Book Review: Iron Horse Cowgirls and Superbike

In an age in which it is possible to continuously scroll through countless, colorful digital social media images from the motorcycling community, it is refreshing to sit down to enjoy printed books whose pages are filled with black and white photographs that deserve to be carefully studied and understood. Two such examples are Iron Horse Cowgirls and Superbike, both of which were published in 2023. These recent titles share their origins in rich archival collections of photographs placed in historical context, their connections to the American Motorcyclist Association, the friendships between their co-authors, and the numerous fascinating moments of transition in the history of motorcycling they recount.

Louise Scherbyn ready to lead the Apple Blossom Parade, May 6 1939. [Louise Scherbyn/Courtesy of Leslie Mason and the late William F. Mason]
Iron Horse Cowgirls got its start when motorcycle writer Bill Mason handed over a collection of photos that had belonged to Louise Scherbyn to his friend Linda Back McKay, who had been interviewing women riders for decades.[1] When McKay became too ill with cancer to continue the project, she entrusted it to her former mentee Kate St. Vincent Vogl who completed the research and manuscript. The result is a lively, engaging account of the life and times of Scherbyn, best known for founding the Women’s International Motorcycle Association in 1952 but whose impressive motorcycling biography is linked to early adventure riders.  Superbike emerged instead from a long-term friendship between motor sports photographer John Owens and motorcycle journalist Kevin Cameron who paired up to share images and memories from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s when the first motorcycles to be called “superbikes” started to transform racing.[2]

From Second All Girls Show 3 Aug 1941 at parade start - From left - Louise Scherbyn, Genevieve Hopkins a.k.a. Duchess, Dot Robinson kickstarting, Peppy Day, Jane Heath, Helen Kiss, Marie Dennis, and Violet Irwin [Louise Scherbyn/Courtesy of Leslie Mason and the late William F. Mason]
McKay and Vogl do a remarkable job of explaining Scherbyn’s journey from passenger to pilot and from casual enthusiast to efficient organizer within the broader history of the Great Depression, regional developments in central New York and the Northeast, relationships with other women and men who rode, the role of the AMA in building the motorcycle community, and women’s history.  Scherbyn was a young, married woman who worked for Kodak in Rochester, New York. During a ride one day with her husband George she had to move from the sidecar to the rear seat of their Indian Chief to traverse a rough stretch of road in the Adirondacks. She loved being on the bike so much her husband George surprised her with her own machine by Hendee; he even sold the Chief to buy it for her and got a Harley-Davidson for himself so they could ride together. Scherbyn first hid the new Indian, afraid of what the neighbors might think at a time when even wearing pants was a radical act, but soon began to ride it everywhere, including to Florida from New York in the winter and to visit family in the Midwest, often on her own.

The cover of Iron Horse Cowgirls, which is available here.

McKay and Vogl successfully explain the freedoms and constraints of women motorcyclists during the first half of the twentieth century. They tell the stories of Scherbyn and other prominent riders, such as Helen Kiss and Dot Robinson, who put thousands of miles on their bikes and participated in a community filled with events from weekend hill climbs to the first rallies at Daytona and Laconia. All the while, the young women riders tried to earn a few lines in the AMA’s magazine and form clubs, which they eventually did, starting with women’s auxiliaries to men’s clubs and later creating the Motor Maids and WIMA. It was not a simple path, however, and it was one marked by personal hardships. Men known to Scherbyn, for example, sexually assaulted her after blocking her passage with a tree trunk; they were convicted but afterwards she spent far less time at home and far more time on her bike. Women and men competed in “best dressed” competitions with their motorcycles and were expected to maintain a neat appearance and proper decorum at AMA events, which was even more important for the women.

The images in the book offer a visual representation of this history and allow the reader to reflect on a time in America characterized by big smiles on the faces of riders experiencing times of joy amid economic strife. The iconic photo of Louise Scherbyn dressed in white astride her white Indian is but just one moment captured on film worth knowing much more about through this well-researched book.

The cover of Superbike, which is available here.

Whereas Iron Horse Cowgirls is a historical biography informed by a rich collection of images, Superbike is predominantly a book of photography informed by introductory texts and often detailed photo captions.  Like Scherbyn, photographer John Owens shot on [mostly] Kodak film. His eye is that of a professional photographer, however, and his objective was to artfully capture the people, places and machines of AMA racing beginning in the mid-1970s. Owens' photos are nicely complemented by the words of Kevin Cameron, known for his technical motorcycle journalism.  The two men reconnected about a decade ago at a MotoGP race at the Circuit of the Americas. Struck by the secrecy and lack of access to the world inside the paddock that now surrounds a sport that was once relatively open, they decided to develop the book together.

Freddie Spencer at rest. [John Owens]
In his introduction, Cameron offers some background to explain the shift from a growing enthusiasm for the new two-stroke Japanese motorcycles taking to the tracks that gained a following in the US market in the early 1970s to the “sportbike revolution, which in 1985 replaced the two-strokes…and brought much more capable, responsive, and emissions-legal bikes to American riders (p. 16).”  The photo plates then begin with Reno Leoni on a Moto Guzzi in Loudon, New Hampshire in 1977 and conclude with a 1982 podium image of Mike Baldwin, Eddie Lawson, and Wes Cooley in Laguna Seca, California with two unnamed women, one a “Miss Laguna Seca,” and a motorcycle with the number 21 completing the frame.  The photographs mix traditional leaned racing shots of leading pilots, skillful mechanics wrenching on bikes, contemplative moments of racers and teams, closeups of motorcycle details, and a few wider images with spectators catching a glimpse of their favorite riders. Some of the most striking photos, to my eyes, include: a pensive Cook Neilson, who won the Superbike race on his 750 Ducati Super Sport in 1972 in Daytona (pp. 38-39); AMA referee Charlie Watson in Loudon in 1979, explaining the rules, which made me think of Scherbyn’s dealings with AMA officials; Freddie Spencer sitting alone and looking distraught in Loudon in 1979; the Honda team techs in a Daytona garage in 1982 (pp. 98-99); an artistic shot of spark plugs in Pocono in 1981 (p. 123); a smiling Mike Velasco pushing Freddie Spencer on his Honda in 1982 (p. 138); and Wes Cooley stretched across the tank of a Suzuki GSX1000S at Loudon in 1982.  There are too many more worthy of mention. Enthusiasts of mechanical engineering and design will appreciate Cameron’s explanations of changes to everything from carburetors to calipers to cams and valve-to-piston clearance, all details that enrich the narrative told through Owens’ photos.

Charlie Watson laying down the rules to the racers. [John Owens]
Anyone who values motorcycle history and black and white photography will want to add both books to their shelves. Highly recommended!

Where to find them:

McKay, Linda Back and Kate St. Vincent Vogl. Iron Horse Cowgirls: Louise Scherbyn and the Women Motorcyclists of the 1930s and 1940s. McFarland, 2023. pISBN: 978-1-4766-6946-5 322 pages. $49.95

Cameron, Kevin and John Owens. Superbike. An Illustrated Early History. MotoRacing Books, 2023. ISBN: 979-8-218-25250-2191 pages. $75 unsigned. $90 signed.

[1] Photos from Iron Horse Cowgirls are from the private collection of Louise Scherbyn/Courtesy of Leslie Mason and the late William F. Mason.

[2] Photographs by John Owens.



Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book 'Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy' was published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project is 'Connected by the Street: The Myths and Realities of Motorcyclists in the US and Italy.' She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

The Artisans of Rome’s Ottodrom

Choppers, bobbers, and custom cafe racers: you don't see many of them riding around Italy, the leading Western country for motorbike ownership per capita. So, when a customized vintage BMW boxer catches your eye, you do a double take.  During my most recent stay in Rome, I re-visited Ottodrom, a well-known custom shop near the Galleria Borghese.  I stumbled upon the shop a few years back after spotting one of their bikes from across the street, and J-walking to investigate. This visit I spoke at length with Edoardo Navarra, who currently manages the showroom.[1] I wanted to find out more about their shop and Italy’s custom bike culture.

