Carl Fogarty has a big head. It’s so big that it covers nearly a quarter of the side of the Ducati factory wall. He’s staring out over the car park where about 60 bikes are lined up ready to race each other. As posters of Foggy go, this is huge, but no expense has been spared by Ducati, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year.
One of the first things you notice about the bikes under Foggy’s gaze is how small and old they look. The second thing you notice is how old and small the riders are, too. Some of them can only be a few birthdays short of Ducati itself.
As part of its 75th anniversary celebrations, the company has revived the Motogiro d’Italia, a road race which, in its day, was a classic name in Italian motorsport. The idea is simple. Get a load of elderly bikes and a load of elderly blokes and get them to belt around some public roads like they used to do in the 1950s. Well, the updated idea is a bit more sedate than that, but asking an Italian not to get excited is a bit like asking an alcoholic to lay off the chianti.
Younger types like myself (aged 44) are more than welcome, but it’s the old giffers who are the centre of attention. Giffers like ex-champion Guilano Maoggi, who is also 75 this year. " I would prefer more of a race, " he says. " I like to win things. "
Guilano won the original Motogiro in 1956 on a Ducati. Back then, though, they didn’t have modern touches such as the leather-clad blondes on Monsters who are to escort us on our six-day circuit out of Bologna, north to Chioggia, then Rimini and back to Bologna via San Sepolcro, Terni and Arezzo. Qualification is fairly simple: If the classic bike is the right age and capacity to have been in the original Motogiro, and it has working lights and a horn, you’re in.
The route has been divided up into six 155-mile(ish) chunks, with plenty of time for having a look around. And seeing as I’m on a Laverda 100 (yes, Laverda made 100s and very quick ones, too, in the mid-1950s) I’m going to need all the time I can get.
The opportunity to ride a bike a year older than me doesn’t come along very often, so I jump at it. To keep the event looking original, riders have been asked to wear black leathers. I dig out my trusty BKSs and squeeze into them (mental note: Join a gym when I get back).
The initial wobble out of the factory is watched by film crews, press photographers and most of the factory workers out on their lunchbreak.
Four miles up the road, the first sign that I’m not going to have a good day comes as the bike dies going around a junction. I look down and see fuel everywhere. Seems a plug on the carburettor has fallen off. Feeling every bit as determined as an old racer, I search up and down the road. After 20 minutes suffering people gesticulating wildly out of the windows of cars as I wander around in the road, I spot the part and screw it back on.
As I’m tinkering, a Monster S4 with a rider in a red leather Ducati jacket rumbles past. It’s Federico Minoli, the chairman of the Italian factory, enjoying a day out on the bikes with his boys...
Back on the Laverda, the misfire starts and I spend the rest of the afternoon nursing it like a sick old dog. I limp into Chioggia, a fishing port on the southern edge of the Venice lagoon, where the local mayor invites us all to a barbie. The bike has packed in now and I’m sure it’s nothing more than an old spark plug. It’s fixed by the organisers overnight.
Chioggia–Rimini (131 miles)
Most of the racers are 60-plus, but age has not mellowed their competitive spirit. Or libido. As I wait in the town square for the start of today’s trek, I am greeted by a bunch of race giffers chatting up the ladies. Though they are a couple of decades past the menopause, these grey-haired groupies remember the racers from the old days and switch instantly back into flirt mode. Some of them have even remembered to put their teeth in.
The Motogiro is run exactly as you’d run a cycle race, with sections of road set out as a stage with the participants being timed between each checkpoint. It is not about speed, but timed accuracy.
The normal strategy is to go as fast as your bike will take you and then wait just before the finish line until your time comes up, then you rush across. We are given just one official rule, which is " always obey the Italian driving laws " . But as far as I can tell there seems to be another one: " You’re not allowed to be behind anyone. "
From Porto Tolle we head for the coastal resort of Rimini (and the historic home of the now defunct Bimota), but we divert along several long, off-the-main-drag routes and for the rest of the day I sweep through some of the best roads I’ve sampled for years.
Our entrance to Rimini is almost as effective in stopping the traffic as our departure from Chioggia. Two level crossings are closed as we cruise into Rimini together, horns blaring, engines throbbing, bones rattling. We’re looking forward to cold Italian beer and hot Italian food to soothe the soul.
