I just returned from the Vintage Benelli Tour in Italy, an amazing week of discovery, riding, predictably enough, vintage Benellis through the Italian countryside. The central Italian region of Marche where we spent most of our time is storybook beautiful, a landscape punctuated by hills, seemingly every one of them capped by a 12th century church or fortress town surrounded by a patchwork of fields and forests.
The roads were equally beautiful, winding two-lane ribbons threading their way through acres of olive groves and — surprising to me — more fields of sunflowers than I’m used to seeing here at home in Kansas, The Sunflower State. The Adriatic Sea defines the eastern edge of the region, with the central Appennine Mountains running a ragged line along Marche’s western border. In between is motorcycling heaven, and not just because of the scenery.
While the scenery is certainly breathtaking, what struck me immediately was the Italian two-wheeled culture, which couldn’t be more different than what we’re used to here. Where motorcyclists are a minority in the U.S., in Italy they’re everywhere. Two-wheelers, both scooters and motorcycles, are key players in the Italian transportation scheme, and the result is Italian drivers not only expect you to be on the road, they look for you. California is the only state in the U.S. that allows lane-splitting, and even there drivers of the four-wheeled variety routinely shift left or right in a blocking maneuver apparently designed to let motorcyclists know they’re not getting any special treatment. Across the U.S., I’ve had drivers erratically alter their course to keep me from passing them, apparently for no other reason than they didn’t think I deserved to. In Italy, they move over so you can get through safely.
In traffic, passing on the center line is the norm. It’s expected that you’re keeping an eye out for what’s coming at you and that you’ll act accordingly, and drivers just move over and let you by. Out in the country it’s the same thing, and even the Polizei wave you by if it’s obvious you’re making better time than they can.
It’s incredible, and incredibly refreshing, and it makes me wonder why, as a culture, we seem so dead set against motorcyclists? The portrayal that 1950s America watched in The Wild One certainly didn’t help. With one broad brush the movie successfully painted motorcyclists as a disrespectable mob of incoherent and rowdy outcasts. The outlaw biker became the standard bearer of two-wheel culture, and even Honda’s “You Meet the Nicest People” push-back couldn’t erase the image of bikers as bad boys.
In Italy, they’re not bad boys. In fact, most of them aren’t even boys. In Pesaro, where we were based, I saw more women on scooters than men, and to my greater surprise they didn’t seem particularly concerned — at least in town — about gearing up for the ride. I’m hesitant to ride anywhere without proper gear, but in Italy young women appear to be perfectly comfortable riding in short dresses and office shoes, a handbag thrown casually over their shoulder. From what I could see it changes as you get out on the road and onto bigger bikes; suddenly, everyone’s wearing full armor.
The ripple of this appears to be that since everyone rides, or knows someone or has a family member who rides, motorcycles and scooters don’t represent risk. They’re not anti-social tools designed to prove your independence from the pack. They’re machines made to get you from A to B, with a bit of flair and fun along the way. It’s a breath-taking contrast to riding in the U.S., and I can’t wait for our next tour. — Richard Backus