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.
May 14, 1967
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.
"Agostini, he mixes his own salad," he said importantly.
Agostini ordered wine, checked the label carefully, felt the bottle for temperature and then sipped it for taste. "Good," he said, rolling the wine and a little English around on his tongue. "You must drink it. But as for me—" he shrugged elaborately—"I cannot. It is sad. In the racing season I must not eat too much pasta and must drink—" he turned to his translator inquiringly.
"Poco," the man said.
Agostini nodded. "I must drink only a little wine, for I must stay healthy to race the motorbikes."' He leaned back and flashed the brilliant smile. "I weigh 65 kilos now, and my ideal racing weight is 63 kilos."
Agostini is 1.74 meters tall, or 5'7". He has hazel eyes and black hair that always looks sculptured. Surprisingly, he has all of his lingers and toes and his teeth are perfectly in line.
As Agostini dined, the manager began to lead parties to their tables on an involved route that took them past Giacomo, and they all looked at him with that wonderful Italian openness, and he looked back at them.
"You like miniskirts?" asked Agostini, pointing to a leggy girl who was being restrained from leaping on him only by the iron thread of chaperoned propriety. "On Italian women I don't like them. Italian women are not miniskirt women, they are women of the heart. But on English girls—" he made a circle with his thumb and forefinger—"yes! I spent three months in London last year, and the English girls, ahhhh. Lovely. I went to a special school there to learn to speak the English because one day I will race cars in America.
"It was after my third accident last year. I have three accidents a year for the last three years. This year, I hope maybe no. But...," he shrugged again. "Anyway, I had crashed in Germania with 150 kilometers to go. Only 150 kilos, and I hit this little spot of oil on the track. I went through the Plexiglas windscreen and I rolled very far, maybe 100 meters, over and over.
"I wanted to finish the race. But there was so much blood I could not. I had this long cut on my right ankle, here." He pointed it out and everyone in the restaurant leaned over and looked, nodding at each other seriously.
"They put my leg in—how you say?—a cast." He leaned back again. "So I rented this little flat in a building where there were many English girls who were—" He looked at the translator again.
"Maids?" the man said. He had heard the story before.
"Ah, maids," said Agostini. "And they would go out in the morning and work in the homes of the very rich, and they would come back in the evening and come to my room and visit me." He smiled again.
Now it was time to practice. Outside the restaurant a small band of people had formed a friendly gantlet between him and his car. The car was dirty. Someone had written with a finger, "Viva Agostini!" on the windshield.
The car is a little Porsche 912, one of the few in the so-called "Golden Triangle," Italy's industrial area of Milano-Varese-Bergamo, where most of the people who can afford such expensive toys prefer Italian ones. Agostini drives the Porsche with careless skill, slumped at the wheel while he talks, one hand free for gesturing, weaving the car easily around trucks and tired old men carrying bundles of firewood on bicycles.
"I like to have the fast car," he said. "It is nice. Racing gets you the money, and with money you can buy the nice things. You like this color? It is jellow."
Actually, it is not jellow. It is more burnt gold, or the color of a rejected banana, but it looks just right and it purrs. Inside, Giacomo has a religious medal pasted to the dashboard with "Buon Viaggo" printed on it, and a stereo tape deck that plays 20 minutes of something gentle called The Pretty Things. But there is no such medal pasted to his motorcycle.
"You cannot be superstitious in this thing," he says. "Otherwise I would never start a race, you see? If you have some lucky object, then you would not have it one day and you would have to start to race without it and you would get killed, right?" He also has obviously seen an old Mickey Rooney movie or two.
Along one leg of the golden triangle, on the outskirts of Gallarate, Count Giovanni Agusta maintains a sprawling factory that builds helicopters and, in one special building, assembles the most fearful motorcycles in the world. Agusta over the years has won 49 world championship motorcycle racing trophies; the last one, for 1966, was won by Agostini.
Franco Chiesa, who sells helicopters, is lean and plays basketball for an Italian industrial league, is the only man in town this day who can speak English, so he talks.
"We have special permission to show you the track," he says. "So we will go out there and Agostini will show you how he rides the machine. I myself have ridden one once. I would not ride one of them again if you paid me a million of your American dollars. You will see."
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.
"Then," he says, "I touched myself carefully all over before getting up. I was all there, so I got up. The engine, it stops, but the bike, it keeps going. It was in the middle of the race and I was leading. It was raining very hard and the piste was so slippery"—he grinned, his teeth white against the black mask hanging at his chin—"you are all leaned forward, see, and you always look under your arms to see who is behind you. I did not have time to think very much. Except perhaps, 'Mother of God!' These things happen, you know. It is mostly oil spots on the road or the sudden cutting of the engine if you are trying to go over the maximum revolutions.