Ottodrom owner Edoardo Navarra at his rather amazing desk. [Wendy Pojmann]
Navarra, who started racing motorcycles and pulling them apart as a pre-teen, explains that Ottodrom emerged in 2013, “from artisans working in a garage below home to now being here on the Via Pinciana in the center of Rome across from the Villa Borghese, a location with high visibility next to Ferrari and Harley Davidson.” Ten years ago, there were not many custom shops in Italy, he notes. Local builders were interested, however, in connecting with like-minded vintage motorcycle enthusiasts in the booming custom sector in other parts of the world. The Ottodrom ethos, Navarra points out, is the same as in other countries, in the sense that it is inspired by the British cafe racers of the 1960s and by the strong aesthetic sensibility of the Custom Revolution, spurred on during the 2010s by blogs like Bike Exif and Pipeburn. Ottodrom shares an interest with many other recent builders in emphasizing design over the speed-driven mods of the past, and focuses on achieving unique, functional machines for a specialized clientéle.

A series of BMWs customized by Ottodrom. [Wendy Pojmann]
Ottodrom is best known for customizing vintage BMWs, both K-models and 'airhead' boxers. Navarra explains, “It’s a recognized brand that offers a good reputation and peace of mind in the sense that they are reliable motors. They’ve been around since the 1970s without having undergone major changes. There’s a lot of appeal…  But we also work on Japanese bikes, we work on Triumphs, on Moto Guzzis.”  Ottodrom’s clients generally like to attract attention, he says, and enjoy being “almost interrogated” by other riders and drivers at stop lights. In Italy, their clients like standing out from the numerous stock scooters and motorcycles. “You don’t go unnoticed,” as Navarra puts it.

A more conservative take on an early 1970s 'toaster tank' BMW R75/5. [Wendy Pojmann]
In other countries – Ottodrom has sold bikes to motorcyclists in the US, Qatar and several European countries – clients like having a machine that has a “made in Italy” vibe. Navarra proudly notes that you can see the craftsmanship of their Italian artisans no matter where the original bike was made.  It is also possible to cater the styling of nearly any motorcycle to many different tastes. “Even from an R-series BMW, you can pull out a chopper in an American style that is very satisfying.”  My own impression is that there is an elegance and refinement to their motorcycles that sets them apart from other custom shops. Ottodrom participates in the Eternal City Motorcycle Show[2] alongside several other garages and major manufacturers and plans are in the works to show off their bikes at specialized fairs in Cannes and London where they can reach additional niche clients.

The front desk of Ottodrom is built over a heavily modified Honda CB four. [Wendy Pojmann]
Given all the skill and access to great bikes in Rome, why aren’t there more custom motorcycles on the streets? As Michael McCabe pointed out in a recent Vintagent article about custom motorcycles in Taiwan, not all countries allow dramatically altered vehicles to circulate on public roads. Italy is closer to Taiwan than the United States in this regard. If a rider is stopped by the police in Italy while riding her modded out chopper adorned with extra-long forks and ape hangers, she risks a steep fine and confiscation of the bike. Italy has strict laws about what can and cannot be changed on motor vehicles, including not only wheel and tire size but even types of tires.[3]  Modifications are generally only allowed for rider comfort, performance or aesthetics but without compromising the original design and engineering of the motorcycle. Builders and buyers must work around these limitations or risk fines.

Edoardo Navarro chats with Wendy Pojmann about motorcycles and life in Italy. [Wendy Pojmann]
In addition to concerns about safety-related modifications, Italians follow the environmental codes of the European Union. Larger Italian cities such as Milan and Rome sometimes restrict access to the city center to improve the air quality, as with other large European cities such as London and Paris. To enter the inner circles at certain times, motorcycles need to conform to at least Euro 2 specs; the newest machines being produced today conform to Euro 6 or 7.[4] Older vehicles are being phased out of circulation completely.  There are no concessions made for grandfathering in the oldies as happens in most of the US, where you can still ride a 1970s two-stroke anywhere, since that’s how it came from the factory.

When in Rome...visit Ottodrom! [Wendy Pojmann]
Exceptions as to what can legally circulate are made only for vintage motorcycles approved by the AutomotoClub Storico Italiano (ASI) or the Federazione Motociclistica Italiana (FMI), and come with usage limitations. Historic motorcycles can generally be ridden for rallies or special events but not necessarily to commute to work. Moreover, both ASI and FMI certified bikes are generally approved only when they are restored as close as possible to the original specs, not customized.[5] These rules make it difficult to rescue an old, broken-down Honda and turn it into a cafe racer.  In fact, Ottodrom’s desk bike is an example of saving the past for the future. The motorcycle pictured here had a few leaks, but it was too special to discard. The shop decided to turn it into a distinctive place to showcase their design creativity when they receive clients. It turns out that the works of fine art across the street at the Galleria Borghese are nicely complemented by these modern classics, also products of the hands of Italian master artisans.

Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book 'Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy' was published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project is 'Connected by the Street: The Myths and Realities of Motorcyclists in the US and Italy.' She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.


[1] Interview in Italian by Author on February 2, 2024 at Ottodrom, Via Pinciana 41-45 Rome, Italy. Translations by Author.

[2] This year the Eternal City Motorcycle Show will take place on September 28-29 at the Palazzo dei Congressi in EUR.

[3] See this article in Italian from Motociclismo for more about laws regarding vehicle modifications.

[4] See this article in Italian about pollution restrictions and what motorcyclists are doing about them

[5] This article in Italian compares the two certifications


The Search for Santa Pazienza

A Hunt for the Origins of a Little-Known Ducati

Santa Pazienza. It’s what Italians say at times when extra patience is needed. One of those times is when buying a vintage Italian motorcycle, especially one that does not fall under the “highly sought after” category. If you’re lucky enough to be picking up a Ducati 916, for example, there’s plenty of information available. There are detailed images and descriptions of this classic beauty in books, on the Internet, and in private collections. You can easily learn its history and compare what is original and what is not. Limited resources, however, accompany what was Ducati’s first “real” motorcycle, the 98. It falls in between the first motorized Ducati, the Cucciolo, and the Marianna, the first bike with bevel gear drive that put Ducati on the path to numerous racing victories. Both of those models are familiar to Ducatisti and vintage motorbike enthusiasts. So when one of the little-known 98 singles from the 1950s popped up for sale recently on Long Island, my husband and I began what became a search for origins. Our research has involved several motorcyclist friends, limited publications, and good old Italian bureaucracy.


As seen: missing a seat cover, but mostly complete: a 1955 Ducati 98. Provenance? [Wendy Pojmann]
In 2021, I rode in the Motogiro d’Italia on a modern Benelli and have since considered buying an old Italian motorcycle to ride in the version that takes place on the East Coast of the US. There have been a few contenders but this little bike caught my attention, not just because it’s so cute, but because I had never heard of it. “A what?” was my first question when my husband showed me the ad. The next question was whether or not we wanted to drive 200 miles each way with a trailer attached to our SUV through New York City traffic if we were not sure we wanted the motorcycle. The owner told us he had a friend ship it to him from Italy several years ago. His friend, sadly an early victim of Covid, told him the bike had done a Motogiro. I was intrigued, but I wanted to know if he meant this exact motorcycle had raced across Italian roads in the golden age of the 1950s, if it had perhaps competed in the more recent rally version, or simply that this model was a model used in the Motogiro. The friend was no longer around to tell us.

The ever-helpful Italian motoring press, covering every obscure model produced at some point or another. This article is from Legend Bike. [Wendy Pojmann]
I sent a few pictures to a couple of my Italian Motogiro friends, Massimo Mansueti, one of the organizers of the official Motogiro d’Italia, and Andrea Angiolini, who competes in the Motogiro and Milano-Taranto rallies every chance he gets. Mansueti forwarded the photos to a vintage Ducati expert who pointed out a few features of the motorcycle that he wasn’t sure were original. He had the 98 SS, the last model of the 98 (though we found out it is not officially called the SS by Ducati), which was gray and black with a fairing and a differently shaped tank. “Our” red 98 seemed to him to have some characteristics of the Turismo model but with the S engine recognizable by its oil radiator fins. This tank/motor combination seemed odd to him unless the bike had been in a race or an accident.

