After years of attracting only the most professional riders, motorcycle racing fans, and well-connected locals, travelers like me are finally coming around to seeing the MotoGP Grand Prix as an opportunity to tour a lesser-known — and remarkable — region of Italy: Emilia-Romagna.
An outsider’s look into the Riders Land
Travelers from around the world, even those with little connection to motorcycle culture, are finally beginning to embrace San Marino’s MotoGP Grand Prix. In the process, the race itself may be moving into the background. For reasons that quickly become clear, the people, history, and food of Emilia-Romagna have become the main event.
But even as things change, the competition remains the centerpiece of the week. So as someone unfamiliar with MotoGP, I spent the days leading up to the Grand Prix absorbing race culture. I had the privilege to spend a full day around MotoGP industry insiders like Aldo Drudi. I rode around Rimini in a three-wheeled Ape Piaggio car with Chiedo, the owner of a popular restaurant called Strampalato. And I joined a colleague in ducking under the ropes to watch a freestyle motocross with the highlight being “moto-therapy”, thrilling motorcycle rides around the track to the disabled.
This was not my first visit to Emilia-Romagna. And what I learned back in 2013, and am coming to understand more fully now in 2017, is why this region is affectionately known as either “Motor Valley” or “The Riders’ Land” depending on who you ask.
Extending from the Apennine Mountains at nearly 10,000 feet down to the 400-mile Po River of northern Italy lie seaside resorts like Rimini and Milano Marittima, medieval cities like Modena and Ravenna, and even the tiny “micro-state” country of San Marino and its 30,000 residents.
This time around, with visits primarily to Rimini and San Marino, I realized that MotoGP racers are emblematic of Emilia-Romagna. The typical MotoGP racer looks modest, like the 5’6”, 130-pound Spaniard Marc Marquez, who won the 2017 MotoGP Grand Prix in early September. On the street, I could easily pass him or other riders like Andre Mignon without a second glance. But the slight 24-year-old rider is unmistakable as a moto-savant when you watch him drag his knee on sharp turns and burst at speeds over 200 mph on straightaways across the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli raceway.
More than meets the eye
Just as Marquez’s physique doesn’t scream world-class athlete, Rimini and San Marino are initially unassuming. Yet, both destinations are full of surprises unlike Italy’s more well-known locations. I certainly did not trip over the heels of tourist hordes, like in Venice, or find myself stuck in traffic jams with honeymooners, as is typical along the Amalfi Coast. Over in Emilia-Romagna and San Marino, I experienced the image of Italy shown in the films that so many travelers lust for but never truly find.
San Marino and Emilia-Romagna’s cities and towns are more like the depictions portrayed by auteurs Federico Fellini and Roberto Benigni or even the contemporary feel created by Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None. This is the Italy where restaurants take pride in what they serve even down to the piadina, a fast food-style flatbread found on what seems like every other street corner.
The other day I was on the hunt for the best Piadina of Rimini. With an Ape Car. #NotKidding #TheRidersLand #60SecVideo #InEmiliaRomagna pic.twitter.com/e2x2Zivtd8
— Reisefreunde (@Ichweisswo) October 1, 2017
In these surroundings, riding through the winding hills of the Republic of San Marino down to the seaside resort towns of Rimini, I felt a strong connection to the region’s rich history, traditional food scene, and alluring scenery. One afternoon in Rimini, we stumbled past the historic Cinema Fulgor, the theater where Fellini watched his first film. This unplanned visit turned into an hour-long tour of the legendary building where construction workers toiled away making renovations to transform the once-crumbling cinema back to its former glory.
The ancient Roman city center of Rimini is hard to miss. I imagine that the people of Emilia-Romagna grow up entrenched in the knowledge of their country’s history and vast empire as they walk to school. It would explain the down to earth culture that stands in stark contrast to that of Rome and other large Italian cities. Or maybe it is because the region has yet to be flooded with tourists?
Regardless of why, the experience of being here is different. And while travel for the sake of travel is nice, traveling with a purpose is even better. That is why the more curious, independent-minded travelers should choose the unassuming Emilia-Romagna over the more well-known locations in Italy that are great for photos and food but less intimate and less rewarding to visit.
Aldo Drudi: speaking with a MotoGP legend
Italian designer Aldo Drudi put all of these thoughts into perspective when I spoke to him at the Rimini Motor Soul exhibition, a temporary museum showcasing his renowned helmet designs and other MotoGP artifacts in a grand opera hall. The helmet is the face of the rider. It is how fans recognize their heroes on the track — making these iconic showpieces vital to the sporting culture and worthy of their own exhibition hall.
In this part of Italy, “the motorcycle is a way to have a connection with people, with friends, or with women,” explained the aging but cerebral Aldo. He told me that, after World War II, this was “the Italy where the people had nothing, and with broken engines they took parts of airplanes and they built something to move on.”
Aldo was not the only Italian in the room to feel that way about motorcycles. My Italian colleague had his own story about how he felt riding around for the first time with a girl on the back of his motorcycle. So do plenty of others, I later learned.
What stood out most was how Aldo connected the mentality that the whole society had when embracing motorcycles after the war with the individual journey that each rider begins when they first start out.
“Riding a bike is a way to fight your fear,” he told me. “[They] are not afraid to crash. It’s not that people are crazy — but they find a way to fight the fear.”
Motorcycles are embedded in the Emilia-Romagna DNA
On race day, I came armed with the knowledge that professional riders’ race at speeds above 200 mph and that none are more beloved than Valentino Rossi, MotoGP’s all-time greatest rider, a local hero from Urbino. If Valentino Rossi had not been injured and unable to compete that day, the racetrack would be packed with fans in yellow to show their support. Thankfully the paddock girls still showed.
Even without the local legend fit to race, you will not encounter anything close to this level of passion at any of the other 18 annual grand prix races around the world. Only in Misano Adriatico. Only in Emilia-Romagna.
Is it possible that travelers from around the world like me are finally coming around to embrace San Marino’s MotoGP Grand Prix? Have experiencing Emilia Romagna’s people, history, and food become the main event, rather than the race itself?
You can’t understand Emilia-Romagna without knowing the importance of motorcycles. And you can’t understand the importance of motorcycles without learning the history, enjoying the local cuisine, and getting lost in the beautiful scenery. All of these aspects combine to define this remarkable region, a place made famous by MotoGP and capable of taking your breath away — at any speed.
After seeing it firsthand, I now understand why thousands of fans trekked to the racetrack and stood in the pouring rain for hours to experience the thrill of watching five of MotoGP’s fiercest warriors: Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Dani Pedrosa. Though each of us represent entirely different backgrounds — local Emilianos, the Italian elite, throttle jockeys, and a curious traveler like me — we all found a way to enjoy the sport together.
That level of dedication mirrors what Aldo told me.
Note: This post was brought to you as a result of the #TheRidersLand campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with Emila Romagna Tourism and Visit San Marino. As always, though, all opinions are 100% my own.
“If you sit in the city and watch the people going by on the road, you can see every kind of person from different levels of society.”