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.