Guzzi, like God, is in the rain. Today, my friend, is an optimum example. Optimum as in Optimum Performance Motorcycles of Kirkland, WA, a suburb east of Seattle and six-hour round trip from Portland. I’ve made the ride before. Good weather and bad, but today promises to be different. Two Moto Guzzis are involved. A white 2016 Norge with a mess for front suspension and engine oil leak, among other unresolved issues. Plus a red 2003 V11 LeMans with a fresh set of tires, battery, brake pads, valve adjustment and a new separator spring that has been replaced after the old one failed, leaving the bike stuck in second gear.
I bought the Norge in August 2018 off this guy, Frank, from Bellevue with a garage full of BMWs. I’d been keeping a lookout for deals on a reliable adventure bike for a few months before. Something like an Africa Twin or Super Ténéré to affirm my recent decision to ditch Hollywood for the Pacific Northwest when a gorgeous Italian touring bike the color of Mt. Hood on craigslist caught my eye. I saw one in the wild once back at Pro Italia in The Valley and never forgot it. Seeing the white Norge with 20k on it at a fair price, I knew I’d been searching for the wrong bike. A giant Japanese enduro the Norge is not.
So what is it exactly? Technically, in “segment” speak, the bike is considered a sport tourer. Moto Guzzi calls it the Norge GT8V. Norge for Norway, the finish line for a historic 4000 mile cross-continent ride by a founder of the company in 1928. GT for Gran Turismo. 8V for eight valves on its famed transverse twin-cylinder engine. It could clearly give two shits about segments, like most things Guzzi, making it timeless and everything a motorcycle should be. Equally impressive as the machine itself is the story that accompanied the posting on craigslist, further elaborated on by Frank over the phone. The bike was purchased new from PCH Powersports in Los Angeles, a place I’d popped into a few times during my fifteen years there, by a Japanese engineer, Toshi, with a dream. Recently retired, he’d always wanted to ride a Moto Guzzi across America and that he did on the Norge for ten straight months. He sold it to a collector before returning home, dream no longer deferred. Frank bought it off the collector shortly after, falling in love with the Toshi story but only putting 1500 miles on it before selling it to me. “Great, sporty bike I would not hesitate to ride to New York tomorrow,” he said of the Norge while I was skimming over the service records and other paperwork he had perfectly organized before taking it for a test ride. “Just more of a Beemer guy, I guess, and it’s too similar to my RT.”
A motorcycle trailer from U-HAUL only costs twenty dollars a day, so you could say I’m a fool for riding the Norge three hours in an unrelenting downpour with handling like this, but what’s done is done. Too late to turn back. It was about this time yesterday I heard the news. The initial shock of seeing the post from Kristi on CaringBridge about your sudden transfer to hospice care after enduring such prolonged pain and suffering was soon followed by a brutal text from Jack: Monte is going to die. The reunion we planned Oct 23 is too late. Would I be in any kind of emotional state to set out on a day’s ride like this? The answer now lies a few miles outside of Tacoma, where the I-5 is always a shitshow. The road is dangerously uneven, making changing lanes unnerving in the best of weather on a bike that is dialed in. Nothing is dialed in today, so part of the reason I unwisely decided to ride the Norge instead of tow it has to be that it sat for the last six months trapped inside a dealer from Hell: Bob Lanphere’s Beaverton Motorcycles (ESTD 1964).