A scan of the Ducati catalogs from the 1950s: useful for comparison - what have we got? [Wendy Pojmann]
Angiolini meanwhile sent me scans of an issue of the classic Italian motorcycle magazine Legend Bike with an article dedicated to the 98. The feature offered more information about subtle differences among models. My husband then pointed out that in the 1950s manufacturers also sometimes ran out of parts or had to improvise. Since the 98S was a sales success for Ducati with approximately 5800 sold in Italy and 9000 in other countries, it seemed plausible that this was a 1954 Sport version that perhaps shared a few pieces with another model. In any case, we were not discouraged and our curiosity grew stronger.

Italian Automobile Club records of this very machine. [Wendy Pojmann]
When the owner in Long Island, who explained he could no longer ride because of a bad back, sent the additional pictures we requested, we saw the motorcycle had a license plate from Modena, Italy that appeared to be original. My Italian husband asked a friend in Rome to run the plate through an online database accessible through the Automobile Club d’Italia but it turned out to be too old to locate in a simple search. Angiolini then offered to run to the offices of the Pubblico Registro Automobilistico and consult the historical archives the next morning, right before we planned to drive to Long Island. This search was a success! Before I even got out of bed in the morning, he had sent me the names and birthdates of the all motorcycle’s owners from 1955, when it was first titled, to 1977, when it was sold to an owner who no longer paid the registration fee, which means it was removed from the registry of circulating vehicles. The sales prices even appeared on the hand-written document!

The Ducati 98 was produced from 1952-58, and was the factory's first sports motorcycle. The engine is a 98cc pushrod OHV single, with integral 4-speed gearbox, suspended from a pressed-steel frame, with stylish bodywork. It was designed by Ducati's chief engineer, Giovanni Fiorio. Note the cast alloy oil cooler at the front of the crankcase [Wendy Pojmann]
Based on the ages of the original owners, it seemed unlikely to me the motorcycle had competed in the road races of the 1950s. The first owner was 42, a little too old, and the second 22, a little too young, to have piloted the 100cc bike in such important events. I still intend to find out for certain, but this detail could no longer be my main motivation to buy it. Knowing the 98’s history did make me care about it more, but I needed to confirm my sentiments by seeing it in person. There’s always a visceral, emotional component to buying a motorcycle after all.

Despite the difficulty finding information about this bike, the new owner looks like a happy camper. [Wendy Pojmann]
My husband and I both liked the little Ducati right away. The owner started it on the first kick and then proudly zipped around his driveway. It looked great and even had a nice, full sound for such a small motorcycle. My husband then had a go, telling himself to remember that the shifter was on the wrong side and upside down. I decided to avoid potential disaster and settled for watching it in action until it was ours. The owner explained the bike was registered but he had left the original plate on it because, well, it was cool! He was fascinated to learn what we had found out about the bike and was surprised it was even possible to locate so much information from the old plate. He also said he mostly rode the bike to meet up for coffee with some other local vintage Italian motorcycle riders and rarely went out with it alone. He was a retired member of the NYPD now focused on restoring a few old cars.

Wendy Pojmann, Motogiro d'Italia veteran, on what she hopes is another veteran - of the original race in the 1950s. [Wendy Pojmann]
We loaded up the bike and headed into Friday rush hour on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The stop-and-go traffic meant nearby drivers had a chance to roll down their windows and ask about the little red Ducati. Five and half hours later, of what should have been a 3-hour drive, we unloaded our latest find, christened Santa Pazienza during our journey, and tucked her into the garage. Patience will also be needed as we decide what to do with her next. We want to find out what Ducati red shades looked like in the mid-1950s, which pieces are original, and what is available to someone who wants to restore and ride a 1954 Ducati 98 S. A trip to the Ducati Museum in Bologna is in order soon. I will also be checking the road racing archives to see if I am wrong about one of the original owners competing with it. The Milano-Taranto puts the 1954 Ducati 4-stroke in “le gloriose” (the glorious) class since it was a model that competed between 1950 and 1956. More on our discoveries later…in the meantime, Santa Pazienza.

License plate from Modena is a keeper, NYPD be damned. [Wendy Pojmann]


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

Motorcycles and Academia - IJMS 2023

You know you’re in for a special academic conference when the keynote speaker rides by the lecture hall doing an arabesque on her Harley-Davidson!  So began the 10th International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (IJMS) conference at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, held July 20-22.  Following a pandemic hiatus, the conference came back strong, bringing together twenty presenters and numerous attendees from the UK, Canada, and across the US, all gathered to share research on motorcyclists and their machines. Managing editor of the IJMS, Dr. Sheila Malone, oversaw the two-day proceedings and presented their short film Origin Stories: Dykes on Bikes.

Starting things off right: Scarlet does a ride-by before giving the keynote speech at the IJMS conference. [Barbie Stanford]
The role of the motorcycle in literature and film took center stage in presentations by Suzanne Ferriss, Madhi Tourage and Tom Goodmann. Dr. Ferriss discussed the 2022 Prix Goncourt winning autobiographical book Vivre Vite (Live Fast) by French author Brigitte Giraud. Ferriss notes that the author cites Honda engineer Tadao Baba’s Fireblade and Lou Reed’s call to “live fast, die young” as the main causes of her husband’s crash and death in 1999. Dr. Tourage noted a similar representation of the motorcycle as a source of danger in his analysis of the 1970 Iranian film Reza, the Motorcyclist that ends with the dead protagonist and his mangled bike loaded up on a garbage truck. Dr. Goodmann connected the riders to medieval imagery, via Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s account in The Perfect Vehicle of Iron Butt riders who collect patches on their protective gear. much as armored knights earned pilgrimage badges. Goodmann referred to motorcycle jousters in the 1981 film Knight Riders and the design of Vincent Black Knight and Prince motorcycles to further his case for links between medieval times and modern motorcycling.

Jason Wragg is working on this doctorarate in Outdoor Adventure Leadership...and don't you wish you'd studied that in school? [IJMS]
Autoethnography and memoir served as the inspiration for presentations by Jason Wragg, Barbie Stanford and Lisa Garber. Wragg is completing a comic book series called Myths, Maps and Motorcycles for his doctorate in Outdoor Adventure Leadership, based on his adventure riding through Iceland on a Yamaha Tenere 700.  Dr. Stanford discussed how her desire to be taken seriously as a motorcyclist for her ethnographic study of MotoGP racers led her to a week-long dirt biking camp, where she bartered strong lap times for interviews with her riding coaches. Clinical psychologist Lisa Garber read a moving, personal account of the sale of her deceased husband’s Harley-Davidson from her “Voice Inside My Helmet” series, in which she reflects on a life centered on eros, loss, and the sounds of loud pipes.  Questions of phenomenology emerged also in papers by philosopher Steven Alford and political scientist Mathew Humphrey who grappled with meanings of authenticity, and being in the world as motorcyclists.  Or are we bikers?

Dr. Wendy Pojman delivering her talk on how the Motogiro d'Italia shaped Italian motorcycle culture and industry. [IJMS]
My paper, as well as those by archivist / curators Amy Muckerman and Jane Cameron, focussed on  historical studies of riders. My research argues that the golden years of the Motogiro d’Italia (1953-7) road race directly account for the explosion of the Italian motorcycle industry before the postwar economic boom. Ms. Muckerman shared images from an archive she is assembling of the early development of “proper” gear for women who rode bicycles and motorcycles in the early twentieth century, and notes a particular obsession with keeping women in long skirts.  Ms. Cameron is gathering artifacts, such as parcel bags and motorcycle jackets, for an eventual exhibition of the UK motorcycle courier industry from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Also using archival sources, such as rider interviews, Dr. Eddy White explained his pedagogical approach to a course on motorcycle culture he teaches at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Suzanne Ferris discussed the mix of Lou Reed and Tadao Baba in French author Brigitte Giraud's book Vivre Vite (Live Fast), and autobiographical story of her husband's death by motorcycle. [IJMS]
Outside humanities disciplines, presenters Alex Parsons-Hulse, Bruce Gillies, and Joseph Leondike shared their work from the fields of urban environmental planning, organizational psychology, and psychiatric therapy.  Parsons-Hulse shared data about the potential benefits of having more motorcycles circulating in the UK to reduce traffic congestion and pollution. He then recommended policies to make riding accessible to more commuters. Dr. Gillies examined factors that motivate people to ride and, to our delight, placed riding a motorcycle as the most basic need in a revised version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But conference participants were especially delighted to learn that throttle therapy is real!  Dr. Leondike, a combat veteran and nurse practitioner, explained that riding a motorcycle in many ways mimics Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy used to treat such conditions as PTSD. Riders with higher levels of riding competency see a reduction in heart rate and cortisol levels, typically associated with stress. We have scientific evidence to justify riding more!

