Wendy Pojmann

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 ...is 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.