Where to begin? The bell is as bad a place as any. The guys working the showroom floor ring a celebratory bell and slap high fives in this little area near the exit after every sale. It’s a gameshow you want no part of if your preferred ride is a “boutique bike” like mine, as one of their coworkers in service called the Norge after they worked on it the first time. Perhaps the bell appeals to the side-by-side and 4-wheeler with blown credit crowd? Somebody must think it’s a good idea, think this bell from Hell will make you throw down on a soulless new Ninja or overfinance some obesity bike impersonating an RV like the latest Gold Wing? I should have known never to return after a fresh set of plugs, new battery and oil change took three weeks. Trouble is they are the only place in town that will even look at a Guzzi. When I bought the Norge there was still a licensed Aprilia and Moto Guzzi dealer out near the airport or I would never have considered it. They went under in December 2019 due much to their own mismanagement by most accounts, leaving local Guzzistas in the lurch. Pete in Bob Lanphere’s service originally said they could work on it as long as they didn’t need to “get inside her.” The Norge is far from the techiest touring bike around, but it does require an authorized dealer with the right diagnostic tools to log into the ECU. Spark plugs, etc. were a simple fix that didn’t require it the first time. Unfortunately, I would be back three months later with a metallic grinding of the front wheel. The engine oil leak hadn’t gone away either. Two weeks after dropping it off Pete called to say that the front fork seal was cracked and needed to be replaced, along with a rebuilding of the front shock. The fork seal would need to come from Italy during the height of the Covid-era supply chain clusterfuck. In the meantime, Pete said they would explore the source of the oil leak.
Long story short, or not so short, I am now riding it up to a legit dealer 160 miles away some $2400 and half a year later. Bob Lanphere’s had also assured me while still sitting on the Norge that they could look at the LeMans when it got stuck in second gear shortly after I bought it. Pete had stopped returning my calls by this time, but I remembered him saying they could service any Guzzi so long as they didn’t need to access the computer. No problem with the LeMans since it’s an old school, analog bike and one of the reasons I bought it. I spoke with a Brandi from Bob Lanphere’s, followed by a few texts, who said to bring it in that coming Saturday at nine before the service department got slammed. I rode it in on the backroads to stay in second gear, getting lost for an hour along the way. When I did arrive around ten, Pete was indeed slammed and not excited to see me. I said I was not there to bitch about the Norge but to drop off another bike, only to learn there was no appointment in the system to receive it. He added they were way too busy to work on it, regardless, to which I showed him my texts with Brandi where she says they’d been happy to do so. Annoyed, he went to find someone else to help me. Another guy, much younger, walked outside, took one look at the LeMans, shook his head, and said there was zero chance they would tackle a transmission issue on a bike like this, analog or not. “Too complicated since we don’t know anything about Guzzis.” That much was already well established relative to the Norge still being held hostage. He apologized for Brandi and said they’d been having issues with her. Said it’s a cool bike I’d need to take to the folks in Seattle. I should have countered that, yes, the bike was cool and that he, Brandi, Pete and especially those Bob Lanphere’s acolytes ringing their bell could go fuck themselves, but couldn’t be bothered by these losers another second longer than necessary. At least I didn’t get lost on the way home.
The LeMans is sitting off in the corner away from the other bikes when I roll into Optimum Performance. Physically, the place isn’t more than a tiny, overcrowded garage tucked away in the back of a business park behind a busy street full of car dealerships. The LeMans has been here for eight weeks. Eight weeks after I waited five weeks before they would even let me bring it in. Optimum Performance is the only certified Moto Guzzi dealer in all of Oregon or Washington, so you can’t even think in terms of worth the wait to get a bike like this back. Rather, staring at it glistening in the rain, I am reminded of my first impression the day I bought it. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
A nice enough hipster, Marty, and I review what we discussed is wrong with the Norge a few days earlier over the phone. I emphasize the front end feels like a death wish, followed by the full horror story involving Bob Lanphere’s. A story best illustrated by the ominous SERVICE WARNING that has locked up all graphics on the ECU that wasn’t there when I gave them the bike. Not only did they create the problem, they couldn’t solve it because they couldn’t “get inside her” to diagnose the source of the warning. Marty assures me they should be able to and that the poor handling sounds like a wheel bearing. Pete pretty much dismissed the quirky, “niche” nature of the Norge to my face when I picked it up. He even called it “sad” that they sat on it for so long. Marty, by contrast, honestly seems to dig the bike even though it’s not the kind of thing he would probably ride. We shake hands before I swap out the Norge for the LeMans and head back the way I came.
