Earlier this summer I promised a report on bicycling in Rome. Because Italian drivers scared the living daylights out of me as a pedestrian, cyclist, and human, we did not actually ride on the streets. Instead, we rented a tandem in the Villa Borghese gardens. At almost 150 acres, it’s the city’s second largest park and can hold a lot of people and bicycles.
When we walked up to the bike rental stall near the garden’s entrance, we saw that only pedal-assist tandems were available. They didn’t look like bicycles at all, but rather golf carts. After a little grumbling, Mr. Spoked plunked down some Euros and we watched a worker hammer away at a loose wheel lying in the dirt next to our assigned cart. It did not inspire confidence. Finally the wheel was fitted onto the empty axle, and we got control of the cart for the next 60 minutes.
Like many roadies, I approach the notion of pedal-assist with reluctance. The idea of an easy ride is antithetical if you’re someone who rides for exercise. But it’s not such a bad idea if you’re in it to save the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially if you don’t want to get sweaty on the way to work.
Last May I had a chance to ride one of Trek’s new electric assist models, and I have to admit it changed my mind. Not enough to buy one, mind you, but I did admire the machine. It was at a spring rodeo held by Capp’s Bike Shop here in Topeka. Owner Jerry Armstrong convinced several of us working the event to take a test spin. I watched riders take off with a skeptical look and come back with a grin. Finally it was my turn. The bike was heavy–really heavy in comparison to Sweetpea–weighed down by a large rear hub motor. But that didn’t matter in the slightest, because even a light pedal stroke paid off in a big way. I found myself pedaling just one stroke at a time and then coasting to feel that remarkable surge of power. Jerry called me over, head shaking, and told me I needed to pedal non-stop to put the Trek through its paces. He pointed in the direction of a short but steep hill at the other end of the lot, and told me to see how fast I could go. So I pedaled as hard as I would’ve on the Sweetpea until the machine breached the top of the hill. How cow, the cycle computer registered 40 mph. My face had the same big grin as everyone else’s when I got back to the storefront.
The Trek had left such a good impression that I was kind of excited to be riding another pedal assist in Italy months later. The Italians call the machine a “riscio,” or rickshaw. We saw them zipping around the grounds with tourists behind the wheel, but it was strange to watch passengers resting their feet on the frames rather than pedal. I thought they were lazy until I rode the riscio as Mr. Spoked’s passenger.
Unlike a true tandem bicycle in which the stoker actually helps out the captain, on the riscios the stoker was completely pointless. No matter how hard I worked, the pedals wouldn’t engage. Mr. Spoked didn’t notice because he was too busy complaining about the operation of the riscio. The pedal assist engaged with a vengeance on the downhills but felt puny on the uphills. It was so completely counterintuitive, we wondered why the machines had any pedal assist features at all. Unlike the Trek which allows the operator to regulate the intensity of engagement via a dial, the riscio was a fixie and always wrong. And finally, the Trek’s drive engaged smoothly, while the riscio bucked and jumped as though it was operated by a teenage driver mastering a stickshift.
We rode around the garden a few times with our hearts in our throats, wondering how to shout “Save yourselves!” in Italian to oblivious pedestrians. Finally, our hour was up. We were kind of relieved. Sure we’d seen all the park’s beautiful statuary and tasteful landscaping, but we hadn’t really had a good time. Mr. Spoked remains skeptical about pedal assist in general, but I have to say I’d ride the Trek again, any time, any place.