Experiencing Italy via Ducati Multistrada

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Edelweiss Motorcycle Travel in Italy

The odometer spins easily through everyday life, accumulating tens of thousands of clicks on workaday commutes and grocery store runs. In contrast, motorcycle journeys are personal mileage, forging more intimate connections between man, machine, and road. They remind us of who we are, and during the best of rides, who we will become.

This particular thousand-mile ride unfolded in Tuscany aboard a definitively Italian motorcycle over the course of a week. The excursion was organized and executed by Edelweiss Bike Travel, the Austrian outfit whose 30 years in the touring business has previously focused on BMWs and Harley-Davidsons.

The inaugural run for the Ducati/Edelweiss collaboration kicked off in Bologna. Known as The Red City for its crimson-hued roofs, Bologna is also a metaphorically apt place to begin a motorcycle adventure. Its labyrinthine colonnades radiate from a central wheel, a hub – not to mention it is also home to the manufacturer’s global headquarters, where every Ducati is born before being shipped to dealerships around the world.

Bookending the Tuscan adventure are a pair of two-wheeled attractions; our itinerary commences with a tour of Ducati’s factory and museum, and culminates with the FIM World Superbike races at the Imola Grand Prix circuit, just 25 miles outside Bologna.

After 15 hours of flight, my wife and I touch down in Bologna’s Marconi Airport, eager to stretch our legs in the city. As unplanned surprises often trump the most meticulous itinerary, we wander into the lush sounds of conductor Claudio Abbado’s opera rehearsals echoing outside a cathedral, offering impromptu accompaniment for our afternoon espresso. Welcome to Italy.

As any experienced tourer might tell you, the single most important ingredient in a long distance motorcycle ride isn’t the weather or the machine (though both can help considerably). The lynchpin is the people. We meet our group for the first time at the Royal Carlton Hotel, and there is a first-day-of-school aspect as introductions are made, with sparks of recognition among those who have previously toured together. It is an international group including Americans, Australians, Japanese, New Zealanders, and South Africans, among others.

Our leader is a flinty German by the name of Marko Bauer, whose former office was the rear seat of a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter. Bauer now lives at the foot of the Alps and, since 2003, has led more than 50 tours – 10 of those in Tuscany. Assisting Bauer on the logistical front is Manuel Marabese, a sunny Italian whose wanderlust was ignited by a nomadic childhood. The two personalities dovetail nicely – Bauer is nonchalant but deliberate; Marabese is easygoing yet organized.

Optional insurance against on-road mishaps is an excellent way to avoid a hefty bill for expensive replacement parts on our Italian steeds, so a swipe of my credit card never felt so reassuring.

Speaking of steeds, our fleet of Multistrada 1200s is entombed in the hotel’s subterranean garage, and we pay a quick, instructional visit before embarking the following morning. Bauer refers to the new Multistrada as “the first comfortable Ducati,” and a walk around reveals the bike’s features that lend credence to the Multistrada’s moniker, which translates to “many roads.”

A confluence of electronics systems manages a variety of parameters, including suspension preload and rebound, engine output, and traction control settings. ABS adds a layer of security that can be disabled, and the 1198cc L-twin is capable of churning out 150 horsepower, which, in conjunction with the Multistrada’s wet weight of only 478 pounds, is capable of transforming this now static armada into a blurry, white swarm.

Our first ride is an urban blast to the company museum and factory, where we witness a span of history ranging from Ducati’s first two-wheeler, the 49cc Cucciolo, to the modern day Desmosedici MotoGP bike. However, before long, Bologna’s commercial metropolis is receding in our mirrors as the scene changes dramatically, with municipal thoroughfares becoming narrow roads that jog through hills flanked by ancient walled cities and poplar trees.

The pace set by Bauer is strong and safe, and his sinewy path traces perfect arcs through each turn suggesting a trajectory that is efficient enough to be a race line, yet restrained enough to allow for an appreciation of the scenery.

