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Devil-driven Riders

Coming down from the Ghisallo, he had no use for brakes on the corners. He would stick his (padded) elbow against the walls of the houses by the side of the road, use them as a pivot, swing round and race off. Because he was Tazio Nuvolari. “You should see him at times. He’s the personification of the devil”, said one who knew the now ex-driver well, in an interview with the journalist Orio Vergani for an article in the Rivista Pirelli of November 1948. Down he came from the Ghisallo in a Bianchi 350 Freccia Celeste in June 1929, on the Circuito Motociclistico del Lario. Winning the race, of course, and without ever losing that look of a man possessed that motorcyclists had in those days.

Take Miro Maffeis, known as “Bel Miro”, for example, so adored by the girls. He was the youngest of the three Maffeis brothers – the other two were Carletto and Bernardo. He had a (brief) life with motorbikes but knew the over eight hundred kilometres of the Raid Nord-Sud, from Milan to Naples, by heart. He had won in 1920 on an Indian 500 but even when he only came third – as in 1925 on the Bianchi 350 – he always put on a tough-guy face in photos. A sort of knight in shining armour, he was Bel Miro and he knew it. Sure, the bike played its part too: his Bianchi Freccia Celeste had a love match with its Pirelli Motocord tyres… What was so striking about these pre-war centaurs – half man, half motorbike – was their self-assurance. They looked straight into the lens, without hesitation, without any doubts. On the contrary, Erminio Visioli had an almost derisive little smile just after he had won the Circuito delle Tre Regioni in 1921 on his Pirelli-shod Harley-Davidson 1000, just a week after winning the historic uphill Como-Brunate race. In his crewneck sweater and Scottish beret – in August! – Erminio looks straight at the photographer Strazza for the article drafted for La Stampa Sportiva. Understandably aged with holes and a few rust marks, that photo is now preserved in the Pirelli Historical Archive. Bel Miro, also on a Harley Davidson, came seventh that day… Riders possessed by the devil “roam the world as though carried along by an impulse of blood stronger than the power of the mind”. Thus wrote, and drew, Renzo Biasion in “Ricordo di Tenni” published in the Rivista Pirelli in March 1949. Omobono Tenni, the retiring, taciturn idol of Guzzi fans, from Treviso but born in the Valtellina, had died a few months earlier while practising for the Grand Prix in Bern. In 1937 he had been the first non-British rider to win the Tourist Trophy, and the English called him the Black Devil. As a boy, Biasion had taken dividers and ruler to measure the short – tiny – distance the Devil had left between himself and the trees as he shot by.

Raffaele Alberti looks serious and warlike in the photo of 1948, which shows him with his hand on the saddle of his “Guzzino” like gunner next to his cannon. To tell the truth, it was not so much a “saddle” as a thin foam-rubber mat he would lie on, facing forward, as he shot off towards the 1 kilometre speed record from a standing start. Alberti clocked up four in a row in February 1948, on the Charrette-Saxon circuit in Switzerland. And then another nineteen in Monza, in November, together with Gianni Leoni and Bruno Ruffo. Breaking records over the kilometre, over 500 miles, the hour, the twelve hours, winning all the way: on his Guzzi 65 – raised to 73cc but forever a “Guzzino“ – he never abandoned his Pirelli tyres. Alberti, from Milan, knew all about motorcycle engineering and was a great collector of records, while Bruno Ruffo, his “record-breaking companion”, was just beginning to taste success as he approached the age of thirty. Leoni, from Como, an old hand from the pre-war Italian circuits, was the third in the group of Guzzi record-breakers. Brought together under the banner of the Mandello manufacturer, they would often be found together on the circuits of the new-born World Road Racing Championship. Ruffo and Leoni were at the 1949 Gran Premio delle Nazioni in Monza, for example, with the Guzzi 250. And then there was another Leoni: Guido, with his Guzzi 500. From Castellucchio, Mantua, Guido Leoni was born in 1915, just a few months before his almost-namesake Gianni. Talk about coincidence… And then there was another devil-driven combination. Raffaele Alberti and Guido Leoni both came to their death in Ferrara, caught in a huge pile-up while practicing for the Campionato Italiano Seniores. That was in May 1951. Gianni Leoni – the same age as Guido – died in a most tragic set of circumstances at the Ulster Grand Prix: in a head-on collision with his Geminiani teammate, whom Guido had gone back to look for, thinking he had been involved in a crash. That was in August of the same year, 1951. That’s the devil for you…

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