I hate museum tours. Invariably stuffy, more often than not pompous and, perhaps most egregiously, infernally boring. And for every Paul Smart 750 SS, there’s a bunch of Cucciolos, which, unless you literally bathe in Ducati motor oil, is just another 50-cc scooter of which there were billions in Italy after the war. So, it was more Canadian politeness than real intrigue that compelled me to accept Dainese’s invitation to visit its recently opened “archivio” in Vicenza, Italy.
But it ended up being quite captivating. Oh, it started with the traditional historical stuff — founder Lino Dainese scootering all the way to London, where he discovered big bike motorcycling. The boring stuff I expected. But, as soon as I walked into the archivio’s mausoleum, which houses Dainese’s most famous racing suits from the past, I knew I was home.
My God, are those Anton Mang’s leathers? Geez, they look flimsy. And why is that child’s racing suit in here? Oops, they’re Dani Pedrosa’s (seriously, folks, his racing suit is so small, it could fit a 12-year-old; a thin one at that). There are so many Rossi suits, you wonder if he had any spares when he was racing. Troy Bayliss, Jon Ekerold and Franco Uncini are well-represented in their various liveries. Even Jorge Lorenzo is here, despite defecting to Alpinestars (and famously not wearing an airbag under his leathers, even though the suit said Tech-Air). Hero-worship once-removed it may have been, but at least I was in the presence of great sweat.
I was also in the presence of reminders of the incredible dangers of motorcycle racing. Some suits were in pristine condition; others look like they’d been attacked by a giant belt sander with particularly ferocious abandon. What is plainly obvious from the historical “record” of these racing suits — and, bear in mind, Dainese fairly invented at least the modern version of protective motorcycle garb — is the progression from yesteryear’s unarmoured apparel to today’s air-bagged and titanium’ed racing suits.
In motorcycling racing’s Paleozoic age, energy absorption for the human body’s vulnerable joints — elbows, shoulders and knees — consisted of nothing more than a double layer of leather. The very first knee sliders were cut-down face shields duct taped to the lower leg. Indeed, to walk through this repository of historical cowhide is to marvel at the sheer hardness of racers past; I’m not sure I’d ride a bicycle in Mang’s original leathers. There’s also an area devoted to the evolution of things like back protectors — Lino Dainese’s original inspiration was a lobster — which still look surprisingly similar to the 1979 prototype. Medieval armour, with its multifaceted joints, inspired Dainese’s gloves.
All this product-based history, however, wasn’t as interesting as some of the revelations about some of its sponsored riders over the years. For instance, the first world champion to wear a Dainese racing suit was Dieter Braun (no, I hadn’t heard of him either). Between 1968 and 1977, he raced virtually every GP class and notched up a creditable 14 wins as well as two world championships (1970 – 125-cc; 1973 – 250-cc). But that isn’t why he stands out. No, what will surely give you a little rise — and may give former Eastern Bloc communists a little heartburn — is that, in 1972, Braun won at Sachsenring, which is, of course, in Eastern Germany. The only problem is that the crowd sang his national anthem, the West German national anthem, which, according to lore, seriously infuriated local authorities.
As this is Italy, Giacomo Agostini, of course, looms large in the archivio. But I was more drawn to the “King” Kenny Roberts exhibit because, as always, the pugnacious little American was always pushing the envelope; it was he who whittled down a visor and then taped it to his knees so he wouldn’t go through a set of leathers every race in his then burgeoning “hanging off” style.
“Fast” Freddie gets mention for his historic GP250/GP500 championship year. More importantly, for this discussion at least, he was the first GP rider to wear a back protector in all his races. By comparison, Dainese claims that Kevin Schwantz only started paying attention to his riding gear after getting busted up multiple times.
Leave it to the Italians, however, to worry as much about style as protection, Max Biaggi being the first to print sponsor’s names right onto his leathers. Meanwhile, Dainese swears that Jorge Lorenzo always wore his leathers too loose — a no-no safety-wise since, in a crash, the armour has to be in precisely the right spot to be effective — only relenting to form-fitting suits after on-board footage revealed he wasn’t looking “elegant” in his flapping-in-the-breeze one-piece. The weirdest request, however, seems to have come from famously anal-retentive John Kocinski, who, according to Dainese, was so obsessed with Eddie Lawson that his leather suits had to be duplicates — and, if Kocinski lore has any basis in fact, they would have had to have been exact duplicates — of “Steady Eddie’s” gear.
There’s all manner of other bits to be seen: Dainese’s first suit — motocross gear with its “pattern” fashioned out of an Italian newspaper — and there really is, considering how high-tech motorcycle garb has become, a surprising amount of actual medieval armour on display; the aforementioned gloves as well as a full suit and even a headgear which the museum curators claim inspired AGV’s recently-
introduced Sportmodular helmet.
What was most obvious from the museum tour, however, is how the archivio chronicles Dainese’s — nay, the entire industry’s — progress in the pursuit of rider safety. It also serves as a reminder of all the heroes that have worn leather racing suits.