Academics love swag too! Show your lits! Get it from the IJMS direst. [IJMS]
The conference ended with a closing keynote by Caius Tenche, founder of the Toronto Motorcycle Film Festival, which has moved into the international independent film spotlight in a relatively short time. Motivated by his own desire to see great long and short films about motorcycles in his city of residence, Mr. Tenche launched the festival in 2017. He pointed out that the main criteria for the selected films is great storytelling to appeal to motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike. After all, he noted, motorcycles are vehicles; it is people who transport them into their lives. The conference attendees were then treated to several short films from the TMFF that took us to the icy roads of Canada and the congested realities of boda boda riders (motorcycle taxis) in Uganda.

The presenters of the 10th IJMS conference at UC Colorado Springs. [IJMS]
Most of the presenters attended all the sessions and were only occasionally distracted when sport bikes, enduros, cruisers and other motorbikes zoomed past the lovely UCCS downtown conference space. During lunch breaks, many of us visited the nearby Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum that houses an impressive collection of predominantly American classic and vintage motorcycles.  We enjoyed nice dinners together as well and could have easily stayed and talked motorcycles for many more days.

It's like motorcycle camp for adults who write about motorcycles. [IJMS]
For more information about the IJMS conference, to view archives of past issues of the journal, or for submission guidelines, visit the website


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

Racing in the Streets: 2021 MotoGiro

When I decided to ride in this year’s Motogiro d’Italia I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I had been doing related research and had written an article on the history of the event for The Vintagent.  However, I had never participated in any kind of motorcycle competition before and quickly had my vision of what a road “race” means transformed.

A few of the machines gathered in San Marino for the start of the 2021 MotoGiro. [Domenico Vallorini]
All-out racing on the streets has been banned in Italy since the late 1950s, following the deaths of several racers and spectators during the Mille Miglia race.  Since the Motogiro's revival in the late 1980s, vintage motorcycle enthusiasts have found ways to maintain the thrill of competition while reducing the risks. In the materials the organizers from the Moto Club Terni sent me a few weeks before the mid-October event began, I learned about the elaborate point scheme based on precision timing in the skills tests, appearing at each checkpoint within a determined time frame, and obeying Italian traffic laws.

Riding over cobblestones in the rain can be treacherous. [Domenico Vallorini]
At the beginning of each morning of the six day, approximately 1700 km ride from the Adriatic Coast in Misano Adriatico through the Apennine Mountains to the Tyrrhenian Coast in Grosseto and back, I received a card with my number 102 and the list of the day’s checkpoints and arrival times. My group reported to the first timed test at exactly 9:22 am every morning and then went through two more timed courses later in the day -- one around the halfway point and the last at the day’s finish line, which for my group was usually around 5:00 pm. The tests consisted in covering a certain number of meters in exactly the number of seconds specified, sometimes divided into sections of differing lengths or with obstacles. Many riders secured stopwatches to their tanks to make times such as 8.8 seconds achievable. I did my best to count in my head; it worked once when, to my surprise, I actually won a section! Arriving at the checkpoints ahead of schedule, though it didn’t happen often in my case, did not earn me anything extra. It just gave me a little more time to eat the tasty snacks provided at most of the stops or visit an espresso bar for a needed warm up.

Fellow female competitors Robin Webster and Hilde Speet on their respective machines. [Domenico Vallorini]
Most of the riders in the Motogiro’s four different timed classes took the competitive side of the event seriously. I was in the Motogiro Class for the newer motorcycles; Benelli generously provided me with a Leoncino 500 Scrambler for the event. Two veteran Motogiro racers, motorcycle journalist Claudio Antonaci and Grand Prix champion Pier Paolo Bianchi also rode Benelli Leoncino 500s but they had the Trail version. My riding companion Robin Webster competed in her fifth Motogiro on her late 1960s Ducati single in the Vintage Class.  We were joined on day three by Hilde Speet, the third of just five women participants this year, who as a newer rider chose not to be timed and so entered as a tourist on her Triumph Bonneville. Hilde’s Dad and another Dutch friend rode in the Historical Re-enactment category on a 1947 Vincent and a 1948 Harley Davidson.

One of the checkpoints that keeps time for the regularity event. [Domenico Vallorini]
When I first looked at a map of the proposed 2021 Motogiro route, I noted that many of the overnight stops were in towns not terribly far from each other. The direct road from our starting point at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli to our first stayover in the Repubblica di San Marino is just 30 km, for instance. However, none of the roads took us directly from point A to point B, and we traversed roughly 300 km each day on a mix of regional highways, twisty mountain passes, and narrow  cobblestone roads that had been carefully selected for the event. The organizers provided us with detailed instructions for each day’s ride with explanations of where to turn after a certain number of kilometers. A few participants outlined paper maps and stuck them in their tank bags or inserted all of the towns into their GPSs, but it wasn’t really necessary because each day the full route was marked with yellow and pink arrows attached to signs and other landmarks the mechanics removed once all riders were accounted for at the final stop. I admit I had doubts about how well that would work, but it did; in six days we missed arrows only twice and even then quickly relocated our path.

The Benelli group at an end of day stop. [Domenico Vallorini]
Despite all of these helpful tools, the reality of competition meant that I placed on just days three and five. The first day was rainy and cold. I was on an unfamiliar motorcycle on roads far more challenging than any I had ever ridden on before: multiple downhill hairpin turns at a steep grade; tight uphill off-camber right turns on the edge of cliffs; roads split into different surface levels from bad weather. Robin and I completed the first full route, but we were late to our checkpoints and thus disqualified.  At the end of the second day, a few of us decided to skip the last two checkpoints and go directly to our final destination in Todi. On day four, a Vespa rider lost his balance and fell into me, causing me to fall. My bike landed on top of me and the front brake lever broke.  The Leoncino arrived at our stop in Spoleto in one of the mechanic’s trucks, as did Robin’s vintage Ducati, which broke down at about the same time. I sat out on day six because I needed to have a pre-travel Covid test and couldn’t risk a late arrival, which ended up being the right choice because Robin ran out of gas that day.  My best place was 7th, not bad for a first time Motogiro rider in a highly competitive category. Most importantly, I gained first-hand insights into the realities of a multi-day motorcycle competition and I had a great adventure.  If you’ve never done something like it, I highly recommend you give it a go!

Wendy Pojmann wheeling through the corners in the Italian mountains. [Domenico Vallorini]
For more about the 2021 Motogiro d’Italia check out my short videos on YouTube at WhyWeRideTogether:  and visit the official Motogiro d’Italia website to learn more about past and future events.

Wendy Pojmann at the finish line after a successful ride. [Domenico Vallorini]


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy was published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

Catsuits, Cafe Racers, and #WomenWhoRideMotorcycles

In the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle, recently featured in a Vintagent Quarantine Cinema list, Marianne Faithfull rises from the bed she shares with her husband. She walks naked to a closet where she pulls out a black leather catsuit and effortlessly slips into it. (I would have put a moka pot on the stove knowing I had to wrestle a big Harley out of the garage in the wee hours.)  She then quietly pushes her motorcycle into the street so she doesn't wake her husband, before starting it up and roaring off into the early morning light.

Marianne Faithfull as Rebecca in the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle, based on the novel La Motociclette by Andre Peyre de Mandiargues. [Vintagent Archive]
In a 2011 Chanel advertisement, Keira Knightley stretches across the tank of a buff-colored Ducati 750 Sport café racer, wearing a matching buff suede catsuit and Ruby helmet, and rides through mostly empty Parisian streets to a modeling shoot.  Along the way, she encounters three men in perfectly fitted black suits on matching black Ducatis and pulls away from them at a stop light. She then descends marble steps, presumably to take a shortcut, before arriving in a palace courtyard. (Since it must have been very early in this case, too, I would have used the extra time to stop for a café crème - the French version of a cappuccino). The photographer is so taken with Knightley’s riding outfit that he has her pose in it rather than in the flowy white gown that has been pulled for her. [Karl Lagerfeld made the catsuit for Keira to match the color of her Ruby helmet, then had the vintage Ducati painted to match! - ed.]

