How I learnt to love the rain; Motogiro d'Italia 2008

I’d forgotten how noisy rain can be, bouncing off your helmet and fired at the visor despite a very modest pace. It’s been 25 years since I last rode in proper rain, but I’m dangerously close to enjoying the concentration needed to keep shiny side up. Even the thunder seems tuned to my 900cc Ducati Darmah’s exhaust note, and the lightening flashes make the ‘70s chrome sparkle like the lucky star I thanked for making me check the weather forecast just hours before flying to Italy to join the Motogiro.

Usually I just pack a lightweight jacket, black visor and cash for petrol, then ride a thousand miles on Italian roads under scorchio blue skies before flying home with another year’s worth of tall tales. But just hours before leaving this year I idly checked the Italian Met Office website and, as the kids say, OMG. So I climbed into the attic to retrieve long forgotten waterproofs, and stuffed them into my suitcase with a clear visor and plenty of WD40. And boy, it was just as well because Freddie Mercury was dead right. Thunderbolt and lightening very, very frightening.

This is my third Motogiro, and its eighth modern incarnation. It’s based on the old thousand mile roadrace that was banned along with all contemporaries in 1957 when the equivalent race for cars, the Mille Miglia, launched the incandescent mix of an Italian Playboy and his Ferrari into a crowd of spectators killing 11 people. So these days the “racing” involves chasing down checkpoints and time trials.

This year us Brits trucked some 60 bikes down to Rome for the start of the Giro, most beautifully prepped and ready for the ride of the year. Unloading became a late night shuffle to get as many bikes as possible under cover, and more than one bike sported the hotel’s posh linen napkins poking out of exposed bellmouths. Anything that keeps the rain out of the engines and makes starting easier come morning.

Ah, starting. Although you can take a modern bike on the Giro, you’ll be closely shepherded by the police and event staff. But roll up on a sub 175cc, pre 1957 “vintage” bike or a 1970s 250cc plus “Taglioni” bike and you’ll be handed a route card and told to get on with it. So get on with it we do.

Day one is 200 miles of back roads and mountain passes, squeezing through towns and impossibly picturesque villages along the way. Timed check points theoretically keep the lid on average speeds, but if you get there early proud locals insist you try their grub – salami, cheese, bread and cakes. Even wine; the Brits take polite sips, the Italians neck a full beaker and then throw back an espresso. But then I guess they know the roads. Well, I hope they do.

By early evening it’s dangerously close to sunny as we make our seaside hotel. A couple of us check out the beach, but most folk just want to make sure their bikes are ready for the next day. And get to the bar, because although it quickly sells out of Peroni the company is tops. There’s an Aussie who’s shipped over an immaculate Ducati 750SS, like the one Bonham’s just auctioned for north of forty grand. Yet here it is, filthy and used as intended. Ducatis of just about every capacity are well represented, from the 65cc ‘ped ridden by a Monaco nutcase through 450 Scramblers to the Darmahs. There’s Guzzis, Morinis, Beemers and long forgotten stuff like Aermacchis and Parillas but only a few Brit bikes, much to the disappointment of the Italians. Don’t they realise that oil’s running out?

Day two dawns bright and sunny, and stays that way. We sweep along coast roads, the Adriatic a polished sapphire on the left, and on the right wild flowers, mountains and villages. Yup, God rides a Ducati and this is the road He made to ride it on. To complete my summer ’77 good vibrations I bowl along singing Hotel California to myself and imagining I’m 18.

But not everyone’s happy. Gary’s 250 Ducati has a flat battery, but this is Italy where rules are there to be broken. So at our lunch stop he grabs a charger and plugs it into the hot dog stand, and by the time lunch is over he’s good to go. Try that in your local Harvester.

