Motogiro D’Italia Road Rally [Motorcycle Event in Italy]

Motogiro D'Italia Road Rally: Jeff Buchanan

The residents of Morciano di Romagna don’t seem to mind the parade of exotic motorcycles storming through their narrow streets, a cacophony of straight-pipe exhausts resonating against ancient stone facades. Even better, neither do the local police, who have made it clear that the riders may regard speed limits—and most traffic signs—as suggestions. The town’s joy is captured in the faces of its schoolchildren, who have the afternoon off to watch our vintage machines stream past.

This tacitly condoned, two-wheeled lawlessness is not as reckless as it sounds—after all, we can hardly get into too much trouble with a scant 175cc of 50-year-old Italian iron buzzing beneath us. For the next five days, protagonisti—or players—from around the world will be cheered across Italy as we participate in the country’s oldest timed motorcycle rally, the Motogiro d’Italia. Each May, the Giro—as it is affectionately known—celebrates the country’s golden age of motorcycle competition as protagonisti, attired in the era’s racing leathers and half-shell helmets, traverse more than 1,200 kilometers of Italy’s undulating topography.

The first Motogiro ran in 1914 and, over the ensuing four decades, rose to prominence as Italy’s premier long distance road race. The 1954 event saw no fewer than 50 motorbike manufacturers represented in a grueling, eight-stage, 3,414-kilometer race. August companies such as Ducati, Morini, Gilera, Moto Guzzi, Rumi, and MV Agusta designed machines specifically for the event. And riders, including Giuliano Maoggi, Emilio Mendogni, Leopold Tartarini, and Remo Venturi, became heroes to the legions of devoted fans who lined the course in the Motogiro’s heyday.

The Giro survived both world wars, but in 1957 fell prey to bureaucracy when the Italian government put a stop to all road competitions. After a 44-year reign as the country’s most prized motorcycle race, the Motogiro d’Italia ceased to exist. The villages and winding mountain roads of Italy would not again hear the sound of the Giro’s small-displacement racing engines until 2001, when Dream Engine—a Bologna-based events company—revived the competition in cooperation with Ducati. It was an overwhelming success: The 2005 race fielded 400 international protagonisti.Before the Giro, I had never seen so many rare and beautiful vintage motorcycles gathered in one place, let alone being ridden—and ridden hard.

My introduction to the historical Motogiro would be full immersion, riding a 1957 Motobi 125cc. In her day, this diminutive machine—one year older than me—represented the height of racing prowess, churning out 11 hp and reaching top speed at 68 mph. The Motobi’s anachronistic shift lever is on the right, and it further confuses with gears in a pattern reverse to today’s norm. For a modern rider, this unfamiliar shift pattern, the severe shortage of horsepower, and tiny drum brakes that contribute more to aesthetics than function mean that this bike requires absolute concentration.

The Motogiro is a timed road rally rather than an all-out race, the idea being to complete each daylong leg—from 210 to 290 kilometers—in the prescribed time without accruing penalties for actions such as arriving late at a checkpoint, missing a checkpoint, or cutting the course. Other penalties can accrue during a daily series of special tests, tight slalom courses, or slow-speed trials, where points are knocked off for touching a foot down, stalling the motor, or knocking over a cone. The Motogiro tests not only one’s endurance and the dependability of antique machines, but also one’s mental acumen for wit and strategy.

A steep learning curve ahead of me, I take off with the racers as they depart the starting piazza at one-minute intervals. I soon have the Motobi buzzing through the countryside on the way to Umbria, overruling 30 years of habit when shifting—remembering that the lever under my left foot is a brake and not a shifter—and keeping the little 125cc motor within its ever-so-narrow powerband. Most of these old bikes put out between 12 and 18 hp, so riding becomes an exercise in momentum; maintaining forward motion demands precision.

To keep pace with the other racers, I hold the throttle to the stop on the winding roads in a sinuous ballet of low-velocity drafting and patient, gradual overtaking. The little motor-that-could funnels its burned gases out an unmuffled, straight-pipe exhaust, and—with throttle to the lock nearly the whole time—its drone rings in my ears long after it has been turned off. My time aboard the trusty Motobi will go down as one of the most exhilarating—albeit loud—experiences I’ve had riding a motorcycle.

