THE ITALIAN JOB.
(c) Tony Foale. 1985 -- 2002
There they were, low down on the banking, just the two of them, only a few yards apart yet each one immersed in his own thoughts, each one separately seaching urgently for more tyre adhesion, each one using the throttle with a delicacy unnecessary of trials riders, trying desperately to find extra traction in order to fling their machines higher up the banking. Who were they, where were they? ------- Freddie and Eddy, bravely battling it out on the bowl at Daytona, each equally determined to reach the chequered flag before the other? ------- WRONG! nothing so glamourous as that, although the element of danger was scarcely any less. Who then?
It was Mike Scott (remember him, the previous editor of this esteemed rag and well known GP pundit.) and yours truely negotiating an auto-route exit road, on the face of it just a gentle right hand bend with the merest hint of camber to assist with the speed transition down from motorway speeds. Why then the drama? Because we were just pulling into Basel on the Swiss/French/German border in late November and it was COLD, very cold and the road was covered in a mixture of ice and compacted snow, so slippery that the gentle banking was forcing the bikes down toward the gutter and it was necessary to apply a fair degree of opposite lock just to prevent that occurence. We were at the end of a half day ride in freezing conditions, driving snow, ice cold rain, ice covered roads, all had been experienced, but despite the intense concentration needed just to retain balance, my tired and frozen brain still allowed my thoughts to wander and I remember that at one stage they wandered to Tony M's account of his American adventures (see December issue). How dare he, thought I, complain about the problems of desert heat, heat exhaustion, and dehydration, doesn't he know when he is well off. After all, early man emerged from the cocoon of his ape's clothing, in the warmth of the tropics not the cold of the alps. The desire to swap locations was particularly poignant to me, because if earlier plans had come to fruition, I would have been with him in the US., in all that glorious heat.
Instead here I was with a fellow ex-colonial, both of us old enough to know better and both of us used to warmer climes. Why were we here then? Like most most daft schemes it seemed a good idea at the time. Way back before the season that was passed off as the 1985 summer, I was under the ridiculous impression that my new bike, PROJECT QL. would be ready in time for the Three Flags Run, and for its debut a trans-America ride from Mexico to Canada seemed like a good lark. However when it became apparent that this adventure was premature I looked around for an alterative maiden trip. Last year Mike invited me to ride with him to the Cologne show and so it seemed only natural for me to suggest likewise to this year's Milan show. As an added incentive Superbike needed somebody to take some photos at the show. Having spent my formative years in Australia my knowledge of European geography is sketchy at best and all I knew about Milan was that it was in Italy and as everyone knows Italy is warm, and as experience has taught me, good old Blighty is a bit on the cool side in November, so I was looking forward to a few days away from it, imagine my surprise when only a few days before the off I consulted a map to find that Milan was just south of the Alps, Brrrrr. Too late to back out by then, I had told too many people that I was going.
As my winter riding days ended, the day that I left Australia, my riding kit was not entirely suitable for such a jaunt, time was too short to do much about it but I did get a pair of Glo-gloves, electrically heated nylon inner gloves from Ason Electronics, figuring that as long as I could still move my fingers, I could ride the bike home.
Several proposed completion dates for the bike had come and gone but by some miracle it was finished with a few days to spare, a quick trip around the block indicated that the bump to rebound ratio of the dampers was less than ideal, so as I was planning on sitting on this machine for hours on end it seemed sensible to try and improve the comfort if possible. So a quick dash from Kent to Peterborough to see Mike Mumford, Spax's ace suspension whizz-kid, was organised, the dampers were dismantled, valves changed and holes were drilled, dampers refitted and back to Kent. That was Friday the 18th., Monday the 21st. was departure day, there's nothing like being well prepared in advance.