Lunch along Via Porrettana highway is the first of a series of classical Italian meals, this time featuring bruschetta, pappardelle bolognese, and tiramisu. Wine is absent, per Edelweiss rules, to prohibit alcohol before the end of the day’s ride. The package price covers accommodations, dinners, and the Multistrada, but excludes lunches, fuel, and alcohol, leaving us free to dine with the group during the day (usually at one of Bauer’s favorite local restaurants), or forage on our own.

Back on the road, the locals receive us warmly, their nationalism perceptible as they admire our Italian bikes. Staying on secondary roads, we cross over the high-speed Autostrada del Sole, which we will avoid. We are not concerned with the shortest distance between two points; rather, we desire the pleasure gleaned from rambling country roads and mountainous switchbacks that unfold into unexpectedly majestic vistas.

At an elevation of around 3000 feet in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, one of the first clues we are nearing the Passo della Futa is the number of riders buzzing past in full racing garb. The road is a slinky, stretched out and slithering through the terrain. Its scenic beauty is superseded by the physical enjoyment of piloting such a capable bike at a dance-like speed.

The ride is so heady that my wife alternates between exclamations of “Look!” and delighted shrieks through our Cardo Scala Rider G4 headsets, which allow a near-constant stream of chatter. Meanwhile, the Multistrada’s Superbike-sourced engine is almost too rich for these tight roads, catapulting us forward with a voracious appetite for asphalt, while traction control ensures that overeager applications of throttle won’t spin the rear wheel into a zealous powerslide.

Onward, our group speeds past Mugello Circuit and south into the countryside. Nestled in the Tuscan hills, our night’s accommodations were once a Benedictine monastery that has been converted into a villa, then into a hotel. Our group rallies on the balcony overlooking the formal gardens for aperitifs in the waning light.

Arrival in Florence, one of the grandest cities we visit, is accompanied by a sense of occasion. Home to many memories for my wife and I, we climb the 460 steps to the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome in motorcycle boots, where six years ago I proposed to her. We look out, as many have before us – the view an unchanged sea of color. Later, riding through the street’s winding corridors, we feel completely absorbed into the atmosphere and texture of the city.

Following Florence, the pack splinters into several groups according to pace, and we tackle the single-lane roads that straddle the hilly winemaking region of Chianti. We have an opportunity to test the Multistrada’s versatility on several stretches of gravel. Set in Enduro mode for increased suspension travel, milder throttle response and more aggressive traction control, the bike feels comfortable off-pavement.

Afterward, we learn that one couple encountered a patch of gravel on tarmac, and lost control. The incident left the bike damaged and the girlfriend’s leg in a cast. We observe that this should offer a good test of the relationship’s longevity. According to Edelweiss rules, a crash precludes further riding in the tour, so the couple rents a car and meets us at our next destination.

The accident sends ripples of caution through the group, though as the miles pile on, the ceaselessly serpentine roads and a deepening familiarity with our machines makes it virtually impossible to resist the adrenaline rush of spirited apex attacks. Despite a large footprint and upright stance, the Multistrada embodies the spirit of a sportbike by encouraging late braking, deep leans into turns, and suspension squatting acceleration.

We find ourselves at a brisk clip when Siena appears in our sights. The medieval city’s heart is the Piazza del Campo, an architectural masterpiece. This gently sloped half-circle paved in brick is presided over by the black-and-white cathedral tower, and becomes filled with half the city’s population in the fading twilight. Our group climbs through the steep streets, and our efforts are rewarded with a savory country dinner and regional wine.

The following day, we delve deeper into the heart of Italy, continuing through villages whose roots go back to Etruscan times; Arezzo, Cortona and Castiglione del Lago unfurl past us before we ascend the hill to the birthplace of St. Francis, the tiny enclave of Assisi. The town’s basilica is a historical layer cake. Its original walls were erected in the 13th century and decorated with frescoes by the monk Giotto, one of the first painters to imbue his figures with deep psychic emotion. It is a small, wheat-colored city, and our hotel room casts an eye toward the bucolic countryside. The next morning’s early start sends us on a leg of the journey that will prove more challenging than we could have imagined.

