It was the fifth day of our Trinity College Rome Campus Class of 1973 reunion, and we were supposed to meet the rest of the group at Top Bike Rentals on Via Labicana behind the Colosseum. We didn’t have WiFi, and by this time during our stay, I’d worn out several maps, and the creases and tears in the one I’d stuffed into my bag obscured the street we needed to locate.
Our friend Bart, reunion organizer extraordinaire, first mentioned the idea of an E-bike tour on the Appia Antica, the old Roman road, but I was hesitant. In 1973, cocky with youthful delusions of immortality, we took a motorbike trip along this same route. I remember the terror of winding through traffic to get out of the city, the choking fumes of diesel exhaust, and my husband, Dave’s craziness in standing on one foot on his bike seat while driving. I never want to beg off an adventure because of my age, but I thought this might be the time.
Dave, however, was all in. “It’ll be fun, but you don’t have to go.” Bart, ever mindful of others’ concerns, spoke to the people at Top Bike and assured me that we’d travel back roads to reach the Appia Antica. So, we signed up.
A few nights before, Dave and I had come upon the Colosseum at sunset, the dying sun’s light seeming an orange blaze within the heart of the edifice summoning spectators once again. We’d lingered to marvel at the artistry of the heavens as backdrop to the iconic ruin. On this day, however, the Colosseum was but a landmark encircled by a confusing tangle of roads and whizzing cars, and we couldn’t spot the sign for Via Labicana.
We asked a server at a café, but he didn’t know. We asked a nice man at an intersection who kindly pulled up the GPS on his phone and pointed the way… only it was the wrong way. A short while later, we asked a policewoman who sent us back the way we’d come. Aimless wandering is a lovely part of travel, but this was not the moment.
When we arrived at Top Bike, the rest of our friends were already there, bikes assigned and helmets tried, selected, and buckled on. This time, I couldn’t blame our tardiness on Dave, but no worries, no one seemed annoyed.
Our guide, Elena, reviewed the use of the gears and the levels of the electric “assists:” eco, tour, sport, and turbo. “Above all,” Elena said, her accented English clear and definitive, “Do NOT use the left-hand brake by itself! The pistons will go down; the bike will stop dead; and you could go over the handlebars.”
Good grief. Between remembering the gear instructions and this weird compulsion now in my head to squeeze that left break by itself, I was nervous. She also demonstrated the hand signals she would use when we came to major roads and had to “execute a maneuver” and cross “en mass.”
“I’ll go ahead and stop the traffic. You must cross as a group, quick, quick, quick!”
Oh dear. Maneuvers. This sounded tricky and dangerous.
“Okay! We all ready?”
Shouting instructions and encouragement over her shoulder, Elena forged ahead down narrow streets, under stone arches, and past the Colosseum, her troop of near septuagenarians peddling gamely behind. I, no doubt like every one of Elena’s ducklings, toyed with the gears and tested the varying speeds of the assists. I wanted no surprises when it was time to use them.
She stopped us often to identify points of interest and enlighten us as to their history and significance. At major roads, her unyielding glare commanded compliance of impatient drivers who honked their horns as she waved us safely across, her upraised hand and tiny body the shield between us and a phalanx of cars.
On the first steep hill, Elena yelled, “Set your gears to 1 and the assist at Turbo!”
Agh! How fast would this be? I did as instructed and… zipped up the incline.
Whoaaaaa! That was fun! What normally would have been a daunting bike walk was… exhilarating!
With Elena in the lead, and Bart as rear guard, ever solicitous, making sure no one was left behind, we merged with the Appia Antica. Increasingly confident, nay emboldened on our bikes, we bumped and swerved over ancient stones rutted by chariot wheels. While we passed many ruins that, at home, would have been closed to the public or carefully guarded within a museum, Elena halted our column only at sites of special interest. We dismounted to explore ancient walls, towers, a mausoleum, and a stadium.
At one point, we pulled aside for a herd of goats. “You’ll see the farms soon,” Elena told us as we reached the end of the ancient road, crossed a highway – brave Elena protecting us with her arm outstretched – peddled through the parking lot of a strip mall that might have been anywhere, USA, and rode onto a vast expanse of parched soil and dry, brown grass.
Simple shacks, feed troughs, and trammeled earth encircled by wire fences marked the goats’ home as we continued on. The day seemed suffused with light, with lightness, beyond that of the sun. Friend Fa Poco whipped by, and I had to whoop, “Is this the BEST or what?!” I felt strong and young as twenty-year-old Lea as I goosed my assist to turbo and sped, euphoric, to catch up with the others.
Even Bart had gone ahead as there was no danger of getting lost in these open fields, and our destination, a series of massive stone arches, the aqueducts, stretched before us. Suddenly, I heard a shout. I looked over my shoulder and saw Dave in the dust, his bike on the ground, the front tire askew. I wheeled around and yelled, “Are you okay? What happened?”
When I stopped beside him, Dave was on his feet, shaking his head and wiping off bloody, dirt-encrusted cuts on his hands, knees, and elbows. “So stupid,” he grunted. “I was taking a video, just had to capture this: the farm, our friends, the aqueducts ahead, and you flying in front of me … and I hit a rock. I’m bummed I turned off the camera before I fell. That would’ve been a great shot! I just want to clean these cuts, what with the goats, feces, flies and all.”
Since Covid, I carry alcohol wipes, so I tore open several packets and gingerly dabbed at his cuts. “I have some bandaids, too?” I offered.
“Nah. No. I’m fine. Really. Let’s go.” We checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged, and re-mounted to meet up with the group.
By now, our friends were used to waiting for Dave in his quest for one more picture and had paused in the shadow of the aqueducts to rest and swig water. The chorus of friendly taunts swung to concern when they saw blood.
“Oh no! What happened? I have things… First Aid! We can clean you up!” Elena hustled to open the saddlebag on her bike, and produced cleanser, antiseptic, and bandaids. Again, I admired her courage in taking on our aging, mostly E-bike-inexperienced troop.
Once Dave was swabbed and bandaged, we turned our attention to the engineering genius of the ancient Romans in building the aqueducts that towered above and beyond us, some of which still operate to serve the city. Rome offers many reminders of the evolution and demise of civilizations, and I wondered, in two thousand years, what might remain, much less function, as clues to life in 2022?
Our three-hour tour had stretched gloriously to five due to an extended lunch break and two more tumbles, yet the three spills did little to dampen our spirits. When the last of us wheeled back into Top Bike’s garage, Elena crowed about the fun she’d had with us. Still, I pictured her collapsing in relief later having seen her ducklings safely home.
And Dave and I are totally getting E-bikes for Christmas.