I was to meet Mike at Dover to catch the 9.15 am. ferry for Calais. My route to the port consisted mainly of winding country lanes, great in the summer but the weather was freezing cold and within the first few miles I nearly came to grief on an icy corner, not an encouraging start but at least I learnt that the QL. recovers well from a slide. This slowed me somewhat and as I had forgotten to put a watch where I could see it I was concerned about missing the boat, so the M20 from Ashford to Dover was dispensed with quite quickly (good, the bike seems stable at speed). Arrived a bit late, bought ticket but no Mike, the unintelligible voice over the loudspeaker was giving the last boarding call, this created quite a dilema for me, should I go on and risk arriving in France alone, or should I wait and miss the ferry which Mike may have already boarded.
Ah, at last here he comes as I spied the borrowed K75 swing into the dock entrance. It's nice to know that some people arrive later than I. After a smooth crossing it was 12.30pm. (local time) before getting under-way. The added bonus of an unexpected auto-route demonstated an interesting feature of our highly organised military type planning, --- our maps were hopelessly out of date.
Our route took us to Arras, St. Quentin, Rheims and on to Metz where we stayed the night. We travelled via a mixture of auto-route and national route, stopping at approximately 100/120 mile intervals for fuel but equally for a warm up. Unlike our crowded motorways the auto-routes were almost deserted, we often travelled miles before seeing another vehicle. The temperature was down but the roads were free of ice, the problem was wind, a strong side wind kept most of the warning windsocks horizontal, and for the last 100 odd miles the wind became very gusty.
A very worrying problem then raised its head, quite simply, my bike seemed dangerously unstable in these conditions. As you can imagine, after all the work that went into producing the bodywork, I was somewhat concerned, firstly for my immediate physical safety and secondly because I had customers back home who wanted QL.s of their own. On the final run into Metz the trouble reached a climax, I had to make four attempts to pass a slow moving tanker, such was the effect of its tubulent wake on the bike. But that episode steered my mind to the correct explanation for the problem. Up to then I had assumed that the problem was totally aerodynamic, after all it is well known that well streamlined vehicles can suffer more than their more brick like cousins under adverse conditions.
My only consoling thought was that Ford had to spend millions on the Sierra to make the same mistakes, after all it had cost me far less. However, in my death defying efforts to pass that truck, it occurred to me that the bike felt as if it had a flat tyre every time that I got into its wake. Then the penny dropped. I was deliberately running lowish tyre pressures, the reasoning was that as the bike was very light normal pressures might reduce the tyre foot-print and comfort might also suffer. Tests on my unfaired prototype showed it to be perfectly stable with far lower pressures anyway. But this was different, with the much larger side forces generated by the bodywork, I reasoned that the soft tyres were laterally flexing excessively, a sure receipe for instability.
After spending the night in a hotel near the station we awoke only to be greeted with the sight of white roofs and falling snow, which seemed to worsen whilst having breakfast and being entertained by the antics of the locals sliding their mopeds over the icy cobble-stones. A bit down-heartened, we eventually summoned up the will to get on the road again. My first priority was to get some air in the tyres to check if my theory on the instability was valid. The falling snow had stopped by the time we reached a service station, but the blank white scenery indicated the extent of the night's fall, and believe me it was cold.
After a fuel and air top up (tyres up to 35psi.) I also found out that the lowish initial tyre pressures had been severly worsened by a slow leak near the valve in the front tyre, reducing the pressure to well below that which I had planned. We hit the road again, there was no time to lose, we had 300 miles to do including the worst (read coldest) bit, through the Alps. Despite the auto-route tolls, which in total amounted to a similar sum to our total fuel bill, we used them where possible to save time and because they were totally free of ice. This was achieved by the liberal application of bike corroding salt. The ride through the remainder of France to the Swiss border was as cold as it was uneventful, the digital read-out at one toll booth was -2°C , but that was before the really cold parts. However, I was full of inner warmth, but that had nothing to do with the two sets of thermal underwear, three jumpers, two pairs of trousers, anorack and waterproofs that I was encased in, -- it was because I was riding what seemed like a new bike, the air had done the trick. The QL. had been transformed into the most predicable bike that I have ever ridden in gusty conditions.
