an event that’s on every rider’s bucket list. Maybe in 2016? Stay tuned. MC