Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Cook Neilson (and Phil Schilling) legend

Us Europeans know the Ducati bevel twin legend was forged in the heat of two battles - Paul Smart at Imola in '72, and Mike Hailwood at the IOM in '78. What some forget is that the stool this legend sits upon has a third leg - Cook Neilson's win at Daytona in 1977.

Cook and Phil Schilling ran Cycle, the largest  and (in TB's opinion) at the time finest bike mag on the planet. Somehow they found the time to buy, race and develop a Ducati 750SS - aka the Californian Hot Rod. And by tune we don't mean bolt aftermarket bits on - Harley valves were made to fit, bespoke gearboxes were made and many dyno runs were done.

Finally they beat allcomers in the Daytona Superbikes race in March '77, against the Yoshi Kawasakis of Dave Emde and Wes Cooley, pushing Reg Pridmore's Beemer and Mike Baldwin's Guzzi down to 4th and 5th. In other words a couple of amateurs beat a bunch of pros on big money rides.

Smarty and SMBH's achievements stand as magnificent, but they were hired guns on racebikes prepped and primped by pro tuners. Neilson and Schilling were journalists living a dream, and managed their win with a mix of grease and ink under their fingernails. That's a hell of an achievement, and because all this got reported to the largest motorcycle market in the world, perhaps commercially more valuable to Ducati than the Imola or TT wins.

Thanks to Vicki Smith of for the picture

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Bike photography

Why do all bike pics seem to feature someone trying to look like Rossi on a hot lap? Is it just us, or do they look like right dorks? A racer at his craft is a beautiful thing to behold, but the rest of us need to learn our place.

Benzina is lucky enough to count a pro bike snapper on the team and his view is that's what editors think people want. Which is frankly bollox - if you're a good enough rider, lets see you racing; otherwise we'd like to see the bike, thank you very much.

And surely the master of this art was the late Bob Carlos Clarke. Moody shots that made you lust after the bike even more, and hand tinted by a guy who changed the way we look at bikes.

We're such fans of the classic Le Mans shot we're going to try and reshoot it for a new generation. Can't wait.

With thanks to the Estate for permission to use the pics

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Sheene to race Ducati 750SS at Imola

It never came to pass (obviously), but Barry Sheene was down to race a Ducati 750SS at the '72 Imola 200 Miglia. This was the race that his brother in law Paul Smart won, setting Ducati on the path of big-bike racing success that's been a part of their DNA ever since.

This comes from Livio Lodi, currator of the Ducati museum. It seems Sheeney was approached, and in those lawyer free days the printers were told to include his name on the programme. In truth he decided he'd be more likely to win on a Trident, presumably in a Rob North frame, but  Triumph's cash tin was bare and Barry was a no-show.

Ducati was also chasing Pasolini and Saarinen, but like Sheene they probably doubted the Ducati would be competitive. So Smart and Spaggiari made the history books, and ever since then Ducati have been able to cherry pick their riders. Long may it continue

(And thanks Christian for the excellent pic)

Monday, 23 November 2009

Shiny side up? No thank you

Extreme classic bike ownership is rare, but it’s out there. Immaculate bikes restored with impossible-to-get parts to a standard the factory could never have imagined. These baubles hang around heated garages, waiting for the next chance to add to the prizes on their owner’s mantelpiece.

Don't get it, never will. In a parallel world Team Benzina advise on historic building preservation - not restoration, note, but preservation. Keeping things as close to the way they were made, marked only by the story of their history, not "improved" to some arbitary standard.

Put it this way; if you were given Hailwood's '78 TT Ducati, would you want to see the scuff marks where the great man wrestled the SS over the mountain, or would you repaint the fibreglass to look all shiny and new?

If you want a bike that gleams, go buy a new one. And leave the ones that tell a story alone.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Whatever happened to bike magazines?

Team Benzina inadvertadley congregated in our local newsagent, but decided that the motorcycle magazine is dead. Flick through the stuff on offer, and walk out without buying anything. What's a chap to read on the khazi?

Bike magazine was the bible in the 70's. Wild Bill Haylock (where is the great man these days?), erudite Peter Watson and Ducatophile Mike Nicks served up with a healthy dose of Mark Williams. Bike nuts arsing about and telling the story. These days Bike doesn't seem to stand for anything other than a handful of egos, and lets down the writers and snappers with messy layouts and tracing paper thin stock. Shame.

And although Classic Bike might be the new Bike, I don't get the old Jap roadtests. We've all ridden this stuff, and learnt the hard way that wrestling 130mph Bull Elefants always ends badly - like flirting with other bloke's girls, it seems like fun 'till you get caught out. Surely a testing a bike more than a few years old tells you more about past owners than the bike itself.