Venturing further northeast through rugged, mountainous terrain, we crest the highlands and pass through Urbino, Valentino Rossi’s hometown, easily imagining the young Italian dragging a knee on his scooter and slicing through the countryside.

Maybe it is the Rossi connection, or perhaps our adrenaline is piqued, and before long we get antsy and break out on our own. We head towards Federico Fellini’s hometown of Rimini, a coastal city where ghosts of circuses past seem to linger in the rotting Belle Epoque buildings and weather-beaten waterfront hotels.

The day is ours. After enjoying late morning pastries and coffee seaside, we stumble upon a vintage car rally, but before long we’re moving again. My wife wants to visit Sant ‘Apollinare in Classe, a cathedral just outside Ravenna renowned for its glittering 5th century mosaics. Afterwards, the sheer beauty of a coastal road shrouded in fog beckons, and in our desire to see and do as much as possible, we have unwittingly allowed the forces of entropy to close in on us. By the time we realize daylight is slipping away, it is too late.

There is an element of motorcycling that, unlike four-wheeled transportation, makes one feel particularly vulnerable. When that susceptibility emerges, the mood can shift from carefree to menacing in a heartbeat. Traveling north, and stuck on the seemingly endless Autostrada Adriatica, I announce with frustration that “this should lead us to the SS72 (Via Consolare Rimini-San Marino), but there‚Äôs no exit.”

With darkness closing in and the temperature plummeting, the night is now streaked with rain. Visibility through my AGV helmet is blurry, and our leathers begin sagging with the weight of water, which starts its slow creep towards our skin.

Now we are two bodies shivering up and down unfamiliar roads, and warmth has become a distant memory. Finally off the Autostrada, we stop under a street lamp in the pouring rain to consult our plastic wrapped map, and use San Marino as a landmark.

Thankfully, the roads belong to a posh principality, so they are relatively pothole-free. Unfortunately, the first kink is a treacherous hairpin with a tight, unforgiving radius. My wife quips, “I hope all the turns aren’t like this one,” but they are.

We gingerly ascend the hill in the sheeting rain. The Multi’s long suspension travel, traction control, and ABS are welcome aids, increasing our odds of remaining upright. Finally in San Marino, we descend to Serravalle, exhausted.

We walk into the lobby and Bauer’s face betrays his concern, which crystallizes when he pats my wife’s icy hand. After a convivial welcome from our group, few meals are as satiating as that night’s steak; wine flows freely as we recount our tale, and we are able to relax.

The following morning we feel victorious, traveling parallel to the coast before re-entering Bologna. The sunny, if slightly cool, day has a restorative quality. Back on the flatlands, we ride through farms and small towns before finally re-connecting with the spoked city and its swarms of buses, cars, and pedestrians.

The next day’s World Superbike races at Imola prove an effusive celebration of speed, and a special parking section is packed to the gills with road-going Ducatis. Local enthusiasm for the brand is so fervent that it is not surprising to see skin tattooed with a diagram of desmodromic valves, or a four-year-old girl in a pink sweat suit astride a Streetfighter demo bike, with proud parents snapping away. And, of course, our bleachers are awash in Ducati red.

As we ride back to Bologna in the softening afternoon light, our Multistradas command a confident charge through race traffic. With miles separating us between the task at hand and the far more challenging roads we have negotiated, it is a bittersweet arrival in the city. We return our key fobs and bid a final farewell to our fellow Ducati Multistrada Travel Experience participants.

With the glimmering memory of jumbled roads, towns, and meals wrapped in conversation, it is apparent we have come much farther than a thousand miles.

Story from a previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.

Photography by Tommaso Pini + Basem Wasef