Our speed was kept to about 80mph., the QL. engine needed some running-in and the increase in body heat loss was dramatic with just a 10mph. increase in speed. A quick sortie to 110mph. was indulged in for purely medicinal purposes ( to stave off boredom ) and to check on stability, which seemed rock steady. After passing Nancy, Strasbourg, and Mulhouse we arrived at the border where a £12. toll was demanded to use the motorways, the same fee as a car, for a once only trip like ours this is excessive but for the locals it is not bad value because it lasts all year for any motorway in the country. If they had a better sense of fair play perhaps the Swiss could devise a cheaper scheme for tourists. Besides being expensive, Switzerland lived up to its other reputations ---- snow everwhere and houses built on the side of near vertical mountains. As evening drew in the temperature dropped even more but what a relief it was to enter the St Gotthard tunnel, it was actually WARM, after a few miles I began to feel my blood flowing again.
We knew when we were getting close to Italy, the standard of the roads fell but more noticebly the style of driving became more unpredicable. The crossing into Italy was made at Ponte Tresa where the customs men just waved us through, unchecked, in stark contrast to the interrogation and document check at the previous border. It was then but 15 miles to Varese where our lakeside hotel was next door to the old Aermacchi (now Cagiva) factory. After a hot bath we joined Alan Cathcart and others in an excellent meal at a nearby fish restraunt. The cold ride seemed but a distant memory as we returned to the hotel warmed from appraising the patron's many vinos.
Now it was Wednesday, there was no time for a liesurely start, we had work to do. The show opened today and there would be a lot to cover. The snow had stopped, it was too warm for that, I later saw a sign with +4° in Milano. Too warm for snow, but not for rain as we soon found on the 30 mile auto-route dash. We parked in the road outside the exhibition halls, where the QL. captured the attention of the locals. Inside, the display was designed to remind those who had forgotten, that the Italians still made motorcycles and had every intention of continuing to do so.
The Japanese four, whose stands dominate other shows were almost drowned in a sea of Italiana. There were large displays from the well known names, Cagiva/Ducati had the largest while Moto-Guzzi, Laverda and Morini all had impressive stands, but in Italy there are a multitude of smaller manufacturers mainly servicing their home market with small capacity sporty machines, names that we seldom see here, --- Aprila, HRD, Garelli, and some very famous names, like Gilera. All these and more were showing their latest wares and most had newly developed models to tempt the buyers, the show emphasised that the industry was well and truly alive and kicking but amongst all this glitter I couldn't help being somewhat saddened by the way some had gone about it. Italy, the heartland of flair, of style, where visual beauty so often orginates, why had they thought it necessary to blatantly copy the oriental interpretation of European styling. The Latins are not short of design ability and should be innovating not imitating. Look at the results when they try, the Bimota DB1 for example, to me one of the best looking bikes of all time.
Talking of Bimota, remember that in my review of alterative front suspensions in the May issue, I critised the Tesi 1. for, amonst other things, taking the braking torque out through the axle, well I was pleased to see that for the Tesi 3. the design has been changed and the torque is now taken through a splined sleeve free to rotate on a fixed wheel spindle. It is still a fairly highly stressed design but I now feel that they have a good chance of success with it.
Paris-Dakar style machines were much in evidence, Moto-Guzzi had V-twin examples with either 2 or 4 valve engines, Laverda had an interesting 600cc. weapon with a developement of their old parallel twin Monjuic engine. Interesting styling developements seem to be on the way for wheels, the Laverda 125cc Lesmo, otherwise a visual clone of the Honda NS400, had some plastic wheelcovers which I liked, but both Aprila and Gilera had cast wheels and flat covers with five round holes which I did not like. If Laverda looked to Honda for inspiration then Cagiva and others looked to Kawasaki, and the GPz 900R in particular. Unfortunately the results were not good, the GPz fairing was designed to complement the shape of the inline four engine and it just did not look right when fitted with either a small single cylinder or a V-twin engine.