Keira Knightley in a 2010 campaign for Chanel. Note the trailer, and the stunt double rider in a matching suit (a woman!). [Internet]
Alluring leather-clad ladies on motorbikes are hardly a novelty in popular culture, but Faithfull and Knightley's characters are a representation of woman riders that, in my estimation, runs counter to our ideas in the United States and Europe. In the US, the pervasive image of the woman on two wheels is a Harley-Davidson rider, but she doesn’t much resemble director Jack Cardiff’s fantasy.  She is more likely seen as tough, loud and large if she rides her own bike or as diminutive and scantily clad if she’s on the back of her man’s ride. (How many times have I heard in the US, “But you don’t look like a motorcyclist"?)  Women on motorbikes in Europe, by contrast, are less stereotyped by mainstream media, since they make up a larger segment of the riding population. Nevertheless “serious” motorcyclists are usually imagined as men. (When buying riding gear in Europe, salespeople regularly ask what kind of scooter I ride and change their expression when I respond “a Ducati Monster”.)

Screen capture from the Honda booth at Roma Motodays. [@RomaMotodaysOfficial]
Before the world locked down, I attended the Roma Motodays Show in Italy, and was dismayed (but not surprised) to see the common use of female models used to sell motorbikes. I asked a couple of the lovely ladies-in-lycra what they rode; at the Honda booth one told me she would not ride motorcycles because they are dangerous! The women working the BMW booth were also attractive but were actual motorcyclists wearing light gear, as were their male counterparts. At that moment, I reached the conclusion that it's fine if sexy people market motorcycles, especially if the bikes, too, are sexy. But, I was less comfortable with a nicely-shaped leg being used to guide an onlookers eye to the bike, if that same leg knew nothing about the motorcycle.

The real deal. An utterly charming Anke Eve Goldmann in 1956 aboard the second BMW R69 built, in the one-piece racing suit she designed and had Harro make with a diagonal zipper to make egress easier. Anke Eve was friends with Andre Peyre de Mandiargues, who based his character of Rebecca in his novel La Motociclette on AEG. In turn, her racing suit was transformed into a catsuit for Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle. And thus the real woman, with a fascinating story of struggles against gender bias, was transformed into a sex-obsessed, self-destructive erotic cliché. [Vintagent Archive]
It's not a secret that Grand Prix star Bill Ivy was Faithfull’s riding double, nor that Knightley has never piloted a Ducati. So why am I willing to forgive their simulated skills on a motorcycle? Is it the outfits?  My wish list definitely includes an espresso-colored leather catsuit, if I ever lay my hands on a matching Ducati café racer.  Perhaps these actresses are playing out my personal fantasy that women can be confident, elegant, and capable while riding their own gorgeous machine, without having to answer dumb questions.

The Petrolettes is the first all-women's motorcycle event in Europe, organized by Irene Kotnik and her amazing team. [Kate Disher Quill]
Updated representations of women who ride motorcycles are finally emerging, in part because of women's self-representation in social media. It's also true that an abundance of women on motorcycles on social media stress sex over skill, whether their images are uploaded by themselves or by men.  Of course, “manly men on motorcycles” is also a cliché gendering of the biker persona.  It's encouraging that a growing number of motorcyclist who depart from typical role models are gaining a following. Whether with the Litas, Babes Ride Out, Petrolettes, or VC London, women riders are creating new visions of what they ride, what they look like, and how they define their relationships with men. Women’s motorcycle clubs have been around a long time; one of the oldest is the Motor Maids, established in 1940. What's new is women riders can now control their public image, daily. Eventually (hopefully), by such efforts the image of a woman rider will become more nuanced and inclusive.  Granted there is still an enormous divide between the realities of the motorcycling and what lives in the popular imagination, for men and women riders.  And, interestingly, I do not see many women and men riding together in groups, either. It therefore remains to be seen how social media will change moto-imagery in ways traditional media have not.  Maybe one day, when I'm snug in an espresso catsuit on my café racer, I will be answering intelligent questions at my early morning café stop.

Girl power! And awesome moment from the Babes Ride Out all-woman motorcycle weekend. [Lindsay Lohden]



Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

Motogiro d'Italia 2020: the Race is On

“A flag puts him in the saddle, another stops him, between the two flags hundreds of kilometers. He runs with his chest pressed on the tank, his hands clinging to the controls, eyes wide open inside the orbit of the lens. Immense. The road rises, falls, cuts the plains and again unrolls...and the engine beating in his ears, beats, beats, until the eardrums refuse to vibrate and the rumble becomes a bearable hum.”  Silvio Ottolenghi, Motogiro d’Italia brochure, 1956

Proper MotoGiro! In the 1956 edition, Giuliano Maoggi shows fierce determination aboard his Ducati 125 Marianna...and it paid off, as he won the race. [MotoGiro]

The smallest version of one of the most historic road races in the motorcycling world, the Motogiro d’Italia, took place last week. Forty riders departed from Villafranca di Verona/Treviso on September 13 to cover 1700 kilometers over six days through northern and central Italy.  Originally planned for mid-May, the Motogiro had to be rescheduled and modified due to the Covid 19 pandemic.  Organizers decided not to skip a year, however, saying participants “did not want to give up the great tradition of the historic motorcycle road event, even if it had to be postponed by four months.” Although the Isle of Man TT, which was canceled this year, is slightly older (1907 v. 1914) and better known because of the treacherous course that has claimed the lives of more than 200 riders, the Motogiro has retained its connections to the early machines and pilots who earned hero status in post-World War II Italy. Moreover, the sensations of road racing captured by journalist Silvio Ottolenghi in 1956 continue to unite riders across time and space who find excitement and inspiration astride small displacement motorcycles that, in his time, were the hottest new models.

Remo Venturi in the 1955 MotoGiro aboard an MV Agusta Bialbero [MotoGiro]
Some of the competitors in the recent rallies are racing veterans, such as champion Remo Venturi, who won the Motogiro d’Italia in 1957, the last year it took place before being shuttered for nearly a decade. Into his late 80s, Venturi was still competing on a classic 175 cc MV Agusta Rapido across the scenic roads of Italy, riding alongside women and men many years his junior from countries around the globe. Travel restrictions this year meant the Motogiro could not include participants from the United States, England or South America, previously the source of many riders who'd come to Italy to compete. Versions of the Motogiro now take place outside Italy as well, however. The MotoGiroUSA, for example, has been bringing classic motorcycle enthusiasts together since 2004 for a two-day timed trial ride that captures many of the experiences of the Italian original on which it is modeled. Also postponed this year because of Covid 19, the event ran in Virginia at the end of August with just 60 of the usual 100 riders.

Classic MotoGiro imagery from 1959, as the Laverda team stays close on the roads. [MotoGiro]
The first Giro Motociclistico d’Italia in 1914 was a classic road race a tad shy of 2400 kilometers. That year, fifty-two competitors started the route on bikes of up to 175 cc, but a mere 17 completed the full course. Racing was suspended during the fascist years, starting in 1931, and then came back for its heyday from 1953 to 1957 as the Motogiro d’Italia.  Italian motorcycles by Ducati, Gilera, MotoBi, Moto Guzzi, Mival, Beta, Maserati, Laverda, Bianchi, Mondial, Perugina, Moto Morini, Parilla, Benelli, and MV Agusta and riders such as Leopoldo Tartarini and Giuliano Maoggi, who like Venturi participated in the revived competition during their senior years, captured the public imagination.  In 1954, Tarquino Provini, later a 4-time Isle of Man TT winner, gained admiration for taking first place despite finding a hole in the tire of his Mondial at the starting line on the last day; legend has it that a competitor’s mechanic sabotaged his rival’s bike. The Florentine Giuliano Maoggi became a celebrity when, in 1956, he outran and out-skilled 252 competitors on larger bikes to win the 2500 km, 8 part Motogiro on a Ducati Gran Sport Marianna 125 cc single cylinder designed by Fabio Taglioni. Perhaps it was divine intervention; Taglioni named his famed motorcycle in honor of Pope Pius XII’s celebration of the Virgin Mary that year.  Taglioni wowed again with the 1957 Sport, a 175 cc created with the intention of taking the Motogiro title and becoming an aspirational model for other makers.