It’s not always like that. Our next hotel sits in woodland overlooking a rocky harbour just outside Vieste. The manager is understandably proud of this slice of heaven, and doesn’t take kindly to his car park being turned into a passable recreation of the pits at Imola circa 1970. Sparks fly off angle grinders, bikes’ guts are opened up and engines hit red lines as other hotel guests tiptoe between us grease monkeys wondering if Castrol R comes off linen (it doesn’t); advice and mickey taking flows in English accented by the four corners of the world, half a dozen European languages and even a smattering of Japanese. Eventually the manager realises how to bring us to order, and the word goes round that the restaurant food is fab, the wine plentiful, and if we’re serious about an early night we need to tuck in pronto.

Day three promises more sun and a climb up into the mountains, but it’s a trap. By mid afternoon we’re soaked, wet weather kit left back at the hotel, although if I’d know we’d have thunderstorms like these I’d have brought an ark. The only thing that makes me feel better are the cyclists we pass, because if I’m miserable they must be looking for a cliff to throw themselves off.

And then it happens: sky, road, sky and I’m sliding alongside the Darmah, almost 30 years to the day since I last fell off a bike. The surreal thoughts start – the headlight’s working, and the engine’s still running. Ah, no it’s not, that’s the thunder. And then voices; “Get up! Come on!” Jeez, I’ve only been dead a few seconds and my long departed grandmother’s already found me.

Then I realise I can’t be dead because there’s too much pain and another rider, Colin Syme, is running back shouting at me to get myself and the bike out of the road before another bike or car appear round the corner a make a minor off properly nasty. Seconds later a staff rider appears on a Multistrada and stares me straight in the eyes. His relief tells me I’m fine.

“What do you want to do?” he asks in perfect English. Amazingly my bike’s OK if you ignore the cosmetic damage and broken gearlever. I’m offered the choice of waiting for a recovery van, continuing on the Multistrada or kicking the Darmah straight and pressing on. I like the easy questions.

“I’ll carry on with my bike” says a voice that sounds remarkably like mine.

“Okay, but I’ll follow you” says my guardian angel. So the next 30 miles are done in biblical rain, stuck in second gear, but I make the last check point just a few minutes late. I may not want to win the Giro, but who wants to be last?

The weather’s been fixed for days four and five. Fabulous roads, astonishing views, giant cows with outsize bells in the forest, mad dogs everywhere and bike mad Italians wanting to ask about your ride. Journey’s end is not an anticlimax. We meet on the outskirts of Rome, well over 200 bikes including gatecrashing locals and police escort, for a rollercoaster ride through the city while shoppers applaud, kids wave and cameras flash. Memo to self – in the UK red lights do not mean whack open the Dell’Ortos and wave to the crowd.

In the evening the beer and wine get our International crowd talking better than any translator, in a wild Esperanto of broken Italian, Franglais and sign language. You don’t need a dictionary to talk to Johnny Foreigner, just a love of bikes. Same goes for the age gap. Youngest rider is a Dutch girl of 22 along with her Dad, and then there’s Guiliano Maoggi, winner of the Giro in ’56 when it was still a full blooded race, and who still rides mountain switchbacks at a pace no R1 could match with a wrinkled smile that tells you he knows it. At a lunch stop he complains the food’s already gone, so I tell him he must’ve been riding too slowly. He laughs as if I’ve said Mothers’ Pride is better than ciabatta. He’ll be 82 in November, one old dog more than happy to teach us young pups new tricks.

You need to ride in Italy at least once, and the Giro is a great way to do it. Roads are handpicked, your luggage and hotels sorted, and if it goes pear-shaped you get fixed. The company’s wonderfully eclectic and you can ride just about any bike at any pace you like. So get onto eBay, find the bike you wanted as a kid and sign up for next May. Or if that sounds a bit too much like a doppio espresso for your cappuccino tastes have a go at the Minigiro Ducati Sporting Club lay on in the south of England in late September. Yes, its more likely to rain than in Italy but that won’t put me off. My waterproofs are definitely not going back in the attic.