When Italy was put back on wheels

I am 30 years of age, I have a job with no prospects and I live in the Northern outskirts of Monza in one of those anonymous dormitories which prompts the average passer-by to comment: “Oh my God, who on earth lives in a place like this?!” Well, I haven’t got much choice. And neither has Angelo. He lives here too.

He used to have a better job than I have now. He spent 35 years as a metal worker. He is almost 90 but there is nothing wrong with his memory. Every now and again, he tells stories of a long-lost past: factory incidents, worker strikes with all the troubles they bring, but also tales of sport and bicycles – a passion we happen to share.

Maybe that is why he has taken such a liking to me. In any case, we always try to help each other out. I run the odd errand for him and he invites me over for a meal: I know he struggles to make ends meet on a small pension and I’m not a bad cook, so I end up preparing the meal. I often tidy the house up too.

Sometimes, my girlfriend comes over. A free meal is not something to be passed up on. But Angelo doesn’t mind. Actually, he really quite likes having the “young’uns” around, as he calls us.

A few weeks ago, I came back from the call centre where I work part-time for a pittance and Angelo asked me if I would help him to carry some old chairs down into the cellar.

He didn’t need to ask me twice. Always happy to lend a hand. I loosened the chain on the latch and as the door swung creakily open, I caught a glimpse of it: hanging by its back wheel from a hook on the ceiling, just high enough to protect it from the damp from the basement floor.

A Maino bike from the 1930s. Worn but in good condition. It had all its original parts including a beautiful vintage Sella Italia saddle in black leather.

This is a museum piece, I thought. I ran back up to Angelo. “You could make a packet with that bike, you know! Leave it up to me. I’ll put it up for sale on e-bay. I know how to do these things”.

“Over my dead body.” he growled, glaring at me angrily. You might have thought I had asked him to sell a kidney.

I thought that was the end of it, but in the evening he had his usual tipple and started to talk.
“After the war, things were really tough. But if you were hard-working and willing, there was always a job to be found. Perhaps not around the corner, of course. Fate graced me twice. Firstly because the Breda factory in Sesto San Giovanni took me on as a welder, and secondly because my father let me use his Maino. The factory was only 12 kilometres away from my parent’s farmstead, but the journey was no joke on a bike. The roads were pitted after the war and I went back and forth whatever the weather. In the summer, the dust stuck to the sweat on my skin and in the winter the freezing fog penetrated my bones. But there was no other way. The train station was too far away.

I soldiered on like that for 16 years. A bit because I had got used to it and a bit because I quite enjoyed it. But then the years got the better of me and I bought myself a used Fiat 127. But the Maino never got any aches and pains. It was always plain sailing with it. Only the once when I ended up in a pothole did the fork break. I had to push it all the way to work, but once I got to the factory, it didn’t take long to fix it”.

Let’s see now – about 25 km a day 5 times a week, for 16 years adds up to nearly 100,000- My jaw dropped: “A hundred thousand?” in the saddle. That’s two and half times round the earth…

Now that I think about it, the Italian film director De Sica couldn’t have put it more eloquently in his ’48 masterpiece “Bicycle Thieves”. In the wake of the war, a bicycle was quite simple a means to survive.

Owning a bike meant you could move quickly from the countryside to the city under construction. It was a way to get to the factory, but also a working instrument for bakers, postmen, nightwatchmen and delivery boys. At the time, there were 3 million bicycles on the road. They carried the hopes and fears of the future for the entire country.
“… Sesto didn’t only have Breda”, continued Angelo, “that town was the was the domain of heavy industry: Marelli, Falck, Osva… thousands of workers, an immense swarm going round on bikes. Some other workers came from much further afield, some of them lived 20-25 km away. At the beginning and end of the working day, the factory gates thronged with riders. Hordes of us came and went at shift changeover time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford a camera at the time, otherwise I would have captured it on film…Then, the crisis came. People lost their jobs and everyone took to the car…But as long as I am alive, no-one is touching my Maino…”

But he isn’t talking to me anymore. Was that a tear welling up in his bleary grey eyes or was it just my imagination?

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