Other times, other rides. The late 1960s saw a scooter invasion at the MotoGiro, which was successful: here a lineup of Vespas and Lambrettas make timed launches from a checkpoint. [MotoGiro]
During this period of the Motogiro, thousands of Italians began to ride scooters and motorcycles of their own, many of which were not so distant from the motorbikes of the Motogiro. Numerous daily riders closely followed road racing, especially because they could appreciate the skills and endurance of motorcyclists who were able to traverse more than 2000 km over five or more days of intense competition. Adoring fans lined the race routes and cheered on their favorites during the five peak years of the Motogiro and they filled the roadsides of the Milan to Taranto race that gained a large following during the postwar years as well. Racing enthusiasts sought autographs from their favorite riders and asked questions of mechanics. They also became loyal consumers of the motorcycle manufacturers who showcased their new models during the races.  Widespread support for road racing continued until the fateful Mille Miglia auto crash in 1957 when Spaniard Alfonso De Portago went off course in his Ferrari, killing 9 spectators, his navigator Edmund Nelson and himself and injuring some twenty other onlookers. Motorcycle racers had also met their end on Italian roads; the 1954 Milano-Taranto race claimed 3 riders in the first two days. But the risks to the public were made real by the Mille Miglia.  As a result, the Italian government immediately put an end to road racing, and fans were led to seek thrills vis-a-vis pilots on official closed racetracks.

Not enough off-road scooter trials these days! The Motogiro typically included a few rough sections in the 1950s and '60s. [MotoGiro]
By the late 1960s, street competitions again garnered favor and the Motogiro returned, although this time in a time trial version run under the direction of the official national entity the Federazione Motociclistica Italiana (FMI).  In 1989, organizers from the Moto Club Terni L. Liberati - P. Pileri, a member of the FMI, re-introduced the historic roots of the 1950s Motogiro and encouraged the participation of motorcycles from the golden years. The event shifted from being an all-out race to a timed ride with checkpoints and skills tests. The idea was to promote the small cylinder motorcycles that had been so important in shaping postwar Italian culture. Soon a few hundred riders were back on the roads competing on their prized motorcycles.  In 2001, Ducati and its affiliate Dream Engine joined with the Terni Moto Club and re-designed the event by dividing the motorcycles into four classes: Historical Re-enactment (1950-1958); Vintage (1959-1969); Classic (1970-1980); and Motogiro (1980-). The historic motorcycles had to stay under 175cc but could be of any make, not only Italian.  Modern motorcycles with larger engines were allowed in the touring class but with start times staggered to try to keep them separated from the older, smaller bikes.  Many riders consider the Historical Re-enactment category the most prestigious to win. Marco Bonanomi captured this year’s title on a MV Agusta CSTL, a model produced between 1953 and 1957.

Nice to start at a castle! The locations of the contemporary MotoGiro can't be beat. [Domenico Vallorini]
Ducati’s role in the Motogiro included using the event to introduce new motorcycles, much as they had done in the 1950s. In 2006, for example, two Ducati Sport Classic models, the Paul Smart 1000 and the Sport 1000, debuted at the Motogiro, ridden by then Ducati President and CEO Federico Minoli and Gianluigi Mengoli, President of the Fondazione Ducati. As in the past, Ducati’s marketing through the Motogiro worked well for the company and they moved the event to July to take place during World Ducati Week in Bologna.  The maker’s relationships with Dream Engine, which had largely been responsible for the event’s tourist arrangements, and with the Moto Club Terni that had taken care of the bikes and the riding side, suffered, however, and the three entities parted ways. The Terni Club, as the FMI member, held onto the official Motogiro d’Italia name and returned the event to the spring and to its origins based on the participation of motorcycles from earlier eras. Ducati and the new Dream Engine 2 organized their own events, focusing on tourist class bikes and attracting more non-Italians for a week-long Italian moto-cation experience.

Hard to beat the scenery in northern Italy at any time of year. Spectacular territory is a hazard for one's concentration on timing! [Domenico Vallorini]
Robert (Bob) Coy of the United States Classic Racing Association rode a Motobi 125 cc in the 2003 and 2004 Motogiro d’Italia and so much enjoyed being in the company of other historic motorcycle riders that he decided to create a similar event in the United States. The first MotoGiroUSA took place in 2004 in upstate New York and soon Coy began running spring and fall versions on the east coast. Most years 100 riders compete over two days in a timed ride and skills tests event that brings them together on pre-1969 motorcycles with displacements under 305 cc. Coy notes that the popularity of small Japanese motorcycles in the US during the 1960s has contributed to their prevalence in the MotoGiroUSA rides, but motorcycles from the 1950s and 1960s by BSA, Triumph, Velocette, BMW, Bultaco and his own Italian favorites such as Motobi and Moto Guzzi, among others, are competitive against the numerous Hondas and Yamahas.  A Motogiro di California launched in 2008 with input from Coy and Ducati/Dream Engine 2 and there are numerous similar rides across the US and Canada.

Time check stations can be anywhere on a timed rally, including the courtyard of a castle. [Domenico Vallorini]
What these events have in common is the spirit of the 1950s Italian Motogiro, that is, of uniting riders who appreciate the sensation of opening up the throttle on a small bike along scenic roads, much as Ottolenghi described 64 years ago. This year, however, brought new challenges to organizers who wanted to maintain continuity without compromising the integrity of the event or the health and safety of the participants. Fewer riders, the option of completing just a portion of the itinerary, social distancing and the wearing of masks during limited social gatherings plus discouraging onlookers from lingering around the riders characterized this year’s Italian and American Motogiri, which were reported to be enjoyable even with such restrictions in place. As a representative of the Moto Club Terni put it, “We think this is a way of coming back, if slowly, from the terrible period we’ve all been through.” And Bob Coy reported from Virgina that “the roads were fantastic -- very rural, twisty, excellent pavement, very few cars and with beautiful vistas from the mountains.”  Just what riders wanted as they escaped the strangeness of 2020 and headed into the past for a few days on their classic machines.

A scene from the MotoGiro USA, which includes water crossings and a lot of gorgeous scenery. [Bob Coy]


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

Little Blue, Or Why a Vintage Motorcycle is All I Need

Eight years ago this month, on my birthday, I sat astride a small motorcycle in a parking lot and let out a clutch for the first time. Making it to the other side of the parking lot meant I'd crossed over to the other side of riding, from pillion to motorcyclist.  The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) “become familiar with the motorcycle” course took half a day, but changed my life.   My husband and I had moved to upstate New York a few years before, where we had taken lovely trips on his Suzuki V-Strom 1000: to the vineyards of the Finger Lakes, the rocky coast of Maine, and the sandy beaches of Rhode Island.  Riding on back was becoming boring, but somehow it hadn't occurred to me in all our years of riding together that I could operate a motorbike on my own. Our first motorcycle was a Honda CB500 purchased with wedding gift money in Rome, that we took through the hills of Tuscany on our honeymoon.

Little Blue - a rare, one-year model Honda CL200 [Wendy Pojmann]
The inspiration for learning to ride came from ballet class: a fellow dancer came to class with a helmet and leather jacket. I was intrigued and asked to see her bike, a Royal Enfield 500. Shortly afterwards another dancer friend bought a big cruiser that she handled with ease. I thought, “Wow. A ballerina biker gang would be awesome.”  Two months later I passed the full MSF course and had a license, so I knew how to ride a motorcycle in a parking lot, but had zero road experience.  When my safety course companions asked what I planned to ride, I had no clear response. Many of them had already purchased motorcycles, mostly newer models and mostly mid-size or larger bikes. My husband had been checking Craigslist for used motorcycles, and showed me a picture of a 1974 Honda CL 200 Scrambler for sale in nearby Saratoga Springs. It was love at first sight! The barn-find CL had fallen into the hands of a hobbyist motorcycle restorer, who had only needed to clean the carburetors and polish up the chrome to make it presentable. We took the bike home, and I rode it down the driveway with huge smile, and named it 'Little Blue.'  The CL200 was only available in blue and white, and only in production for one year, which made it seem extra special to me: I loved the color scheme, the chrome, the pipe, the smell, the sound, the vibrations, everything.

