Experiencing the Motogiro

It's a bike race, but not as we know it. Old bikes, Italian gents and Englishmen go mad in the Mediterranean sun. Sicily says 'hello' to the Motogiro

The small town square is packed full of vintage motorcycles. Old men watch as schoolchildren dance to a backdrop of pumping techno and third rate Euro rock anthems, while everyone feasts from a table stacked with olive oil-soaked bread, pizza slices, chunks of cheese and an inappropriate amount of wine for half-past breakfast on a Wednesday morning. Welcome to Sicily. Welcome to the Motogiro D'Italia.

The Motogiro is a very special, very unique event. Revived in 2001 after a 44-year break, it's a competitive time trial for small capacity vintage and classic machinery. The idea is to hold an average speed across country, arriving at time checks not too early, not too late. Each event is held in a region of Italy and this year, for the first time, the Motogiro went to Sicily.

The Motogiro is absolutely, definitely not a race. That's not allowed on public roads open to everyday traffic, not even in Italy. Except it is a race. It doesn't take long to work out that if you get within spitting distance of your next check as quickly as possible you've more time to fix stuff and eat free snacks.

It's the end of May and it's hot, but not uncomfortably so. Some of the island is as far south as bits of near-Saharan Africa are north, but the climate isn't so harsh. The same can't be said for Sicily's roads. The Motogiro tracks a course through north and western Sicily following tortuous single track lane after tortuous single track lane, all coated with a dusting of frictionless powdered Teflon. The moment you think the road can't get any worse, it just did.

Ducati has lent me a Multistrada to follow the 'Giro, and it's perfect for the kind of riding we're doing. Except most of the people doing the kind of riding we're doing aren't riding anything remotely like it. Sure, there are Ducatis aplenty, but they pre-date the Multistrada by a generation or two. There are MVs too, Motobis, Gileras, Morinis and Benellis, even a stunning old Mondial.

The scale of the event is remarkable. There are 400 riders in three competitive and non-competitive classes, which is impressive enough, but there's a massive, behind-the-scenes logistical machine in motion. Luggage is transported from hotel to hotel, red arrows mark the route at every juncture, guides stand on duty along the way and a fleet of vans cruise around, fixing stricken bikes at the roadside.

To the British, American and Australian competitors - of which there's a surprising amount - it's all a bit of fun. But to the Italian elder statesmen of motorcycling, the Motogiro is a respectful and sombre homage to their country's motorcycling heritage. One-piece race rep leathers and helmets are in a minority of one or two. Black is de rigueur, topped off with a pudding basin lid and tinted goggles. It's an exercise in a very particular brand of Italian style.

Out on the open road, nail biting, daredevil, death-defying, slow-motion slipstreaming and outbraking manoeuvres take place amid swarming packs of angry machines ridden by craggy faced Italians in baggy arsed black leathers - gentlemen in the bar the night before, merciless out on the open road.

There's a class for modern bikes too - the 'Touristi' - but it's non-competitive and riders are shepherded along by official guides and contract-hire bike cops. The idea is for the 'Touristi' not to get mixed up with the 'Protaginisti' in the Vintage and Taglioni classes, but it does happen. Stay out of their way. These guys are deadly serious and there's nothing they hate more than being passed on a straight by a modern bike only to be held up in the next hairpin or town centre. Stop at a red light and one, two, three vintage machines push their way to the front of the queue. And more and more keep pushing until the front of the queue is so far forward it's blocking the oncoming traffic and they can go anyway.

But it's the turnout in the towns we pass through and stop in that leaves me open mouthed in amazement. As far as Sicily is concerned, this is a Big Event. Kids get the morning off school to see the 'Giro and collect autographs on any scrap of paper they have to hand. Food is laid out for us to gorge on, drinks are free, and music is played. It's impressive, touching and almost overwhelming at times

On the second day of the 'Giro, our first stop of the morning is in the town of Alimena, deep in the northern reaches of Sicily's mountainous interior. The roads to it are twisty and bumpy but reasonably well surfaced. It'd be hard work on a sportsbike, but it's perfect Multistrada territory. The Vintage bikes seem to be managing okay, too.

Like every town we come to, there's more than a whiff of hardship to Alimena. Sicily isn't rich; its past history has seen to that. But it doesn't stop the entire population of the town turning out to greet us. Freshly squeezed local oranges, food, wine - even a brass band - and all presided over by the local Mafiosi general. Well, that's what he looked like to us...

There's a delay leaving Alimena. Are we being held to ransom? No, that's still to come. Instead, a minor road out has subsided and it's impassable. Bugger me, it must be bad, given the state of the roads we've been along so far. Eventually, it's time to move on and the Motogiro thud-thuds and pop-pops out of town and turns left onto a single-track road.

