SI Vault
Bob Ottum
May 15, 1967
Italy's Giacomo Agostini is the world motorcycle racing champion and a man to be admired, but you've had it, Antonio, if the girl friend yearns to run a fingertip over his magnificent mug
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May 15, 1967

Viva! But Hide Your Women

Italy's Giacomo Agostini is the world motorcycle racing champion and a man to be admired, but you've had it, Antonio, if the girl friend yearns to run a fingertip over his magnificent mug

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Gallarate lies in a clammy gray fog; the test track is out behind the factory, consisting of a lonely black-top road guarded by men with slit eyes. Curves at each end of the road vanish off into an out-of-focus filminess. The jellow Porsche pulls up and stops and Agostini gets out, in black double-breasted blazer, gray slacks, carefully knotted tie. He also is wearing black-and-tan high-top square-toed shoes with pearl buttons up the sides. They are the most beautiful shoes in Italy.

The whole scene smacks so much of Fellini that—seeing Agostini pull off his clothes standing there in that faint daylight—it is like looking through cheesecloth or whatever it is the Italians put over the lenses of their movie cameras. There are faint beads of water on the roof and windshield of the Porsche, and far across the field the background trees are all fuzzy and damp. The air is perfectly quiet except for the faint metallic clicks of a mechanic working on the champion's motorcycle.

Agostini pulls off his tie, shirt, undershirt, pants—methodically, heavy-eyed, like a man preparing for a religious rite. He holds the pants up by the cuffs and shakes them all straight and then puts them carefully across the front seat. In his undershorts, very routine shorts for the rest of the clothes, he walks around to the trunk and opens it, takes out a crash helmet and sets it aside and then tugs on a faded maroon turtle-neck shirt. Then he unfolds the racing suit.

The black leathers fit so tightly he has to raise his shoulders sharply to zip up the front from between his legs; it fastens closely at the neck, and the wrists and ankles zip closed. He pulls on the boots that could have been made by a deadly Courr�ges and zips them up the back. Then he tugs on his racing gloves and, punching them between the fingers to tighten them, he walks over and looks at the machine. So far no one has spoken. This is where Fellini would cut to title and credits; it is a natural break. The mechanic nods and backs away, the sparkplug wrench in his hand. Agostini pulls a comb from a small chamois case and carefully combs his hair. Then he puts on the helmet. It is striped, fore and aft, in green, white and red, the Italian colors. He snaps the black leather mask across his face and pulls down the goggles. With that gesture he changes identity. The Racer. Super Italian.

Starting an Agusta 500-cc. motorcycle is a lot like overpowering a Texas long-horn steer. Giacomo grabs it by the handlebars and pushes it, running alongside, until it coughs explosively into life. Then he leaps on sidesaddle and, in a smooth flow of motion, throws one leg over and blends into it. The monster vanishes into the mist and the mechanic listens to its barking from afar and scowls and looks at the wrench. Suddenly the roar grows louder again; Agostini has swung it around in a tight turn and is coming back. The huge cycle materializes out of the mist and flashes by in a blurred, silent teardrop shape. Then sharply behind it, rolling, comes the boom of thunder. It shakes your rib cage and brings tears to your eyes.

There is not too much you must know about this 500-cc. cycle. It is a giant, about 300 pounds of runaway beast. It is clumsily streamlined. The windscreen arcs back over the rider and he crouches tightly doubled over, hugging the motorcycle between his legs, his chest against the gas tank and his head forward under the shield. There are no chrome refinements, no mufflers, no buddy seat or leather saddlebags with shiny studs. Agusta builds his racing machines all engine, wheels, drive-chain and gas tank. It winds up to roughly 70 horsepower, and Agostini has just hurled it along the test track at 218 kilometers an hour—135 mph.

"There is nothing instinctive about driving it," says Chiesa, shivering with the sound. "You must keep your feet on the pedals and balance it with your knees; you open one leg, it creates drag. You lean and the cycle turns. To turn left, you do not turn the wheel. You hold out your left knee and lean.

"But there is much more to do. You shift gears with your right foot pedal and brake with both the left pedal and your right-hand grip. You also apply the throttle with your right hand and work the clutch. You watch the rpms—the gauge is just under your nose. You run it at 11 or 12 and drop it to 10 and shift gears. You have six gear changes, sometimes seven, to work it up to top speed. On one lap around a track you must change the gears maybe 15 times or more. This you do smoothly or you lose the cycle and, sometimes, you fly."

From the other direction Agostini takes shape again, roaring out of the fog. The big machine shudders to a stop, and the mechanic steps out with the wrench again. "Two eighteen," he says, giving the time, and Agostini pulls up his goggles, unsnaps the mask and smiles. He becomes Agostini again.

The back left shoulder of his suit is badly scratched and tortured; the ragged lines run down to his flanks. The backs of the boots are scraped raw. He put all the marks there last season in the Mila-no Marittima when he hit another oil spot coming off a tight corner, leaning at 79 miles an hour, and the motorcycle spilled. It hurled him onto the track and he bounced and skidded and rasped 160 meters. When he finally stopped sliding, he lay there with his hands over his face and prayed that the other cycles would not run over him.

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