Spinning back to my home in North Carolina from Moto Guzzi’s North American headquarters in Woodstock, Georgia, opened a floodgate of memories that took me back to my formative motorcycling years in southern England.
I had ridden my well-worn Yamaha XT 500 cross-country in search of work and, on securing a job, was informed my new boss was also a motorcyclist. “If you want to see my bike, it’s in the storage shed waiting for some parts from the local dealer,” he told me. I was also informed if I wanted to pick up the parts I could put it back together for him.
I will never forget opening the creaky old shed door and seeing the bike for the first time. Covered in dust, with the tank off and the seat propped up to allow the battery to be placed on a trickle charger, I gazed in amazement at the giant cylinders poking out from either side of the frame. Seeing “850 Le Mans I” on the side panels I realized this was almost like two XT 500 motors.
I marvelled at the huge 36mm Dellorto carburettors, their bell-mouth intakes covered in just enough mesh to stop your hand getting sucked into the cylinders. It had rear-set pegs, clip-on handlebars and a long, lean, race style seat. I was in love. The following days saw broken oil lines replaced, a thorough cleaning and all the minor details like tire pressure, oil level etc taken care of as the bike came back into roadworthy condition.
Standing out in the sunshine, the Italian racing red tank gleaming, I pulled up the choke lever, switched on the gas taps and fired the big Guzzi to life.
Wow! What a surprise as the bike roared into life, rocking violently from side to side, the carburettors loudly sucking unfiltered air, and the near-empty dual exhausts reverberating around the yard. My surprise was further compounded when I rode the bike for the first time. It seemed positively gutless and rode like a truck; my XT was swifter and easier to steer.
Later I found the power band and all was forgiven; the bike surged forward like a racehorse, cornering speeds went into a new dimension, and I was hooked. A few weeks later, I was working two jobs and had saved up enough money to convince my bank manager to loan me the balance: the fiery red Italian stallion was mine.
High unemployment, thanks Margaret Thatcher, mechanical ignorance and fickle Italian electrics prematurely ended our relationship a couple of years later. A more outrageous Italian beast had been purchased, a Slater Brothers Laverda 1200 Mirage. One of them had to go.
Fast forward 20 years and I find myself back on a big Moto Guzzi, proudly bearing the name “Le Mans” on its side panels, being transported back to the heady days of owning a “Superbike” in the small English seaside town of my youth. It is a feeling that will not be repeated often in our fast changing times, I think.
How many modern bikes are still so obviously connected to their roots the way this 2003 Moto Guzzi V11 Le Mans is? It still uses what appear to be the same engine and gearbox casings, and the two huge air-cooled cylinders still stick out into the atmosphere, even if they are now angular, not round, in shape. The bike still rocks on idle somewhat, and it remains long, low and lean with power being taken to the rear wheel by a shaft.
It has grown up though, as hopefully so have I, and is a lot more sophisticated than its predecessor. Glitch free fuel injection replaces the hit or miss Dellorto carburettors. A near perfectly shifting six-speed gearbox replaces the “borrowed from a tractor” five-speed, and the forearm pumping clutch is now a feather-light hydraulic affair.
The original Le Mans had excellent Brembo brakes and this tradition continues. Large 320mm front rotors and gold line four-piston calipers live up front and a dual- piston caliper out back grabs a 282mm unit. They do a great job with plenty of feel; it is just necessary to give a fairly hefty pull on the lever to get the fluid down to the pads and don’t expect sport bike response. With the bike tipping the scales at a little over 500lbs though, this is not unexpected, and they certainly haul the big Le Mans down from speed with little drama.
Another joy on the original Le Mans was the low bars and heavy throttle action and, in an attempt to combat the problem, it had a throttle lock screw that helped out on long journeys. Not so the modern version; with the bars comfortably above the triple clamps, and the throttle needing little more than light breeze to send it in to action; the four hour ride home produced no aches and pains from the 20-year older wrists. My backside and worn out knees appreciated the more comfortable seat and lower foot pegs, also. Not to say there was anything wrong with the original vinyl covered plank used on the old Le Mans, it was just not in the Corbin-comfort league for long distances.
Visually, the new Guzzi Le Mans provoked a bit of comment with it’s single headlight fairing. Some, more accustomed to the twin headlight craze found on most modern bikes, did not like it. Others liked the retro look and made the link to the original bike. The lines are definitely softer and more rounded, and that is really a great way to describe the bike.