I've never ridden along anything like it in my life - it's a Tarmac supercross track, potholes like quarries, sloping, debris-strewn subsidence that has the Ducati airborne for yards at a time. At one point a 'Giro staffer is stopped at the roadside, waving at the bikes to slow right down. Just past him the road surface stops abruptly and I drop into a sea of gravel and chippings for 100 yards. Bucking, weaving against disjointed patches of mismatched road surface, crossed up, three feet in the air; Multistradas were made for roads like this. Single cylinder vintage bikes weren't, but they're built of sterner stuff than your modern day sports fare and shrug the abuse off to carry on regardless.

If Sicily has roads suitable for sportsbikes, we didn't ride along them. The 'best' we rode in sportsbike terms was on the final day; the wide, swooping switchback of the SS624 south from San Giuseppe Jato towards Sambuca. Fast, but still very bumpy. The sum total of locally owned sports tackle I saw was an old R6, a brand new Fireblade and a GSX550F. The rest were big trail bikes and scooters. Lots of scooters. If you've got a monster trailie, bring it to Sicily. If you've got a supermoto, bring it to Sicily. If you've got an R1, stay where you are.

As the Motogiro wears on and the bikes wear out, the roads we're riding take on less of a scenic backdrop and more of a utilitarian nature. This isn't a sightseeing tour; it's a hard slog, a test of man and machine. By the fourth day, the rugged beauty of the island's heart is behind us. We head west from Terrasini towards Trapani but, as the bikes leave the town's square one by one, the mayor decides they don't have permission to go. So he stops them. Funny, he didn't seem to mind the day before... A couple of hours later, the right 'paperwork' is found and the 'Giro is on its way.

That day's highlight is a hairpin-after-hairpin climb up through the clouds, out the other side and into the stunning mountaintop town of Erice, overlooking the port of Trapani. The climb down is equally taxing, but Trapani itself is a disappointment. Beautiful from the mountain above, it's a hot, dusty cauldron of gridlocked traffic and polished-glass slippery junctions. Desperate for some open roads, we are cruelly denied them until the end of the day, by which time I've skived off back to the hotel and a cold shower.

The final day of the Motogiro treats us once more to some fine roads - at least by Sicilian standards - and finer scenery. Following the route marker arrows, I'm riding alone on the SS188 from Sambuca to Corleone, the town that gave its name to Scorsese's Godfather. The road isn't bad; bumpy, twisty, but fun on the Multistrada. So much fun that I miss a marker arrow and head south on the wrong road. It takes me a while to realise but by the time I do, I'm having as much fun as I've ever had on a bike. Swooping up, down, left, right along a valley floor, past fields bright with wild flowers. I'm going the wrong way and I really don't care - this is why I ride bikes and I'm not stopping for anyone. Then the fuel light flashes on and I realise I haven't seen a town or village for 30 miles. I turn round, do it all again, and catch back up with the Motogiro. As biking moments go, it was a short but defining one.

Later that day the Motogiro ends, apparently. It was a strange, subdued finish to a strange week. If there was a big fanfare to mark an end to the final day's riding, I missed it. We end up hanging around on the seafront in Mondello, before being escorted en masse back to Palermo. The traffic stops for us as we parade through the city, feeling part of something special, although I'm not entirely sure if I should, or quite what it is.

And that's that. Back to mainland Italy and near reality. Would I go to Sicily again? Definitely. It's a strange, oddly unique place and we only explored a small part of it. Would I do the Motogiro again? Quite possibly.

It's certainly something to tick off on your 'I did that' list of all-time biking experiences. But it's an odd event, and not easy to feel a real 'part' of, although riding a vintage bike would make much more sense. But it's damn hard work. So why do they do it? "Why do I breathe?" says James Patois De Blanc, an ex-pat Bostonian actor and playwright living in Paris and on his third 'Giro. "It just gets me in my monkey nerve I guess. It doesn't get any better than this."

How do I do that, then?

The first Motogiro took place in 1914, but its golden era was in the 1950s. However, a fatal
accident in the 1957 Mille Miglia car race resulted in the Italian government putting an end to racing on the public highway. In 2001, the Motogiro was resurrected by Italian entertainment and event firm Dream Engine, with sponsorship from Ducati.

The event is split into three classes. The Vintage Racing class is for bikes up to 175cc and made before 1957, and the Taglioni Memorial class is for bikes of all cc made between 1968 and 1978. The Touring class is non-competitive and open to any road legal bike but, following a fatal accident in 2003, it is now strictly controlled by marshals and police outriders. If the thought of riding abroad is terrifying and/or touring in large groups at a 'relaxed pace' (read 'slow') is your thing, then you'll probably enjoy it. But if you prefer your foreign riding untethered it probably isn't for you, although it is a good way to learn ropes as a precursor to entering competitively. Entry fees this year were in the region of £580, £630 and £755 for the Vintage, Taglioni and Touring classes respectively.

Despite the strong British, American and 'everywhere else' contingent, there was a distinctly Italian flavour to the end results of Motogiro 2004. Paolo Mattiolo won the Vintage Racing class and the Ducati SS750 first prize, with Marco Tomassinion and Massimo D'Alession finishing second and third. Alfonso Napolitano won the Taglioni Memorial Class with Matteo Costantino and Rossano Campiolia second and third. Well done you lot, then.

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