When you think of Italy, what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the country’s delicious cuisine. Or maybe it’s the profound taste of a robust vino. Maybe it’s for the intoxicating sound of an exotic sports car or even the fiery nature of its women. If you’re a true motorcycle fanatic however, there’s only one thing that comes to mind: Motorcycles.
And when you consider all of Italy’s biggest motorcycle manufacturers, the one with arguably the deepest roots is Ducati. If you’ve seen these motorcycles you might understand. Sitting on one brings further appreciation. But it isn’t until you actually ride one that you realize the passion at the core of these motorcycles.
During a recent ride through Italy we discover more about Ducati, its people, and its motorcycles than we ever expected. Our Italian adventure came on the tail-end of the official introduction of the 2010 Ducati Streetfighter held at the finest motorsports venue on the planet, Ascari Race Resort near Ronda, Spain. After the event concluded we took a quick flight to Bologna for the second part of a very European adventure.
For a bona fide English-only speaking American, international travel is always an eye-opening experience – especially when you first set foot in Italy. It takes time to acclimate yourself to the visual onslaught that epitomizes this Mediterranean peninsula. Everything from the way people dress, women in their vibrant, slender cut dresses, men in their sleek, tailored business suits to the teenagers with their gaudy, gold hi-top shoes, acid wash jeans and slicked-back hair. Everything Italian is an assault on one’s senses.
Land of Motors
The transition from the small streets of Bologna to the endless fields of grapes is definitely experienced best on a motorcycle.
Located just a couple miles from Bologna’s Guglielmo Marconi International Airport, the Ducati factory is smack dab in the middle of the “Land of Motors,” otherwise known as the Emilia-Romagna region. Known for its high concentration of legendary companies including Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati, this truly is nirvana for any motorsports aficionado.
Ducati is entrenched in this tradition as deeply as any of them. Building motorcycles wasn’t how Ducati originally came to be. Founded in 1926 by brothers Adriano, Bruno and Marcello Ducati, the company was originally established as a radio and electronic components manufacturer. Nine years later they began construction on the factory at the same site where Ducati still operates. When completed it was considered an architectural masterpiece, employing nearly 7000 people before it was taken over by the Germans in late 1943. A year later the facility was destroyed by Allied bombs. Remnants of one shelled building still remains today.
The reconstruction process coincided with the country’s need for affordable transportation solutions. By 1946 Ducati was resurrected from certain extinction with the release of its first gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, named Cucciolo (puppy in English) designed to power a conventional bicycle. Fast forward 60 years and Ducati is enjoying the most prosperous era in its history with an ever-growing line of motorcycles and a racing pedigree that belies its humble beginnings.
The race is on! Whenever you’re at the controls of any type of motor vehicle in Italy you feel the need to stay ahead of the person next to you.
The City of Ducati
From the Guglielmo Marconi Airport we took a quick cab ride to Hotel Amadeus in Bologna. From the moment we arrived at its doorstep it became pretty obvious that we were in Ducati’s backyard. Everywhere you go there’s some form of Ducati memorabilia either taped to a window, hanging on a wall, or for sale behind a counter. It’s crazy.
We began our day by heading to Ducati’s complex for a tour of the Ducati museum and factory, both of which are free of charge, but a reservation is required. This is the real deal. The Bologna factory is where every Ducati motorcycle is designed, engineered and produced. It also houses its racing subsidiary, Ducati Corse, the folks behind its worldwide motorcycle racing effort.
Opened in 1998, the museum houses all things Ducati. It’s run by curator and certified Ducati expert, Livio Lodi. From its early transistor radios, typewriters, electrical appliances, and its Cucciolo bicycle engine to an example of each and every one of its racing motorcycles, Lodi shows you it all and describes all the steps Ducati has taken to reach its current level of success. The collection is astounding. Within the museums walls you are able to see classics like the 125 Gran Sport Marianna, one of the first bikes designed by legendary engineer Fabio Taglioni, (who is also responsible for inventing Ducati’s desmodromic valve actuation system) and Mike Hailwood’s Isle of Man TT-winning Ducati 900 SS.
My personal favorite: the original 916-generation Superbikes that I watched wildman Carl Fogarty pilot to his four World Superbike Championships. Recent additions to the museum include Troy Bayliss’ 2008 championship-winning 1098R Superbike and Casey Stoner’s championship-winning Desmosedici MotoGP bike. By far this museum has the largest collection of Ducati motorcycles I’ve ever seen in my life, and, according to Lodi, all are in the same exact condition as they were after their final races. Perhaps the coolest part is that the majority of them still run.
