Monday, 14 March 2016

OddBike USA Tour 2015: Part VIII - Mandello's Finest

Aprilia Tuono Pro Italia California

I get up early to head back to Pro Italia to make a pilgrimage to one of the dealers I've long been curious about. I've dealt with them in the past for parts orders for my 916, back in the fleeting days when the Loonie was worth a damn and it was cheaper for a Canadian to buy parts in the States. I also wanted an Aprilia mechanic to have a listen to the persistent top end tick in my Tuono, if only to quell my hyperactive imagination and remove the spectre of imminent mechanical catastrophe from my mind before I rode 2500 miles home.


Glendale, California


It's another beautiful day in SoCal, perfect weather and bright sunshine warming the air quickly as I slice through the morning traffic on my way to Glendale. Pro Italia is split into two locations, one covering Triumph, KTM and Moto Guzzi, the site of Miguel Galuzzi's presentation last night, and a smaller shop down the street that houses the service department as well as the Ducati and MV showroom.

Pro Italia Service

The shop is remarkably tiny, far smaller than I imagined it would be given their online presence. It's a single room packed with bikes and apparel, with an only slightly bigger service department out back. Dozens of bikes, showroom stock and customer rides here for service, are wheeled out onto the street to make room. It takes me back to my days working at a hole-in-the-wall Triumph dealer that had resisted updates for 30 years, though here the setting is far more polished and professional. And a lot cleaner.

Pro Italia Service Lineup

After a short wait a mechanic is produced and has a listen to my bike, before declaring me good to go. Nothing to worry about, some examples tend to have noisy valvetrains. It's not that there would be much I could do about it at this point, lacking any time or money to get the bike thoroughly checked over. But as I hoped it serves to alleviate my anxiety before embarking on the long ride home.

MV Agusta F4 Tamburini Pro Italia Showroom

I take some time to peruse the showroom and chat with the staff, drinking their coffee and picking up a few T-shirts. It's a fantastic little shop, staffed by a small but enthusiastic crew. It's just the sort of place I'd love to work, down to earth but modern enough to be interesting without the gruff, blue-collar masochism of a back-alley greasy-rag shop. I chat with the parts and apparel folks for a while, swapping stories and getting advice on riding in the area. The parts guys produce a Café Desmo T-shirt, a gift for the traveller a long way from home. It's a small gesture that endears me to them even more.

Let it be known that I'm pretty easy to bribe.

Their good reputation in the Euro bike community is well deserved, I think. I only hope that their recent takeover by AMS Ducati won't do anything to diminish it.

MV Agusta F4 Tamburini Pro Italia Showroom

Next stop is the home of an OddBike reader who had kindly offered to buy me lunch while I was in town. David was a long time stagehand for NBC who has settled into a suburb in North Hollywood, where he tinkers with various projects - including a few prime vintage Moto-Guzzis.

After sitting down for a cold drink and introductions, David invites me to the garage to check out his collection. He promises he has some odd machines that I'm going to enjoy.

David Willys Jeepster

The first thing to note is the well-kept Willys Jeepster convertible, which serves as David's daily runabout after a thorough, sympathetic restoration that included renewing the original flathead four - the famed Go Devil engine used in wartime Jeeps, reworked for civilian duty in the late 1940s.

The second thing that I notice is a very well preserved Moto Guzzi V65 SP, showing only 4700 miles on the odometer.

Moto Guzzi V65 SP

It's a beautiful machine, a sort of scaled-down LeMans resplendent in its angular red bodywork. It's almost perfectly original aside from a set of period-correct aftermarket pipes. David shares how he bought it for a song due to running issues that the previous owner was unable to sort out. Some ignition and carburettor fiddling later, it runs sweetly and offers a perfect snapshot of mid-80s Guzzi goodness. All the usual Italian quirks are intact, right down to the cursed self-retracting suicidestand, which is impossible to operate from the saddle given the traditional Guzzi far-too-forward mounting point.  

Moto Guzzi V65 SP Dash

"Want to take it for a ride?"

You are goddamned right I want to take it for a ride.

