PEZ Top Ride: With Old Italian Guys
If you’ve ever been Italy, you can’t help but notice all of these old guys on racing bikes, usually vintage steel ones. These men have great style, seamlessly fitting into our preconceived notions of Italianess. How is this? PEZ investigates this phenomenon on the daily Resia Group Ride that’s been taking place since 1955.
That’s right. Since 1955 every day of the week, all year round (except for some particularly nasty winter days), guys have been meeting at the Resia Bridge in Bolzano, Italy to ride together. Some days there will be as few as 10 or 20 participants and some days have up to 60. The average age is probably 65 and 95% of the participants are retired. I’ve seen these old guys riding around and have always wanted to join in, but never got around to it. Yesterday, I did. Punctually showing up at 8:30am.
X marks the spot where the Resia Ride meets everyday.
Some geography first: Bolzano is located in the northern part of Italy in the region of South Tirol, an hour south of Innsbruck, Austria and an hour and a half north of Verona. Surrounded by the Dolomite mountains, the city is situated in a valley which forks to the northeast and northwest. Think of the topography like the letter “Y” where Bolzano is the central point, the top left serif is Merano, to the right is Bressanone and the bottom represents Trento. And everything outside of the Y-shaped valley is mountains. Got it?
X is Bolzano, Y is Merano and Z is south to Trento.
The Resia Group ride consists of two courses: either the boys head for Merano (northwest) or south to Salurno. Both options are 60 – 70km in total length, are relatively flat and have well maintained bike paths and little used farming access roads that are perfect for cyclists. The boys never ride to Bressanone (northeast), I’d imagine because the route climbs steadily in the 3% range with a few steeper ramps for 80km. And that’s too much.
Some of the boys, ready to ride.
The Resia Group ride is open to anyone, just be in the right place at the right time and off you go. I first believed that it was a club ride because many of the riders are part of the Fiandre Cycling Team, but learned that there are other teams too, like Ruote d’Oro. Today there are only 14 of us. Weekends always have less riders because many are with their children and grandchildren. Also, riders tend to go on their own excursions having had enough of the two options during the week. Lastly, the Giro delle Dolomiti [note: a five stage gran fondo thing] is taking place now and many riders participate or help with the organization.
The ride begins, through the valley to Merano.
So today’s group is a bit thin, but it actually gives me greater access to the guys that are here. And my presence garners more attention. It doesn’t take more than a second for Heinz to approach me explaining today’s route. It’s the Merano one. The seventy year old says, “I’ve been doing the Resia ride since 1974, every day, except when it rains or snows. I used to race as an amateur and then raced at the Senior level, but a heart attack 6 years ago has slowed me down. There are 500,000 kilometers in these legs.”
We roll out into a clear July morning that promises to be a hot one. The air is still cool but warming up fast. The Resia Bridge is on the outskirts of Bolzano, following the bike path, it takes only a few moments to free ourselves from the city. Already mini groupings have formed, where guys are talking easy about their families, sports and medical conditions. I’m eavesdropping, hanging out in the middle of the pack. The pace is slow but everyone is expertly holding their line with correct spacing. Heinz sees that I’m alone and comes up next to me. Finding out I’m from Texas always garners the usual “oh like Armstrong” comment. Yep.
Heinz’s Italian is perfect and his dialect (German) is also flawless. I’m guessing that either he must have been one of the early school kids to be Italianized or his mother was Italian. He has some interesting racing stories. After his amateur days, he became a promoter/manager for professionals. Race organizers in Austria or Germany or wherever would ask him to negotiate and sign up stars like Baronchelli or Saronni and their teams and escort them to their races. Heinz looks at my bike and says, “that guy that made your bike’s from Trento, he was a pretty good sprinter when he was a kid, a big, strong one, I followed him back then [note: he’s referring to Dario Pegoretti in the early 70’s].”
Heinz has a pretty cool bike, too: Guerini’s Team Polti Coppi (made by Ciocc), built up as a single speed.
The Big Question
We reach the turn off for Appiano and lose four guys from the group that are going their own way. The bike paths are usually full on the weekends, but not this early, only dedicated cyclists are out. As others pass us or go by in the opposite direction, they get saluted. My Big Question is: why are there so many old Italian guys on racing bikes? Heinz’s take, “hey yeah, that’s right, there are lots, the only young guys that ride are all racers on clubs.”
A designated bike path takes you to Merano with ease.
Ok, he needs some more direction so I offer this theory, “Italians growing up after the war in a poor and destroyed country all relied on bicycles for transportation. Everyone rode. And that’s why heroes like Coppi and Bartali became even greater heroes. Not only did they win, but everyone could closely relate to their super human efforts on a bike. That’s why cycling has a greater significance for your generation than later ones.” Heinz’s answer, “yeah, maybe so.” Me again, “do you think that the Resia Ride, that’s been going on for over 60 years, will survive with the next generation?” Him, “probably not.”
