Blast From the Past: Italian Mud

In: BLAST FROM THE PAST, In Print By: Dirt Rag Contributor On: September 15, 2016

Cross-cultural exchanges are often fraught with differing ideas of how things “ought” to be. An American struggles to come to terms with a cultural barrier he had not anticipated—the Italian way of mountain biking.

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Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #162, published in April 2012. Words by Steve Whitaker. Illustrations by Michael Byers.


“There are three types of mud here,” says Luigi, enumerating first with his thumb upward, as Italians do. “Primo, the vegetable type you can spray off right after a ride.” He grabs his forefinger with his opposite hand. “Secondo, the argillite type you wipe off by hand.” He grabs his middle finger, “And terzo, there’s the gesso.” By gesso he means gypsum, the stuff he and his fellow workers use to make drywall in the factory downwind of the town in Italy where I’m living this winter.

When it was bone dry in early autumn—it rarely rains here between June and October—the gesso lay like baby powder on the singletrack. After the first light rain it turned crystalline and it was beautiful to ride on, the rear wheel of my singlespeed rarely slipping uphill. But once the winter rains began—four days a week at times—the gesso turned to quick-dry cement, befouling shorts and jerseys and clinging so thickly to tires that it completely clogged both wheels. “For gesso, it’s better to wait a day and chip it with a wooden spatula so you don’t hurt the paint job,” he suggests.

I look at my fellow mountain bikers on this Sunday morning, the temperature is just above freezing. Their bikes are immaculate, shampooed and blow-dried. My singlespeed is splattered from stem to stern with all three varieties of mud.

The ragazzi—the guys—are deciding where to ride, vapor bulling from their mouths and nostrils. Luigi usually decides. This morning he rejects a difficult route, saying, “Look at the American’s bike—he’ll never make it up those hills.” Laughter all around, for today I’m the excuse for an easier ride. I shoot back, “When we’re riding, I never know if you’re laughing behind my back, because you’re always behind my back.” More laughter.

These men are fundamentally tougher than I am. Many do shift work in the gypsum factory and then tend family farms or work second jobs with undeclared income. They have ruined lower backs, dislocated shoulders and scarred hands with missing joints. When I meet them on the streets during the week, they are usually wearing blue coveralls and blaze orange safety vests with reflective strips—the uniform of the European working class. The ragazzi meet every Sunday morning, even in the snow, and their rides are much like their lives: uphill.

Marco, an electrician, makes a joke about Tiziano, who has been the butt of their jokes since elementary school. They speak in the local dialect, Romagnolo, of which I understand only half of what they say. They do it in part to bond and in part from an instinct to repel would-be intruders, as the inhabitants of this woe-begotten valley have done since their ancestors straggled north from Tuscany through the Apennine passes 500 years ago.

Their bikes are American—the ragazzi wouldn’t be caught dead on an Italian mountain bike, just as they wouldn’t be caught dead on an American road bike. Except Tiziano, who rides the same brand of Italian mountain bike that I do, though his is full-suspension, with 30 gears that always seem to be binding up with gesso. Mine is a singlespeed 29er that had to be special-ordered from the manufacturer in Milan because the model was not even available for sale in this country. Italian bicycle manufacturers know that it would be too much to ask their country’s cyclists to change from a bicycle with 26 inch wheels to one with 29 inch wheels and from 30 gears to one.

Which is odd, because to hear the ragazzi tell the story, the manufacturer of my bike launched into mountain bikes in the ‘80s by offering 700c wheels (aka 29ers) so they could use the same machines to assemble road and mountain wheels. Folklore, perhaps, but in this Betamax vs. VHS race, the Italians lost. I can imagine the Italian manufacturer now sputtering with confusion as the world circles (albeit slowly) back to 29ers. Like the Mediterranean diet and espresso. However, the world has appropriated an Italian idea and gone one step further—a 29er and a singlespeed.

I ask the ragazzi, “Why doesn’t anyone here ride a singlespeed?” I pronounce it as they do, “sheenglay-sped,” just as singletrack is pronounced “sheenglay-trek.”

Tiziano, who looks like a circus bear on his bike, extends his thumb and forefinger in the shape of an L and clicks his tongue at me, an Italian gesture, which in this case means, “Not on your life.”

I look down at my bike and protest, “This is an Italian singlespeed!”

They all turn their heads aside and say, “Ma vala!” which loosely translated means, “You idiot, we can no longer tolerate looking at you.”

Luigi grabs his bars, rolls forward and looks up in my face, “Quella non è una bicicletta, è un’ Americanata.” [“That’s not a bike, it’s an Americanism.”]

Marco says, “If you think so much of your bike, then why don’t you clean it?”

Tiziano sees his chance. He grabs my muddy rain shell between thumb and forefinger. “And why don’t you clean your clothes?”

They all laugh at me.

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Should I point out that I only have to oil the chain on my singlespeed? This can’t be the reason. I love maintaining my bike; it soothes me. There is always the rear wheel to align and the brakes to adjust. No, the reason I don’t clean my bike and my gear is because all week I dress in office clothes and make a living essentially by attaching myself to a machine and going out on the Internet to win, or if not to win then at least to get noticed. Only on Sunday mornings do I dress up like a slob and play in the mud.

Although the ragazzi appear to be imitating American mountain bikers, cycling for them is a European sport with a European aesthetic. They are immaculate in matching road-racing jerseys and shorts: white with red trim and the logo of the parent company of the drywall factory. In matters mountain-bike-sartorial, the ragazzi are unreformed roadies. I get the sense that, even if they did not have mothers and wives cleaning and folding these uniforms after each ride, the ragazzi would do it themselves.

For Sundays are an antidote to their workaday lives in clothes splattered with grease, gypsum and sometimes even their own blood. They are proud of these uniforms because they show that they have jobs in a town where many do not. They provide for their families, and it is my sense that the women in their lives show their gratitude by sending them off on Sunday mornings in jerseys and shorts with the logo of what may be their sponsor for life. The ragazzi wouldn’t understand a group of American mountain bikers self-consciously dressed down in cutoffs and moth-eaten jerseys and duck-taped shoes.

“Che vergonia,” they would think.

I look down at my dirty clothes and my singlespeed “Americanata” bike caked with three types of mud.

An embarrassment indeed.

In my mind the ragazzi are thinking, “Professionals make a living by attaching themselves to these machines and going out on roads and trails to win, or if not to win, then at least to get noticed.”

Show some respect.

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