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London To Milan In Less Than 20 Hours
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Articles - Touring
Written by Chris Alderton   
Monday, 01 November 2010 00:00
Map courtesy of www.rac.co.uk

Have you ever been tempted to take on a challenge, run something, climb something or ride something further, faster or for longer than anyone else.  Costa Blanca resident Gill Moorcroft (formerly Roper) took on such a challenge with another girl Mary Donovan, when they accepted an offer from their local bike dealer, Arthur Francis of Watford, to ride from London to Milan in as short a time as possible.

The bike they would use wouldn't be a new all singing all dancing superbike, in fact not even a "bike" at all.  The steed would be a Vespa 90SS scooter and as the journey was undertaken in 1966 there was a distinct lack of decent roads or fast channel crossings to help them on their way.  The girls would share the riding in two hour stints with a support car just in case, the event was organised to launch the new Vespa model and to promote the Watford Vaspa Club which the dealer was involved with.

Gill didn't even own a Vespa at the time preferring instead a Lambretta, which she raced at Mallory Park, Snetterton and Brands Hatch as well as visiting numerous shows around the country.  In 1966 she was presented with an award for highest ranking female participant by the Lambretta Club of Great Britain.

The event was covered by the local and national papers at the time and by the scootering press, the account below is as Gill wrote it for her company magazine shortly after the event.

Top Scooter Girl

A few months ago l was approached by Watford scooter dealer, Mr Arthur Francis, with the question `How would you like to go to Italy for a couple of days ., 'Great', I said. `How much ?' `Oh, all expenses paid', he replied. 'O.K. - where's the catch ?' I countered. `No catch', he said, `except that you've got to drive there'.

That was just the start of things. The result was that I and another girl, Mary Donovan, undertook to drive approximately 735 miles non-stop from London to Milan on a Vespa 90 c.c. scooter one week-end at the beginning of May.

The reason for the run was mainly to commemorate the inauguration of the Watford Vespa Club, which was the first Vespa club - in fact the first scooter club of its kind - to be started in Britain. Secondly, it was arranged as an endurance test which, if successful, would not only be good publicity for the Club, but also for the little 90 c.c. Vespa which we were to use - thus the sponsoring.

After extensive planning and a couple of postponements due to deplorable weather conditions, the date was finally set for 7 May.

As luck had it, for a change the weather conditions were with us the day we arrived at the start of our journey in London. We were met there by the secretary of the Vespa Club of Britain, together with members of the scooter press, and were handed an official time card which was to be stamped at the airports and all the frontiers en route. At precisely 2.30 p.m. we set off together with an 850 Fiat which was to accompany us throughout the journey. It was decided that Mary and I should take it in turns to drive about an hour at a time, to help lessen the feelings of fatigue which we were bound to encounter on a jour­ney of that length.

The route taken was from Pall Mall to Southend Airport, where we flew to Calais, the scooter flew cargo on the same plane. From there we drove across France into Switzerland and through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Aosta. There we were met by officials from the Vespa works in Milan, who escorted us from Aosta to Milan.

The first part of the journey was uneventful, the highest possible speeds being maintained wherever road conditions and the Gendarmerie permitted, but as soon as it got dark, it started to rain, which unfor­tunately forced us to lower our average speed slightly.

At about 2 o'clock in the morning, whilst I was driving, a cat ran out in front of me and this, combined with the bad road and weather conditions, caused me to come off. I sustained a few bruises, and the bike's headlamp unit was smashed, which left us only the parking light to continue through­out the rest of the night. The poor lighting became a real handicap on encountering the Alps, as we not only had to contend with hairpin bends, but also thick fog. At the time we did not realise that there was worse to come!

By dawn we were climbing once again, and this time we hit snow, which was about 6 in. deep and had fallen that night. The only way to drive through it was to follow the car tracks and keep our feet down. Several times I came dangerously near to going over a sheer drop as the bike was skidding all over the place. Eventually, however, we were through the snow, and after driving through torrential rain, we arrived at the Mont Blanc tunnel. The mist was swirling around us as we entered the tunnel, but after a few minutes we came out at the other side to brilliant sunshine.

After all we had gone through, this was a marvellous boost to our morale, coupled with the fact that we were greeted by a tumultuous welcome from the Vespa officials, and members of local Vespa clubs.

Gill Roper and Mary Donovan
greeted in the Piazza Duoma, Milan
by the President of
the Vespa Club of Italy, Dr Tassinari.

The glorious Italian sunshine seemed to spur us on through our final part of the journey to Milan. At last we arrived, and Milan seemed the most wonderful place on earth at that time. Here we received another almost overpowering welcome. On checking the time card it was announced that we had taken 19 hours 57 minutes (which included the plane flight) to complete the overall journey. Quite an achievement for a 90 c.c. scooter through those conditions!

The Italian hospitality left nothing to be desired, as after giving us time to get washed and changed, we were taken to an hotel where a banquet was set out in our honour, and we were presented with travelling watch’s for our efforts. After this, we were taken to our hotel where we were once again given V.I.P. treatment. Here we took a well-deserved and needed rest until the evening, when we took the opportunity of some sightseeing around Milan.

The next day we were taken on a tour of the Vespa works, and an invitation was extended to me to attend the Eurovespa Rally which was to be held in Florence the following month.

Eventually it was time to leave Milan and the many friends we had made during our all-too-short stay. By mutual agreement we decided to return via the Italian Riviera, where we spent a couple of days lazing on the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean hefore our long journey home.

Our feeling of achievement was heightened by the fact that the Vespa was driven back by two men, Artie Shaw & George Manning, also on an endurance test, using the same route as ourselves - and they took 22 hours to complete the journey.

On looking back, I sometimes find it hard to believe that we managed to do all that in just six days, and I only wish that l had the opportunity to do it all over again.

 

 

Thanks to Gill Moorcroft now retired on the Costa Blanca Spain for her account of the trip and the photographs.

If you have a story to tell of a trip you have made or an adventure you have had then Email the editor and we will try to include it.  If you have pictures to add this always helps.

 

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