Celebrating classic Italian bike heritage

cropped-epoca-header.jpgThis is the first of my Christmas holiday posts where I catch up on some of the missing subjects I promised myself I would write about at the time and never quite got round to. Some reflections, maybe a few thanks, but above all else the things I can catch up on when the rain is howling in horizontally across the countryside and it is time for another piece of cake.

Among this year’s new discoveries that I wanted to share were some of Europe’s communities of vintage racing bike enthusiasts. I had frequently marveled at the massive queues for what I could only characterised as a “load of old scrap” when I visited some of the popular bike rallies in the UK but the scale of the sector had passed me by.

However I do know that I always enjoyed seeing a restored classic and this year I have learned so much more about the community and culture behind the world of classic bikes.

GB, WeinmannFirstly I started a rather urgent mission to reduce the volume of cycling stuff I was going to relocate to Belgium. I knew I had a couple of nice classic bikes that needed a good home because I was never going to give them due respect. But I had no idea that when I delved into my old bits box I would be uncovering the items that power a whole community of collectors and restorers.

Crossed flad head badge Freddie Grubb FixieSecondly I began the long drawn out process of restoring my own period classic.  I conceived the project over a year ago on my 50th birthday because the bike itself is of a similar vintage and frankly at fifty there are not so many toys you can buy a bloke. But it was only this year that I got the frame refurbed and started to think properly about the parts.

In both cases I have been hugely impressed by the community over on www.retrobike.co.uk , there just doesn’t seem to be anything that they don’t know about bike bits. And the ability to identify a part or a bike from just a single photo or a clumsy description is only matched by their ability to conjure up just the missing part from a secret store, often in mint condition.

I had carried a bit of a prejudice that this was a mainly British community of eccentrics with some similar enthusiasts in North America. The tribe runs on a diet of old English handmade frames and the period components that go with them.  However it hasn’t taken long in my travels this year to discover that there is an alternative theme that runs across Europe, one that runs on pure Italian vintage, with Colnago and Bianchi at its head. Just goes to show how little I really know about anything when I make assumptions about national character.

First I found the amazing Bikelager in Vienna – café, galley and homage to the finest Italian frames and bikes which I mentioned in one of my Vienna posts in May.  I am looking forward to paying them another visit next year for one of the coolest coffees in town.

Bikelager Wien

Then I in September my newest discovery was Bici D’Epoca, (“Bikes of the ages”) the period bike exhibition at the Padua Cycle Show. As with everything Italian and cycling from this period the twin gods of Coppi and Bartali looked down on everything. I guess it is a form of insurance for the company that they have to give equal billing to both.

It was a feast of Campagnolo, Bianchi, clothing and parts stretching over more than 50 years. Coppi’s 1954 World Championship winning bike as star, but I enjoyed just as much bikes with local histories such as the tandem from the local Padova club which was used to win an Italian national championship, complete with black and white photos of its riders. Coppi's 1954 Bianchi

Vintage Cinelli TandemSo despite being surrounded by some of the most exciting modern bikes on the planet I kept sneaking back to their stall at the Padua fair to soak up some of the legends.

Bici D'Epoca Bici D'Epoca Classic Italian Cycling Tops

The spiritual home of this stuff and one of the drivers of the rediscovery of the era has become the classic ride L’Eroica (“the heroic one”)  which has spawned a whole generation of spinoff rides including a Giro d’Italia d’Epoca. These rides only allow riders to compete on classic bikes with period clothing to preserve the classic images of the sport. L’Eroica itself was created to draw attention to the paving over of the legendary white dirt roads of Tuscany. It can be credited with the decision by the organisers of the Giro D’Italia to take one of the monuments of cycling over little known dirt tracks, days which have changed the destiny of the race. And a professional version of the L’Eroica in the spring is fast becoming a classic. Together they have rehabilitated both the strada bianchi and the classic bikes of Italy.

I almost imagined I had a small part in the original Eroica this year because one of the participants was credited in the event reports with wearing “some natty punched leather Gianni Motta shoes”,   the ones I had sold him just a few weeks before just for the occasion. Now I know that this is a proper missing link in my cycling CV, one for the bucket list to be sure.

So when I could be putting up more blog posts, riding my bike or restoring my own bike I seem to be able click around for ages www.bicidepoca.com for their events, parts, accessories, clothing, historical articles and some great photos of the bikes including the story about that Coppi championship winning bike. And if not I will be sneaking my regular look at www.retrobike.co.uk to see if anyone really does need some of my old tat, for say the price of a cup of coffee?

Padua is a great place to be a cyclist – and with added Cycle Chic

Padua cycle rideAlthough it is much less well known than some of its more famous neighbours Venice and Verona I think Padua is a great place to ride a bike and should make a good stopping point for any passing cycle tourists or advocates interested in seeing a fully traffic calmed city in Italy. (Thinks out loud “Padua for my English readers or Padova out of respect for its proper name? No idea – use a bit of both.”)

Last week in Verona I was lucky enough to be guided and helped by the cycle tours organised by local volunteers but here in Padua the local FIAB volunteers were flat out proving cycling fun for children visiting the Padova Expobici cycling show so I was a bit more on my own.

However they did provide the equipment, a mountain bike that was a reasonable steed for the cobbled streets throughout the city centre. Unfortunately when I first collected it from the hotel baggage room it had a flat which did lead to one of the most entertaining misunderstandings of my ventures into Italian.