Thank god for the immaculate maintenance of Italy’s roads: My trusty little Motobi is deficient in the suspension department, and every bump and nick in the road telegraphs through the frame and into the bars. Several hundred kilometers may not sound like much on a new bike, but with the Motobi’s cramped riding position and the sparse padding of its narrow seat, I learn, both to appreciate modern technology, and to respect the pilots of old.

The route is marked by arrows at the course’s many roundabouts and forks. Though getting lost is difficult, people manage to do it. Suddenly I find myself conspicuously out of place, a lone relic from the past riding in the modern world like a time traveler, and I assume I’ve missed a marker and need to turn around. Getting back on track is usually a simple affair. One episode of confusion is caused by mischief: Local boys rearrange the posted arrows helter-skelter to send astray a horde on vintage motorcycles. In typical Italian fashion, aggravation gives way to humor as the responsible party finally points out the right direction and correctly resets the arrows.

Motogiro D'Italia Road Rally: Vintage Motorcycles

Checkpoints and scheduled rest stops at villages are welcome sights. Giro participants, several hundred strong, arrive in a steady stream and transform each town’s piazza into a vintage motorcycle show. The bars, cafes, and restaurants await riders with water and pasta, bruschetta, pizza, and cheeses. Hands buzzing from the vibration of the Motobi’s handlebars, I break bread with fellow protagonisti. With bragging and light-hearted jabs, we recount experiences on the road.

Like the circus come to town, the Motogiro sweeps into these small hamlets in brief bursts of excitement. The locals, young and old, come together in a common spirit of joy. Grandfathers point out the machines of their youth to grandsons perched on their knees. A friendly elder regales you with stories of the original Giro that passed through the village all those years ago: He remembers—he was here. Then, an espresso—and back aboard the Motobi for another romp through Italy’s beauty.

Now and again I see a meticulously restored machine parked in the driveway of a private home. Nearby, its owner—old, leaning against a cane—stands proudly over this memento of his youth, testament to his racing past and token of camaraderie with today’s passing racers. And here I am, basking in this reflected glory of Italy’s illustrious racing history, taking part in a legendary rally, now, creating a story of my own. A friendly exchange of waves, and I push on.Certain competitors take the Giro very seriously, making a science of the timed event with arrays of stopwatches and clocks. At the hotels each night, they pore over the results to see who has gained time—and who has lost. They compete with hopes of adding their names to the roll of Motogiro victors—and to win a special Motogiro Edition Ducati Supersport 900. Runners-up receive trophy cups.

Motogiro D'Italia Road Rally: Classic Motorcycles

The experience is everyone’s reward; the Giro, I’m told, has a way of staying with you. Vicki Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made history in 2001’s inaugural rally when she became the Motogiro’s first-ever female competitor. She has returned each year since, to an event that she says changed her life. Like many of the participants, Smith’s affinity for the Motogiro is a measure beyond passion for motorcycles. She credits the Giro as catalyst for an epiphany that prompted her to rethink her obsessive work ethic and to emulate the relaxed Italian pace.

It’s easy to allow myself to slip back through the years as I race through the Italian countryside on a vintage motorcycle. Reminders of progress less evident, I am lulled into a contemplative, meditative state by the steady drone of the single-cylinder engine churning away at peak rpm. Riding becomes intensely personal and introspective. With a 50-year-old 125cc engine beneath me, tires no wider than my fist, each turn of the throttle, each pull of the clutch, and each shift of the transmission becomes a well-planned, anticipated action. It feels like riding a motorcycle for the first time, again.

Motogiro D'Italia Road Rally: Italy

The small pack of racers I have joined pass through the next village in a procession of beautifully maintained, postwar motorcycles. We emerge into open country, heading steadfast for the next checkpoint. And so it goes, village after village, checkpoint after checkpoint, bringing echoes of the past to those who have lined the avenues to cheer us on. These are the magic and nostalgia of the Motogiro d’Italia.

The Motogiro d’italia, open to all brands of motorcycles that are authorized for road use, is divided into three classes:

Vintage Racing Class: Includes motorbikes up to 175cc manufactured prior to 1957.

Taglioni Memorial Class: Highlights motorbikes 250cc or larger produced between 1968 and 1978, the decade in which Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni created his legendary 2-cylinder machines.

Touring Class: Includes newer motorbikes for those who wish to participate in the Motogiro on a noncompetitive basis.

Motogiro D’Italia Road Rally Photo Gallery


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