Italy’s north is a millionaire’s playground. In the height of summer, a ride along the Adriatic coast with the deep-blue horizon blending into the turquoise ocean, the hidden restaurants and 14th century castles floating by, it can seem time has stopped.
Bologna in northern Italy is the home of bolognaise, tortellini, and a delicacy called mortadella. It’s also an international airport giving access to places like Misano and Rimini. For motorcycle enthusiasts Misano is a track with a huge history, and Rimini is a coastal destination popular with the rich and famous during the 1960s.
But alongside these landmarks are the city of Pesaro, home to Benelli Motorcycles for nearly a century, and a small village called Tavullia.
For fans of MotoGP, there’s something very special about Tavullia: the VR46 Ranch.
After 36 hours of flying, and having left a cold and dismal Sydney in the middle of winter, to stumble off a plane into the blazing sunshine of northern Italy had a dreamlike quality. The grip on reality became even less sure as the hire car sat comfortably on 150kph on the Autostrada on what seemed to be the wrong side of the road.
Misano’s exit flashed by and the countryside became a postcard of rolling green hills, flourishing orchards and, occasionally, a castle or stone ruin perched on a hilltop. The air conditioning ran flat out as the tiny streets of Pesaro appeared, choked with every kind of motorcycle, pushbike and electric bike imaginable. Hard, tanned bodies wearing very little filled the streets, expensive, high-performance cars parked seemingly haphazard in any scrap of space they could find, and the Adriatic beckoned.
It didn’t seem like it could truly be happening.
Benelli Motorcycles has been headquartered in Pesaro since the early 1900s, and after a chequered history – including destruction of the factory during the Second World War and a swag of world and national championships – is going through a big resurgence. It felt just a little overwhelming to climb on a sparkling new TRK502X outside the main offices and squint up through the searing sunshine at the well-known logo above the impressive entrance.
To be in that place, on that bike, jetlagged almost into unconsciousness, almost felt as though there was something supernatural happening.
With temperatures approaching 30 degrees, riding the winding roads through the heartbreakingly beautiful scenery was so intense and overwhelming it was almost hard to accept. Sometimes great moments in life aren’t recognised until much later, when a person looks back and realises, “Man. That was really something, wasn’t it?”
But not in this case. The bike purred along, snarling its way out of the tight, steep turns and loping along the very few straight sections, entirely at home and comfortable in its element. The cafes and landmarks came and went as the Strada Provenciale 44 and Strada Provinciale Adriatica snaked its way along the edges of the sheer mountainsides towering over the gorgeous blue ocean.
These were the very roads one of the world’s greatest motorcycle racer rode as a youngster, before claiming a string of world championships in different classes. This was the home of Valentino Rossi, and our destination was his legendary flat track and headquarters, the VR46 Ranch, at Tavullia.
Benelli was an incredible host.
Dining meant several hours of luxurious and leisurely conversation around tables overlooking glorious coastline and everywhere had its story to tell. A visit to the Benelli museum was an incredible insight into the marque’s remarkable achievements and successes, and of course, the ups and downs that go with a century of motorcycle racing and manufacture.
Most of the bikes in the museum were a little travel-stained and a few showed weeping oil leaks here and there. That was because the bikes’ owners, and the members of the Benelli Owners Club, showed up once a month and took the bikes out for a run. Museum pieces they undoubtedly were, but, like their riders, they hadn’t forsaken their love of the ride. Paolo Campanelli, now 87, showed up unexpectedly and his first-hand stories of racing when he carried food on the bike to make it through long races – he won several championships – stood by his photographs and bikes and brought the colourful scenes to life.
Another Benelli champion rider, Luciano Battisti, threw open his home and amazing personal bike collection, which included Mike Hailwood’s world-championship winning Benelli and Eddie Lawson’s 500cc world-championship-winning Yamaha.
Battisti insisted on starting the Hailwood bike and the hills around Pesaro fairly shook as the straight-through pipes on the four-stroke roared at skull-shattering volume.
It was a visit never to be forgotten.
The visit to Rossi’s home was the most dreamlike part of the whole reality-challenged ride. The flat track looked to be groomed to golf-course perfection, the café offered desperately appreciated cold drinks, coffees and a huge variety of food, and, of course, the VR46 shop had everything from a decked-out, number-46 YZ450F to VR46 keyrings and even cutlery for sale. It was a two-storey Aladdin’s cave for fans of the Italian MotoGP star.
As the daylight turned from brilliant sunshine to a late-afternoon golden glow, Tavullia disappeared from the mirrors and the narrow backstreets and holidaymakers of Pesaro’s beachside strip again slowed forward movement to a walk. Things couldn’t have been better. This was an experience that should’ve lasted forever. Going a little slower helped make it last.
As the door of the plane closed, the sounds and feel of the bike carving through the Italian landscape, the flavours and textures of the cuisine and the feelings of awe persisted.
They still do