The modern 40mm Marzocchi USD fork, adjustable for compression, rebound and pre-load, does a good job of keeping the bike on track while not beating the life out of the rider. I made some minor adjustments as it felt a little soft on the both the front and rear, while feeling a little harsh over the bumps up front. A few clicks of the easily adjustable suspension had it to my liking, and I also backed out the steering damper all the way. The bike certainly never felt unstable at high speeds and made directional changes more quickly in the tight twisties of the Smoky Mountains.
Out back the rear shock is also adjustable for the big three, and a pre-load wheel is accessible with a dexterous hand by going up under the rear side panels. The seat comes off and on in a heartbeat, and there is a small tool kit and access to the maintenance free battery once it is removed. You cannot get to the shock adjuster this way. I tried, but you can access the well-marked fuses and relays very easily. There is not much room for any type of storage though, except maybe a couple of maps and a flashlight under the tailpiece if you needed.
Sitting on the bike, the rider’s eye view is very “retro.” Small, round graphite faced gauges sit in the centre of the console, with conservative looking white numbers and conventional needles to indicate road or engine speed. In between, there is a small pad with all the usual warning lights. The inside of the fairing is clean and functional with nice semi gloss inserts covering wiring, brackets and the like.
Outside, the attached mirrors are very clear and give a pretty decent view of what’s behind. The handlebars sit comfortably above the triple clamp as I mentioned earlier, and have the hydraulic reservoirs for the clutch and brakes attached. These are small, neat Aprilia sourced items and look pretty trick.
Top marks for the four way adjustable dogleg levers; they have a nice feel and can be set to the desired distance from the bars. No points for the horn button being above the turn signal switch though. It took a while to re-program my left hand, and my riding partner was getting very confused by the sound of the Guzzi’s horn beeping every time we turned a corner.
Firing the bike into action requires a twist on the left handlebar control to enrich the fuel injection, a pull of the clutch and a quick stab of the starter button. The Magnet Marelli IAW electronic digital ignition fires the big twin instantly to life, and it soon settles into its characteristic rumbling idle.
Clutch action is extremely light, and the dry clutch is super smooth as the big Guzzi leaves the line. The gearbox is a joy to use and quickly and easily selects the next ratio with the lightest tap on the lever.
Once under way, fuel is pumped into the big cylinders by Magnet Marelli IAW Multipoint phased sequential fuel injection, and mighty fine job it does too. Roll on the throttle anywhere in the rev range and you will be rewarded with a smooth, seamless power delivery. I did notice some stuttering occasionally near the red line in the lower gears, and at first thought it might be a low fuel situation. It was not persistent though and I have not noticed it since; perhaps it had something to do with the Georgia gas?
The distinctive looking air-cooled engine is a 90-degree V-twin displacing 1064cc. This is achieved by use of a 92mm bore and 80mm stroke, and power is rated at 91bhp @7,800rpm with 70ft/lbs of torque a 6,000rpm. There is obviously a certain level of vibration from such big pistons, but it is never uncomfortable and certainly adds to the bikes large “charm” factor.
Another element of the bike’s engine I found most addictive is the way the big flywheel will keep spinning up for just a moment after you shut the throttle at speed. There is a cool, floating feeling before the engine’s deceleration begins to match the wheels. This heavy flywheel effect makes for effortless high speed riding, and the big Guzzi loafs along in top gear at 80 mph, just 4,250 rpm showing on the Speedometer. At this speed, overtaking is just a throttle turn away, with no need for a downshift to access the necessary passing power.
Find some open road and run up into the triple digits and the Guzzi is equally unfazed. The sport fairing gives great wind protection and there is absolutely no protest from the mellow, pulsing V-twin beneath. I did not get to top the bike out, but would think speeds over 140 mph should be easily attainable for those in need.
The big pistons have a healthy 9.8:1 compression ratio and the cylinders make do with 2 valves for intake and exhaust duties. The burned gases pass through stainless steel down pipes and large steel mufflers, which do a great job of keeping the neighbours happy during early morning start-ups. As you pull up hard through the gears, you can hear the muted boom from the pipes on full throttle, and the intake roar is music to the ears. It would just be a little nicer to fit some slightly less restrictive aftermarket pipes to better hear the music.
High mileage days will be no problem on the Le Mans, and the large 20.7-litre tank, with a sensible 5-litre reserve, will be a big help. Fuel consumption figures were fairly consistent around 35-40mpg whether riding two up, cruising open highways or scratching on some of my favourite back roads.
