I pushed the Benelli almost 2 miles home in October of 1997. Steve Stewart turned me on to it. He was my boss at a photo studio. My Job every morning for a year prior was to choose my favorite motorcycle out of the motorcycle encyclopedia. Influenced by Steve, I naturally gravitated to the Italian singles from the 1960’s.
Steve and Whitney started all of us from the photo studio going to motorcycle night at the Bucktown pub. On Wednesdays, tons of vintage bikes would show up. I took if for granted at the time. Being my first introduction to motorcycles, I thought it was normal for 30 rare vintage bikes to show up to a bar on a weeknight. Originally the Vincent Owners Club of Chicago started going there once a week for their chapter meetings. It caught on in the Chicago vintage motorcycle community and turned unto motorcycle night. The people I met there spanned generations and economic status with a common love of motorcycles. I lived paycheck to paycheck, it never occured to me that I could own a motorcycle. Common sense and my west Michigan Dutch (cheap) upbringing would have usually taken over if the idea crossed my mind. I had never spent so much money on something so unpractical. At the time I was suffering from a break up. I needed something big to focus on. When Steve mentioned a friend of his was selling her Benelli, I took the plunge.
I bought a 1969 Montgomery Wards Riverside made by Benelli. It didn’t run, but I was ready for a challenge. I thought if you rode a bike you had to know how to work on them too. Only later did I find out that a lot of people riding motorcycles have no idea how to fix them. I liked the idea of a small single. Fewer parts therefore easy to work on. That was the theory anyway. The manual it came with was basically how to remove it from the shipping crate. And even that was a poor translation from Italian. Montgomery ward sold this bike through their catalogue in the 60’s. It was a mail order motorcycle. The idea was that people living out on a farm, were able to place an order and have it show up on their doorstep. The “manual” did have instructions how to ride it. Never having ridden a motorcycle before, this would come in handy once the bike was running.
The gas tank was rusted, the carburetor was shellacked solid and the battery was long dead. After sorting that out, it started right up. It was really loud and the throttle stuck a bit. It freaked me out. Most of all I couldn’t believe it ran. My heart was beating out of my chest. I didn’t have a garage for it at that point, so I was basically doing all this in the alley- not optimal conditions. During this time too, the Bucktown was invaluable. Whenever I had a technical question I would take a poll at the buck town. I was lucky to get involved with some great people.
When it was time to learn to ride it, I was stubborn because I didn’t ask for help. Maybe I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how to ride but bought a bike anyway. I read the manual (see below). Eventually I was comfortable riding in a few block radius around my house. Steve was the first person I road with. We rode around my neighborhood a little. I think I worried him a bit. I kept stalling it. He must have been thinking, “ What did I do, encouraging this klutz to get a motorcycle?”
My first ride out of my neighborhood was exciting. Paul, who I met at Triple O, was taking his novice friends out for a ride and asked if I wanted to join them. I was very nervous, but it was a great opportunity we were all just starting out, I had to go. The bike still had mechanical issues I was apprehensive about riding it out of the pushing it home range. Sure enough, once we got downtown it stalled. I was panicking a little and was having a hard time starting it. Paul came back for me, I eventually got it started and told him I was going to go home. I didn’t want to have to push it 4 miles. He tried to talk me into continuing on. I protested, imagining all the things that could be wrong with the bike that I didn’t know about. He wouldn’t have any of it and told me to go and I did. The other novices had the most beautiful bikes. One had an original 1970’s Ducati 750 GT and he bought his wife a completely restored 1971 Ducati scrambler. The ringleader had a gorgeous Ducati mark 3. My bike had been sitting in a shed for 5 years and barely ran, rusty, chipped paint, but it was an Italian single. We took scenic Sheridan road. It contains the only set of curves with an elevation change in the Chicago area (sadly only about a half mile). Once we got to Highland Park Paul showed us how to get gas, it was my first time getting gas for my bike at the gas station. The scrambler rider had mechanical problems on the way back. We waited for a tow truck then Paul and I continued on home. We took lakeshore drive, it was getting dark and storm was coming in off the lake. The wind was blowing so hard that I felt like I was riding at a 45-degree angle to keep the wind from blowing my bike over. Then the wind would change direction and all my compensation was suddenly for not. I finally made it home. It was a perfect ride. I realized that my life was never going to be the same again. I was elated.
