I never knew my grandfather. He died before I was born, leaving behind a wife and a tiny son who would have become my father.
My grandfather was born in 1909. When the war broke out, he wasn’t yet thirty. But he already had a family of his own and he had already developed an all-abiding passion: cycling.
In the early ’30s, he bought a new dress for my grandmother and a racing Legnano for himself with his first wages as site manager in the city of Varese. At the time, the cycling champion Alfredo Binda was all the rage. My grandfather wanted a bike as beautiful as Binda’s and when he finally got one, it must have gleamed like gold dust in the sun.
He was even part of an amateur cycling club and won a few small races of his own.
My grandmother used to tell me that the bicycle made granddad feel free in an era when there wasn’t much freedom around. A few years later, he joined the resistance because he felt that freedom was something worth defending at any price.
But he paid a heavy price for his courage. A price that was exacted by a Nazi-fascist patrol hunting down couriers for the resistance.
You see, for my grandfather and many others during those dark times (including the star road cyclist Bartali) the bicycle was a way to deliver documents and false permits. A lot of lives were saved like this.
His friends found him. He had been dumped in a ditch, just like a De André song. His bicycle was lying next to him. It looked like it had died with him.
My grandmother had to bring him back home. She did it lovingly. She never shed a tear.
For years, the Legnano lay under a sheet in the cellar shrouded in silence, until my father was old enough to bring it back to life.
But my grandfather was much shorter than my father who shot up quickly. Soon, he had to stop riding it because it was just too small. So, the Specialissima was carried back down into the cool of the cellar, out of sight, but never out of mind.
My grandmother needed to know it was there. Kept carefully just like her husband would have wanted.
But nothing stays the same and now the time has come to change things. I inherited two things from my grandfather. A passion for bikes and his stature. The Legnano is just the right size for me.
It is still in an amazing condition. After 80 years, the Vittoria-Margherita gears are still in perfect working order. Vintage saddle, new tubular tyres, replacement brake cables, bit of oil on the hubs, a good polish on the metal parts and out into the light of day it comes.
It is time for it to leave the darkness behind. Now it can speed ahead with the wind whistling through its spokes, breathing in the countryside air and flicking up the dust from the beaten white roads. This is what you were born for, my dear old partisan bike.