Whirled Ducati Week in Italy

60,000 loud clutches save lives

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Jack Lewis, Milagro

And I will grant wonders in the sky above,
And signs on the earth below,
Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.
-Acts 2:19

There was a Ducati parked out front. It had my name on it, but I needed coffee.

Nobody does breakfast like the Italians. Bologna is the City of Meat, Chicago with better seasoning. Breakfast entrees consist of meat, meat with cheese, and fruit ... wrapped in meat. Other choices included fey Nordic yoghurt and granola, but here in the world capitol of salted meat, why would you bother?

People get up late here, linger over coffee, socialize into the small hours. It's a college student's feckless dream of joy, only it doesn't suit my body's stubborn diurnal insistence to get up, get out, and get moving.

Despite having owned and loved to an unseemly degree a lightly kitted 900SS-CR, I do not bleed Ducati red. I don't even own a pair of red socks, much less red pants and purse-leather sneakers. The new Monster isn't my cup of Americano, good-perhaps great-though it is. I have trouble conceiving of the funky old Multistrada or the brilliant new one as even being Ducatis. With their Honda-san elevation of competence over flair, they don't so much sing "ADV" as belch "maxi-scooter."

In my addled and querulous view, Ducks require sacrifice-of comfort, of ridiculous money, of build quality, performance value, time and patience. Ducatis should be aspirational, but not like realtors aspiring to 3-series BMWs; more like poets aspiring to Ferraris.

One earns a Duke by giving something up, something important ... possibly a kidney. If others fail to understand (or rightly consider you a blowhard poseur.), you sniff aesthetically and turn away toward crema-swirled espresso, tight Lewis leathers and the acolytic rite of valve adjustment.

What use sensible motorcycles? Relentless competence in devices mechanical pulls the humanity out of things-and there is no more human pursuit than riding, with its physical immersion, mental focus and emotional overwash (cultural deviance available at no additional charge).

A real bike makes demands on me, forces accommodations that remind me of my competence, ability, limitations. It's more caterwauling fiddle than MP3 player; more feisty lover than tame domestic.

More like the brutal, cussing Streetfighter or waspy, high-maintenance bitch of an 1198 Corse, then, and less like this agreeably tractable Monster 796. You can ride the piss out of the midi-Monster, but it feels inappropriate. Where the dominatrix Streetfighter slaps back hard enough to rattle your fillings, the submissive Monster just takes it, dark eyes filling with silent tears.

Off to the racetrack then, with our pack of journalists, factory types and desmo demi-celebrities gamboling through traffic like a band of otters. Packed with 60,000 Ducatisti and approximately the world population of Vyrus tronbikes, the Circuito Internazionale Santamonica smelled like a county fair and sounded like a thumping rave featuring sleek brunettes in exploding clothes, competing techno soundtracks and a rhythm band of silver-bodied alien robots on stilts, the only other beings in the place not dressed in red.

For my part, I waddled around under the sun, sweating out last night's Amaro Montenegro into my black armored riding pants, nibbling on ibuprofen and suckling bottle after bottle of aqua frizzante cadged from the storied Xerox hospitality tent. The Red Planet theme continued into various tents along the Wopanese biker midway: Monster Art Planet, Garage Art Planet, Axis of evo Planet-even a "Satellite" where French riders unconditionally surrendered. Viva Vichy!

Riders pelted through the elbow-locked crowds at the top of first gear, revving through rattling Ducati dry clutches, honking if they were on Triumphs; only carabinieri on BMWs paddled cautiously. World Ducati Week(end) would be Euro-Sturgis if not for a few, minor differences...

Virtually every participant took to the track to drag their elbows. Although beer flowed, no fists flew. No one yelled "Ci mostrano le tette!", and tattoos seemed more artistic than brand-driven right up until I saw the guy enhanced with desmodromic shoulder blades.

There were squadrons of like-branded, incomprehensibly accessorized bikes. As the afternoon wore on, clothes peeled off until the biggest difference between Italian stallion pillions and the Playboy bike wash was the perfected dentition of the bunny's smiles.

I love motorcycles and riders and Ducatis maybe best of all, but my body was not built for 37 degrees Celsius. (Okay, technically it was, but only on the inside.) Who would have imagined the racetrack bleachers a quiet refuge? Wallowing in cool breezes like a salmon under a waterfall, I hummed along to the relaxing boom of Ducatis at speed as mid-50s industrialists in speed-hump leathers joyously ground the pegs off their S and R twins.

