Cycling Through: A Coronavirus Story

Vulcano_Tredozio_Emilia_Romagna
Il vulcano

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.

Faenza_Coronavirus_Vuota
Faenza, Italy.

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.

Modigliana_Emilia_Romagna

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.

Castle_Modigliana_Emilia_Romagna
Modigliana, Italy

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.

Italy_Empty_Streets_Coronavirus
Tredozio, Italy

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.

Monte_Busca_Italy
Monte Busco, Italy

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.

Monte_Busco_Cycling_Italy
Monte Busco, Italy

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.

This_Must_Be_The_Place_Italy
Il vulcano

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.

Cycle_Italy_Emilia_Romagna

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.

Emilia_Romagna_Mia

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.

Andrà_Tutto_Bene
Everything’s going to turn out all right. Together we will do it.

21 Replies to “Cycling Through: A Coronavirus Story”

  1. Hi Sylva
    Enjoyed your cycling journey. It’s getting weird in North Florida and though we haven’t been in quarantine yet, I feel it will happen soon. Take care of yourself and thanks for the lovely distraction from our impending apocalypse.

    1. Glad you got a bike ride in. SW Floridians are sort of self quarantining , it’s unbelievable that there’s no food in the grocery stores. Panic mode for sure here amongst the majority of people. We’re staying calm and carrying on.

    2. Glad you got a bike ride in. SW Floridians are sort of self quarantining , it’s unbelievable that there’s no food in the grocery stores. Panic mode for sure here amongst the majority of people. We’re staying calm and carrying on.

      1. Hey Janis! I’m glad I got a bit more riding in, too… oh man, you guys are surfing the panic wave over there. Glad you’re staying calm and carrying on, it’s the only way! Big hug, hang in there 🙂

  2. Hey Hugh!! Wonderful to hear from you… thanks for reading and for following the blog, too. Things are SUPER weird here, too 😦 Keep in touch and let me know it’s going okay?

  3. Wonderful look at these difficult times. Thank you , Sylva!

    1. Heyyyy Auntie Spam 🙂 Thanks for reading and you’re welcome. Love you!

  4. I’m glad you got that last bike ride in and that it was so peaceful and beautiful. Hang in there!

  5. Thank you, Sylva, for the very moving description. We are so glad to hear from you. Praying for you and for an end to this thing. We are staying in Frisco since we think it is safer for us 70somethings than Denver. Everything is pretty shutdown here but not like there. ❤️❤️ to you. Lynn & Bob

    1. Hey Bob and Lynn!!! So good to hear from you, I was thinking of you guys… hiding out in Frisco sounds like an enviable plan. I hope you don’t get to where we are now. Dire times for sure but I’m hopeful. Lots of love to you both!! Keep in touch!

      1. We do look at your Facebook page from time to time so we know what is going on. Lynn forwarded your blog to several of our current & former Summit County friends, so you may have some new readers. Very quiet here. Bob

        1. That’s awesome on both counts! I am going to blog more regularly again, thanks to this crazy experience I’ve got time to do stuff like that again 🙂

      2. 1 of our friends named Mike said he and a friend spent 4 days in Faenza in the 80s.His friend had relatives there and they stayed with them while on a cycling trip. He said your pictures brought back memories.

        1. Aww how cool! Wow it would have been so interesting to see Italy in the 80s… if you talk to him again you should ask him what he liked about our little town 🙂 Thanks Lynn!

  6. Absorbing story Sylva. You write so well. Had heard about the fish being seen now. Amazing what lack of cars, etc. do for the environment. I hope you took lots of photos. Enjoyed the ones you posted.
    Will keep meditating for all, but falling out on checking in on it.
    Loving hugs,
    Eleanor

    1. Hi Eleanor! Thanks again for reading and commenting. Love that you’re in on the meditation, too. A big hug to you and all of your wonderful neighbors and friends 🙂

  7. Sylva this was a gorgeous piece of work. Thank you for writing it. It feels like people here(Oregon) are not understanding the gravity of the situation. I know time will tell what that will mean for us. Thanks again for your writing.

    1. Hey Josie!! Long time, but so great to hear from you and I really appreciate your comments. I think in a way it’s human nature not to (always) give proper weight to things we haven’t ourselves experienced. I hope though that people take what’s happening here and learn from it before having to experience it. A big huge hug to you and please keep in touch!

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