Saturday, May 15, 2010

“The Bicycle Chief:” Collalti Bici: When in Rome bike as the Romans do

Photo by David T. Mayernik

I recently watched Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece,
Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves), and for those of you who’ve never seen it, it’s the tragic tale of a working-class man in financially depressed, post-World War II Rome who, along with his young son, spends most of the film combing the streets in search of his stolen bicycle, which he needs for his job. Without completely ruining the plot, the protagonist and his wife and children live in abject poverty, and the loss of the bicycle has placed the family on the brink of total destitution. I’ve seen this film several times, but now that I live in Rome it struck a new cord; it’s difficult to imagine a period in the city’s modern history when the automobile, moped or scooter were not the primary forms of transportation, and how something so simple and low-tech as a bicycle could make or break the lives of an average, urban family.

During the 1950’s Italy rebounded economically, which opened a space for a burgeoning middle-class who welcomed the comfort and prestige that came with owning a car, while the now healthier “proletariat” sector whole-heartily adopted the affordable moped and scooter. Over the years both forms of transportation grew exponentially, and by the millennium the bicycle was all but extinct. But progress is often accompanied with sacrifice, and Rome (like other European cities) was forced to acknowledge that there was nothing “dolce” about a life plagued with gridlock traffic and elevated levels of air pollution that threatened the health of its citizenry, and had the potential to cause irreparable damage to many of the city’s soot encrusted monuments. In 2005, Rome’s then Mayor Walter Veltroni set into action a dramatic plan to reduce traffic and pollution. For instance, each month driving was prohibited in the historical center on three different Sundays, car and motorini use were limited one day weekly, and each Thursday automobiles with odd and even numbered license plates alternated the use of major thoroughfares. Some deemed the course of action punitive. However, many agreed that things had gone too far, and learned to live with the restrictions by utilizing a simple and environmentally friendly means of transport: the bicycle. In June of 2008, local government collaborated with the Spanish company Cemusa in a program designed to allow residents to use bicycles (set up in major piazzas), as an alternative means of getting around Rome’s center. Cemusa and the city are currently working out the logistics for long-term service of the program, and advertising. Still, in spite of the tension that has ensued (Cemusa has twice threatened to pull the plug), the program has been hailed a huge success—and has been the catalyst for privately owned bicycle rental shops that have mushroomed across the city and spurred some tourist agencies to offer “See Rome by bicycle” tour packages.

Having recently returned to Rome, I was astounded by the number of bicyclist negotiating a path through crowded piazzas, and taking on cars and motorists in zones where there is still relatively high traffic—riding a bicycle in Rome is definitely not for the faint of heart! I was also struck by the elegance of many of these bicycles, particularly those with the trade name Collalti that seemed to be everywhere. I spied several with mod brushed aluminum, pastel colored or sleek black frames; some were fitted with leather seats, handle bar grips and saddlebags—leave it to the Italians to make something as perfunctory as a bicycle chic! Out of curiosity, I visited this little shop located in the heart of the city, and learned that the Collalti family have been making bicycles since 1899. Depending on how much you want to spend the current capo Danilo Collalti will set you up with a “bespoke” bicycle that could grace a catwalk in Milan; but there are many affordable, and more austere, models from which to choose—prices range from as little as 200 to 1,500 euros for a touring, city, mountain or hybrid bicycle. I decided to join the ranks of the intrepid urban biker, and with Danilo’s assistance I settled on a shiny, black cruiser that sold for 200 euros. We decided to increase the number of gears, and he agreed to attach a basket and a bell (and buying a good lock in critical!); the total package came to 280 euros—less than I spent, without the accoutrements, for a similar style, off-the-line bicycle that I own in the States. The bicycle was ready in less than a week, and upon retrieving it my uncontrollable excitement had Danilo—who on first impression appeared stern and businesslike—smiling from ear to ear, and I caught a twinkle in his eye that you only find in people who truly love and take pride in what they do. Some Romans have commented that the recent popularity of the bicycle is merely a trend. When I mentioned this to Danilo he disagreed, and expressed that Romans are fascinated by novelty and quick to try new things. “But the bicycle isn’t really ‘new’ and in essence it allows people to better appreciate the city.” "On Sundays, for instance, you can find families biking in parks, and in areas once dominated by motorized traffic; it’s a new way to enjoy la passeggiata."

Even as the country seems to be teetering on the edge of economic crisis, his bicycle sales have remained steady—and 2008 was a record year when he sold over 800 bicycles (that may seem like a small figure, but remember this is Italy, where family owned businesses are only opened five days a week, are closed for most major holidays and shutdown for up to two weeks in the summer). The reality is, automotive transportation isn’t going away. But as in De Sica’s era, the bicycle has proven to be a necessary and even vital means of transit.

Collalti Bici
Via del Pellegrino, 82
39 06 68801084
They also sell bicycle paraphernalia and offer bicycle repairs


  1. Brette–

    1) I'm loving this blog.
    2) My nonno was Vittorio De Sica.
    3) This post is great, it hits so close to home.
    4) I have recently inherited a 2nd hand bicicletta.
    5) I'm glad I found out about Collalti because it needs a new headlight.

    See you upon your return for serious aperitivo action.

  2. Hey Brette, Hey David, Rome is such a small town. I was just talking to Canilo about doing an interview with him for my blog and found this.