Cycling in Italy.
That simple sentence arouses images that only appear in daydreams and honeymoon brochures. Riding past vineyards in the Tuscan countryside. Cruising in the shadow of snow-capped mountains in the Dolomites. Pedaling along the sand of an endless beach in Puglia. I went cycling in Italy the other day.
This was not one of those trips.
Picture cycling over pockmarked and broken sidewalks, speeding past gypsy camps, waiting 10 minutes to cross a two-lane road. No matter the country, there is nothing romantic about used appliance stores. I saw a lot more of them than I did mountains or water. I did see some sand. Maybe that was dirt. I don’t know. I just know my first bike ride in Italy was an unmitigated disaster.
I meant well. The Tiber River is right below my penthouse balcony and it features a nice wide bike path. When I’m outside drinking my cappuccino or glass of wine, I can look down and see joggers and bikers plying along the river. The Tiber River is as ugly as Medusa after a three-day binge and a car fire. However, it goes all the way to the Tyrrhenian Sea 15 miles away and I was told I could ride the bike path all the way to the ocean.
As temperatures start to climb in Rome, I wanted to try it before bike seats here start bursting into flames. I walked to the nearby neighborhood of Ostiense, between the train station for the beaches and Eataly, Rome’s new gastro shopping and scarfing mall. The tourists don’t see Ostiense’s tiny caffes, quaint fruit stands or the small bike shop with one woman working behind a desk. She was a friendly American who’s lived here 30 years. She outfitted me with a simple six-speed bike and gave me directions to reach the bike path.
The only other advice she gave me was more of a warning.
“Rome still isn’t set up for bike riding,” she said.
I often see tourists maneuvering precariously over the cobblestones in Centro Storico, dodging other tourists, rushing Romans and slippery lettuce left over from morning markets. Bike paths on Rome streets would be like death row. The sidewalks barely have enough room for pedestrians, let alone cyclists. Add 4.2 million tourists a year and there’s not a whole lot of room for 6-speed bikes.
Boulder this is not.
Getting to the bike path was even a challenge. I fought traffic down the main drag, hugged the girder of a narrow bridge as motorists sped past me and then waited at a roundabout forever just for an opening big enough to pedal through. When I reached the connection between the road and the river, I noticed the path wasn’t even a path. It had undulating steps.
Once along the river, I experienced slight euphoria of an open road along a body of water. I ignored the fact that the Tiber is only slightly less filthy than the Ganges and let my bike’s velocity produce a cool breeze as soothing as a wet washcloth.
My euphoria lasted all of about one kilometer.
That’s all it took before the bike path diverted toward the street above as both banks of the Tiber were suddenly dominated by brush and rocks. Not even on Rome’s periphery, I had hit a dead end. The Tiber is not only gross. It’s unaccommodating. It’s like the city planners are telling joggers and bikers, “Look, if you think this river is a petri dish so far, you should see what lies ahead. Go back.”
I didn’t. I went up to the sidewalk of a busy street and started pedaling again toward the sea. I figured I’d soon come across another path with an arrow pointing down reading, “TIBER RIVER.” What was I thinking? This was Stage 2 of the Tour de France?
I went past scruffy retail stores, used car lots and unappetizing cafes. I kept looking to my left hoping to see some signs of water but for about five kilometers I saw nothing but Rome’s bad breath and 5 o’clock shadow tourists never see.
Gypsies in outfits obviously torn from the interior of 1967 Volkswagen buses roamed the streets, carrying plastic bags and babies with almost as little life. If I asked them for directions I’d lose my wallet before I reached my first conjugated verb. The only other options were other immigrants who not only didn’t speak English, they didn’t speak Italian.
I finally found an elderly cyclist in unfortunate Lycra who told me to go back and look for a narrow road to my right. I pulled an about face but his directions were so vague he might have meant to negotiate someone’s backyard or a gypsy camp.
From them on, I saw nothing but cars and busy streets. When I finally made it back to the bike shop, I’d been gone only 90 minutes. I was calm.
“I couldn’t find the river,” I said, hoping the clerk caught my sarcasm.
(No, the Nile.) “Yes, the Tiber,” I told her. “The bike path stops. I had to go up to the street and never found the river again.”
Guess what she said. The clerk in the bike rental shop less than a kilometer from the Tiber River said to me, “I don’t know how you’d get to the sea along the Tiber.”
Huh? What do you mean you don’t know? No one has ever asked? She showed me a map that had a vague thick red line showing the bike path but it gave no indication if it was along the river or the nearest road. The bike rental clerk looked almost as curious as I did.
It’s one thing for a city not to have bike paths. It’s another city to have bike rental clerks who don’t know where to ride the bikes.
I slumped back to my apartment and stood on my terrace, staring down at a river that defeated me. A few days later, a friend in Ostia, the main beach town where I intended to ride, told me it’s impossible to bike from Rome to the sea along the Tiber. You can only take that route by boat.
That’s not the same. Then again, neither is cycling in Rome.