Under the Tuscan Gun

My climbing partner introduced me to a retired former cycling pro who stretches his pension checks by churning out custom bikes from dead-stock components and factory closeout frames.

The old guy’s workshop was in a basement garage, crowded with old men. Fat guys seated, rangy graybeards standing hands-in-pockets, clustered around a strong-looking, almost boyish geezer in a blue labcoat. The place buzzed, everyone blabbing full speed, full volume. The mechanic had a steel-frame Colnago strung up on Man Called Horse-style hooks, like a boar or deer carcass. He was getting the machine roadworthy for the Eroica Classic. Stricken by the scene, I momentarily lost the power of speech. The gears of my mind cranked backwards…to Junior High, where my brain seems to have gotten permanently stuck. 

Fat Bob, the school rich kid, got a racing bike for a birthday present. It was the first one I ever saw up-close. Had to wonder what a slob like Fat Bob was supposed to do with a weight-free metal-flake red De Rosa. Except maybe crush it. The machine was made of impossibly thin steel tubes. You could pick it up with two fingers, that was the litmus test for hot bikes. Couldn’t stop looking at the riveted, genuine-leather saddle, those dangerous drop bars and toe-clips. Nobody could. Crazy-ass to ride a racing bike in town, in traffic. But crummy 3-speeds and no-speeds that used to be so much fun never recovered.  

Flash-forward, back to the garage in Grassina. “What a beautiful bike,” I said. In other words, the sky is blue, the ocean vast.

The mechanic nodded. Maybe this Yank’s not a complete moron.

A Titanium-frame Cinelli mountain bike on another hook was the mechanic’s personal ride. The carbon-fiber racing frames on a rack were works in progress. Couldn’t help myself. Had to look, heft, fondle, practically sniff.

Giuliano’s underground bike lab was a convivial scene bathed in low-watt yellow glow. No smoke, no booze, no sex-blab. A world I wanted to get back into, even though I’d never really been there in the first place. Men gearing up for something necessary, dangerous, difficult --together. A war, or a 200 km bike race. 

He knew he had a customer solidly on the line. He sounded the depths of my pockets, took my phone number.

Silent months followed. I cranked the bike called Frankenstein up hills, hills and more hills, and forgot about racing bikes, drop bars, toe-clips. Frankenstein’s basic hideousness was proof against bike thieves, and I’d gotten to feel that the bike didn’t even matter. I just loved to ride. Winter was coming on strong when I got the call. The guy on the other end didn’t remember my name, or couldn’t pronounce it. He’d forgotten whom the number connected to. Anyway, he had something for me, if I wanted to come take a look. No obligation, of course. 

Rode across town on Frankenstein, at dusk. Grassina’s a border-town, a sort of Tijuana before the hardcore Chianti-country. Pleasant homey smell of smoke and leaf mould, farm atmosphere, hunched ancients in tweed zipper-slippers shuffling home from a proletarian aperitivo at the commie Casa del Popolo. Home for wine, spaghetti and open-mouthed denture-sliding TV nod-odysseys.

Giuliano was sweeping up. His ciclismo aficionado entourage had also straggled off for beans, grappa, TV zombification. He washed his hands.

“Oh, so that number was you.”

He opened a door at the back of the garage/lab into what looked like a live-in basement rigged for senior marital discord nights, pulled a bike into the light as if it were a shy fragile creature who didn’t really want to be seen.

My eyes popped. I felt like a booze-breathing gargoyle reluctantly suckered into an arranged marriage scam, but then the matchmaker crone reaches behind a fly-blown curtain and leads out Silvana Mangano. 

Seafoam green chrome-molybdenum Cinelli racing frame, a-glitter with Campagnolo components and deadly black-taped drop bars like praying mantis claws. Giuliano introduced her, in extremely ancient cycle parlance, as an iron bike. He pointed out the nearly invisible welds. Nobody ever got them finer.

“You like it? You want it?”

Never wanted anything non-human so much in my life.

But Giuliano wouldn’t take my shakily proffered pelf. ‘Ey, got to take her out on a maiden voyage, first. Make sure the bike suits your gross anatomy before you pay. Buy some bike shoes and padded shorts. And helmets are definitely a good idea. 

Took a test ride the next afternoon, on the Grassina hill, up to La Panca and over the Sugame Pass. 

“How was it?”

“Felt like flying.”

“That’s what I want to hear.” So he took the money.

Michael Jackson would’ve been happy to prance and shriek in my spanking new black-and-white patent leather Corvaros. The rest of my outfit, aside from battleship-gray padded suspender shorts was Slob-O Supremo. Most aspects of Italian life are a fashion show. I was a mutant in a torn sweater, wool army socks, camo gloves, fungoid German bike helmet, lounge lizard shades. But I was a happy mess. 