But then there was Sideburn, a bike nut's bike mag. It's about flat track racing, except it's not. It's about bike mad folk telling their story. The bike magazine is dead; long live the bike magazine

Sideburn mag - mad as a monkey's hairdo

Friday, 13 November 2009

Styling it up

A classy old Italian bike is a beautiful thing, but can you get the riding kit that puts the cherry on the cake? Davida have the helmet sussed, and dear old Arai do some full- faces that don't look too out of place. But gloves and boots? They always seem to look like they were either designed for Stormtroopers or gardening. You only have to look at the prices paid for old Lewis Leather's boots to realise Team Benzina are not alone in this sartorial quandary, but Lewis Leather's stuff doesn't do it for us; worn by too many motorcycle cops as they wagged fingers at us way back when.
Anyway, as Italophiles what we want is retro Sidi boots. Good enough for Hailwood at the TT, and King Kenny when he was still racing Stateside in short trousers. So TB go to Sidi in Italy, and courtesy of Google Translate ask what chance of retro-repros as part of their 50th birthday celebrations? After all, Spidi made replicas of the gloves worn by Lawson&Co on their 30th anniversary.

Not a chance, say Sidi. Which is a shame

King Kenny pics from the very wonderful Sideburn magazine

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

128mph Royal Enfields and pig farmers

I know it's about as Italian as Dolmio sauce, but I've been chatting with Richard Stevens, the old time racer and our local bike dealer. Richard was the development rider for Enfield's Interceptor, based at the Bradford on Avon workshop, which was actually an old mine RE moved into for WWII but somehow never left. Last summer Richard bumped into a Canadian who was fed up with his Interceptor, so a deal was struck, Richard repatriated and restored it, then stuck it in his shop window. He's a quiet but fascinating chap I met in the 70's when he raced my old Yoshi 460.

When RE folded Richard was working on an 800 Interceptor he wound up to 128mph at MIRA, alongside a dumbstruck Percy Tait testing a Trident. ("Percy Tait was like a farmer - well he was a farmer"- thank you Richard, another childhood hero brought down to size)

Richard raced and won on the Interceptor - MCN made much of this with a front page splash showing "Cal Rayburn trying out the new racer" Turns out he was riding round Heston Services carpark. Richard had brought the bike up in a van, and even had to lend the mighty Rayburn his riding kit

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Paso lust

Something very strange is happening. I'm getting stirings again, this time for the Ducati Paso. A 750, the one everyone's rude about, but that was my first Ducati and one of many firsts for Ducati themselves. The first Ducati designed by Tamburini, who'd go on to pen the 916. First with proper, bespoke detailing - just look at the footrests. And the first to recognise the factory couldn't live in a world of GPZ900R's and VFR's by just offering bare-bones street racers. This is my long-gone example, circa 1990. I've still got the leathers, and yes - they still fit; thank you for your concern.

The press loved the Paso, but it still bombed. Far too expensive, and with the Japanese rolling out 150mph rocketships for tuppence ha'penny 127mph was far too slow. So Ducati made hardly any, which would make you expect them to be sought out by collectors and Ducatisti whose advancing years and dodgy backs mean 916's are a think of the past. But nothing could be further from the truth, and a serviceable Paso can be yours for the price of a secondhand 125. People will tell you they're not real Ducatis, that they're ugly and that you can't get the oddly sized tyres. But they're wrong, and I want one. I just can't decide if it's to be another red one (ideally an early model, with the Ohlins shock) or the America-only Limited in shiny white. Bling-bling; ah, hopefully that's the 'phone....

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Bianchi 'bikes are a fine thing - with or without an engine

The gym's too dull, running kills your knees, and riding motorcycles doesn't get rid of pizza-pounds. Cycling's the answer, and a chance to relish yet more fine Italian machinery. My choice is a Bianchi 120th Anniversary special, customised with Brooks saddle and bar tape. The metallic grey paint is a change from the traditional Celeste racing blue-green, and doesn't shout "race me, race me" when I'm just pottering around the Pewsey Vale.

Edoardo Bianchi started making bicycles in 1885, adding motorcycles to his range 12 years later. Innovations and first-seen-on stuff peppered both ranges, and although it's the bicycles that are famous today, give up some time to remember the motorcycles.

Tazio Nuvolari rode Bianchis to GP wins, and there were also victories in the Motogiro and Milano- Taranto. Lino Tonti designed Bianchis, Bob McIntyre took a second place in the Dutch TT on one, and worlds speed records were set. So what went wrong?

The usual Italian thing. Every penny went on racers and lightweight road bikes. By the mid 1960's buyers wanted big, fast road bikes and Bianchi's cupboard was bare. RIP.