Incredibly, almost along side was the new Ducati Paso, a fully faired V-twin the styling of which owed nothing to any other model, interestingly they had done away with a transparent windscreen on the basis that we look over it not through it, this was not a new concept to me as I had just ridden from England on my QL. which featured an opaque screen also.
On the Gilera stand I met ex. bike and F1 world champion John Surtees, whom I had worked for on my return from Australia, and hadn't seen since we parted company in 1972. It was nice to talk to him again but he had bad news, he informed me that most of Europe and southern England was covered in snow, just about the last thing that I wanted to hear. I left the show pleased to think that the Italians are in the ascendancy, I prefer European bikes.
Back to the real world outside, it was still raining and the ride out of Milan in peak hour traffic was made even more hazardous by the looney locals josling for position to look at the bike. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, grannys with Fiat 500s packed with bambinos, it didn't matter, they were all determined to study the QL at close range, and my personal safety seemed of little concern. The ride back to Varese was pretty depressing, my visor had succumed to the rigors of the French road salt and the constant wiping, the auto-route was full of fast moving traffic anxious to return home and the combination of their headlights, the rain and my visor made vision impossible at times.
When we eventually arrived all the restaurants within walking distance of our hotel were closed and so we rode to another, arriving looking like drowned rats. It looked a bit posh, but nobody seemed to mind us disrobing in the foyer with water dripping everywhere, imagine the reaction if you did that in England.--- " Get out, no motorcyclists allowed here, we only serve normal people".
The next morning was spent both taking and posing for photos by the lake, we had wanted to try and visit the Cagiva factory but with the threat of the weather closing in, we did not want to be on the wrong side of the Alps. It was Mike's turn to ride the QL. now, and I changed the footrests to suit him. The QL was tailored to suit me, but as Mike is built of generally more generous proportions, I'd had him down to my workshop for a fitting, before we left, and the only way that he could have been expected to ride it half way across Europe was if I made some lower footrests, even then it was a tight fit for his legs inside the moulded leg cutouts. My mount was to be the BMW GB. supplied K75. I faced that prospect with mixed feelings, after all I have continously owned a BMW of some sort or another for 24 years and was keen to sample their latest offering, but it lacked my own bike's weather protection for the anticapated cold ride ahead, I had also recently ridden a K100RS and was not over-impressed, vibration and turbulence from the fairing being my main complaints. Would its baby brother be a better machine I wondered?
A picturesque ride down through the windy mountain pass to Ponte Tresa showed up one problem, the front brake juddered badly under the light braking needed on the slippery surface. At the Swiss border there was the usual interrogation and document scrutiny, the fuel stations were shut for lunch and so we had a quick meal while waiting. It was getting well into the afternoon before we left, that meant that it would be dark before reaching France. The first 80 odd miles were easy enough, it was cold and the roads were wet but 80mph was maintained without effort. Another problem with the K75 showed up on the sweeping bends approaching some tunnels, the front end had an uncertainty about it, a slight wobble under these conditions which destroyed rider confidence and allowed a slight drifting out of the front wheel. For the last part of the ride the snow started falling heavily and whilst warming ourselves huddled round the coffee machine at a service station, it was foul outside, a group of motorists came and seemed puzzled that we were on bikes in that weather. After a quick look out of the window one of them spied our number plates, an understanding smile came over his face as he posed the question --- "English?" --- relief showed as we confirmed this, and he turned to his companions and said --- " Ah, ze English, ze explanation." - -- Enough said! It was getting dark and snowing heavily as we left that stop, a gusty breeze kept the snow swirling around near the ground giving errie patterns in our headlights, but then with only 25 miles to Basel the breeze ceased and we were then riding on compacted snow and ice, the was turning to ice as it hit the road.