Ducati may be Italy's Harley-Davidson in certain ways-once a motor company starts branding fashion apparel, it's a full-on lifestyler-but here at least it seems all about actually riding the motorcycle.

Italia is no more immune to carnival food and cheesy T-shirts than Stati Uniti, but Ducati is. Team Ducati shirts are sharper than anything I ever wore with a tie and their Xerox hospitality tent was enough to ruin me for good ol' truck-stop food, possibly forever.

There isn't much good about press conferences except they're air-conditioned. Also, at World Ducati Week we got to hear directly from certified racetrack heroes. I'll say it here: If Nicky Hayden ain't the nicest guy in racing, then bike racing must be a pleasant sport indeed. Nicky said he was still having fun and would be around for a while. I found that heartening.

Acknowledging that he started his own rumor after cutting a track-record practice lap at Mugello, Troy Bayliss quashed hopes that he might return to World Superbike. He said all the right things and they sounded heartfelt, but he looked like he was chewing on glass.

"I love riding the bike, and I love doing the races," Bayliss said, wincing, "but I spoke too soon. I don't want to come back racing." Actually, what he said was, "Oi dun wanna kem beck r'icing" (translation from Australian provided free with your Motorcyclist subscription).

Smiling a rueful champion's smile, Bayliss looked at Michel Fabrizio and Noriyuki Haga, adding graciously, "Even if I did come back, I couldn't do any better than these guys. It ended very well, and I probably shouldn't go back and ruin that story."

Asked if the night's planned drag race on stock Streetfighters was for next year's contracts, Bayliss got a glint in his eye.

"It's just a bit of fun, really, but we're gonna smash those GP boys, that's for sure."

When the MotoGP team filed into the press room, the Italian press was more interested in Valentino Rossi's injuries than anything the beleaguered Ducati team might do this year. Forearm criss-crossed with purple scar tissue, Hayden noted Rossi's amazing run with little of the physical pain of racing.

"It is a shame," Hayden said. "Valentino is huge for our sport, and certainly something's missing with him out.

"It sounds bad," he continued, "but really it's a broken leg. It's up to him whether he comes back stronger."

Casey Stoner's response was simpler: "Truthfully, it doesn't change much for me, because I haven't been fast enough to run up front."

Professional jocks routinely recycle sports clichés and toe the company line, but I was impressed by the simple decency of these young men. They showed grace, humor and patience, the lot of them.

Days later, Stoner revealed that he had already signed with Honda for 2011. Gracelessly, I hope Nicky hands him his ass next year, all tied up in frilly ribbons.

Outside, the fine madness continued. Equally incomprehensible announcements boomed over the grounds in English and Italian. A corps of yellow-spankied Seguimi babes with "Follow Me" lettered across their backs faced off against Marlboro's Red Speed cigarette-girl troupe in some kind of cross-town cheer-off.

Once again, I took refuge at the track. There came a wicked, skittering crunch from just past pit lane, and everybody stood and hooted at the next few riders to dodge. It must suck to crash when you're riding the session's only screaming green Kawasaki, but as the old saying goes, "That's posing."

Eventually, punters were waved off in favor of the Laps of Honor, first by current factory teamsters with much stand-up wheelie action on pit lane, then by a surging band of sputtering crocks. Once started, every classic completed its laps without a breakdown. The race teams lost three. Just goes to show: God rides a towershaft twin.

The evening wound on toward a Streetfight between factory riders. Haga took the drags by a photo-nose before the whole proceeding degenerated into gleeful wheelies, stoppies and tire-popping circular burnouts. Worshiping from the same liturgy, legions of paddock cultisti sent white smoke billowing toward heaven. Yea, verily was it savory unto Pirelli.

Rock shows banged and light shows beamed; guys revved to girls' wriggles and the evening loosened in widening gyres until a watershed of riders finally decamped to club it along the Adriatic, well past midnight.

Mumbling back to our resort alongside newly engaged Sport Riders, I felt guilty about my lukewarm reaction to the middlin' Monstro as we enjoyed a lovely evening bimble, getting lost until our gas lights flamed injected mild frisson into the womblike warmth of the Cattolican night.

My almost-little bike warbled along so contentedly that I had to remind myself it wasn't slow or unexciting, just well-sorted. The moderate Monster may authentically be quicker and faster than my faithfully misremembered SS was on its best day, but it refuses to assert that "ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe" feel that every snarling antique on the classic laps of honor radiated like a death angel's halo. There are good bikes and there are bikes of terrifying majesty, and I wonder which path Ducati will choose for its future.