My hosts asked me to bring the bike to the children’s try out area at the show where the volunteers had said they would stick in a new tube. So of course along I pop pushing the bike and wander up to the desk. Unfortunately the chap on the desk was the one person not in the know and he was convinced I was a 50 year old juvenile who wanted to play on the kids track! I was sent off to play with the big kids despite all my attempted explanations.  It was all resolved with considerable amusement a bit later by the rest of FIAB Padova.

Arch in PadovaAnyway back to my trips into the city.

The photos here come from two excursions into the town which I fitted around my work at the Expobici. On Saturday morning when the flat tyre was discovered I walked the city which led to my early discovery of the great contrast with Verona that I blogged about last week.

I keep mentioning in my posts how much  I like mornings, there is something quite different about a city waking up, especially when the dominant noise is the rattling of bicycles and the shouts of the market traders , not to mention the fact that you can actually smell pastries and coffee everywhere.Padua cobbles

On Saturday evening I also had a ride into town but unfortunately no time for photos as I was off to dinner with my hosts. This gave me a ride through the city from north to south and a great chance to zig zag around the narrow alleys and short cuts. However I was stopped in my tracks when I emerged into Piazza Prato della Valle. It is the most enormous open square that I have ever seen in a city of this size. I was immediately reminded of Plaza de Espana in Seville but this seemed even bigger.

This gave me the itinerary for my Sunday morning ride because I really wanted to see the Piazza in daylight, even if the morning was a bit gloomy. But this time because I had a bike I was able to take a slightly longer route and I decided to circle around the branch of a river which serves as a historic moat around the inner city. Riding along waterways you often see bits of architecture and heritage that survive from different eras and the water itself can be great. Turned out that Padova was no exception, the western branch of the river took me along quiet streets with some gorgeous old bridges, buildings and perspectives on the city.Padua cycle ride by river

padua architecturePadua housesPaduapadua by bikeWith time running out I swung back towards the centre of the city along the ample cycle lanes and came to Piazza Prato della Valle again. The translation is “Meadow of the Valley” so I can only imagine that at one time this was a vast open space leading to the river. Today it is a formal square with a ring of water features, statutes and seats in the middle and a vast open expanse of walking and cycling space. At one end Abbazia di Santa Giustina is a huge church and abbey but even it seems lost in the corner of the open space.Padua

The cyclists mooching through the square just showed the scale, they looked tiny and even a club group of 20 road riders turned out in immaculately matching club colours could not make it look busy.Cycling Club group Padua

A check on Wikipedia after returning tells me this is indeed the largest square in Italy, some claim when you consider something like St Peter’s in Rome.

Great place to ride a bike. And on a human level some final thoughts. When Venice was a city state Padua was its university town, a tradition it keeps up today. So the first thing I noticed about the cyclists and pedestrians was the large numbers of young people, something cycling shares with other great university centres, surely something we must keep building on throughout the world. Padua

And also in keeping with the great cycling centres of Amsterdam and Copenhagen I am sure that a significant majority of the cyclists I saw were women. Padua

PaduaAs advocates we are always told that when you make your cycling cities female friendly you are on the right path, Padua cycling culture must be a great example because it is young, female and wearing ordinary clothes.. The Cycle Chic movement writ large, excellent.

Now if only the cycling shows could understand that ….. But that is another story.

A tale of two Italian cities – removing the tyranny of the car transforms the visitor experience

Padova cyclingI am currently processing a whole sequence of photos and stories about my visits to the two Italian cities of Verona and Padua (Padova).

But here is an opening thought. They are only 50km apart, they share many aspects in common in terms of size, culture, antiquity. But in just one aspect of policy one has been returned to us as a liveable, likeable vibrant city. The other is being strangled to death by laissez faire.

Verona is still gripped by the absolute tyranny of the car. There has been almost no attempt to restrict the disfigurement of the city by congestion, parking, noise and fumes. The restricted area in the city centre for motorised traffic is tiny and any priority given to alternatives is minimal. There are almost no cycling and bus lanes. All but one main square has full access to cars all day.

But of course in true “I do not despair” spirit this doesn’t stop me finding cycling in and around the city being an uplifting feeling, not least because it is a beautiful place, but by far my best moments were quite roads and corners, where I could find them.

A week later Padua. Nowhere near as celebrated as Verona internationally and with much fewer tourists.

Yesterday morning I wandered into the city early on foot and last night I was able to shoot around the streets on a borrowed bike from my local hosts.

Immediately outside the hotel I came across the first of 150km of cycle paths. And then once I had slipped past the boundary of the old city walls I was almost immediately into the extensive pedestrianized centre. It isn’t entirely car free, there are designated through routes and access is allowed to some areas. But at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning the contrast is just incredible.Padova market

The streets were not silent – oh no. But the sounds were precious. Firstly people talking – as they walked and cycled and opened the many market stalls. But best of all the almost permanent sound of rattling metal – bicycles on cobbles – the endless array of cheap town bikes that dominate the Italian domestic cycling market bouncing their way around the streets.

It reminded very much of my trip to Bologna in May, again not such a celebrity city as Verona but one where civic pride manifests itself in giving the streets to its people and its visitors. As an international advocate for cycling and sustainability the most important lesson I keep being given is that we spend a lot of time addressing national and even international policies that affect cycling. But within the same country, the same funding climate, the same road laws, the same culture local political will is the determining factor in whether a city wants to be liveable or not.

I will be posting a few more highlights from my visits in the next week or so, but I’ll complete this post with two photographs.

Both are cathedral squares. Which one would you like to spend time in?