Despite the fact that I wished that I was on the QL. with its lighter weight and lower centre of gravity the K75 gave me no worries at all, it handled the conditions well and was easy to control and recover from the many slides. The worrying aspect was that if we should fall the many lorries and homeward bound commuters would be unable to stop in time, even if they saw us. Visibility was only a few yards but this seemed of no consequence to those cocooned in their heated vehicles, still travelling at speeds more suited to perfect conditions. However, this was a busy motorway with nowhere else to go and nowhere to stop safely, so we ploughed on to Basel, where with great relief we slithered across a deserted customs post into France. The sight of hotel signs removed any desire to proceed farther. Only 180 miles had been covered that day but that was enough, --- Varese then seemed a million miles away, in another world.
Dismounting from the bikes was hard enough but as we walked to the hotel I slipped flat on my back, where I lay for some time engulfed in laughter, it just struck me that I couldn't even walk on the road but we had been out riding on it. At the hotel Mike's efforts at French conversation with the rotund provincial looking landlady were met with a reply in perfect English, we were just in time for a meal where we met an English truck driver whose lorry had been impounded at the border on suspicion of a VAT fraud, it seems that the number of video-recorders in his truck did not coincide with the number on the paper work. Anyway he told us that the weather was similar all the way back home. But the next morning our spirits rose, there was a little snow in the air but the roads had cleared a lot, the snow on our bikes had frozen overnight but had started to thaw over breakfast and after a bit of effort the ignition keys were forced into each bike. The K75 started without fuss (how boring) but the QL. needed a push, perhaps I should have bought that new battery after all. We covered approximately 300 miles that day,stayed the night in Rhiems leaving only 200miles the next morning. Had some fog, but mainly the roads were just wet with ice cold water, and that caused my only problem ---- frozen feet. I was wearing unlined leather racing boots and once the water penetrated to my feet they became totally immobile, when we stopped to eat I could hardly balance until they thawed out. Then temporary panic set in as I couldn't find one of my electric gloves, they had been marvellous, at one time I forgot to plug them in and within a mile my fingers were numb, yet with power on and covered with a pair of ski gloves my hands were kept nice and snug. Perhaps I can convince them to make something for my feet?
This had felt like the coldest day, probably because of the dampness. As we approached Rheims the air became drier and I knew it was warming up when the thermometer at a toll booth indicated only -2° . An 8.30am start the next morning, was designed to get us to the docks before midday, because we had bought 5-day return ferry tickets and an afternoon boat would mean a surcharge. It was -1° as we left Rheims, but as if to remind us of the trip the weather threw a bit of everything at us on that last leg, snow, rain, fog we had it all. At Calais the rain was heavy and as we made our way to the docks, we each independently nearly dropped our machines as we turned into the car park, the tarmac was very slippery but I think that we probably began to relax just a 100 yards too soon. We arrived just after 12pm. and the next boat was at 1:30pm. nobody seemed to notice that our tickets were then out of date and subject to surcharge, so we went in seach of a much needed coffee and snack, only to be confronted by a 'jobs-worth' who wouldn't let us back into building. The cafeteria was back in France and we had crossed into no-mans land, needless to say we found a way around that small problem, much to the annoyance of the official, but hassel was not what we really needed at that time.
After a smooth but wet crossing we reached Dover where we swapped bikes (Mike insisted on riding the QL. all the way back through France) for our seperate rides home. The QL. felt tiny after the high seat of the K75. I had been very impressed with the 3 cylinder machine apart from that front end and the juddery brake, a lower seat would suit me but I found it a very competent machine, easy to ride and it gave my no real worries riding it in quite the worst conditions that I have ridden for some time A miserable ride in the failing light of a wet November afternoon saw me home and a hot bath.
I have been on much longer rides, I have been on tougher rides, and I have been in more immediate danger than any part of that trip, but those 25 miles on that icy motorway in Switzerland must rate as my most frightening ride yet. I have never been so cold and never want to be ever again.
P.S. BMW. have just announced that a steering damper is to be fitted to future K75.s and it will be offered free to existing owners. I wish mine had had it.
(1997 note) About nine years ago I moved to Spain, since that time I haven't seen one snow flake. I can't say that this bothers me one little bit.