His name is Giacomo Agostini, and he poses most of the time as just plain mild-mannered, handsome, glittering Super Italian. In moments of crisis he strips and changes quickly into a skintight, soft black leather costume, with black leather mask and soft black boots, and roars off on a motorcycle that looks a whole lot like a torpedo. He lives on the far edge of life, where most men are afraid to go, at a kind of blinding speed punctuated by crashes. He always recovers from the accidents, ministered to by platoons of stunning, pliant girls; he is cool, scarred and bold. He also is 24 years old, which is a wonder.
You must understand right away this special magic of a motorcycle rider in Europe. We know all about riders in the U.S., and you can have most of them. We have heard about Hell's Angels, although their virility is now so suspect they might be called Heck's Angels. To us, motorcycle riders have a vague bad image we cannot quite pinpoint, perhaps because they look too much like Marlon Brando and not enough like Steve McQueen.
Not in Europe. And never in Italy. An Angel or anyone of that breed would not be fit to carry Agostini's oilcan. Motorcycling is not a social rite, or occasionally chic, as it is here. It is a special way of life in Europe. All along the broken-nose and skinned-elbow circuit, at badly kept little tracks like Modena and Imola and Ulster, the roar of motorcycle racing rattles the blood of thousands. People see in it a form of fine, sensible insanity, like knife-fighting or letting the bulls chase you through the streets of Pamplona—which also makes a lot of sense if you don't think about it too long.
All through the summer, the racers speed on a crushing weekly schedule: race and skid and crash and then make love and drink wine. Only the flintiest survive to make a great deal of money, which means nothing to them. The rest earn trophies, rings and jeweled watches, which also are not important. But they all get covered with glory, which is what motorcycle racing is really about.
Giacomo Agostini is the world champion, the No. 1 man, moving through it all with the heavy-eyed look every Italian man unconsciously assumes at puberty, and living by a creed that sifts down through a translator in one sentence. "He says," explains the translator, drawing a picture in the air, " "I want to do everything I can—while I can.' "
For Giacomo Agostini, doing everything begins at the Autodrome at Modena, where he races and practices. The Autodrome also is a test track for Enzo Ferrari, who builds some of the world's reddest and fastest race cars at his factory not far away. Ferrari knows that anyone who has the stomach lining and reflexes it takes to drive well on two wheels usually can drive extremely well on four. And everyone around Modena will tell you confidentially that one day Agostini will end up driving a Ferrari on the international circuit. Another motorcycle champion, John Surtees, made the transition not too many years ago and in 1964 won the world title in Grand Prix cars.
There are days when everybody shares the Modena track, with new Ferrari P4 cars and 500-cc. cycles all weaving and darting around the courses. It doesn't take much to get a crowd in Modena; the town comes down to watch. As an extra attraction the Modena Aero Club joins the scene with an armada of incredibly battered old planes, taking off and landing in the infield and then taxiing across the track. Off to one side Ferrari will stand there, anonymous behind his tinted glasses, and watch Agostini with a look of purest speculation. It seems clear Enzo has plans for him.
The Italian moviemakers are also watching. They see in Agostini the charisma of another Marcello Mastroianni. What they really have is a black-haired version of Jimmy Dean, whose special look and smoldering face launched a thousand teeny-ships. Before this race season started, Agostini had already sailed through one movie test with enormous natural elan and producers were talking contract. After the year is over, he says, he will listen to them. To Giacomo, after motorcycles there is nothing tough about acting.
Unquestionably, he has presence. In one scene at Damiano's in Gallarate, the best restaurant in that small north Italian town, he ushered a party in and told the waiter, "I'll make the salad—to see that it is done right." Emotions over food run high in Gallarate, and nearly anyone but Agostini would be asking for a duel with steak knives with talk like that. The manager of the place came over, bowing, and asked for an autographed picture.
Agostini went out to his car and came back with a photograph, and sat staring at it for a long time. "What shall I write on it?" he said. Then he snapped his fingers in inspiration, uncapped a felt-tipped pen and wrote, neatly: "At Damiano's restaurant, we EAT for the world championship," and looked around the table triumphantly. He bent back to the picture and signed " Agostini" with a flourish, and the manager promptly pinned the picture up on the wall behind the cash register so everyone could see it.