The MotoGiro-America Classic Motorcycle Rally

Old Testament - Discovering the Elementals at the 2014 MotoGiro

It is springtime in rural New York, where the air smells like promise, newborn. Not that it’s always sweet; in fact, at the moment it smells a little blue. A little like something not combusting properly. But that, here at the contemporary American edition of a century-old continental event, means things are working just right.

It’s been a decade since MotoGiro-USA began recreating on these shores, in miniaturized form, the epic Giro Motociclistico d’Italia, a weeklong endurance race starring the demigods of early 20th-century Europe, those daring potentates of motorized sport in pudding-bowl helmets. Aboard the hottest machinery available to man, they ran flat out over 2,000 miles of village, city, and rural streets. In the mind’s eye, forever heroic, they freeze mid-sprint alongside their Gileras and Morinis at the running start.

Now, over one weekend in early May, eras and continents collide in a nostalgic array of mechanical wonders: Zündapp and Jawa, Benelli and Bridgestone, Motobi and Sears, Bultaco and BSA, NSU and BMW, the Honda Dreams and Cubs that were largely responsible for getting a whole nation of youth on two wheels. Call it the festival of first bikes piloted over two days of riding the come-what-may roads of the Western Catskills.

Scott Reichert getting atmospheric on a 1966 Honda CB160.

One saw, simultaneously present in the staging area outside the Holiday Inn, three disparate cultural ages. First, the time when severe trials on the raw roadways were the ultimate test of human endurance, not to mention an opportunity to move a lot of units if your company beat the competition. Next the exhilaration of the 1960s and its Youthquake, when suddenly any teen could save enough from part-time work to walk into Montgomery Ward and come out with a small-displacement ticket to unprecedented fun. And finally, the current moment in which urbane 23-year-olds (those not already immersed in crafting hobnailed boots or ethically sourced organic chocolate) huddle together in Brooklyn garages fitting tires to Japanese bikes twice as old as they are.

Jack Lueders-Booth, attended by Scott Reichert, performing pre-ride surgery on a Honda 305 Superhawk’s stuck throttle.

There is new life in the old thumper, scrambler, scooter, and any-old-sort-of-tiddler class, and it’s a dual-exhaust phenomenon: powered on one side by baby boomers who in increasing numbers prowl eBay for the bikes of their youth and on the other by au courant young adults who have fixed on Aermacchis and Allstates as the Braille by which they can read their kin in the dark. Every generation revalues something left behind by a previous generation. Now small, uncomplicated bikes have hooked a new generation with their secret: Riding them is a blast. Learning to fix them is an unexpected bonus, as well as necessary. Riders of half-century-old bikes don’t need to manufacture opportunities to exercise the artisanal urge.

All this is why, since the very first iteration of the American MotoGiro—the grand idea of ex-racer and United States Classic Racing Association co-founder Bob Coy, who rode the 2003 Motogiro d’Italia and was irremediably infected with Giro fever—participation has increased steadily. You can’t keep a good secret, well, secret. The 2004 fall rally saw 36 riders enter; a decade later, registration on the spring event had to be closed within weeks of opening. One hundred thirty started, and the majority finished. The ratio was testimony to the hardiness of the riders—the second day’s weather, with wind and rain and cold, felt cosmic: It gave only one option, and that was to put your head down and go.

The mood inside the firehouse that was the site of the Sunday morning time check was funereal, though that might have had something to do with the fact that there was only one operating toilet and a coffee urn that needed to have been twice as large. One young woman set her gloves on the tepid baseboard heater in an act of heartbreaking wishfulness and then sat staring off into the middle distance, as if willing it to take her away. The MotoGiro’s motto this day might have come from 1 Peter 1:7. “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold.”

The high number of finishers is also a sign that these riders are extraordinarily adept with mechanics on the fly—there was much confabbing over pieces of bikes that lay on the pavement Friday night asking their mute questions, and at the morning meeting before Saturday’s start it was deemed necessary to remind those who might pull over they were to give a thumbs-up if no help was needed. I saw that thumbs-up again and again along the route, as riders bent over their bikes performing battlefield surgery. Only the certifiably flat-lined were picked up by the sweep truck that followed the action from a respectful but ready distance.

Low-speed skills on trial, where every dab counts.

The other cause of the generally successful outcome is the scale of this weekend’s “competition for the noncompetitive,” as one rider put it: a reasonable but not altogether easy 287 miles at an average 25 mph, with built-in penalties for entering a time-check window too soon. It was stated early and often that the events of MotoGiro-USA are not races, nor do they promote a winner-take-all mentality: Courtesy to fellow, volunteer, and community was paramount, especially since, as reminded in the pre-ride meeting, “You’re riding a motorcycle while wearing a bib—you already wear a target.” (The machines themselves, pre-1968 and less than 305cc, a few of which run not on gas but rather sweat and foot power up the taller hills, were not as limiting as might be thought, since what goes up also comes down and does so flying; the riders were more than willing to put the little screamers through their paces, even if they in turn occasionally put their riders in a ditch or spit out some vital part in good-natured protest.)