Going from a sport touring bike, no matter how shitty the front end, to a pure sportbike is like leaving your favorite chair to sit Indian style on the floor. After a while, your body adjusts and both can become comfortable, but the latter only at high speeds. The LeMans is a relatively forgiving ride at 80 mph or faster. Anything less and you’d rather be on the Norge. Both are handbuilt marvels bordering on the divine, but the LeMans is the essential Guzzi and nothing like the dozen or so bikes I’ve owned since we were kicking up dirt as kids. I noticed right out of the shop it was idling too high at close to 3000 rpms. I assumed it was the result of the valve adjustment done by Optimum Performance, an adjustment that has the bike running like a champ otherwise. Figured it might settle down after putting some miles on it at speed, but this appears not to be the case as I exit the 405 for I-5 South. I consider turning around and having them look at it, but the rain is heavy and cold and won’t become any more comfortable once it gets dark. Idle aside, the bike is glorious. The LeMans is modern to a degree, but its retro superbike design signified by an iconic half-fairing surrounding a single, round headlight gives it the look of something straight off the track from the 1970s. I bought it off a retired landscaper in Hillsboro, Don, with three Triumphs and two old Japanese bikes in his garage. Nicest guy you’ll ever meet, not unlike Frank with his garage full of BMWs in Bellevue, maybe ten years younger, who sold me the Norge. Guzzis attract a certain crowd, to be sure. “Bike whores,” as Don called them. Or maybe just nonconformists past their prime. Count me in either way. Don loved the LeMans but said he was getting too old for it anymore. “Wrists aren’t what they used to be.” His loss, my gain. I read one reviewer describe it as a fogies superbike. Fair enough. That this one appeared on craigslist the day before my 54th birthday may be telling me what I don’t want to hear, but some things, for better or worse, really do find you.
Visibility is a challenge on the LeMans in these conditions, so I sit in the tuck to peer through the sport fairing. The bike holds its line perfectly like this, but it’s not an ideal position to cover much distance, especially with gloves and boots soaked clean through. Otherwise, the ride home is everything the ride up was not. Pure connection, pushing the bike at every opportunity without worrying about the front wheel falling off. It is the clarity that comes with being entirely in the moment that I needed so badly before taking off this morning and thinking about the two years that have passed since your fateful call. I knew something was wrong, not in retrospect but right away. Friday night at 11 pm your time was a strange hour to leave a message like, “Pat. Mondo. I need to talk to you.” Still, “Stage 4” is the last thing I expected to learn calling you back. And it wasn’t only the shock of hearing something like this from one of my oldest friends. From my favorite homie of all time. Everyone’s favorite. It was that the urgency of your message stemmed less from being afraid for yourself as much as that I would hear you had been diagnosed with a rare form of sinus cancer from someone else. You were worried about me.
No more worries, friend. The first message received is from Jack when stopping for gas after I wind up crossing a bridge the wrong way to Gig Harbor without the slightest idea what happened. At 4:09 pm PST he texted: Monte passed away. Few mins ago. God Speed. The second I now see hours later in this little river town near an Indian Casino called Kalama, 45 miles from home, where I’ve stopped at another service station to use the bathroom and warm up my hands with a cup of tea. Lori, who I haven’t heard from in ten years, texted at 4:39 pm PST: Monte passed. God just got an angel.
Tomorrow morning, on my way to work, an old woman walking down the street will see me kneeling to study the throttle body on the right side of the LeMans in search of which screws to turn to adjust the idle and say, “Looks like someone has left you a gift.” A month and another couple grand after that I will finally pick up the Norge from Optimum Performance via trailer only to have an unsuccessful thief jam a screwdriver into the ignition switch the same night I leave it uncovered next to the LeMans on the street in front of my house. I’ve parked it in the same spot for as long as I’ve owned it without incident, but Portland, like the rest of the country, has changed. A shot to the heart, it will swallow up the full amount of my deductible from Geico to replace the lockset and take who knows how long to get it back, but I’m all in at this point. Or call it out. My wife and I have already decided our lives feel over here and are accelerating plans to start new ones in Japan. Mine will be defined by taking these magical bikes we’ve ridden today with me while leaving everything else behind. Maybe I will run into Toshi racing after my own middle-aged dream down some foreign road. Raise a glass together to motorcycles we’ve loved and to true riders we’ve lost. To the loved and to the lost.
* A profile accompanying this story appears in Wide Magazine.