PEZ Turns 20: Italian Drivers Threaten Cyclists
It was right around this time in 2002 – yes 20 years ago – that I was ready to push the “GO” button on what would become PEZCyclingNews.com. Turning twenty is certainly a good reason to celebrate – so I asked the mighty PEZ Crew to look back to the very early days and pull out some of our best, and earliest work.
Over the years we’ve written and posted hundreds of thousands of words as we’ve documented and commented on our favorite sport, pass time, passion – whatever it is that cycling represents for each of us – and for many of you readers too. So stay tuned for more of these early stories a in the days ahead.
So to kick off the festivities – here’s one of the very first pieces I ever posted – the original post date was Feb. 20, 2002. The truth is that I wrote this in early 1997, when I was living in Italy and working for Vittoria Tires, as a letter to friends back home about my experience with daily life in a foreign land.
I’d built the website (it was called ProCyclingNews at the beginning), but had no content, so I pulled this out, added the part about Cyclists to the title, since I figured it should at least be somewhat topical – and voila – PEZ was born.
Our story begins –
For anyone visiting Italy and planning on doing any driving, there are a few things one should know about how this seemingly simple activity can change dramatically from one culture to another. It seems that traditional North American driving techniques are ineffective when battling the locals for a piece of asphalt, gravel path, or even sidewalk. The following tips should be useful for anyone who chances driving here.
1. The roads are small.
Tiny in fact. Even the big ones. Well okay, some of the roads may be big, but the space for your car is tiny. I’m convinced that most the roads around here are simply cart paths from the middle ages that have been paved over. They’re usually wide enough for one car and often two. However, the wider roads only encourage the Italians to squeeze in more cars than there are actual lanes for.
There’s lots of it, all the time. Except on Sunday morning when everyone is in church, presumably praying for forgiveness for their driving. You share the road with every type of vehicle with wheels, and many without. There are fast vehicles and slow vehicles but mostly fast, and although I have yet to be passed by anyone on a moped, I have not ruled this out.
Now this is bizarre. Never in my life have I seen fog this thick, let alone try to drive in it. Last night I drove in fog so thick that I could only see 20 ft in front of the car, which was a far as the lights shone. The periphery was just a huge cloud with no dimensions. I plodded slowly along, tightly gripping the wheel, listening for the sound of gravel under my wheels signalling I’d ventured off the pavement. Then, out of the mist roars a transport truck doing 120 kmh coming straight at me. I blink once and he’s gone. I wipe the cold sweat from my brow, and consider pulling over and throwing my shorts away.
I believe that Italians are born with a natural sense of etiquette for the road. Their love of exotic, stylish super cars and definite lack of road maintenance suggests they’re more concerned with looking good while driving than actually getting anywhere quickly. However, this does not prevent Italian drivers from putting the pedal to the metal. If I had any faith in the Italian mail system, I’d think the roads were clogged with an entire nation of FedEx couriers all trying to deliver packages on triple-hot rushes.
At any time, any place you are in a car, whether it’s moving or not, and regardless of how fast you’re going, you should expect to have, every 15- 20 seconds, someone riding your tail flipping the high beams and looking to get by. If you are driving slower than 80kmh, this will happen more frequently. Most of these drivers are unconcerned with the amount of traffic on the roads, oncoming vehicles, or road conditions. You simply have to get used to cars (of all shapes and sizes) zooming past in a cloud of dust and flying chickens, some wheels on the road, some off, horn a-blaring.
Now this is another adventure entirely. While there are signs that say parking (lots of ’em), I think these have been put up just to annoy us foreigners, because every spot in the country is taken. This is okay, however, as I have studied the locals and found their secret. When no parking is available, you simply stop your car and get out. Boom – you’re parked! This technique works especially well on sidewalks, boulevards, in people’s yards, and literally any place else you can fit your vehicle.
7. More Etiquette
Traffic lights, turning signals, and turning lanes are only here for decoration, and by no means should be considered seriously. They seem only to interfere with one’s travel. So, if you see a long line of cars waiting to make a left turn, for instance (and there are no shortage of these), you simply boot it up the right shoulder to the front, and nudge your way in. If there is at least one foot of space between two cars, you should consider it an invitation to have someone squeeze in. This technique only fails if you make eye contact with the other driver. If you act like no one else is there, you’ll be fine.
When we see a yellow traffic light in Canada, it usually means booting it to get through on the red. Over here, when the light turns yellow, you don’t boot it, cuz you’re already bootin it. Instead, the red just means you grab 5th gear and continue on your way. No problem.
8. When in doubt – boot it. This will get you through 99% of any situation on the Italian roads.
Now after all this is said, I gotta tell you that never have I had more fun driving than in Italy. In spite of all this crazy, and what we’d consider offensive, driving, I never saw road rage more serious than someone flippin’ the one finger salute. And of course you only see this if you make eye contact – which of course is a no no. So next time you’re beefing about lousy drivers at home, you’re right, cuz you could be going nuts here but loving every minute of it.