There were no dogs asleep in the middle of a turn or housewives roused by a clatter to emerge from their homes directly into a cobblestone street, as in the namesake event, but there was the surprising difficulty of the slow-speed skills trials that began each leg, through tightly skeined cones and timed to the thousandth of a second. A foot or cone down here costs a one-second penalty, and either too soon or too late past the electronic timing beam costs more; one minute on either side of a time-check window brings down a 60-point hammer. Given this potential for amassing points, the fact that at the end of the first day the leading rider had accrued a penalty of less than one second—0.0908, to be exact—shows how serious the “noncompetition” had become.

David Butch Cassady waits for the start on a developed Honda S90. Are we having fun yet? Hell yes.

“This is our Burning Man,” one repeat entrant told me. Now the meaning of what had at first appeared an uncrackable code—this inexplicable mashup of handbuilt and humorous, the fresh-from-the-barn rusted-out next to the lavishly rebuilt, the Pepsi can stuffed inside a frame as oil-breather catchment (possibly other parts from other cans inside the works too), the in-jokes on T-shirts and tank decals, the effort of trucking in these little old bikes from Connecticut and Ohio, Ontario and Alabama—finally resolved into a single notion that is viscerally understood. The present experience of past fun.

Or, the pleasurable closing of a life circle all in the completion of one weekend’s circular journey.

A rider at Sunday’s first time check, looking down as he spoke, said he was pulling out. “It stopped being fun,” was all he offered, as rain slid sideways through the chill air. But he was in the minority. No matter what was encountered, in fact because of all that was encountered, unpredictability a better prize than any trophy to this particular group of self-selected characters, it remained more fun than a lot of these lifelong motorcyclists had had in a long time.

Indeed, the MotoGiro gives off the happy energy of a controlled chaos that is alive with ingenuity and creativity—in other words, childhood. The scene reminds me of nothing so much as the sprawling fort in the woods built by a gang of kids, the best part of which is that it is hidden from adults, those dour naysayers prone to admonishments on the dangers of playing with sticks and pocket knives. There is glee that anything can happen and that anything will. The riders will meet adversity—after all, a number of these are large old men riding small old bikes, as Tom from Massachusetts observed, so adversity will of necessity occur—and they will again be thrown upon their wits, the fellowship of their confrères, and a general can-do attitude once more reclaimed from the superfluity to which it is otherwise consigned by the ECU.

No wonder these machines are becoming increasingly collectible; their monetary worth sadly incidental to their true value. One longtime competitor noted that the bikes are looking a lot shinier this year. “The money’s starting to show up.”

This will, as money always does, change everything. But for now there remain plenty of things it will never touch. The sense that running a giro gives one a key to a secret cache of whooping good times is one of them. Until that is co-opted or too widely discovered to retain the insiderish conviviality that makes it what it is, the Giro remains for many the one date on the calendar that is inviolable, the date that almost always causes racing legend Dave Roper to show up on an ancient Guzzi and blow away the competition with artful ease, even given a roadside pause during which he cuts his hair in observation of the equinox (of course, the equinox haircut; doesn’t everyone?).

It’s follow-the-leader in New York.

At the end of this gray yet internally sunny Sunday in May, the timing equipment had been packed until next time. The awards were handed in succession to the intrepid travelers who had earned them with the Giro winner’s patented combination of skill, moxie, and fine humor. Only when the name of the second-place finisher in the scooter class was called, Bob Wills on the Honda Cub that was a last-minute change for the Zündapp Bella he had hoped to resurrect even though two weeks from the start it was still a dream and a pile of parts on his garage floor, was it discovered that he was still out on the road. Maybe he was pushing it up a hill, or bump-starting it down the other side, since the starter had long before gone south. He had arrived at Sunday lunch well after everyone else had thrown their paper plates in the garbage to take the road once more. He was the last of the last. Which meant, at the MotoGiro-East of 2014, he was heading straight for first.

Scott Reichert getting atmospheric on a 1966 Honda CB160.
Jack Lueders-Booth, attended by Scott Reichert, performing pre-ride surgery on a Honda 305 Superhawk’s stuck throttle.
Low-speed skills on trial, where every dab counts.
David Butch Cassady waits for the start on a developed Honda S90. Are we having fun yet? Hell yes.
It’s follow-the-leader in New York.