“My friend Giuseppe was down for the count,” said Burt Richmond of Illinois.
“He was laid out on a stone wall with a medic holding an IV drip when Jack came around the turn. Jack slid in the sand thrown by Giuseppe’s bike, so they were both down within sight of each other. Jack wasn’t hurt badly—but his motorcycle was, so he took the rescue van to the next hotel.”
And so it goes at the historic Motogiro D’Italia, an annual motorcycle event that attracts riders from all over the world, including Richmond and his friend Jack Silverman of Colorado. They, along with four other American riders, flew to Italy this spring to ride in one of the oldest and most prestigious motorcycle competitions in the world. Created in 1914, the original race included 56 riders with only 18 reaching the finish line. Non-existent for years during World War I, the race resurfaced again in 1923 when 53 riders traveled over 1,000 miles, with only seven finishing and a Moto Guzzi in first place. The grueling race ceased to exist for years afterward. After World War II, the devastated economy in Italy created a huge market for inexpensive transportation. New companies began developing more sophisticated bikes, and in a country where motorsport is part of the DNA, racing was the best way to attract attention to specific models.
The 100cc to 175cc bikes became the transportation of choice for Italians, so manufacturers like Morini, Moto Guzzi, Ducati, Rumi, Gilera, Parilla and MV Augusta worked to develop them for the race. By 1954, the Motogiro had grown to nine stages with 50 manufacturers all vying for trophies. “I’m riding a 1955 Ducati 175 SS that’s unrestored,” said Richmond. “It’s probably one of the least glamorous bikes here—but it works. Jack is an avid Ducati collector—he probably has 50 vintage bikes, and he’s riding his 1954 175 SS. Their skinny little tires take those hairpin turns really well!” Completing the group’s roster is a 1966 Ducati Monza 250cc, ridden by Bill Latoza of Illinois, a 1966 Lambretta SX 185cc, ridden by Mateo Offe of Texas, a 1967 Lambretta SX 225 TT ridden by Tony Tessier of France (formally Washington, D.C.), and Todd Wallis of Colorado riding his now deceased father’s 1966 Puch 250 SGS.
Run in the 1950s on public roads closed for the race, the Motogiro D’Italia was a prestigious and challenging event. Eventually it became the motorcycle version of the famous Mille Miglia race in Italy, fielding 175 riders for eight stages and over 2,000 miles. But all motorsport in Italy changed dramatically in 1957, when a tragic crash in the Mille Miglia killed two racers and several spectators. The result was a sweeping governmental ban of racing on public streets.
In 2001, two Ducati executives resurrected the Motogiro as a timed event that didn’t require great speed on dangerous roads. Designed as a distance event and rally, with time trials over several days, competitors are escorted by the polizia over 1,000 miles. “Is it safer than riding in the United States? No!” said Richmond. “But it is more cordial. If you’re in traffic, you can lane split any place. In fact, you can accelerate around any stopped vehicle or pass any time, even on a twisty road if there’s room for a motorcycle. It’s no problem. It’s part of their culture.”
In spite of the design, many riders go flat-out fast and agree that half the fun is flying through Italy at speed with the polizia’s approval. A Race Class and Tourist Class for modern bikes is popular with riders who just want to experience riding in Italy with impunity. “See that?” said one rider on a 2013 Ducati Monster, pointing to a large scrape on the bike’s gas tank. “That’s the Amalfi Coast. We rented these bikes—and I don’t know what the owner will think of that!” “Yes, I’ve probably had scary moments three or four times a day,” said Richmond. “But when we get here, we just think we’re lucky to be in such a beautiful country with riders from every continent. There’s camaraderie even though it’s a competition full of egos and Type A personalities.” Other American riders agree. Patrick Borgen, a surgeon from New York who entered the race with two friends, claims that the grueling ride leaves him relaxed and energized. “Navigating a motorcycle at a high rate of speed across the Italian countryside is all-consuming and totally distracting,” said Borgen. “I run a department of surgery in New York, and it’s hard to get away from drama and bad news. Even though one of my friends crashed twice and had to drop out of the race, he’s excited to go back. In this hectic, pressurized world, it’s a joy to know there are miles of twisting roads out there in a beautiful country, just waiting to be enjoyed.”
Note: The 2014 Motogiro D’Italia centennial race and celebration will take place June 22-28. The 1,637-kilometer race begins and ends at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli near Misano Adriatico in Italy; for more information, visit motogiroitalia.it/en. The Italian event has inspired several similar events in the U.S.; for more info visit motogiro-usa.com.
(This article The Wild Italian Ride was published in the February 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)