As we ride through town, we are joined by a policemen on his Monster 750 patrol bike. Coppers can make a biker edgy and, even though we are effectively pottering along by now, we find ourselves slowing down even more. However, as we tentatively pull away from a set of traffic lights the policeman suddenly yanks back his throttle and the Monster’s front wheel comes up. Flash git.
Rimini-San Sepolcro-Rimini (134 miles)
Rimini seafront, an Italian Blackpool, is a riot of colour and holidaymakers. Most of the older people seem to remember the original Motogiro and the Italian championship races that took place on the coastal roads.
The route to San Sepolcro is twisty and pretty, the best we’ve seen on the tour yet.
It winds along a ridge past castles and valleys with the Italian Riviera just visible in the distance. (For anyone with a day to kill in Rimini, I recommend a ride up SS258 past Nuova Feltri and then on to the SP47, SP137 and SP138 for a pretty good view of some of the best scenery Italy has to offer.)
The views take the edge off the odd twinges that are common-place with anyone who has spent more than a couple of days on a bike. These old machines have sprung saddles and at certain speeds they can vibrate at such a rate that your buttocks and – in some unfortunate cases – balls are shaken into a state of permanent numbness.
The only cure is to get off and walk around to get the circulation going.
On my way to San Sepolcro, I pass a layby at the top of the Passo di Via Maggio and notice a Marzocchi truck with a pair of well-used MV Agustas parked up on the verge.
As I pull over a few yards down the road for a numb bum stop and a bit of a stretch, I realise I have somehow stumbled on Massimo Tamburini’s secret suspension testing area. It’s not every day that you get a sneak peek at development work in progress, so for 15 minutes I surreptitiously watch the maestro riding his MV up and down, testing the set-up of some new forks.
Rimini-Terni (188 miles)
Leaving Rimini behind, we set off down the coast towards Ancona, weaving in and out of the congested traffic along the main road down past all the Adriatic coast resorts. Finally, heading inland towards Terni, the first place we stop at is the fortress town of Loreto, where the noise of the bikes echoing off the walls of the Palazzo Apostilico sounds like a thousand angry tractors coughing in a cathedral.
We have to reach the Roman Waterfalls at Terni by 4.30pm, so we are hurried along by officials.
At Chiesa di San Maria, the race bikes speed off down the hill with the local church bells going just as flat-out as the Dukes. I look up and see a bunch of spectators in the tower waving and cheering and wearing ear defenders, which is just as well as they are standing a couple of feet from three enormous clanging bells. One false move and they’d be deaf.
The Cascata delle Marmore are artificial waterfalls built by the Romans, using water diverted from a nearby river. A holding pond is filled and then opened for the full-on waterfall effect.
They work for about an hour and are only usually operated on public holidays, but they’ve laid on a display of tumbling water especially for the crowd.
The sight of it jetting straight out of a hillside is stunning, as we sit in the viewing area at the bottom, getting thoroughly soaked. The final leg into Terni is only 12 miles, but coming into the city I find myself riding down the outside of a group of cars. Suddenly, one decides to turn left in front of me.
I nail the front anchors, but it’s not enough. Just as the bike looks like it’s about to hit the front of the car, he moves forward and I miss him by inches. It shakes me up and reminds me that as quaint and characterful as these old bikes are, they are decades behind modern machines.
I look forward to several cool beers to calm me down, but the schlepp up to the restaurant this evening looks as daunting as climbing up an artificial waterfall.
Our meal is in the medieval town of Stroncone, at the top of a scarily steep hill. Rather than attempt to get a bunch of clearly knackered geriatrics on creaky bikes up a ferociously winding hill, the organisers lay on a nice comfy coach. Ahh, the perks of being an honorary old giffer.
Terni-Arezzo (164 miles)
The Terni to Arezzo leg is to be heavily policed judging by the number of Carabinieri standing around at the start. We climb up to the medieval village of Collescopi, entering it along a steep, 40° alley.
The sight that greets us is as bizarre as it is brilliant. The racers are parked up awaiting their departure times while the local folk band (using clockwork guitars and what appear to be musical scissors) is going at it full-tilt. Kids from the primary school are dancing to the music and white-haired riders in black leathers are happily dancing with any available ladies.