The opportunity to view the collection of Ducatis inside its museum was well worth the trip by itself. The museum is open to the public Monday through Friday.
From there we moseyed downstairs and into the heart of factory operations. Contrary to what you might assume, a good portion of a Ducati motorcycle is still built by hand. Inside, the factory employs modern manufacturing techniques similar to the auto industry, such as the just-in-time parts procurement process in which parts are delivered from outside technical partners, such as Brembo and Marchesini. Many of the components i.e. complete front ends, wheels/tires, etc., are fully assembled and delivered at a specific time, thus ensuring that the production line is always moving at maximum efficiency.
While components like the frame and the suspension are delivered to the factory pre-assembled, the engines themselves are still built inside the factory by hand. A specific area is dedicated to engine production and engines are assembled in stages out of a parts kit. After the bike is assembled it is run though a gamut of quality-control assurance checks before it’s ready to be shipped off to dealers.
The production line only makes one type of Ducati motorcycle at one time but can be switched quickly to a different model. Since motorcycle sales are never constant, production slows during the winter months but ramps up as the weather starts turning warm and more orders are placed. On the morning we were there we witnessed new Ducati 696 and 1100 Monsters being assembled.
Components like the frame and suspension are delivered to the factory pre-assembled while the engines are still built inside the factory by hand.
Our tour concluded around lunch and we were invited to Ducati’s cafeteria to fill up on some Bolognese favorites along with the rest of the staff. Inside the dining hall a few motorcycles are on display and the top of the walls are lined with images of previous Ducati Superbike Champions. The upcoming Valencia World Superbike round was the topic of discussion at the table we sat at and everyone was in consensus that the Ducati 1098R piloted by factory riders Noriyuki Haga and Michel Fabrizio will be hard to beat. You’ve got to love Italian pride.
One of the first rules of dining in Italy is that no meal is complete without a mandatory shot of espresso, so next to the cafeteria there’s an espresso bar complete with Ducati logo-emblazoned cups and sugar packets! With stomachs full and minds caffeinated, we grabbed our waiting Ducati motorcycles and prepared to hit the streets.
The folks at Ducati were gracious enough to let us use a new Multistrada and Monster 1100 for our tour. Accompanying me on the trip was Ducati North America Press Officer, John Paolo Canton, who is well versed in the intricacies of traveling in Italy.
One of the few modern Ducatis I had yet to ride was the Multistrada and everyone I’ve ever spoken to who has ridden one can’t stop talking about how fun, versatile and truly red it is. So when I saw that ours was outfitted in premium S trim, complete with Ohlins suspension and accessory hard-case luggage, I was even more excited. Time to ride!
If you’ve never operated a vehicle in Italy, you’re in for quite a surprise. As soon as we exited the gated confines of the Ducati complex it felt like we were in a full-on race against everyone on the road. Unlike America, where driving or riding is usually an exercise in transportation, in Italy anytime you’re at the controls of a vehicle it feels like a Superpole session. Simply putting around doesn’t cut it. On the road at least, it’s every man for himself – people take driving that seriously.
Throughout Italy the roads are substantially narrower than in the States. They are also crowded with all sorts of traffic. Bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, cars, buses, you name it, it’s all turning every which way in front of you. If you wish to keep from being run over, it’s important to remain attentive because you never know when you’re going to be forced to bob, weave, brake and accelerate, sometimes all at the same time, in order to stay out of harm’s way.
Despite the Multistrada’s oversized dimensions, with a pair of hard cases dangling off either side, this bike will surprise you with how little manhandling it requires to change directions. Its 1100cc air-cooled engine has plenty of oomph down low so when you knowingly cut-off a fellow road warrior, it’s cool, odds are he’ll never catch up. Can you tell I really like riding in Italy?
It was mid-afternoon by the time we finally hit the road, so we decided to stick around Bologna and take in some of the sights before heading east towards Rimini the next day. Even with the narrow streets, traffic moves surprisingly well here too. It also helps that the majority of the cars are no bigger than a Honda Civic. You’d think that since we were in Ducati’s backyard the roads would be vibrating with the sound of Desmo-equipped L-Twins, but that’s simply not the case. I see more Ducati motorcycles at home in Orange County, California. How crazy is that? Not only that, in Bologna a Ducati rider is revered, even more so than at home, and some people literally move out of the way when they see its red colors behind them. What you do see is a constant swarm of scooters of varying shapes and sizes ridden indiscriminately by little old ladies, young kids, and even businessmen.
