The man in the little sentry box probably wasn’t a Fascist. Admittedly, he was short, like Mussolini, and had a fancy uniform. Admittedly, he was Italian. And he was obviously one for rules, and possibly harboured a secret revulsion for foreigners too. But whatever his political affiliation, he wasn’t on my side.
He looked at me, struggling to make my position understood, and was adamant. No, I couldn’t go in, no I couldn’t leave a message, and no there was nobody there to talk to even if they had wanted to see me, which he intimated was highly unlikely.
I was outside the Aprilia motorbike factory in Noale, a medieval town on the outskirts of Venice in northern Italy. I had arrived there in early July, with the intention of asking for a look round the factory where my bike was built. I’d done some online research and discovered they ran factory tours on request. Unfortunately for me, in July, the entire working population of Italy (apart from Benito in the guardhouse) had already packed the Punto, slapped on the sunscreen and buggered off to the beach, the mountains, or momma and poppa’s place in Calabria. Everything, but everything, was closed, shuttered and echoingly empty.
I had rocked up at the factory with hope in my heart and a warm feeling of belonging; this was the place where my Aprilia Tuono had taken shape from a collection of bolts, screws and castings a few years earlier. I wanted to show it where it first came into being, a sort of motorcycle maternity nostalgia trip. But not, it seemed, in July.
When I arrived all I saw was a small sign taped to the reception doors. “Go away, we are Italian and all on holiday” I think it said. I wandered disconsolately round the back of the factory, where I found the security guard in his little box who was now relishing telling me there was no way I could get in. At all. Ever. È tutto. I loitered about for a few minutes, took some sad and lonely photographic reminders of me and the bike in front of the shuttered factory gates, and prepared to ride away, bitterly disappointed.
I was gutted. My journey had taken me to as far north as you can ride in Europe, through countries like Latvia, Ukraine, Finland and even Hungary to get to Noale and my Tuono’s birthplace. The bike had been my friend, my constant and reliable companion through snow, communist detritus and topless Croatians. It deserved a treat. But the security guard was one of those people who presumably loved crushing people’s expectations under a thin guise of Applying the Rules. He certainly applied them very thoroughly to me. I think I even heard a sniggering laugh as he ticked the relevant box on his clipboard. I pulled my helmet on and prepared to ride off — but then fate intervened, angels trumpeted and a young woman walked out across the carpark, and asked El Duce piccolo what was going on.
Presumably he told her I was a worthless and shifty overseas type who had by some fluke managed to get hold of one of the company’s marvellous and prestigious machines — but had been rightly told to piss off. She looked at my dirt encrusted and travel-weary Tuono with its UK plates and drooping luggage straps, and asked me where I was from. I said I was from Singapore, but that I’d ridden all the way from Nordkapp to see the factory, and was very sad not to be able to have even a tiny look inside.
“Wait a minute,” she said and pulled out her phone while turning her back on the guard. A few seconds later she turned to me with a smile. “Come back tomorrow morning at 10,” she said. “I work in the public relations office, and I think we can arrange for you to have a look around.” Thank you God.
“Where are you staying?” she asked as an afterthought. I said I didn’t know yet but that I’d probably find a local campsite. She gestured me not to ride off just yet, made another call, then told me she’d booked me into a room at the hotel that Aprilia’s business visitors stayed in, just minutes down the road. And that she’d arranged for me to get the company rate of €70. And that they didn’t actually have a room, only an entire suite with kitchen, lounge room, balcony, bedroom and all! The guard looked on grumpily at this disappointingly positive turn of events. I rode off grinning.
That night I ate the most exquisite thin crust pizza, drank Peroni sprawled across a plump sofa, and watched the sun set over my balcony as I anticipated the following day’s factory tour. Life was good.
Next morning, at ten on the dot, I was greeted at the gate by a cool engineering-looking guy who turned out not to be a guide, but the Aprilia Deputy Chief of Racing no less. And I was the only person, apart from him, in the whole factory — they had laid on a tour just for me. I shuddered with pleasure.
But then it turned out he couldn’t give me a factory tour after all as there was nobody at work (July, Italy) to do any assembly — so there was nothing to see. Instead I would just have to make do with a substitute tour of the Aprilia R&D and Moto GP team workshops, the unique race museum and the top secret design labs. I picked my jaw off the lino. “But you must not take any photos in the workshops,” warned my guide, frowning. I was too gobsmacked to care. A tour of the plain old assembly line would have been pretty good. This was heaven on a stick for any Aprilia owner.
I spent at least an hour revelling in a one-on-one walkabout delivered by the Aprilia Team Top Man. There I was, the only outsider in the whole place, gawping as we strolled through their special production area, the workshops where they assembled and calibrated Moto GP race engines, the test rigs where they tuned chassis handling for GP riders, and the display where they kept their winning GP bikes in the museum. Bikes ridden by Rossi, Bradl, Pons, Melandri, Capirossi, Biaggi and more gods of the sport were just sitting around waiting for me to goggle at and stroke reverently if I fancied.
At the end of my tour Sofia, the woman who had taken pity on me and rescued me from Prefetto di Ferro’s negative force field took me into the deserted Aprilia gift shop. The shelves were dripping with exclusive you-can’t-get-this-stuff-anywhere-else goodies. She selected several stickers and a lovely illustrated book on Aprilia’s history for me. Then she asked what size of special edition race t-shirt I would like to choose. I swooned, but remembered my finances were getting a little low and that the bog-standard group tour could cost quite a bit on its own. I asked how much for the tour, the book, the t-shirt and all.
“Nothing,” she smiled. “It is enough that you love our bikes. It’s from us.” I fought back tears of gratitude.
I had planned to sell the Tuono when I returned to England, before going back to Singapore. But my treatment that day polished my loyalty to a glittering shine, and led to more Aprilia chest-puffing than the security guard could ever have imagined; my fealty was complete and utter. I decided not to sell, and instead passed the bike (now a valuable historic heirloom by association) on to my son Robin. Who knows, one day he might ride it again to Noale, to its rightful and honourable home.
I told him if he does, to give my regards to the testa di cazzo on the gate.