Completely bi-polar is the only way to describe the way many people feel about Max Biaggi.
From fans to riders they are either faithful to the young Italian, buy his replica helmets and leathers to make their devotion known, or hate his guts and burn his figure in effigy. It seems there isn't much middle ground about Max. That's because Max doesn't have much middle ground himself. He's a very emotional, passionate rider, one that will react strongly to any circumstances presented or created by him. Want your laptop computer hurled across the pressroom? Write something derogatory or truthful (depending on your viewpoint) about Max. Thinking about creating a rivalry with him, as a fellow rider? Don't worry, look in Biaggi's direction and he'll think you're starting something. 'Friends, who needs them?' Biaggi seems to say, as those close to him say he is nearly friendless, even outside of the paddock. Like many riders before him, Max needs to create enemies and situations where his talent and deeds are called into question to properly motivate himself. If Max feels that those around him on his own team, or competitors, or even the press, feel he can't accomplish something, then it must be proven to them that he can.
His name in rider circles will bring forth both respect and gales of sniggling laughter. "Friggin' pole-smoker," said one rider before bursting out in laughter when the subject of Max is brought up.
His rise to roadracing dominance is nothing that should prompt laughter. A ball and stick kid from Rome, Biaggi began club racing at the behest of friends. Within three years of his first race he was leading 250 Grand Prix races. He was teamed with Frankie Chili in 1992 on Aprilias and the two swept 250 racing. He was the first to really change the dynamics of 250 GP racing - before him it was balding, learned old men that did the winning - Wimmer, Mang, Lavado, Cardus, Cornu and of course the masterful Reinhold Roth. Kocinski opened the door for younger riders in modern world championship Grand Prix, and then Max took a deep breath and blew the entire house down. It almost seems now as if one day he was a quiet kid and over night became this phenomena. But I have long been of the opinion that standing atop a podium listening to two hundred thousand people chant your name changes a person forever. There's no going back to scrubbing your own floors.
At Aprilia, Loris Reggiani was Aprilia's wise old master, but it was clear Max was the future. Loris and Max were fundamentally different, right down to their creed: Max is a well known believer in superstition. He hates new leathers and helmets and is said to have a lucky back protector that Lloyd's of London has asked be updated, seeing if he misses a race due to injury he must be paid $100K (per race), but Biaggi refuses. Regianni never believed in haunted thoughts and brazenly raced with the competition number thirteen across the front of his bike. The Aprilia RS250's development since the early 1990s has only been centered around two riders: Reggiani and Biaggi. If you're lucky enough to stand next to an Aprilia 250 race bike, there are components on the machine that are the way they are simply because Max wanted them that way.
Seeing talent, Honda hired Biaggi for 92 and teamed him with Erv Kanemoto on NSR250s. But the rubber under the bike switched. Instead of his preferred Dunlops, Biaggi and Kanemoto (on Rothmans-sponsored bikes) used French Michelin tires. Biaggi stumbled all year and only won a single Grand Prix. Back with Aprilia the next season he began the run he currently enjoys. He's won three 250 Grand Prix world championships in three years all on the 20 to 1 compression ratio Aprilias. Last year, although he did have competition on the track, he was largely in competition with himself. And he liked it that way too, chastising Aprilia for giving other Aprilia riders anything near the same spec equipment he had on his machine. For 1997 he wanted a clause written into his Aprilia contract barring them from hiring any teammates. That was enough to end the party. After winning the championship he dumped Aprilia, or Aprilia finally grew tired of his egomaniacal actions, depending on which side you talk to, and they split.
He was a leading draft choice to join the 500 class in 1997 however that really wasn't his first choice. There are fresh arch-enemies in the 250 class and first they must be taught a lesson. The new ones would be Aprilia and their new rider Tetsuya Harada. First they must be beaten into submission by Max, proven wrong, before an assault on the 500 class began. Max will tell you that there are people out there, even at the Aprilia factory, who believe that the only reason Max had any success at all is because he rode Aprilias. These people must be shown the truth. Max's truth.
To do so Max hooked up with sage Kanemoto, then he convinced Phillip Morris to back his team with Marlboro money instead of the factory Aprilia team which PM, through their Chesterfield brand, had been sponsoring for several years. There is an unfamiliar air of money around the Kanemoto team in 1997, one missing for years. All team members have uniforms, the paint on Erv's transporter is new and still soft, and instead of peering into a tiny antiquated monitor on the team's aging computer, now a huge 21 inch monitor displays data acquisition information in large resolution.
With Kanemoto and HRC, Biaggi has entered back into the Erv versus HRC political quagmire. Yes, HRC want Biaggi and Kanemoto to be successful. They don't mind if he lightly steps on their toes, after all it's a Honda winning anyway. But they don't want Erv and Max to come at them with a baseball bat and smash their toes flat on the way to the podium. Thus the pre-season was a shell-game of who has what chassis between the HRC supported teams. The game had changed but it had stayed the same as well: everybody against Max. And that's okay with Max, too.
The teaming with Kanemoto brought with it worried thoughts from Kanemoto's friends and former riders. Kanemoto's nice-guy exterior is not a faŠade, he's probably the nicest, most sincere person in all of motorcycle racing. (Ever see Kenny Roberts weep when his bikes win?) Max has in the past displayed a habit of lashing out at his team if the results aren't where he expects them to be. Those hurtful words to Kanemoto would be like daggers. Thus far Max has been exhibiting incredible patience as the team struggles with front end problems and chassis woes. He seems to be smart enough to keep his mouth shut around Erv when he's unhappy.
Says one 250 sage, "I think of Max the way I think of the rock band U2.When they came on the scene, U2 was raw and wild and on the cutting edge. So was Max. Then as they became more popular or successful U2 became a little arrogant and full of themselves, pompous. So did Max."
For those of you keeping score, U2's latest album Pop was at twenty-ninth place and falling last week on the Billboard Top 100 album list.