The longest ride I took on the Benelli was about 300 miles round trip. We rode to Road America to watch AHRMA races. My friends didn’t seem too bothered that I couldn’t go too much above 50 mph. Whitney rode his 47 Harley and Steve and Christina rode a Norton Commando. Our parade must have been quite a sight going down the road. At one point I saw what seemed to be mist on my face shield. It turned out to be an oil bath from riding too close behind the Norton!
Soon I was wishing I had a bigger bike to go on longer road trips and be able to keep up with my mates. I liked vintage bikes, but now I was ready for more riding time and less maintaining time. Going totally modern or Japanese never crossed my mind. To me at the time 70’s or 80’s was more modern. My ideal was a Ducati 750 GT but finding one in decent shape was too expensive. I looked for Ducati Darmah or an 860 GT, thinking it would cost less, but still out of my range. A 1970’s Motoguzzi V7 sport … but too pedestrian. Moto Morini? To rare.
A few people were trying to get me to go British. A friend was trying to sell his Norton Atlas. I told him that it would never sell sitting in his garage, and that he should let me ride it to help sell it. He did! A funny thing happened a couple months later. A guy asked me at a stoplight on Western Ave if it was a “Dominata” in a thick British accent. I told him, “no, an Atlas”. At the next light he asked the year. “1965” I told him. At the third light he asked if it was for sale! He bought it 2 days later! I was half joking when I offered to help sell the bike; I just wanted to ride it around. I liked Steve’s commando, but I just couldn’t get the Italians out of my mind.
I found the perfect bike, Ducati and Cagiva’s bastard stepchild, the Cagiva Alazzurra. Cagiva bought the ailing Ducati company in the mid 1980’s. Ducati must have had a bunch of Pantah motors lying around and Cagiva decided to put them into this new Alazzurra model for a couple of years. Not too new, not too old. So uncool –it’s-cool 80’s body styling. I was in love.
The best time I had on the Alazzurra was the Milwaukee to Minneapolis TT. I can’t go into detail because I don’t think it is legal, but boy, was it fun! The first nail in the coffin of my street riding career was bringing the Cagiva to the track for the Ducati Owners Club of Canada track day at Grattan.
I had watched friends and acquaintances race AHRMA, but I had never imagined doing anything like riding on a racetrack.
It was fun… It must have been scary too. I don’t remember much. Things starting moving fast after that. I did another DOCC track day. Around this time the people I knew that raced AHRMA, traded in their vintage Ducati’s for Honda RS 125 GP bikes. I didn’t know much about bikes, especially modern bikes, at the time. But every time these guys got off the track they were giggling like schoolgirls. They went on about the cornering speed and the 100mph stoppie trying to slow down for turn one.
I think the following spring one of the guys wanted to sell his 125 and buy a newer one. He let me take it to the team Chicago riding clinic. Once you take the class you can get your racing license. Not that I had any plans to race or anything. The weather for the team Chicago date was miserable. I think it was early spring and it was raining, foggy, sleeting, hailing 38 degrees or so. The last thing the owner of the 125 told me when I picked up the bike was, “oh, you won’t be going out if it rains, the race slicks do not work in the rain”. I wanted to go out so bad. I thought it might be my only chance to try this thing. The first lap was a slow sighting lap. I thought, at least I will do that. Due to the foul weather, there were 2 students per an instructor. I couldn’t pass that up. The other student in my group crashed his beautiful vintage bike in turn 6. I was fishtailing around corners. I did not walk away that day with the drive to go out and buy a 125.
I decided that racing was too expensive. I could take my Cagiva to Friday practice on a race weekend for cheap. I was having a blast. Why do I need to race? The racers that I pitted by said that I should not bring my street bike to the track, and that I eventually will crash. I thought since I was not going that fast and didn’t ride over my head, that it wouldn’t happen to me. As I gained confidence, I really started to lean it over enough to scrape the exhaust. At first I thought is was kind of cool. But when I leaned it into the bus stop at Grattan and something picked up the rear wheel. I did a nice gentle low side into the grass. Because of the rush of adrenaline I picked the bike up like it was a 10-speed. Now I had a 15-year-old bike that was only made for 2 years that needed a lot of obscure parts. Taking my street bike to the track was turning out to be not as cheap as I planned.
My boyfriend at the time made me a deal on his old 125 that I couldn’t refuse. I joined a loose knit team with a couple guys that I used to watch racing AHRMA in my Benelli days. I raced for two years; always trying to improve, beat my nearest competitors, having a blast.