Italy in general is not a place you go to escape people. In particular in Romagna on a Sunday on a bicycle. Normally Sundays are when people who don’t ride get on their bikes anyway because here the bike culture is stronger than the espresso. Marco Pantani, unforgettable in the world of professional cycling, was hatched nearby in Cesena and Romagna hosts the world’s second largest Gran Fondo, the Nove Colli of Cesenatico (second to the Cape Town Cycle Tour in South Africa). But everything has changed since the Coronavirus arrived.
This past Sunday I cycled through a comparatively quiet part of Romagna surrounded by places like Medicina, Modena and Rimini which are worse off in terms of Covid-19 statistics. We Faentini are fortunate because for a time we could still exercise outside, alone and away from other humans. Hence the model example of social distancing: a ride in which for two hours I saw no one and where I was the only cyclist on the road.
Thanks (I guess) to the Coronavirus, busy roads like the one to Modigliana were emptier than the toilet paper isles in American stores. Cyclists try to avoid this one as it’s hellish with cars roaring by nonstop in both directions. Hence I noticed on Sunday vineyards, orchards and farm houses I could never admire before because I had been fearing for my life.
The silence deepened as I pedaled on. The chattering hordes of cyclists had vanished along with motorcycles that flood the same roads on sunny days. Yards were empty of children chasing each other in circles and families devouring Sunday lunch. Sometimes I’d go fifteen minutes before I even saw a car pass and it struck me as I arrived in Modigliana that something historical was happening. Italians who park in the middle of the road and throw flashers on for show, smoke in front of “no smoking” signs and are i re e le regine (the kings and queens) of creative tax keeping were suddenly the picture of obedience.
I stopped to fill up water across from a bar that was usually brimming with vecchio bavoso (creepy but innocuous) old Romagnolo men. A police car parked just ahead of me on the road and I pulled out the signed affidavit we’re supposed to carry at all times stating our reason for leaving the house (work, health or necessity). The policeman barely glanced at me as he opened wide a nearby gate and drove his car inside. It wasn’t the first time I’d passed by unhindered because it was likely obvious enough what I was doing, dressed like a cyclist and straddling a bike.
Although I was doing nothing wrong at that point it still felt like cheating. I felt guilty for being outside and feeling the sun on my skin when other people suffered in the hospital. When other people were dying. Many of my friends felt pangs of guilt even leaving the house on foot because it’s hard to know what we should do and feel anymore.
I was wading through my thoughts on a scenic section between Modigliana and Tredozio when a white car slowed and its driver rolled his window down.
“You can’t go around on a bike!” he yelled. “You will get a fine. You should get a fine!”
Startled, I took a deep breath and said, “We can do physical activity alone.”
The man sped off on a huff and I focused on my cadence as the haunting silence returned. It was as if the entire world had stopped although birds chirped and flowers burst forth in colors I’d never properly ogled before. On the Adriatic coast, dolphins were returning after the ships departed and the Trevi fountains in Rome had been taken over by waterfowl. Devoid of boat traffic, swans were returning to Venice canals whose waters have become clear enough to see fish. In just about two weeks, nature has begun to reverse the effects of human life.
Suddenly, the white car was pulling back alongside me and I saw the driver’s red, angry face.
“You can’t ride your bike right now, go home!” Because he was Italian he was gesturing as he yelled and his car jerked towards me. “I’m going to tell the police and they’ll give you a big fine! I’m going there right now. You should stay at home!”
It went on for a few minutes while I looked ahead and tried not to panic. I was acutely aware he was the only person I’d seen on that road and I remembered hearing crazy stories of people in the supermarkets bickering over a piece of gorgonzola or the last hand sanitizer. And rumors of a Rimini man who panicked and attacked people around him after the Coronavirus landed in Italy. After just a week in quarantine people were losing their minds. And as of yesterday, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had extended the quarantine with no specified end date.
With screeching tires the man dropped back and pointed his car towards Modigliana. I thought about returning, too because I was a bit shaken up but I didn’t want another run in with that man. So, I quickened my cadence on the one road to Tredozio to reach the forest above where cars didn’t go generally speaking. For the remainder of the ride, my heart pounded like an angry fist on a door every time a car passed me.
By the time I’d climbed above Tredozio I relaxed a bit and it struck me that we’re all reacting to this situation differently. I was dealing with it by biking while that man was responding by yelling at me for doing it.
The air became quite cool at the top of Monte Busco where the climb leveled off at about 800 meters (2400 feet). Next to a whitewashed restaurant and hotel that was buttoned up like a fine dress shirt, I applied a jacket, long-fingered gloves and leg warmers for the descent. I could almost pretend everything was normal up there because the peace I found was the same as it always was.
Two minutes down the road I pulled off by the little volcano always burning beneath a mound of scorched rocks. I felt its heat on my legs as I ate my mortadella e scamorza affumicata wrap and gazed at the boundless expanse of the Apennines.
A cold breeze soon chased me back down a road that coiled like a snake and whose pavement was warped and buckled by the elements.
At the bottom I hung a left without bothering to check both ways because the roads were so quiet I could’ve heard someone drop a fork on their tile floor back in Faenza. I descended through hushed Portico di Romagna where I’ve nibbled many a top notch piadina after a long day on the river. I passed Casanova, Rocca San Casciano, Casone, Dovadola and Pieve Salutare, sleepy mountain towns that still seemed ominous because even the ubiquitous clink of caffé porcelain was missing.
Down from Rocca San Casciano I passed two guys running (over a meter apart from each other) in the middle of the highway. That’s something you do when things have changed so much that you are dead certain there are no cars to run you over.
Today my roommate was laughing at the cyclist tan lines I perfected on that ride but they’re going to fade now. Aside from extending the quarantine, the government has confined us all within 150 meters (492 feet) of our homes. How fortunate then that I saw the silent roads and heard the singing birds from the seat of my bike one last time for awhile now.