Experience gained! The Honda CL series was their street scrambler line, and they do just fine in the dirt. [Wendy Pojmann]
I gained more experience and began to learn finesse: an old motorcycle requires care. I needed to perfect my starts, and once stalled, several times, in front of a well-known biker hangout as tough-looking dudes stared, smirking. One of them rose to help but I managed to get moving again: I got a thumbs up. Other times, the shifter got stuck, and I eventually learned to shift with the tip of my foot, and go through all the gears.  I panic stopped for a red light, fishtailed as the back brake locked and thought, “I am not letting Little Blue go down!” We stayed up.  And then there was the time the front tube blew and I had to make a smooth stop with a flat. These incidents occurred at various stages as I passed to bigger and newer motorcycles, but none of them have compared to Little Blue. The sensation I have when I reach 55 mph (downhill with wind in my favor) and the speedo needle is shaking  and the engine is screaming and I’m bouncing along like none other.  Small bikes feel like you're setting a land speed record!

A proud exhibitor at a motorcycle show - a universal experience for vintage motorcycle enthusiasts. [Wendy Pojmann]
And Little Blue is an attention-getter. On nearly every ride someone asks about him. The same occurs when my husband rides him, so the questions aren't because of me! Once while out riding, a man approached me in a parking lot, explaining he had seen us go by his house, spotted the CL, and had to see it close up so jumped in his truck.  All the interest led me to enter Little Blue in the Rice-O-Rama vintage motorcycle show in western Massachusetts a few years ago. He didn’t win -- it was hard to compete against the fully restored bikes in the same category -- but I had great fun showing him off and making a few laps with him around the dirt track at the end of the day. A few people asked if I would sell him; I said no. Never. My CL has been in good company at the Distinguished Gentleman’s Rides as well.

Company? Looks like Little Blue isn't the only vintage Honda in the family: meet Smokey! [Wendy Pojmann]
Little Blue is my first bike and the only one I really need. Vintage style is part of his appeal but so is the fact that I know I could ride him to the ends of the earth. We would move slowly. I would have to stop to fix this or that. But the same smile I had when I rode him down the driveway that first night would always be planted on my face.


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.

Social Distancing Machine?

Vintage Bikes, Coffee Shops, and Community

“Social distancing machine” is an oft-repeated description of motorcycles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure. The motorcycle is often associated with lone riders traversing open roads, a symbol of our desire to leave society behind and escape into 'freedom'. For me., however, the motorcycle is actually a social connection machine. What I miss most right now are rides with friends that start, pause, or conclude with a chat over coffee. Especially in one of the numerous motorcycle coffee shops that have popped up in my region and across the United States over the past few years. It makes sense to combine caffeine and gasoline in these spaces. Riders love sharing stories about their bikes and rides, and the coffee house is a centuries-old space for telling tales. What’s often fascinating about the new moto coffee shops is their connection to the past, especially through a passion for vintage motorcycles. These places offer a nod to the café racers of decades gone by who made the Ace Café a staple of the collective imagination, while at the same time they are reshaping contemporary moto culture. The contemporary motorcycle coffee shop unites people and connects us to a shared history through the machines and beverages that keep us moving forward. They contribute to the creation of community. Why have a fascination for vintage motorcycles and preferences for artisan coffee converged in a particular way at this precise moment? And what do they tell us about the sociability of motorcycles and coffee?

Moto Coffee Machine in Hudson, NY, was formerly a graphic design office, and now is an important community hub in a small town. [Paul d'Orleans]
Moto Coffee Machine: Hudson, NY

A couple of summers ago, my companions designated me the lead on a short 50-mile ride from Schenectady, along the Hudson River to Moto Coffee Machine in Hudson, New York. The shop, which opened in 2015, is housed in one of the many historic brick buildings that line Warren Street, a half-mile stretch of antique shops, vintage clothing stores and modern eateries. You know you’ve arrived when you see owner Antony Katz’s 1999 customized black Ducati Monster parked in front among many other motorcycles of all ages, makes and models. In the front windows, Katz always features vintage motorcycles, often Ducatis or Moto Guzzis. The multipurpose space is laid out with a long coffee counter and an eating area in the front and a section for motorcycle gear and mechanics’ lifts in the back. Placed throughout are Katz’s own bikes as well as machines for sale, an assortment of vintage and modern Hondas, BMWs, Italian and British bikes and whatever else he finds of interest. Katz, a native Brit with Italian origins, started riding and wrenching on motorcycles more than 30 years ago.

Antony Katz, the ever-present proprietor of Moto Coffee Machine, who is happy to have a conversation with just about anyone. [Paul d'Orléans]
Moto Coffee was originally the location of Katz’s graphic design studio with a dedicated space where he could work on old bikes as a break.  Growing tired of a depersonalized work world, and of drinking mediocre coffee alone and on the run, Katz, recalling his days in Italy, turned his passion for motorcycles and coffee into a mixed-use space that would encourage sociability over an espresso.  His design background is evident in his selection of environmentally-conscious building materials and a European aesthetic, but is especially noteworthy in the vintage vibes of the motorcycles and gear he sells. Groups of motorcyclists and the moto-curious are always in the shop. I’ve met riders from Brooklyn escaping New York City for the day, others from Toronto making a refueling and re-caffeinating stop on their journey south, and locals out on a short ride seeking an espresso and the company of other motorcyclists. It’s not uncommon to see a coffee drinker asking questions of a motorcycle rider who is parking a bike in front. Even random pedestrians are drawn into conversations about bikes, travels or coffee.

Steven Maes and Thaison Garcia from Rust is Gold coffee in Albuquerque New Mexico. [RIG]
Rust is Gold: Albuquerque, New Mexico

The plateaus of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico is where you'll find the two connected shops of Rust is Gold Coffee and RIG Coffee and Garage. Shop founder Thaison Garcia first opened Rust is Gold in a multi-vendor antique mall. The repurposed and weathered wood décor offers a fitting background for the display of custom bikes built from vintage frames. Veteran and middle-school teacher Garcia and his business partner Steven Maes, a film industry art director and writer/director of the award-winning film Caffeine & Gasoline, note that, “We want to share [our] passion for vintage style and traditional values in a venue that displays those treasures for all to enjoy.” The first shop is a popular gathering place for riders passing through Albuquerque on Route 66 trips and serves as a starting point for seasonal “rides to the capital” of Santa Fe along the historic Turquoise Trail. Collectors of antiques often take a seat at one of the shop’s welcoming round tables and strike up conversations with bikers. What Garcia was missing in the first location, however, was a place to work on vintage bikes. Maes found a space that would allow café operations to take place side-by-side with a full-service garage. The result was RIG, which separates the coffee counter from a seating area and performance stage and leads to a large shop floor with multiple motorcycles in various stages of customization or restoration. Garcia and Maes began building customs 10 years ago, and are particularly fond of building café racers from inexpensive old motorcycles.

The RIG annex/moto/coffee shot. [RIG]
The two men emphasize their ties to a large motorcycling family, people who appreciate moto-history and the people who rode (and still ride) them, and deepen their role in the motorcycling community through coffee. When I visited recently, they hosted a fix-it-yourself lesson by a vintage bike mechanic and supplied coffee off-site to a group of adventure riders practicing their skills. Shortly afterwards, the state of New Mexico mandated a takeaway and delivery orders only policy, and the pair responded by setting out on their custom café racers as a sort of “iron pony express” to deliver coffee care packages to people who couldn’t make it into the shop. [OMG I so need a good coffee delivery...ed.] The partners take their own rides from time to time, but it’s clear they share friendship and a genuine concern for their neighbors. They value social connectedness over social distancing.