I ride up to the front to chat with a man that’s been pulling the whole time. While most of the guys have steel or aluminum bikes, he’s got a carbon fiber one. I don’t catch his name but we somehow have picked up the pace to 28km/h in a light headwind. We pass Terlano and then Vilpiano. Then we realize that we’ve ridden the other guys off our wheels. He says, “welcome to the Resia ride, a 25km/h affair, especially with the faster guys participating in other rides.” Now I’ve lived here long enough to know that these guys do not set the bike paths on fire, even with the faster guys. However, there are plenty of old guys that will drop you like a bad habit in these parts, but they don’t ride the Resia. We wait for the others, then I sit on the front for the next 10km. It’s easy to be generous when the going is this slow.
We cross the bridge at Lana to turn back home.
We get to Lana and turn back towards home, but some of the boys want to stop for wine. This breaks our group in half. Of course, I decide to stop with the wine guys (wouldn’t be a good PezStory without it).
The outskirts of Lana, there’s a great pastry shop across from the church, but the boys want something savory.
We get off the bike path and head back towards Bolzano through farming roads that wind through apple orchards, stopping at a little snack bar/patio place. Joined by Heinz, the other guys left in our group are Luis (also called Gigi), Koffler and Aldo. There are two types of Old Italian Guys on Racing Bikes: the first are like Heinz and also Koffler, they were racers and never gave up the sport. The other type is like Aldo or Luis, they retired at 50, needed an activity and found cycling. They’ve both been doing it for over 20 years now.
Riding through the back roads, through the region’s famed apple orchards – the netting covering the trees is for hail protection.
Now I have to add a corollary to my Theory of Why So Many Old Italians Ride: no one can retire at 50 nowadays, those days are over. And while I am all for bringing Italy into this century, holding it or other cultures to Germanic standards of labor or fiscal sensibility has certain perils. The more you make others bend to behave like you, the less they will act like themselves (obviously) which risks the loss of their identity, their primary source of creativity. Italians are made to enjoy life in a way that many cultures aren’t, it is a fundamental part of the society, it is imbued in their products and services and it’s at risk. In bike terms: this bending or homogenization leads me to fear that Pinarellos (despite being made in China as one of the first effects of globalization) will start to resemble Canyons which resemble Cervelos and so on. Ok, that’s enough.
Aldo took up cycling after retiring almost 20 years ago.
After a glass or two of wine and some stale potato chips, we’re back on the road. Luis’ Italian is laced with southern tones (spicier, elongated words) and southern volume (loud). He’s obviously not from South Tyrol, he’s from a small town near Caserta. He joined the Police force and was transferred a long time ago, saying, “I’ve been trying to leave for awhile now, but can’t seem to make it. Got kids and grandkids here.”
Mid-ride wine break.
Then Luis quiets a bit before explaining that his 46 year old son was recently killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a wife and two kids. Better keep to cycling talk. In fact, that’s why Luis is out here. Cycling and cycling with buddies has a healing power, also providing the reassuring certainty of a routine. And the Resia Ride is all routine – which Luis did six days a week and racked up 13,800 kilometers two years ago. This year about half that.
Luis or Gigi.
That light headwind heading out has now turned into a light tailwind coming home. I’m back on the front and up the tempo. I keep looking back to make sure that Koffler and the rest are still there. And they are still there as we inch up to 29 km/h. The boys are flying, maybe it’s the wine. Or maybe they are looking forward to the Studio Tappa, we’re getting close to 11am.
What’s Studio Tappa? Heinz explains, “you know how after each Giro stage they talk about it on the TV, analyze it and such? That’s a Studio Tappa and we do the same at our Circolo. So do you want to come?” Sure, how could I not. A Circolo is a private club/bar, they can be political or social. Often cards or other games are played for serious money. Technically, these places should be reserved for registered members, but no one really cares. The real deal is that they are substantially cheaper than normal bars because they fall under lower taxation rates.
Club Rodigino for the Studio Tappa.
We arrive at Club Rodigino and commandeer the lone table placed outside. The boys know everyone here. They gossip. They introduce me to their buddies and order more wine. The waitress also brings some crostini. The Gazzetta, that pink sports newspaper, is passed around and everyone offers their opinions on the calcio mercato (summer soccer transfers) and the upcoming Olympics. The Resia Ride, the club, home for lunch and an afternoon nap is on everyone’s daily program, but not mine. It’s time to go before they get me drunk. As I leave, the guys thank me coming along and insist that I ride more often with them. Then one of their club friends says, “he’s too young to be hanging out with you geezers.” But he’s wrong, I’m already planning on doing the Salurno route sometime soon.
I’d like to thank Heinz and the other Resia riders for their hospitality and recommend this to anyone that finds themselves in Bolzano, needing an enjoyable recovery ride. Cheers!