"When I risk such things—going over the maximum—I know I will maybe make a fall. But I must risk it, else how can I win?
"I was in shock for a time, but I woke up again and the doctors sewed 13 stitches across my nose and sewed seven in my right hand...."
Now, a year later, it is better than a saber scar. It is perfect, and women run the tips of their fingers over the new scar and shudder delicately. And he smiles and looks at them through those heavy hazel eyes because he likes being the champion of all the world in this insane sport and the gentle moments and women are as much a part of the reward as the money and trophies.
Agostini was always this way. Listen to wise old Dante Lambertine, who was Agostini's first mechanic—he works for Morini Motorcycles, a competitor—and who is like a Cus D'Amato hunting for just one more champ before he quits. Standing at the side of the Modena test track, the sun glinting from his gold eye-tooth, his white hair rumpled and with years of grease accumulated in the pores of his nose, Lambertine says: "Since 18 years old I know him, Agostini. He first came to me. I could see immediately, I promise you, that he was a world champion. On motorcycles the champions are born, not made. It is a natural daring you can feel; it washes you all over, this feeling, and you look and you know.
"When one is not born a champion, one begins to dare too much on the bike and it is better for him to stop. Agostini has a feeling for the speed, for the turns. That is all, a feeling. He listens to the engine and it sings to him and he hears what it is telling him."
Agostini heard the song early enough. He comes from Brescia, where there are more bicycles and motorbikes than cars, because not many people there can afford anything more.
"When I was 10." Agostini says, "I had a 250-cc. Guzzi. Not mine, really. It belonged to the man who made the bread for our village. And to ride the bike I would deliver the bread for him. But I was still so small I had to drive the bike up alongside a wall to stop so I could put out my foot and balance it.
"What does a boy do? I went to the eighth year in the intermediate school and then to the classic high school for two years. But I was mad about motorbikes, so I quit. From 10 to 18 I owned six or seven motorbikes. But they were—how you say?—tourist models." He made a face. "Then at 18 I started to race for Morini, until 1964. But he wouldn't let me race for the world title. He didn't think we could win it.
"Then Count Agusta called me to come over and have the first talkings. He proposed me to run for him and I accepted and started in 1965 as a team with Mike Hailwood."
Getting a call from Agusta to have the "first talkings" is roughly like being brought up from the farm club to open in the Series. Agusta dominates the European racing scene, so much so that he only enters bikes now in the 350-and 500-cc. classes. Britain's Hailwood, who some people still say is the best in the world, took the Agusta marque to victory from 1962 to 1965 in the senior class. Then Hailwood went over to Honda, and Agostini stunned everybody by beating his teammate out of the title at Monza in late 1966.
Now he faces the prospect of another season: roughly 100,000 miles of travel and more than 22 races through the year. There are short-circuit contests, which are grimy, one-night stands, and there are key world-title meets in 13 countries.
Interest in the sport is wild. Crowds of more than 300,000 attend the East German Grand Prix at Sachsenring, which, in attendance at least, makes it a sort of Red Indy. At Assen in The Netherlands the roar of the big machines draws crowds up to 200,000, and in the Isle of Man they take over the place.
And Super Italian has started fast for another title. At the Modena opener this spring he set a new lap record of 79.86 mph, but after misfiring finished ninth. He won Riccione, setting a new record average speed of 77.78 mph; won Cervia; and, hunched over the gas tank of his red-and-gray No. 1 Agusta, blew everybody off at Cesenatico. Hailwood's old lap record was an impressive 88.10 mph. Agostini made it 94.72 mph.
He has not, at this writing, "made the fall," as he puts it. He would like to put in a season without the three crashes, if it is all the same to everyone else.
He folds the black leather suit carefully and puts it back into the Porsche and heads off for the next meet. They are mostly in small towns and on unkempt tracks, and the people who attend are solidly working-class. They wear the same dull gray sweaters under their coats; the coat and pants never match. No matter. They know solid terror when they see it, and they understand the sensible insanity of it all.
Chiesa stands and watches Agostini pull away. "He is simpatico to everybody, to the world," he says, sighing. "What a figure of a man in that tight black suit, no? What a brave one he is to ride with death from now until September. He makes much money now and he has a fine watch and ring and big trophies in Signor Agusta's office. Life is very fast when you are 24 and so handsome you break hearts...."
The car turned the corner past the guards and was swallowed up in the fog.
"Ah, yes," said Chiesa. "He wants to do everything he can—while he can. Now all summer, in little towns all over Europe, the young secretaries look out the window when they see that yellow Porsche coming and they say, 'Ahhh, Agostini's back in town!' "