MILAN, Italy — Movie stars, politicians, corporate honchos and sports figures filed into a sumptuous ballroom, their entrances illuminated by the flashbulbs of dozens of paparazzi. Awaiting the invited guests were brief speeches and a lavish buffet of elaborate appetizers, pastas, grilled meats and desserts, including dense tortes and bowls brimming with fresh berries.
In Los Angeles, it might have been a ceremony and party to accompany a movie premiere. In New York, a Broadway play's first night. In any of the world's cultural capitals, the opening of an art exhibition.
Perhaps only in Italy could such a ceremony mark the unveiling of a new motorcycle.
When the lights came up in the ballroom, there was the Cagiva Raptor, a rather mean-looking bike designed by Miguel Angel Galluzzi, whose best-known previous creation was Ducati's phenomenally successful Monster. The politicians and other celebrities flocked to have their pictures taken with the new machine, which looked like something out of the "Transformer" cartoon show.
The scene during the next five days at the 57th Esposizione Internazionale Ciclo e Motociclo--the International Bicycle and Motorcycle Exposition, the world's largest such show of 1999--was far less formal.
Of the hundreds of thousands of people who ventured to Milan's convention center last week to see what manufacturers worldwide were offering up for 2000, I spotted not one Hells Angel wannabe and hardly anyone sporting more than two colors of hair.
On weekdays, many of the people in attendance were in business attire--I saw a middle-aged woman wearing pearls climb aboard a Ducati 748 and men with suit jackets draped over their shoulders in classic Italian style quietly circle a bike for minutes, taking it in.
In this country, motorcycles are seen as neither emblems of outsiders nor purely utilitarian--they are objects of beauty, delight and power. They are a means by which to express prowess, not attitude.
It was a wonderful, affirming atmosphere in which to see the new products at a time when the motorcycle industry is expanding, especially in the U.S. Here's hoping that in the future, motorcycling in the U.S. is less about stereotypes and posturing and more about the fun and skill involved in heading down the highway on two wheels.
Judging from what was on view at the show, the trend in motorcycles continues toward lighter, sleeker, faster and smoother, even among cruisers. Harley-Davidson brought to Milan its re-engineered Softail line, which is supposed to greatly ease the Harley vibrato that has rattled the bones of many a rider. And Kawasaki was showing an 800cc version of its Drifter, which is likely to join its 1,500cc big brother in the States in 2000.
The trend continues toward so-called naked bike designs that eliminate the streamlining of plastic fairings in favor of showing more engine machinery. But even among naked bikes, riders seem to be getting more choices from manufacturers in colors and customizing accessories.
One bike not at the show but probably on the mind of every sportbike manufacturer was Kawasaki's new ZX-12R, a machine chock-full of design innovations that the company hopes will set a new standard among four-cylinder bikes for sleekness and speed. It officially debuts next week.
The following is what was known at press time, through presentations in Milan and elsewhere, about what new street motorcycles--cruisers, standards, sportbikes and tourers--will be seen in the U.S. from major manufacturers worldwide for model year 2000.
Already at dealers is the R1150GS, a major update of the German manufacturer's dual-purpose bike for street and light off-road duty. This motorcycle is meant for riders who want to tackle somewhat rugged byways, such as fire trails, but also want a machine that can perform well on freeways and in the canyons. With a seat height of more than 33 inches, it is not for short riders. And like BMW's cars, it's not for bargain hunters--the base price is $13,550.
Later this year, the company will unveil an updated F650, its single-cylinder bike, which is expected to get at least a new engine. Other details are still under wraps.
The only major American manufacturer of sportbikes is coming off a tough year during which every bike it made since 1994 was recalled, voluntarily, to fix one or more problems. This halted production for several months.
Buell, 95%-owned by Harley-Davidson, is hoping to put all that behind with one of the major all-new model introductions of 2000: a single-cylinder bike that company officials promise will have lots of pep for its 500cc size and a "competitive" price tag aimed at entry-level riders. If all goes well, the single will make its public debut in November and then be at dealers early in the new year.