Thursday, September 15, 2011

Checking under the hood

You know how when someone gets a new car (in rural Minnesota) and all the men go out and stand around the car, regardless of the weather and pop the hood? They kick tires and point at things, and eventually the proud owner (and ONLY  the proud owner) gets in and starts the engine. After a moment of breathless anticipation he gently revs the engine and they all nod their heads and look knowingly at each other. They talk about carburetors and heads and horse power and torque, comparing this little gem to every other car they have ever owned or that a good friend has owned since they first got their drivers license. This stops only when it starts to rain  or snow, or dinner is on the table. This is also true for tractors, combines, motorcycles and lawnmowers. Anything with a motor.

On Sunday I witnessed the Italian cycling version of this phenomenon. I mean , I expected to see this with cars. Italy has some awesome cars. I just didn't think that it was possible to have this same sort of communal ritual around a bicycle. It has no motor. I was wrong.

I was near the finish line at a cycle race waiting for Leif to finish his 170 kilometers. It was interesting watching the different riders as they came in to the finish. It was a nasty, hot and humid day. I would have said, no way am I riding over a hundred miles today, but thousands of men and women in Tuscany disagreed with me. Crazy. Anyway, as I'm watching people come into the finish I noticed a group of men gathered at one side of the course around a bike. They were pretty close to me and once I started watching them I knew what I was watching. The "checking under the hood" ritual.

The owner stood  on the right side of the bike with one hand protectively on the handlebars and the other on the saddle. He looked as proud as a man who has just finished riding 170k in 100F temperatures can look. Eight men gathered around him, not exactly holding their hands behind their backs, but looking like they really wanted  to touch the bike but knew they couldn't. They complimented him on the new bike and started to ask questions. He answered a few questions and the crowd looked skeptical. I don't have enough Italian to tell you what was said, and of course I had to appear that I wasn't actually watching them, so I couldn't hear everything that was said. Not that I needed to. I'm sure it was a conversation that revolved around derailers and torque and other technical bike things. Weight is important for road bikes and he was telling them his weighed very few grams. Grams are so important in fact that one man told me he needed a bell for city riding, but couldn't put one on because it would add a few grams to his total weight and he just wasn't willing to do that. But I digress...the crowd didn't believe this bike was as light as the owner was claiming.

Finally, in an effort to convince them that he wasn't exaggerating about how great the bike was, he invited one of the men to touch it. The chosen one entered the sacred circle reverently, that space where a rider mounts his bike. He tentatively stretched his hands out. They hovered over the bike, one hand floating above the handle bars and the other behind the saddle. Slowly he brought his hands to the bike and gently, like holding a newborn baby, he lifted it off the ground. His face glowed as he shook his head in disbelief, looking at the crowd as if to say "It's true. It's weightless." He lowered the bike slowly down to the ground and waited till the owner had a firm grip on it before letting go. Finally, the ice broken, everyone got a chance to approach the bike and hold it for a few precious seconds. Hushed conversation became louder as they all complimented the rider on his bike. Everything on the bike was beautiful...the frame, the saddle, the brakes, the gears. The owner stood next to his bike, looking alternately like he was the happiest man on earth or like he could fall down at any moment from fatigue.

It was kind of comforting to watch...just like home except that it was a bike, and it was in Italian, and there was absolutely no chance of rain, and no one called us in for dinner...but it felt like home.

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