I rode my new dead-stock racing bike solo on days-off from riding dirt trails with Tarzan and the Warthogs. Had to get used to the road, a light frame, thin tires, toe cleats. Hills and more hills, longer, harder, further, a shade faster. Occasionally I saw Tarzan in full lycra tuxedo, blasting by on his white iron Scapin racer, the locomotive on a five- or six-man wind-train. I’d wave, he’d yell. They heard him in Bologna, across the Apennine range.

Tarzan has built-in biological bionic proxy-odometer. When he figured I’d put in sufficient solo kilometers on my Cinelli, he said, “Suck my wheel. Let’s go.”

Giuliano the Mechanic’s workshop isn’t entirely free of clutter, even discounting the warm-blooded two-legged kind. But it’s orderly clutter. No girlie posters. Instead, framed pictures of a large cycling group, year after year, uniform after garish small-corporate sponsor-logo-encrusted uniform. A few black and white pics from the Golden Age, including one of a startlingly handsome young man who’s just crossed a finish line gloriously alone. No expression of foolish evanescent triumph, no raised arms or open mouth. Instead, a quizzical expression. Can this really be the finish line already? Why do arrival and victory always seem premature, hollow?

 The face of a knight who’s slain a fearsome dragon, only to discover the monster was merely a custodian of the true quest’s secret. 

Above his work-table are framed mawkish poems about friendship, written by members of the hangout discussion team. Rainy days are lovely too because a man can cry with his head held high and no one has to see his tears. Tributes to a person of great integrity, with skilled hands and an open heart, with cycling metaphors thrown in. Clumsy home-made awards and tributes, diplomas from bicycle component factories. 

Giuliano opened his shop over 40 years ago, after an apprenticeship at Cicli Morozzi (where they also sold sewing machines, for some reason), a few blocks away. His partner died not long afterwards, and Giuliano has kept his widow on the payroll ever since. Loyalty extends beyond the grave, way beyond. Signora Maria doesn’t know much about bikes, or particularly care for cyclists or the layabouts who hang out in the workshop, but she can sweep floors and operate a cash register. 

Beautiful bike frames from past decades are suspended from a rack over the bathroom in the back like rigid heraldic flags in a cobwebbed castle hall, or skeletons in a Natural History museum. 

Tarzan, captain and newly elected President of the Oltrarno, treated himself to a new bike. A man who’s a partial partner in a tiny independent grocery store and the father of two little girls can’t pick up a shiny gadget lightly. The search for Tarzan’s presidential ride lasted months. Vasco, his faux-surly trusted mechanic finally came up with the right machine, a red-black, full-carbon Wilier Triestina, dripping with Campagnolo components and fettuccine-spoke wheels. Captain Tarzan was overjoyed, and supremely proud of this object. He’d fondled, considered, approved every piece, from handlebar bolts to saddle pin. But, in the spirit of menefreghismo, he acted like a hot new second-hand bike was no big deal.

Just me and Tarzan, on the machine’s maiden first-ride test run. He broke away from me almost ridiculously fast at Falciani, stayed way ahead for the whole uphill ride to San Casciano, waited for me to catch up towards the top. “This is just a whole ‘nother way to ride,” he crowed. He was puffed up as a turkey, but the inflation was from happiness, not pride.

Marco the Butcher has his shop on Via Romana, the same street as Tarzan’s grocery. He’d just gotten a new second-hand bike too, an aluminum Specialized, so when he said, “They stole the new bike,” I thought he was talking about his own. 

Soon turned out some filthy human cockroach had broken into Tarzan’s garage. 

Glimpse of a gleaming red-and-black racer in a darkened medieval-atmo utility cave as the metal shutter clanked down, when the owner’s back was turned. The gate didn’t go down all the way. The locking mechanism hadn’t fully clicked. Some skilled, able-bodied creep spots an easy opportunity, comes back when the coast is clear. An expensive bike, probably fenced for a quick sleazy hundred or two. The crime doesn’t exactly count as murder. Not exactly 100%. Maybe only for a day or two. Soul murder hurts, but eventually heals. 

Tarzan got back on his steel Scapin, a spent carcass with an ugly scar-weld just over the crank. He hadn’t been able to toss it away, even though it took up space in the crowded garage. He pedaled hard, but with diminished fury. He was crushed.

“Thieves lead shit lives,” I said. I’d been heisted too, recently. Could’ve bought two Ravens with the lost cash (illegal immigrants, even the white Yankee kind, can’t open bank accounts here), and 1970s Rolexes are expensive to replace, but I didn’t mention the home burglary beef.

“At least we got our health,” Tarzan said. “That’s the only thing that really matters.”

“Fuckin’ A.” 

Two slobs, unwilling skinhead and past-it hippy hairball, slow down, stop, slap Soul Brother handshakes, exchange a manly bear-hug and everything’s all right again. Nothing on Earth’s stronger than the gentlemanly brotherhood that brutal sport engenders.

That corny stirring dream-sequence scenario didn’t play out. Instead, the worst thing that could possibly happen, did.

