You don’t ever own a bicycle in Florence; you just look after it for a while for the bike thieves, the better the bike, the less time you have to look after it. A bicycle shop-owner once told me that there aren’t any second-hand bike shops here because they simply wouldn’t be able to compete with the stolen bicycle black market. He just wanted to make a sale, of course, but it all sounded very sinister and made me wonder if he’d misunderstood my question and was actually talking about something a little racier than bicycles (pun intended).
Don’t get me wrong, bikes are definitely the preferred mode of Florentine transport. The city is full of impossibly glamorous kamikaze women pedalling stylishly around in front of buses driven by people who actually believe they are Michael Schumacher. Forget scooters, bikes are the way to go here, and the older the better.
When you first arrive, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything as terribly backward and old-fashioned. It’s not an uncommon, though a rather patronising, reaction to moving to a foreign country, and the bicycle situation here does not help. I swear to God I once saw a bike made almost entirely of wood (as well as scooter – I overtook it while cycling home from work one night). Unfortunately, as you chuckle self-righteously while watching an old man creak past on a pile of rust with three spokes, pedalling with his knees at right angles to his body and two hundred cars trailing behind him, your nearly new, multi-gear bike is being stolen.
But that’s not what happened to me. Six months after moving to Florence from another Italian city, my bike was still chained to nothing but itself in the street outside my old house. It was, however, an old, rusty, clanking thing, a kind of cantankerous lurching drunkard of a bicycle. The brakes had to be applied at least 100 yards before your intended stopping point (something I never told my mum about); only one of the 18 gears didn’t make the chain fall off; and the stand, light, chain guard, and dynamo had all jumped ship long ago. So it should come as little surprise that even when I transported it to Florence and left it chained up leaning against a wall outside my flat, it managed three whole months without so much as a dog cocking its leg against it. This impressed me, particularly considering the number of empty beer bottles and needles (not the knitting kind) that littered the area.
One morning I woke up and decided that enough was enough, if my Douglas could survive nine months without being stolen and subsequently sold to the bike slave-trade in Africa, then fate was definitely trying to tell me something. I took him to a repair shop that very afternoon. The next day I could cycle again! Suddenly the city seemed much smaller and I didn’t even have to take the bus to work anymore; I could save the environment and make my bum smaller all in one go!, After all, I never did like running for the bus, then travelling to work with my face squashed into some greasy, lunging man’s armpit. However, three golden days after I’d had my bike repaired, I left the house to go to work and all I found was the lock, cut neatly in two, on the floor where the bicycle had been.
I kept the lock to remind me how fickle fate can be and am now very careful with my new bike, the lock is as thick as a baby’s forearm. I love my new bike (it has a chain guard so I can now wear long and stylish trousers while saving the environment and making my bum smaller), but I still think about my old bike. Who’s riding it now? With any luck it won’t be someone who’ll thoughtlessly leave it out in the elements for nine months; Douglas deserves better.
The moral of the story is that, despite everything, pedal power is quite literally the way forward in Florence. Few buses have air conditioning, so if you’re hiding behind the myth of not wanting to get all hot and sweaty, then forget it. The only thing you shouldn’t forget is your bike lock.