Though the carnival blared on, I skipped the next day's festivities to go riding. Innocent of phone, map, language, watch or sense of direction, I headed for the hills. San Marino was up there somewhere.

If you rev it, they will come. Ducatis scampered over the roads like an occupying army from the crimson-washed bikeground to the Italian Riviera, hegemonizing the countryside as foretold in Exodus 23:31: "I will establish your borders from the Red (Planet) to the Mediterranean..."

My plan was to go uphill until the roads curved, watching the roundabout signs through towns like Gemmano and Montescudo until something pointed me toward San Marino. With roads bent by hundreds of snakeback turns that respect the winding topography, I couldn't fail to find a satisfying route to nowhere in particular.

As have all civilized cultures, Latins set aside a day for worship. Sunday belongs to God, and like all good Catholics, He favors good food, cool grappa, hot coffee and loud motorcycles.

Heaved and miserable road surfaces made me happy that I wasn't rocking clip-ons, but uphill roads on a Ducati under a Mediterranean sun is my dream of heaven. If I died doing that, I would beg no further salvation.

Swiss, Italians, French, Yanks and Germans formed a multi-national road-keeping force. We boomed through stone-built agrarian villages where old women in black dresses jumped up from trattoria tables to clap for the conga lines of Ducati roadsters revving and popping up the cobbled ways. This is what "café racer" means, and why it translates so poorly.

No Puritan traffic ethic shades out the flower of Italian motorcycling. These guys ride hard on the roads and harder on the track and expect lorries to get the flock out of the way.

If God hadn't intended Italians to ride motorcycles swiftly, He wouldn't have raised the hills around San Marino. And if He hadn't intended them to ride bicycles swiftly, He wouldn't have made half those roads cascade downhill in a riverine flow. Torquing uphill in a line of rattling, bright-red Ducatis while a peloton of sweating, yellow-jerseyed bicyclists sizzle downhill at a comparable rate of travel makes a perfect riding moment.

Allow me to recommend quieter moments, too. Spooning up gelato in a shaded public square would be one. Breakfasting on fresh cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto would be another, while resting up between hill runs with a steaming café coretto is perhaps left to professional degenerates, practiced expatriates or actual Italians. Team Oregon instructors need not apply unless their full-face helmets are rated for exploding head containment.

Getting lost for a day is road bliss. Remaining lost on the return leg is ... inconvenient. When the gas light flared somewhere between Riccione and Rimini and some other R-town, I learned that feeding a 50-euro bill into the gas pump does not result in change. That tank of benzina ran me $29.27 per gallon.

Tank brimming with liquidated euros, I stopped into a roadside gelateria for a cool scoop of bearings. Proprietor Flaudio showed me pictures of his TV personality sons, waxed operatic about his blonde South African wife and insisted I taste every frozen tub. By the time I ordered my medium cup of almond flavor I was completely stuffed, but it was a creamy wonder, sweetened only with hand-pressed apple juice, 40-weight honey and unpasteurized faerie urine.

While I scraped a hole in the cardboard cup, Flaudio exalted the virtues of natural eating and demonstrated a few brisk katas.

"I am 74," he said, "still practice karate."

Wrapping a hairy hand behind my neck, Flaudio drew me close, looked me in the eye and bellowed, "Still f*ck like bull!"

Back at the track, an exit parade formed up behind motorcycle cops, Multistrada-mounted staffers and Playboy bunnies adorning the deck of an AMG Mercedes "NAKED" edition. Every rider revved his pistons out and leaned on his horn in case 42,000 Termignonis barking in ragged chorus might be construed as insufficiently celebratory.

Autostrada beach traffic was Rush Hour of the Damned unless you joined the loosely affiliated Gang of Ducks gashing lanes at 150 kph. When cars stacked into a solid bloc, I followed local riders onto the breakdown lane, where we fizzed merrily on at 115 kph.

Then we swarmed up on a broken-down car. Happily, no one ate the trunk and the issue was resolved by traditional waving and cursing in languages internazionale.

Back at Borgo Panigale, warm spring rain plastered down my sweaty hair as I reluctantly turned in the Monster key and shuffled back to my hotel, already nostalgic.

If you haven't ridden the hills of San Marino, crush your excuses and go. It's inconvenient and expensive and you're probably out of shape for sport riding. Will that change in 10 years?

Somewhere up in the hills that wrap Misano like dusky lover's legs, there's a road tuned to your pitch and maybe, just maybe, there's a Ducati with your name on it.

A word to the wise, once lettered onto an Italian champion's bike: "GO!!!!!!!"

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