Not long ago on a Sunday morning in the village of Torreano di Martignaco in Italy, on the first foothill of the Dolomite Mountains, I went for a run.
I needed one long training session before running the Chicago Marathon. Outside the house where we were staying with my wife's relatives, I saw cars passing with expensive bikes on the roofs and nervous-looking teenagers in the backseats.
I ran past men who were assembling a finish line, announcing "ARRIVO" and hundreds of teenaged cyclists were decamping from their cars. As I continued my run, the cyclists formed a massive peloton and were off. The girls rode with the boys. They were headed towards Santa Margarita, a church on a nearby hill. Thirty minutes later the pack zipped past, spitting stragglers off the back.
Video-packing parents filmed the group as it streaked by. After several loops, the race ended with a wobbly sprint as a clutch of leaders zoomed to the finish. They were fast and incautious. The stragglers followed.
Race day was just getting started. By the afternoon, my run completed, we were out in the garden eating salami and fromaggio, and drinking prosecco. We heard a siren out on the street and someone called "ciclisti!"
We ran to the curb as a gaggle of motorcycles formed a vanguard and soon the peloton, made up of skinny young men, bored down. The cyclists were relaxed and chatty. A clump of team cars followed behind. After they passed, we went back to our feasting, but every 20 minutes we would hear the siren and return to watch the progress.
Each time, the speed was quicker and the lead group smaller. On one of the last passes, a man across the street was screaming madly at one of the mid-pack riders. I guessed somebody had not eaten his Wheaties.
The tension in the peloton rose. No one was chatting now as two cyclists made a move off the front. A race official told us this was the last loop. My wife's cousin, Gabriele Digrassi, his young son Riccardo and I headed to the finish line.
A crowd had formed. Suddenly, one lone rider appeared and casually raised his arms as he crossed the finish line. A minute or two later, a second and then a third rider appeared. Finally, what was left of the peloton trundled in, sheepishly making a final sprint to appease the crowd after getting dropped.
In addition to these youths and pros, there are many casual bikers in Italy. The next day, a veteran cyclist stopped by the house. His name is Ennio Totis. He is a family friend and poet who writes in the local Friulan dialect. He is 83 years old.
He rides 20 to 30 miles every day on an old bike. I asked him whether he carries water on his rides. "Non," he said, "bevo vino." He only drinks wine. He rides for 10 miles and then stops at local bars for a glass.
And there you have the essence of Italian cycling.