Friday, September 27, 2013

Tuscany 3

Tuscany 3

Scooter Culture

FIRENZE, Sept. 27, 2013 - Obviously there are tremendous connections between this lovely country and cycling. Bottechia. Binda. Campagnolo. Coppi. But zero in on Tuscany and you find an even prouder concentration of cycling heritage that dates back to 1473 when Leonardo da Vinci sketched out the first known design for a bicycle. And they boast of hosting the first ever road race in 1870, a contest from Florence to Pistoia, on some of the same roads used for this year's world championships. Gino Bartali. Fiorenzo Magni. Franco Ballerini. Mario Cippollini. Paolo Bettini. All Tuscan cycling legends.

 And there are amazing rural roads I've already discovered in my limited experience here. There is a weekend culture of cafe cycling, riding, sipping, riding more, sipping more. It's fantastic.

Back home, however, one would believe that Italy offers a mechanic on every corner offering to lube your chain in extra virgin olive oil, cars that clear away your path, and children cheering you on every climb.

Reality check.

Refreshingly, I can report that Italy has all sorts of cyclists, but in terms of cycling transit they are barely ahead of Cambridge, Mass., despite the presence 500 km of bike paths.   I see riders rolling the wrong way down streets on dilapidated bikes with under inflated tires. I discovered this after my own puncture downtown resulted in not one but three vagrant cyclists riding with broken spokes and loose axles and even looser racks approaching me, desperate for help. Using only pantomime and pointing for communication, I provided a 10-minute infirmary for these folks whose bikes offered a single  redeeming value: presta valves. And then they rolled off into the darkness, headed the wrong direction on one-way street with no lights.  

But in the urban environment of Firenze (which sounds a lot sexier than Florence, the name of my recently deceased aunt) there is nominal bike culture. I would say New York, San Francisco and even Boston has as much true "bike culture".

And even when I do encounter a cyclist aboard curvaceous carbon-fiber road bikes I realize America has not cornered the market on dorks. Guys here are just as bad with their knees out, their headphones in, their bibs on over their jerseys, and their seat way too low.

One looking for true bike culture would be better served making the pilgrimage to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Portland for the true Valhallas of bike culture.

But in Firenze we find scooter culture has taken root. And it's crazy.  They shoot the gaps at the lights, swerve from lane to lane, dive in and out of turns.

At every intersection they swarm at the front of the line, waiting for the red to go green. I don't mean one or two; try a dozen, revving, smoking, scooters at the intersection. And every green light is like a 12-wide start of a moto.

When my beloved Firefly finally arrived, I dove into the urban setting that night in search of one thing: scooters. The trick is to find a plump couple on one scooter, slowing their start.  Once up to speed, I could get on their draft and roll up to 60 kph.

And despite the noise, the danger, and the smoke, I see the value of scooters in the landscape. When gas hits $7 a gallon in 2016, we will see scooters in America before we see bicycles on a large scale. The good thing here is that Scooters have shattered  the car-only paradigm. They are the mosquitos of the road. Motorists have just learned to assimilate scooters into their mentality.

There is no yelling, no epithets, no horn honking in anger. No matter what the infraction, Italians all just swerve around and keep going. They don't take it or mean it personally, as American motorists so often do.

And with that, the scooters carve out a space - not so much on the roadway as much as the collective mentality - for bicycles.

Of course in all this craziness pedestrians are just screwed.

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