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Travel Stories

Italian Cycling Culture

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Italian Cycling Culture by Sylva Florence

So, you’re planning a trip to Italy. A friend suggested riding bikes would be a good way to delve into the secrets of the Italian countryside… sample the wine, feel the warm Mediterranean sun on your skin. What could be better?

But you’ve seen the last James Bond. You remember the car chase scenes in Italy where James was flying through tiny streets, tires squealing, old ladies jumping out of the way. There were cars exploding! You swear you saw at least one innocent, American cyclist go down, and all the while the Italians were clutching their steering wheels, smoking their cigarettes with their feet on the gas and their odometers quivering at 140. Was that miles per hour? You shiver, just thinking about riding in Italy with all those “crazy Italian drivers!”

But let’s take a step back and let the car chase sounds fade into the distance. Maybe there’s more to cycling in Italy than meets the foreigner’s eye.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… bike path?

It’s true, most of the roads in Italy are the size of a comfortable, two-lane bike path in the United States. And two cars are supposed to fit on them – at least once in awhile. The thing is – they do. Unlike in the States, two cars, two bikes and a tractor can easily share the same slim road because Europeans have mastered the art of sharing. There’s really no other option on tiny farm roads that zigzag along property lines established in Roman times, or on narrow city streets where ancient stone buildings create blind corners and tiny causeways.

On this side of the Big Pond, it’s a matter of inches instead of feet – or centimeters, since Europe follows the metric system. In one fluid, well-practiced movement, both drivers daintily dip one tire into the well worn grass on the side of the road. Like choreographed dancers, they drift past each other effortlessly, without losing a single kilometer of speed.

So don’t lose that relaxed feeling you had before you realized the “bike path” you were riding on was a rural thoroughfare. Europe is packed full of people (as bikers quickly realize when cycling from one quaint village to the next doesn’t take hours, but minutes). So, the only way to get anywhere is for the European driver to become adept at sharing safely and adeptly.  Cars recognize, expect and anticipate other drivers, motorcyclists, tractors, scooters, walkers and cyclists. When they zoom around a group of clone-like, spandex-clad, helmetless Italians, European drivers know exactly how much room is between their mirrors and cyclists’ handlebars.

Mind your manners

Also, in Italy riders take over the roads in such numbers that drivers have become accustomed to sharing roads not only with cars, but with cyclists. Especially on weekends, it’s not uncommon to spot droves of cyclists crowding both sides of the road – or the entire road itself. Often, drivers will give a short, friendly “courtesy honk” as they approach from a distance, as if to say, “Hey guys, here I come! Would you like to get over now?” But true Italians ride two, three or four abreast and sometimes even the hum of a motor doesn’t scare them onto the peripheries.

In general, Italians aren’t likely to be found riding the white line. Italians don’t hug the shoulders like Americans do. First of all, there aren’t many shoulders to be ridden upon. Also, Italians – whether gripping a patent leather steering wheel or downturned road bar – know a little bit of aggressive behavior is expected. If there’s a car parked illegally, blocking half the road in a busy downtown intersection (which is common), they don’t wait for the cars behind them to pass before zooming out in the middle of the road. They just get out there – and all the cars take notice, slow down and move over.

Italians behind the wheel are often friendly and courteous — if a group of cyclists is climbing up a 10 percent grade (also common), cars allow a little extra room for the riders that are out of the saddle. Most will give as much room as they can while passing, and will actually look for bikers before pulling out across bike paths or out of driveways.

Riding and dialing

Not to say that foreigners spinning wheels on Italian soil shouldn’t take care – as everywhere, there are always good drivers and bad ones. Gratuitous mobile phone in Italy use can be a problem, both in the car and on the bike. Operators on two wheels should still make sure to watch cars, just in case the people in the cars are listening to their mother in laws, instead of paying attention to the road.

This summer, a new Italian law has gone into effect that bans riding bikes with cell phones.

“You can get a ticket,” said ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours co-owner Monica Price. “If they catch you, they can even impound your bike.”

But since when do Italians follow all the rules? Just as often as an espresso is pulled, there will be an Italian slamming it down in one swift movement, exiting the bar and hopping on a bike: one hand on the handlebar, one holding a mobile phone to the ear. Seeing an Italian zooming by yelling into their mobile phone – in the middle of the road, loaded with groceries – is still commonplace.

Cultural differences

Also commonplace: kids piled three high on bikes, flying through the cobbled streets; old men and women with hair like snow pedaling with approximately three times per minute and weaving into traffic; young men with pizza boxes balanced on their handlebars; teenagers with a grocery bag on each handlebar; middle-aged men with a small dog in their front basket and umbrella in one hand. In the United States, biking may only be a hobby or sport and bike commuting is often a statement or choice. But in Italy – as much of the rest of the world – bikes are often a primary means of transportation.

The bikes ridden here might elsewhere be considered garage sale fodder, but in Italy, they are serve a purpose. Bikes from several decades past are seen bobbing along on the cobbles. Each turn of the crank on these cruisers produces a scraping sound, one can only guess at the original color under two inches of rust and the tires haven’t been pumped up since Italy was unified in 1871. Train stations and supermarkets are littered with bikes. During the day, bikes fly across intersections loaded with everything from bottles of milk to bags of trash to small appliances. At night, people of every age drift home in the moonlight sans lights.

Like football in the United States and soccer just about anywhere, cycling as a sport is considered “cool” by everyone in Italy. The entire country rallies around the Giro d’Italia, painting roads and hanging banners ahead of the riders. Radio and TV coverage is non-stop and fans flock from every corner to cheer shirtless, in spandex or in costume.

The roads commonly are clogged with cyclists on mild spring and fall days and in the morning and evening throughout the summer. As mentioned before, on weekends the roads belong to cyclists. Many Italians own matching cycling outfits, complete with toe covers, caps, socks, knee warmers and gloves. Groups of men emerge in their full, matching suits on those freezing cold 50-degree spring days. Italians wear matching headbands and bandanas or just let their curly Italian locks fly free. Helmets are an afterthought, if they’re thought of at all – at the store, at the club or on a bike, it’s all about looking good.

Italians own expensive, spotless full carbon Colnago bikes with matching bar tape and bottle cages. Many of their prize steeds sit in the garage to be pulled out once a week or once a month for a victory lap.

A perfect example: Bea Tassinari, ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours Italian office manager , whose brother owns an expensive bike, but isn’t a hardcore cyclist. “He is always willing to buy the newest model but he only goes riding once a week in the summer,” said Bea.  “And he also has the perfect outfit that matches his bike.”

Like espresso, gelato and wine, the bike in Italy is here to stay. As such, it has become ingrained in the culture and in the way that Italians view bikers on the road. Yes, there are BMWs, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mazeratis and Audis galore. Yes, some of them drive like espresso-crazed madmen – but most of these antics take place in the far left lane of the Autostrada (the tolled freeway system in Italy that doesn’t allow bikes). Cyclists need only to understand the symbiotic relationship on all the other Italian roads. Just relax, enjoy the views – and leave all thoughts about crazy driving to the makers of the next James Bond.

Riding on the small roads of Emilia Romagna

Decorating the storefront when the Giro d'Italia comes by!

Preparing to see the Giro and decorating the road.

The commuters by train and bicycle outside the Faenza Train station

riding to the square for their morning get together