There are tables of local specialities to munch through, with townsfolk in medieval fancy dress serving drinks. As riders start to leave at their official times, a cake shaped like a 916 comes out. I leave as they are serving up the fuel tank…
We soon discover that the police are not interested in slowing anyone down – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They hold normal traffic back and wave us through, gesticulating for us to hurry. The access to Stroncone is another seemingly vertical climb. I pass my friend, Maoggi, walking his smoking Laverda up the hill. At least, at 74, he’s still got the legs even if his bike hasn’t.
The rest of the morning is heaven. The road winds its way through small valleys and villages with the smell of lemons and herbs from the roadside. On and off-camber corners follow each other in quick succession. I spend all my time flat-out.
Grinning like an idiot, I roll into San Lorenzo Nuovo to find the local Saturday market is in full swing. Tables of food and drink are out for the tour participants to help themselves to. A quick bite to eat and then it’s off again.
The SS2 is flatter and faster through to Siena, and much more wearing on the old bikes.
As I crest a hill I spot the smokey Laverda with canny old Maoggi hanging on to the rear seat of one of his competitors, blagging a tow.
We can’t get the tour into the main square at Siena, so we immediately head towards the SS73 that will take us to Arezzo. This is a road made for riding, built on a ridge overlooking 50 miles of patchwork farmland either side. The builders never used one corner where they could squeeze in two and the quality of the Tarmac is fantastic, too.
At the end of the day’s riding we all pull up in the Piazza san Domenico in the centre of Arezzo. As the final runners dribble in I grab a chance to talk to a veteran racer, Remo Venturi, who is wearing his ’60s leathers and looking for all the world like a leather-clad jockey.
Venturi won the 500cc Dutch TT in 1960 and he tells me he never won the Motogiro, but did manage to grab the honours in the nearest equivalent – the Milano-Taranto race – before going on to the GP with MV.
My knowledge of Italian is limited, though it’s improved when he offers to buy me a gelato, which turns out to be ice cream, and we wander through the town together.
Arezzo-Bologna (120 miles)
Feeling increasingly knackered, I blunder around the streets of Arezzo for the start of the final day. A hefty local meal and another 1am finish last night is taking its toll. We are heading out of town to the Futa and Raticosa passes, where the Ducati factories do their unofficial test runs.
There are now two riders jousting for the lead: Alfio Sorgato and Emilio Tono, who
are both on 175s. Sorgato is on a 1956 Morini and Tono is on a blisteringly quick Rosso Gilera.
I know just how fast he rides because I sat behind him through one memorable section yesterday at 70mph and he didn’t back off for the corners – or the towns.
The last section goes over the hills south of Bologna on the SS65. At several points there are traffic signs pointing right to Mugello and left to Imola. I really am in the cradle of Italian motorsport.
Many of the older bikes are starting to look pushed. I see American rider Richard Weeden riding an increasingly erratic 175cc two-stroke Bianchi Cervino. It’s either oiling up or suffering from fuel starvation. Spark plugs are removed and cleaned with increasing regularity. Weeden has suffered a lot of reliability problems over the week, but is still the leading non-Italian rider.
As we near Bologna, there is further evidence of the competitive spirit, with a 1954 175cc Morini parked up against a wall after lowsiding its rider just 24 miles from the finish. Luckily, the rider is unhurt.
Through the outskirts of Bologna we keep up as much speed as we can. Once again we’re helped by the police, who wave us through most of the red lights to the final check at the Piazza VIII Agosto, where it seems most of the classic bike clubs in the region have turned out to lend their support.
But this isn’t the last of it. We still have the final ride back to the car park at the factory which turns into a mass run through the centre of Bologna with everybody joining in. The police sirens go on and stay on. Two outriders race on ahead, stopping the traffic at intersections to let us through. The noise, the emotion and the sheer joy of just being here is overpowering.
In the evening we are treated to a magnificent open-air banquet in the courtyard of the medieval Panzano Castle, in the village of Castelfranco Emilia, near Modena. It is a setting to die for. Food is supplied by a selection of the best restaurants in Bologna and, as we eat, the prize-giving takes place. It is Alfito Sorgato who wins the award of a brand new Ducati Monster.
Just to make sure they finish off anyone who has any hearing left after a week of being blasted by open-piped singles, there is the final firework display, which ends with three of the loudest bangs I have ever heard. Just hope I’m not too old – or indeed deaf – to come back and do it all again.