Moto Guzzi V65 SP Engine

Confession: I've never ridden a Moto Guzzi. This in spite of working for a Guzzi dealer; I'm not allowed to take anything for rides outside of sanctioned demo days, and Guzzi doesn't do any in Canada. I haven't gotten chummy enough with the few-and-far-between owners to borrow one, either. I adore them and wax lyrical about their charm, and have seriously considered buying one (a low-mile V11 LeMans that inhabited the showroom at work for a while), but I've never had the opportunity to take one for a spin. What better way to get acquainted than with a well-preserved and exceptionally uncommon classic sporting Goose.

I fire it up and the bike settles into a slightly lumpy beat, the glasspacks offering a muted but pleasant lope. David advises me to blip the throttle at a standstill until the engine warms up enough to hold an idle.

The gearbox clunks audibly into first, and I pull away - only to have it immediately jump back into neutral 10 feet down the alley. A few more stabs at the lever and I figure out the shift method - forget being delicate, the infamously agricultural transmission needs a firm kick to stay in gear. Away I go.

Being a small block, the V65 is remarkably compact and light; most of these little Guzzis were something around 100 lbs lighter than their big block brothers, a staggering difference even if you are giving up tens of ponies and a fair bit of torque for the privilege of a reasonable figure on the scale.

Moto Guzzi V65 SP Tank

It is surprisingly nimble and not nearly as clunky as I would have imagined, recalcitrant gearbox aside. The older bias ply tires and spindly suspension bits (and the spectre of chucking a borrowed bike down the road) keep me from pushing my luck too much. The bones for fast riding are here, however. It tips in quickly and feels pretty stable, if a bit vague. In comparison to modern bikes these old machines tend to feel imprecise and flexible, but if you know to push a little further and carry your speed through corners while avoiding abrupt inputs you can hustle them quite well. You won't have the feeling of security you'll get on a modern machine but it will hold the road just fine, far beyond the limits that you might initially set in your mind. The myth of the veteran chasing down squids on tight roads with a weathered old warhorse pogoing around on wobbly suspension bits isn't far from reality, if you know what you are doing.

The only bugbear is the linked braking setup. Grabbing a handful of front doesn't do much; you need to use both levers to stop with any effectiveness. It takes me a little recalculating to get used to it, after riding Italian sport bikes with worthless rear brakes for so long.

Rolling hard on the throttle produces a lot of pleasant noises from the Dell'Ortos and the pipes, but nothing earth-shattering in the way of forward motion. Power is linear and the engine revs freely, but it feels like a bunch of dramatic Italian arm-waving theatrics, the sound and feel of power rather than actual speediness. That being said, it is sneaky quick. Revs build quickly and a blast onto the freeway reveals that acceleration is gentle but steady, bringing the little Goose up to 80 mph with ease. There's even enough oomph to get some decent passing power rolling on the throttle in fifth. It lopes along on the fat part of the torque band like a much bigger machine, just turning more revs. It probably makes as much, if not more, power than the current V7 does despite giving up 100ccs to its emissions-strangled grandchild.

Moto Guzzi V65 SP

80 is the limit I'm willing to reach, as at right around that speed the 35mm spaghetti forks start to rhythmically wobble enough to cause some concern. Whether it's due to tires or the suspension or a loose steering head, or some combination of both, I'm not sure. It tracks arrow straight, just with a looseness and undulating weave that wasn't there at lower speeds. Probably just as well. There's more on tap, but I'm on an inner city freeway and I'd rather not tempt LA's finest with a flat-out run on someone else's pride and joy.

I sit there, burbling along in top gear, savouring the experience. I left my jacket behind and my T-shirt is flapping hard in the wind, the warm air blow drying the sweat from my clothes, my skin hot in the midday sun. This little machine is full of life and character and is a wonderful way to trundle around LA, a sporty but gentle old Latin twin that offers up a lot more fun than the spec sheets would suggest. I'm instantly at ease aboard it, freeing my mind up to enjoy the ride, the sound, and the feel of this charming little small block. It's quite comfortable, with an upright seating position and mid-mounted pegs and an effective fairing. I could ride this thing all day.