These are just two examples people creating social spaces mixing vintage motorcycles and coffee in USA, and creating a particular kind of community. The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the earliest of this new generation of motorcycle coffee shops: See See Motor Coffee in Portland, Oregon began operations in 2008 “to create a more inclusive motorcycle scene.” In the Midwest, Blip Roasters of Kansas City has created a united motorcycling community made up of every possible biker subculture from vintage café racers to custom road warriors, all talking bikes and rides over coffee every Sunday at the shop (temporarily suspended of course). And just over a year ago in my region of upstate New York, Shawn Beebie opened Second Wind Coffee, which takes its name from the idea of second chances for both people and vintage motorcycles. Plans for a “Motorcycles on Main Street” event late this summer open to all riders and moto-enthusiasts are now in the works.

The interior of Second Wind Coffee of Johnstown, NY [Shawn Beebie]
As I imagine the figure of a singular motorcyclist on her old Honda disappearing into a sunset, it occurs to me that she is not social distancing by choice, but  waiting to reunite with other riders over a hand-crafted coffee.


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.


Two Wheels, Single Shots: Motorcycles and Espresso in Italy

My plan for June was to ride a Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled across central Italy with friends, making many stops for espresso, the trip culminating with a visit to the Ducati Museum in Bologna.  Obviously those plans are on hold now, but Italy is very much on my mind.  I have been documenting the proliferation of motorcycle coffee shops in large cities and small towns across the United States (the subject of my next article), and have discovered there are surprisingly few such establishments in the country that gave birth to espresso.  At the same time, very few Italians have never ridden a two-wheeled vehicle or tasted an espresso. Motorbikes and espresso are, in fact, at the heart of Italian society and culture. They grew together during the twentieth century to become part of contemporary life. Both represent Italian attention to design aesthetics, technological innovation and engineering, an interest in maintaining artisanal traditions, and the importance of sociability.  Each day (until recently), hundreds of thousands of Italians zip off to work or school on a motorcycle or scooter, and most join a friend for a caffè espresso along the way. Why is that?  How did motorcycles and coffee become so entrenched in Italian life that they feel no need to create special places for coffee-drinking motorcyclists, as has become trendy in the US?

Dr. Wendy Pojmann on the Ducati she intended to ride and explore Italian motocoffee culture this summer. [Wendy Pojmann]
Statistics confirm how Italians love coffee and motorcycles. Italy has the most motorcyclists per capita in Europe, and ranks seventh worldwide (166 per 1000), behind developing countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2014, 1 in 10 Italians owned a two-wheeled vehicle. In 2009, Italians bought more than 400,000 motorcycles, which is roughly the same number that Americans bought in 2017 but with less than one-fifth the population. In contrast to the developing world, the Italians primarily ride large motorcycles, not scooters and small displacement motorcycles as some might assume. According to Motociclismo, the best-selling motorcycle in Italy for several years running has been the BMW 1200 GS. In coffee drinking, Italy ranks thirteenth in coffee consumption per capita -- Finland and Norway top the list -- but that ranking is based on kilograms per person, which is misleading as the 1-ounce espresso shot is the drink of choice. The US is twenty-sixth by comparison. About 13 billion espressos slide across coffee bar counters in Italy each year. That’s roughly 216 espressos per person (with children factored in) per year.

1905 examples of the Victoria Arduino espresso machines. [Enrico Maltoni Collection]
Both espresso and motorbikes had their start in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. The first “espresso” machine, in reality a steam percolator, debuted at the 1855 Paris Exhibition. In 1884, Angelo Moriondo of Turin patented a steam pressurized coffee machine in France. Then in 1901, the Milanese engineer Luigi Bezzera registered the first patent for a true espresso machine. Italian inventor Giuseppe Murnigotti filed the first patent for an internal-combustion engine motorcycle in 1879.  Aesthetics and design became intrinsic to Italian manufacturing. Centuries artisanal craftsmanship extended into the twentieth century and is evident even in early espresso machines and motorcycles. Espresso roasters Lavazza (1895) and Caffè Vergnano (1882), espresso machine makers Victoria Arduino (1905) and La Pavoni (1905) and motorcycle makers Bianchi (1897) Gilera (1909), and Benelli (1911) all got their start at about the same time. Then in 1914, the first Italian motorcycle road race, the Giro Motociclistico d’Italia, later the Moto Giro, tested riders on their fast new machines just as the idea of “express” entered the larger coffee world. Italian Futurist Filipo Tommaso Marinetti is famously said to have declared himself the “caffeine of Europe” as fellow artists, such as Fortunato Depero, captured the dynamism and velocity of espresso machines and motorbikes in their paintings. [See 'Art and the Motorcycle: the Futurists' - ed.]

Futurist painter Fortunato Depero painted many advertisements for coffee companies, as well as the iconic designs for Campari. [Vintagent Archive]
For a number of reasons (economics, the availability of materials, policies under fascism, and the disruption of the war), the mass consumption of espresso and two-wheeled vehicles expanded only after World War II. The scooter and small displacement motorcycle boom began immediately, since Italians needed inexpensive transportation, and the espresso explosion followed, both boosted by the Italian economic miracle of the late 1950s. During this period, the number of espresso roasters and espresso machine and motorcycle makers grew exponentially. Medium size artisanal coffee roasters Passalacqua (1948) of Naples, the micro-roaster Tazza d’Oro (1944) in Rome, and Caffè Kimbo (1963), which today is Italy’s third largest espresso exporter, were among the postwar roasters that are still active today. Elektra (1947), Faema (1945) and Gaggia (1947) joined older makers in the production of artful and technologically advanced espresso machines. And, in motorbikes, Ducati (1946), Piaggio/Vespa (1946), and MV Agusta (1945) launched their legendary and lasting postwar brands. The Moto Giro, which became highly popular between 1953 and 1957, showcased these manufacturers as well as Moto Guzzi, Motobi, and Moto Morini, whose creations were piloted by goggle-wearing road racers.

Aspirational motorcycling in the 1950s, with Sophia Loren in 'Sunflower'. [Avco Embassy Films]
Scooters and motorcycles were economical modes of transport that fit the lifestyle of Italian communities. Even in smaller towns, city centers tend to be densely populated and services located inside a small area, sometimes within ancient or medieval walls, where two wheels  are convenient for running around. The Italian climate also facilitated riding; it’s a year round option across much of the peninsula and on the islands. Moreover, driver’s licensing policies favored the entry of the youth market into riding two-wheeled motorized vehicles. Drivers had to be 18 years old to operate a car but only 14 for a 50 cc scooter and 16 for a 125 cc motorbike. Espresso drinking similarly became part of daily life for most Italians during the economic boom. The new technology of pump machines and new methods for roasting, storing and shipping improved the flavor of espresso. Costs also remained low; the average price today for an espresso is 1 Euro and a cappuccino costs Euro 1.20. After 1956, the number of independent espresso bars in Italy grew from just over 84,000 to more than 150,000.

Manufacturing Elektra Espresso machines in 1947. [Alessio Pezzoni/Elektra Archive]
This link between coffee and motorcycles is therefore routine in a sense. Espresso is everywhere, including in what seem like remote locations, and riders on short and long trips fit a stop at the espresso bar into their journeys. They do so because of its availability, sociability and rapidity. Caffeine matters less than taking a real, if short, break and spending time with friends. Of course, for motorcyclists this means meeting at a bar before going on a ride or stopping for a coffee while on one. Riders usually select an espresso bar because of its location and quality rather than because it caters to their two-wheeled lifestyle. In fact, somewhat like English cafe racers (who, as Paul d’Orléans has noted, were once derided for not being “real” racers), there is the derogatory Italian label of “motociclisti da bar” (espresso bar motorcyclists). The term applies to riders who go a short distance on fancy motorcycles to drink coffee and show off their bikes, but don’t actually do many kilometers in the saddle. As for the motorcycle coffee shop, in Italy it is a new and small phenomenon. Ducati launched a café in Rome several years ago, but it was short lived. In Milan, there’s a Deus Ex Machina, an Australian company that features food and coffee along with surfing, cycling and café racing décor but it fits in more with the city’s international flagship stores than being part of a larger Italian motocafé phenomenon. Of course, there are espresso bars owned by riders who have motorcycles and related décor in their shops. And it is these places I will be seeking to learn more about, hopefully soon, as I ride through the country I call my second home on one of their emotion-inducing two-wheeled beauties.


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann's current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.