Specifications

Engine: 1,064cc, 4-stroke, air cooled, 90-degree V-twin

Maximum power: 54kW at 6400rpm

Maximum torque: 94Nm at 5000rpm

Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, shaft final drive

Brakes: Linked braking system with dual Brembo Serie Oro 320mm stainless-steel floating discs with four-pot opposed piston callipers at front, Brembo stainless-steel 282mm floating disc with two-piston floating calliper at rear

Seat height: 780mm

Dry weight: 251kg

Fuel capacity: 19 litres

I feel a beard grow, my belly protrude. My helmet visor metamorphoses into Ray-Ban wraparounds. I'm prowling the main street in Italy's Mandello del Lario, conscious that my perennial urge to devour the turns and twists of all the world's roads in a frantic flurry of revs, reaction and rubber has vanished.

I feel so laid back I'd light a cigarette (except it'd make me cough - not cool). Bemused at my strange new outlook, I admire the scenery. I can do this because it's in focus, not passing me by in a blur of speed. This must be what they call "cruising".

One week earlier, Moto Guzzi invited me to test its stable of new bikes at its historic Mandello factory, in celebration of the Italian manufacturer's 85th anniversary year. It was my chance for a first ride on its revamped California, which has been probably the most important model of the past 25 years for Guzzi, as it kept the factory alive.

The California and I share the same birth year, 1971. In those days, Moto Guzzi had two strings to its bow. On one hand, it made high-performance motorcycles such as the V7 Sport, which became the classic 850 Le Mans. On the other, it made Gran Turismo bikes - a class of big tourers it invented in the 1920s - from which the California evolved.

Part cruiser, part tourer, the California went down a storm with the custom-mad Americans. The Italian style and then-advanced Guzzi technology was a breath of fresh air in a Harley-Davidson dominated market. They loved it.

Even the American police force adopted it in its droves, although sadly John and Ponch rode Kawasakis rather than Guzzis in the TV series CHiPS.

The Guzzi California's cross-pond success was such that the bike became the mainstay of Guzzi production throughout the 1970's and 1980's, and it was a consistent seller in Europe and elsewhere.

The California started out with a capacity of 757cc, moving on to 850cc then 1000cc before settling for the 1100cc that it has today. It has always used Moto Guzzi's traditional 90-degree V-twin configuration, with a string of trickery including electronic fuel-injection and linked brakes modernising later models.

New engine

Not only did the bike stop properly, it also handled well compared with the American offerings. However, the new California is the first for a while to use a new engine - a revised unit taken from the Breva 1100, itself new only a year ago.

But it's still unmistakably a Guzzi California. The route gets twisty and climbs uphill away from the town centre. I'm a little wary as I prepare to attack the first steep hairpin with this beast between my legs. But the California laughs it off, gliding round the bend with barely any effort on the bars. Even the suspension feels good as it soaks up surface irregularities.

I don't need to use the heel-toe gearshift that often to keep the California's tractor-like engine chugging between corners. But when I do, I short-shift early in the rev range to make the most of the torque.

The gearbox feels clonky, especially after riding the slicker Nevada, the entry-level cruiser in the Guzzi range. When I point this out to my companions, they tell me it's intentional.

California experience

The notchiness of the old Guzzi gearboxes has become part of the California experience. Now, Moto Guzzi enthusiasts (the "Guzzisti") both like and expect a good "clok" to confirm a ratio change.

However, the strength of the California package is the engine. The new motor pulls strongly and smoothly from zero revs - get that throttle wide open and the whole wind-in-the-hair business takes on gale-force velocity (OK, if you weren't wearing a helmet) as the engine propels the bike manfully forward, leaving the pitiful trapped in their tin cans in its wake.

Having said that, it's not so much helmet as windshield that deflects the windblast, a job it performs with excellence. Unlike Harleys, the California is well suited to 150km/h motorway jaunts.

Indeed, Cali's have built a solid reputation for performing well over long distances. Yet there is something very odd with this newest version.

As taller road testers clamber aboard, their knees come up so high that they interfere with the handlebars, which proves tricky for handling and is uncomfortable. Knees jutting against the cylinder heads have been an issue on past Guzzis, but on this bike it's a clash with the bars that is troublesome.

Lower riding position

The problem is the lower riding position, which could make long distances hell for tall riders. My own legs suit the ergonomics but surely this bike is built for big, burly males, not a midget like me?

That theory is blown out of the water, first by my straining back muscles as I struggle to lift the far-leaning, heavy bike off its side-stand, then as I stretch my left leg almost out of its socket to just about reach the forward-positioned sidestand, which the very tip of my big toe flicks up with great effort.

Still, the bike looks the part.

Moto Guzzi has three California versions. The Touring is the best for long journeys, with its fairing, 45-litre top-box co-ordinated with panniers, and heatable grips.

The Vintage gets details such as fog lights that hark back to Guzzi's US police-bike days, and the Classic is styled with extra chrome. Oh, and the Vintage is the one with the low seat, so if you're tall, go for one of the others.

I'm off to trim that beard.. - The Independent, London