Moto Guzzi V65 SP

I head back to join David for lunch. We hop into the Jeepster for a top-down cruise over to one of his haunts, a spot he frequented during his days with NBC. It's one of those old restaurants with as few windows as possible and permanent mood lighting, dark and cozy like an old nightclub. The type of place where the acoustics have that peculiar quality of being quiet but able to channel the din of clinking cutlery and surrounding conversations without overwhelming your senses. This isn't one of those new-age bistros that play trendy music just a little too loud to distract you from the lackluster food you paid too much for.

We discuss life, motorcycles, corporate greed, modernity and the entertainment industry. David proves to be a great character, a resident of Los Angeles since the 1970s who has been riding since he was 15. He is the friendly, engaging grizzled veteran, the man who has seen it all and ridden most of it in his many decades on the road - and he is happy to share his experiences. He also offers me some perspective on my writing and my opinions, something that is always welcome as I am often unaware of how people receive my work when my nose is so close to the grindstone.

I rarely foresee what articles or what statements will resonate. Sometimes it's exactly the opposite of what I expect, with my off-the-cuff articles hitting a nerve more than my serious writing. David quotes a few statements I'd made in the previous years that I'd forgotten about entirely, giving me a moment of pause. My work is probably more important than I give myself credit for. I always see it as a diversion, my hobby and an outlet for my manic ravings. Good-hearted people like David sitting me down and quoting the gospel I've written in my moments of madness gives me a great deal of perspective on what I'm doing here on my weird little site.

Aprilia Tuono Los Angeles

I head back to Culver City to attend this evening's OddBike Meetup I'd scheduled with Abhi. While his daily rider is a BMW K1200R, for tonight's get together he busts out the big gun. He and his girlfriend VyVy hop aboard their 1968 Honda S90. The CB is VyVy's ride, and it suits her diminutive size perfectly, but Abhi enjoys riding it as much as she does - seeing his 6 foot-something frame cramped onto the 3/4 scale Honda with her riding pillion, suspension wiggling and bottoming under their combined weight as they putter down the road, is a sight to behold. I can, however, confirm that the little bugger can hit a genuine 55 mph - with the two of them aboard.

Honda S90

The meetup goes well, though I'm hardly the centre of attention. I get the opportunity to meet Dan and Tad from RareSportBikesForSale, but aside from them most of the attendees are friends and fans of Abhi's site and nobody has heard of OddBike. The followers of my site who had signed up to be here are mostly no-shows. I resign myself to quietly enjoying the conversation and the food, fading into the background like I often do when I'm among strangers. I had hoped that if a few like-minded people showed up we might be able to start a conversation on what my site represents and where the industry is going, as well as the usual bullshit and stories, but alas it was not to be. It's a good crowd with good people but tonight proves to be Abhi's night, not mine.

Honda S90

I do get the chance to talk to Dan and Tad briefly about our respective sites. Inevitably the subject of monetizing comes up.

I get annoyed by the prospect of making OddBike a money-grubbing venture. There is a simple purity to what I'm doing in my free time. Money complicates things and becomes the driver of your work when passion and honesty should be your priorities. The pursuit of money is what has ruined EVERY independent blog that has been flushed down the shitter into the sewers of advertorial listicle newsfeed "journalism". I'm happy to stay away from it as much as possible. The longer I work on OddBike the less I want to monetize it beyond my crowdfunding ventures, and even those give me anxiety.

Honda S90

I'm not a business man. Never have been, never will be. I hate asking people for money, trying to justify costs and demands. However, as my site grows, the options for crowdfunding projects become increasingly viable. I like to think that by asking for direct reader support I can bypass the usual bullshit, but when I do engage in these campaigns I am very cognisant of the fact that I'm entering into an unspoken contract with my readers: in exchange for their support and their funding I continue to provide free and honest content without resorting to any selling out or advertising that might dilute the brand or my opinions.

Honda S90 Engine

The difficult part is, of course, maintaining my end of the bargain. The last thing I want to do is take the money and run. That's bad for repeat business, and for my soul.

Honda S90 Dash

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