How Giacomo Agostini became the most successful rider in bike racing

How Giacomo Agostini became the most successful rider in bike racing 01

With 123 race victories and 15 titles in bike racing, alongside 10 Tourist Trophy wins and countless other successes, Giacomo Agostini is universally recognised as the best bike rider of all time. He retired from competition in 1980, but no other rider has come anywhere close to equalling the Italian’s enviable record in 40 years of trying.

‘Ago’, as he was known by everyone, was the protagonist of some of the greatest battles in bike racing history: both within the 350cc and 500cc classes. In the years during which he was riding alongside legends such as Mike Hailwood, motorbike racing became a true sporting phenomenon that took the world by storm.

Between 1968 and 1972, Agostini was practically unbeatable: winning 82 of the 102 grands prix that he contested between the two classes he competed in. Unbelievably, he didn’t lose a single race between 1968 and 1970.

The partnership between Agostini and MV Agusta remains the most celebrated and iconic pairing in the history of motorcycling, thanks to 13 world championships, 10 Tourist Trophies and 18 Italian titles. From 1974 onwards Agostini went on to win another two world titles (as well as other prestigious races such as the Daytona 200) riding for Yamaha. It was the perfect response to anyone who believed that the Italian’s success was solely down to the superiority of his machinery.

More than just another rider, Agostini was a true Italian icon: athletic, good-looking and with genuine charisma. But he still had his jealous detractors. There were some who claimed that his victories were often down to a lack of real rivals, or simply having a better bike. Yet Agostini’s legend was not exclusively down to his success.

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Passion and perseverance

Giacomo Agostini was born in 1942 as the first of four brothers and grew up in Lovere: a small village close to Bergamo in northern Italy. From a very young age he felt a strong attraction to bikes and competition ¬– so, unknown to his father, he took part in secret races on gravel roads around Iseo Lake, riding his family’s trusty Aquilotto Bianchi.

Having started his career aged only nine he found his father firmly opposed to it, which meant that he had to wait until he was 18 before finally getting a bike of his own: a Morini 175 Settebello, which was the dream machine for all teenagers of the era. Using this entirely standard bike he took part in his first championship races against rivals who had specially prepared race bikes. Nonetheless, he was always among the frontrunners and that’s what brought him to the attention of Alfonso Marini, who offered him his very first professional contract.

Learning from mistakes

In 1965, Agostini began competing in the 350 and 500 categories of the world championship, riding the MV Agusta three-cylinder that he had helped to test and develop. He finished his debut championship year with two incredible second places in the standings: second in the 500 class, behind his team mate Mike Hailwood, and second again in the 350 class behind Jim Redman on a Honda. The only reason why Agostini didn’t win the 350 class was down to a technical problem at the final race in Japan, where an electrical wire came off the condenser and forced the Italian into retirement, handing victory to his British rival. From that point on Agostini became well-known as an almost paranoid perfectionist, with an unstinting attention to detail to every aspect of his bike. He would personally check and double check it several times before a race. And this also helped him to become unbeatable.

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Strength and discipline

The first race that Agostini rode for Yamaha was on March 10, 1974, in the United States at the Daytona 200. His prospects were talked down by the local media, as he was compared unfavourably to local heroes such as Kenny Roberts. Agostini accordingly decided to keep a low profile during the week leading up to the race. He didn’t know the track at all, so every morning he would walk the full lap to painstakingly examine each square metre, understand all the racing lines, and work out where exactly he should brake. Not only that, but in the torrid heat of the early afternoon he would go running in his leathers, in order to get used to the conditions he would be facing on race day. When that day came, Agostini set off at an incredible pace and kept it up consistently throughout the 52 laps, defeating Roberts by some considerable margin, despite not having known the circuit and his bike previously. But the immense physical effort he put in came at a cost: straight after the race he had to be treated by bike racing’s legendary medic, Doctor Claudio Costa, delaying the podium ceremony.

Getting lucky

Like everyone, even Agostini benefitted from the occasional bit of good luck over the years. When he was 18, he asked his father’s permission to join the Italian motorbike federation, in order to take part in national championship events. His father was always against his son going racing but felt sufficiently pestered to seek advice from their family lawyer. Apparently the lawyer in question was deaf and instead of motorbike racing, he just heard ‘bike’. And so he gave his blessing to the whole idea – what harm could come from a bit of outdoor physical activity, after all?

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