I Became A Factory Laverda Rider at 53
Photos and story by Rob Dixon.
Rob Dixon has been a dyed-in-the-wool Laverda fan since the age of sixteen. At the age of 53 he became a Laverda works rider, and shares his story with Petrolicious.
An orange bike comes howling down the pit lane, basso profondo exhaust echoing off the safety wall. It comes smoothly to a halt outside our pit box with a pulsing whomp whomp, whomp, and then silence as the rider flicks the kill switch, bringing two pistons to a sudden stop. The cacophony ceases instantly, creating an unsettling silence. High compression engines with light flywheels always stop absolutely dead, almost without warning—like someone turning off a light switch.
It was one of those eerie moments you sometimes get during races: all the competitors are at the far side of the circuit, and you get these brief voids of calm; an oasis of peace amidst the unholy din of the racetrack.
The only thing I hear within the isolated confines of my Arai is the dull rhythmic thump of blood being pumped to my brain by an adrenalin-stimulated heart. It’s hot, and I’m wilting in the heat. Heavy, black leathers are fine for an early season club race in the north of England, but desperately inappropriate for the Adriatic coast.
We’re at Adria International Raceway in Northern Italy, and I’m about to make my track debut for Laverda Corse, Piero Laverda’s classic race equipe. Adria autodromo is a modern track, typically small, like many circuits in Italy. The team have entered two bikes in a four hour endurance race, the opening round of the European Endurance Cup. I’d flown to Italy the day before from my home in Manchester clutching a holdall containing leathers, boots, helmet, and not much else. Very rock’n’ roll. It’s the year 2009.
After a brief practice session aboard the compact twin cylinder Laverda endurance racer, I felt surprisingly at home on the technical, twisty circuit. Some tracks are like that. Francesco, one of my teammates riding the other bike had kindly showed me the ropes by allowing me to tag along behind him for a few laps. Francesco is one of those riders capable of making deceptively rapid progress whilst looking smooth and unhurried. Once he was satisfied I knew my way around the anti-clockwise circuit, he cleared off into the distance and I struggled to keep him in sight—I’m always a slow learner on unfamiliar circuits.
Race day is here, and I’m stood nervously in the pits awaiting for the bike to come in for refuelling, and rider changeover, and trying to make it look for all the world as if I did this kind of stuff all the time—at this point, this was the culmination of six months’ hard work!
It all started during the previous season; I’d been competing in UK events for a number of years on various Laverdas, and during this period became acquainted with Piero Laverda via email. He’d brought his legendary V6 endurance racer to the UK do some parade laps at a classic bike meeting, and we spent most of the weekend nattering about old bikes.
His comprehensive knowledge of classic English bikes surprised me, and we found lots to talk about. At that time, I was campaigning an Egli Laverda SFC 750, and when Piero asked me how I was getting on.
I explained I’d done ten meetings during the previous season, it had rained at every one of them—and perhaps it was time to quit! Piero, who is very tactile, put his arm around me in a fatherly fashion and said, “Bob, why don’t you come and race with Laverda Corse in Italy, I think you’ll find the weather much better”.
At first, I thought he was joking, but the conspiratorial twinkle in his eye suggested he was serious. Without thinking of the consequences, I just said, “Yes, I’d love to!”
It isn’t every day that an opportunity to make a childhood dream come true drops in your lap, and there didn’t seem much point in over-analysing the situation. I’d been invited to join the Laverda team, a marque I’d been besotted with ever since I was a spotty schoolboy with a picture of a 750 SF on my bedroom wall. “No” is not the answer when Mr. Laverda invites you to his team.
Back to 2009, at the racetrack: Piero Laverda barks an order in my ear, and suddenly I’m thumbing the starter as the race bike explodes back into life.
“Go, go, go!” shouts Piero, and I’m gassing the bike down the pit lane at the sort of speed which would have you excluded from a UK race meeting. But this is Italy, and they do things differently here. In fact, the safety marshal at the end of the pit lane is gesticulating wildy, using both arms in expansive upward scooping movements—encouraging me to get a move on!
He’s looking backwards down the track over my shoulder, and can see the coast is clear for me to join the melee out on the circuit. Dry mouthed, I’m not looking behind me to do any form of risk assessment; instead, I’m focused 150 meters in front, getting a bead on a suitable turn-in point and praying I don’t miss the apex on this—the first corner of my first race for Laverda Corse.
I must have been doing more than 90 mph as I exited the pit lane. As the hastily-assessed turn-in point enters my peripheral vision, I pitch the bike hard over to the left and peel into the long, long left hander, knee grazing the tarmac, and concentrating hard on my exit line but also conscious of the substantial crowd of Italian race fans in the high grandstand over to my right.
I was grinning from ear to ear as I peeled right into the infield section, and immediately started to feel relaxed. I was here, in Italy, riding a works bike for Mr. Laverda’s race team.
Does life get any better than this? Not for me it doesn’t.
The following day, I queued up at security at Venice aeroporto to catch my flight back to reality, and I must admit to feeling pretty good when the luggage X-ray picked up two large silver cups packed carefully inside the leathers: one for winning the 500cc class, and the other a team award. The security guard looked unimpressed before raising a quizzical eyebrow for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders and allowed me through the barrier.
I continued to make appearances with Laverda Corse for three wonderful seasons. Toward the end, I built my own bike and would drive my van and caravan across Europe to take part in the championship. For some reason, I became the team’s de facto chef on raceday—an irony which did not escape me. An Englishman cooking for about a dozen Italians in their own country has a surreal slant to it. I don’t recall any complaints, and they always left clean plates…so presumably it wasn’t that bad.
And did it ever rain? No, of course not: Mr. Laverda was right all along.