Whether piling on the miles, railing around the corners, or navigating through the tight confines of the city, the Mutistrada can do it all. Without a doubt it’s the most versatile motorcycle within Ducati’s model lineup.
Maneuvering through the streets of downtown Bologna can be especially confusing as many of the roads don’t travel straight. Fortunately the majority of intersections are well-marked. As you ride though the city it’s hard not to notice the variety of arcades (covered stone walkways) that line the streets. Many feature perfectly manicured columns that are centuries old.
First we headed toward the adjacent forested foothills of Monte della Guardia. A two-mile stretch of single lane road climbs to the top and is the sight of the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. A long arcade consisting of 666 individual arches runs parallel to the road. The view from the top is breathtaking and from here you can look down and see the reddish-orange rooftops of the old city.
From there we zigzagged our way toward the Piazza Maggiore, which marks Bologna’s city center. Originally built in the 12th century, this is one of Italy’s oldest open-air squares. A magnificent fountain in the middle features a giant statue of Neptune, God of the Sea. Beautifully crafted stone buildings such as the Basilica di San Petronio (one of Italy’s biggest churches) and the huge clock atop the Palazzo Comunale (townhall) surrounds you on all sides. Coming from California, where the majority of city construction is only a few decades old at the most, it’s hard to even fathom how structures like these were created hundreds of years ago without rebar and stucco.
While trying to park a car is nearly impossible, finding a spot for your motorcycle is easy. We parked the bikes and walked around for a while taking in the sights and sounds of this magnificent Piazza Maggiore. A variety of cafés line the square and provide ample opportunity for a snack or quick espresso which, of course, we indulged in. From there we headed east on foot towards the twin leaning brick towers near the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. Built during the days of the Roman Empire as a means of defense, this is a must-see tourist stop. As the sun began to set in the sky, we headed back to our hotel to get some rest before meeting some Ducati friends at the Michelemma restaurant, a place justly renowned for its seafood cuisine. It didn’t disappoint. Afterwards we raced through the streets and closed the chapter on our second night abroad.
Covered walkways or arches are abundant in Bologna. Here a series of 666 arches line the road up to the sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca.
The Road to Misano
Following a successful day of banging bars through the boulevards of Bologna I was feeling pretty confident with my newly acquired Italian riding skills. Maybe a little bit too confident…
After enjoying a leisurely breakfast of fresh croissants and cappuccinos (you’ve got to love Italy’s unhurried pace everywhere other than on the street), we loaded up our motorcycles and set off southeast on Strada Statale 9 towards the city of Riccione on the Adriatic coast, leaving Bologna’s historic brick and mason buildings behind.
With gas tanks and bellies equally full we were on the road and looking for trouble. Considering the Multistrada’s appearance you wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a hooligan bike. But then again it does say Ducati on the gas tank, so it comes as no surprise that when you’re riding it there’s a strong chance that you’ll partake in some motorcycling high jinks. Hey, they shouldn’t have made this such a fun motorcycle, right? So as we pulled onto the street I hucked a mondo wheelie.
First gear, second gear and just when I clicked into third I saw a Carabinieri (Italian super police) heading towards me in the opposite direction. I set the front wheel down, hoping he didn’t notice, but he did. And instead of just flipping around and pulling me over from behind like they do in America, this cop pointed his car right at me forcing me off the road. Uh-oh.
The approaching policeman was dressed in this outrageously perfect uniform that looked more like something a law man might’ve worn 100 years ago. He pulled off his whiter-than-white gloves and asked me for my driver’s license. I handed him my US passport.
The air-cooled 1078cc L-Twin engine in the Multistrada delivers power instantly to the rear wheel and makes one-wheel lawlessness all too easy.
To this he says in a firm and well-enunciated tone, “In Italy you need a driver’s license to ride a motorcycle. Not a passport.” I hand him my California driver’s license. He methodically looks it over, analyzing every single letter and number. He hands it back to me and asks for the motorcycle’s papers. I rummage through my pockets unable to find the registration paperwork the folks at Ducati told me to not to lose.
I then go into my spiel, telling him that the bike belongs to Ducati and that I’m an American journalist. His dead-straight facial expression tells me he’s not sympathetic.