We were headed towards Le Gore’s groaning precipice to dispel more of my downhill demons when a burly bearded Bozo clumbered towards us on a sparkling red-black Wilier Triestina, exactly identical to the booty from the heinous crime. Wiliers are an common sight on these roads, and apparently red/black’s an unusual color combo for the brand. A few hundred meters later, Tarzan pulled a sharp U-turn. I followed. But instead of a full-speed chase to stop and interrogate the guy, Tarzan broke off and turned around again, headed home. Seconds ticked away.

“What could we do about it, anyway?” he said.

He didn’t have the serial numbers. False accusation beefs are a serious matter in litigation-happy bureaucratic-nightmare Italy.

“Hey…nice bike. Where’d you get it from, you fuckin’ sneak? Oh yeah? Sez you. Sez you.”

Check out YouTube clips of cyclists in padded shorts and bike shoes getting into fistfights. Ludicrous.

In the meantime, the guy on the possibly hot red-black Wilier was gone. The road we were on has near-infinite possible turn-offs. 

“Man I really wish I hadn’t seen that,” Tarzan said. 

 We carried out grim errands to all the bike mechanics’ shops, to ask them to be on the alert for a certain make frame, wheels, group, etc. You have to phrase this part right, let them know that you know they don’t operate as fences for stolen bike parts. Everyone I talked to gave funeral-style condolences for a lost bike everyone knew would never be recovered. Trucks full of stolen bikes rumble nor’eastward across borders that no longer exist.

The local sense of humor runs bitter. Florentines seem rude loathsome creeps, until you get to know them better. Then you discover they’re even more cynical, malevolent and possessed by Schadenfreude than humanly or demonically possible. But this outlook on life turns out to be a deep gruesome joke, like everything else that’s wrong with the world. Vaunted Tuscan scenery’s only serene because generation after generation of troglodyte peasants cleared boulders and brambles with their handmade implements and rank sweat. 

That bike was too beautiful for a mug like you, anyway.

You’d’ve just wrecked the thing.

You can take away the Captain’s new bike, but he’s still the Captain. Even on his rusted clunker, he blasts past, any time I try to break away. Punish the outriders, establish dominance, but also encourage the lowly to attack, always attack.

The hills above ugly industrial suburb Compiobbi are my personal solo suffering domain. Steep and long, but shady, scenic and practically devoid of internal combustion engines. Good place to pick up talismanic feathers and porcupine quills. Near the top, on a foggy fall afternoon, I turned to head for the water-fountain at Monteloro and nearly crashed into a young rider just off my left shoulder. 


“Oops! Sorry!”

The guy rode quiet as an owl. No clue of him on the way up, and I flatter myself on permanent internal 360-degree awareness. I’d never seen the kid before. He rode a sky-blue Cannondale, and there was something so gorgeous and American about his bike that almost made me homesick. No helmet. No flashy bike clothes. Nice soft voice. Relaxed, smart pace. I was kind of surprised when I caught up with him again after I stopped to fill my water-bottles. 

We raced a bit. We were pretty evenly matched. Seemed like I was slightly stronger uphill, so it was fun exchanging the lead. No blab necessary. 

Mauled-muffler clangour popped this pedal paradise. A frustrated 1970s Alfa Romeo bombed into view, took a blind curve too wide, way too fast. The driver was blabbing on his cell-phone, probably giving his wife detailed instructions on how he wanted his spaghetti lunch cooked. If we’d been fifty meters ahead, he’d have creamed us both. The driver careened towards us one-handed, skidded back into his lane at the last tire-screeching second. Instead of flipping him off in the rearview mirror, I extended tranquil universal hand-jive for, “Slow down, dude. Hang up and watch the road. Life’s beautiful and there’s room and time for all of us.” 

“No use,” the quiet rider said. “Some people won’t slow down even if they kill somebody.”

Hit me what enormous violence is done to the world every time some starts up a car- or motorbike engine. 

Incredible arrogance is expressed in the life-philosophy “My hurry and my time are worth more than your life.” Easing off the gas to avoid injuring cyclists increasingly seems an intolerable aggravation, to some people. 

Lonely lovely winding hill roads increasingly feature homemade monuments, columns and engraved tombstones, with fake flowers and faded home photographs of healthy young people bumped out of the cycling life by rabid motorists. At this point in time, they outnumber anti-fascist Partisan summary execution-spot monuments. 

The silent cyclist let me get ahead on the last uphill stretch before the turn-off for Olmo, but he more than caught up on the sincerely nerve-shattering downside. He caught my eye as he slipped by, no helmet, serene. “See you around,” he said. 

But when I swung through the next turn, at 70 km/h, fast as I’ll ever go, he was gone. There was an unimpeded view of the road ahead. No turnoffs anywhere, but the guy on the sky-blue bike was gone. Nobody’s that fast, I thought. Not possible. 

Never saw him again. 


Matthew Licht

Matthew LichtMatthew Licht