Getting serious on the Le Mans in the tighter twisties of my local area requires a little extra thought and planning though, as it is most definitely not a 600cc Supersport. Ride accordingly, set up for the corners early and avoid any throttle inputs that will upset the shaft drive, and you can make some pretty rapid time.
The Guzzi steers very well for a bike of its size and weight, quickly inspiring confidence. The Bridgestone BT020’s are not the stickiest tires in the world, but complement the more deliberate handling qualities of the Le Mans and I rarely got over their limits. Rolling on Brembo spoke alloy wheels; the front tyre is a modern 120/70-17, while a nice wide 180/55-17 lives out back.
Checking some other stats I noticed that the bike has a 1,490mm wheelbase, which would explain the freight train stability the Guzzi exhibits in high-speed sweepers, and it’s reluctance to flick quickly side to side in the slow stuff. The seat height is 800mm from terra firma. This gives a feeling of sitting in, not on the bike once you are under way, and allied to the good-sized fairing helps keep the rider very comfortable on a long journey.
My last ride on the big Guzzi was back to Woodstock from my home in Sylva, North Carolina, and what an awesome ride it was. Spring has hit and the dogwoods are in bloom, punctuating all the new, growth that is adorning the trees. There are still some bare trees up high, but at road level the colours against the cloudless blue sky were outstanding.
The Le Mans must have been enjoying the view also, ‘cause she was flying. I rolled west on US 74 with the speedometer needle solidly between the 80-90mph mark. With no tourists here yet and everyone else at work, the road was near deserted as I kept my eyes peeled for the local ticket givers. Thankfully none, and forty minutes into my ride I entered the Nantahala Gorge. Snicking down a couple of gears, I carved the twisting ribbon of road, snatching glimpses of the sparkling river and passing the odd early-season rafting truck.
The bike was in its element and the ride south just kept getting better. I pushed the bike through the turns, accelerated hard onto the straights and had one of the most enjoyable motorcycles rides I have had in a long while. It was as if the clock had gone back 20 years and I was running the Totnes to Newton Abbott road in southern England; The similarity in the landscape and the familiarity of the big V-twin beneath me provided a wonderful sense of déjà vu. If only everyday could be so fine.
2003 Moto Guzzi V11 Le Mans – Specifications
- Engine: 90º V-Twin, 4 stroke
- Cylinders: Aluminium alloy with Gilnisil treatment
- Pistons: Forged, 2 compression & 1 oil control ring
- Cooling system: Air cooled
- Displacement: 1064 cc
- Bore and stroke: 92 mm x 80 mm
- Compression ratio: 9.8:1
- Valves & operation: 2 overhead valves with light alloy push-rods
- Maximum power: 91 hp @7800 rpm
- Maximum torque: 70 ft/lbs @ 6000 rpm
- Fuel system: Magneti Marelli IAW Multipoint phased sequential fuel injection
- Starting system: Electric
- Ignition: Magneti Marelli IAW electronic digital ignition with inductive spark
- Exhaust system: Steel, 2 headers connected to 2 steel mufflers
- Gear box: 6 speed
- Lubrication: Forced with oil cooling system
- Transmission: Primary: helical gears. Secondary: shaft drive
- Clutch: Double discs, dry, with hydraulic command
- Instruments: Speedometer with tripmeter, tachometer and warning lights
- Frame: Monobeam frame
- Trail: 103 mm
- Rake: 25º
- Front suspension: Marzocchi USD fork, 43 mm compression/extension adjustable
- Rear suspension: Cantilever swing arm with Sachs Boge mono shock compression/extension/preload adjustable
- Front brakes: Two Brembo ORO Series stainless steel 320 mm floating discs with 4 piston caliper
- Rear brakes: Single stainless steel 282 mm fixed disc with Brembo 2 piston caliper
- Wheels: Brembo spoke light alloy, Front: 3.5″ x 17″ Rear: 5.5″ x 17″
- Tyres: Front: 120/70 17″ Rear: 180/55 17″
- Overall length: 2,150 mm
- Width: 785 mm
- Height: 1,210 mm
- Seat Height: 800 mm
- Ground clearance: 178 mm
- Handlebar Height: 930 mm
- Wheelbase: 1,490 mm
- Dry weight: 226 Kg
- Fuel capacity: 20.7 litres, Reserve: 5 litres
- Available Colours: Gloss Black, Gloss Red
- RRP – $20,600