“In Italy we ride with both wheels on the ground,” he says. “Remember that.”
I apologized profusely, vowing to never ever do another wheelie (fingers crossed) and we’re back on our way. We continue straight through the endless fields of cherry trees that are in full bloom during March’s warm weather. Smaller towns are liberally sprinkled along our route. Heeding the carabinieri’s advice, I took time to soak in the sights of the Italian settlements and enjoy the sweet smell of the blossoms. Before I knew it we were in the city of Imola – home to perhaps the most famous racetrack in all of Italy.
For a certified track junkie like myself, one of the coolest things about Italy is how amazing racetracks like Imola are integrated right into the city. For an Italian citizen, racing is a part of everyday life. It’s a harmonious idea – life and racing. You simply can’t have one without the other and Italians understand this better than most – you only need to visit Imola for proof.
The stacked Ferrari F40 statue at Imola racetrack erected by the late French sculptor Arman, pays tribute to Ferrari founder, Enzo Ferrari.
We pulled up to the entrance of the track right next to the famous stacked Ferrari F40 statue erected by the late French sculptor Arman, which pays tribute to Ferrari founder, Enzo Ferrari. We shut off the vibrating thrum of our motorcycles and I swear that you could hear the echoed sound of a Ferrari Formula One car blasting at full song around the three-mile course.
Back on the Strada we continued towards the coast through Northern Italy’s acres of green pasture. Typically, Ducati motorcycles aren’t synonymous with comfort, however riding the Multistrada could change that stereotype. Its handlebars are positioned to make the pilot relaxed on the bike. And while the seat is on the soft side, it helps absorb the roughness on cobblestone roadways.
As we neared the city of Faenza, we saw signs directing traffic to a motocross race that we later learned was the opening round of the 2009 FIM World Motocross Championship. How cool is that? We navigated through a series of tight right and left corners that taxed our Ducati’s turning ability. It was here that I noticed just how sharp the Multistrada truly is. It handles with the same type of sharpness we’ve grown to love on its Superbike cousins.
The line to get into the track was nearly a mile long and consisted of various team transporters. We snuck right to the front and as we turned to go inside a burly Italian dude halted our progress saying the circuit was closed. With that we were back on the road and after some unscheduled detours (tricky Italian roads) we arrived at the Hotel Lungamore in Riccione.
One of the many perks of living in Italy is being able to ride at a world-class racetrack like Misano.
Sunny skies and cooler temperatures greeted us when we awoke the next morning. Our plan was to ride over to the Misano racetrack and check out a bit of practice for the Ducati Desmo Challenge race series. The six-race series is exclusively for Ducati enthusiasts and features different racing classes for Ducati owners to compete against themselves.
We wandered the pits for awhile and it was interesting to note the differences between the American and Italian club racing scene. One of the things I was most impressed with was the sheer pride Italians take in having their racing bikes look good aesthetically. You won’t find any half-assed primer fairings wrapped with duct tape and zip ties. Nope, not in Italy. Here nearly everyone has a ridiculously shiny paint job. Their racing leathers might be a little battered, but for sure their bikes won’t be.
It was also interesting to see how serious the level of competition was. All four major tire manufacturers, Dunlop, Michelin, Metzeler and Pirelli, were on site with factory trucks delivering tire support to the paddock. You don’t see that level of support in America.
After watching some racing it was time for us to head back to Bologna. But not before we attacked some prime backroads. We headed back via the A14 Autostrada. From there we took the E45 south past the city of Cesena and onto SP96 towards Santa Sofia. Once we reached the small town of Santa Sofia we veered south and into one of Italy’s national forests. The roads continued to get tighter as we climbed into heavily wooded areas of the park. Near Dicomano we took the SS561 split which pushed us north and onto SS65 which shot us back on the A1 section of the Autostrada.
The Ducati Desmo Challenge race series provides great opportunity to explore the pits and experience the difference between American and Italian club racing.
It was well after dark when we pulled into the Ducati factory. I turned the key off and realized the ride was over and within a few hours I’d be on a plane bound for home. We walked back towards the hotel reminiscing about the last 24 hours, stopping by a local pizzeria to get one last Bolognese fix. Hanging on the wall near the entrance is a picture of American road racer Ben Bostrom with some friends probably taken during his tenure as a Ducati factory World Superbike rider. I recall him once saying that riding for the Italian squad was some of the most fun he had ever had. And after just a few days of experiencing Ducati up close, I would have to agree.