NEW YORK — I had a bike stolen the other day. It was an '80s vintage 10-speed that I salvaged off a scrap heap a few years ago for riding around Manhattan.
But it's not the bike I miss. It's the helmet.
The silver helmet with a strange chin strap and a brand name I couldn't pronounce was my main souvenir from three weeks I spent tooling around Turin, Italy, while covering the 2004 Winter Olympics as a reporter for The Associated Press.
It was the second time I had bought a bike while on an Olympic assignment, and then sold it before flying home. I'd done the same thing in Sydney for the 2000 Summer Olympic games.
Getting the bike in Australia was easy. I spoke the language, looked up the bike shops and scored a sharp-looking green and yellow hybrid with a luggage rack and a lock for around $180, less than what it might have cost for a rental, if the shop had offered it — which it didn't.
It was trickier in Italy. But I stumbled across the University of Turin, where I found an English-speaking cyclist who not only walked me to a bike shop in the Piazza della Repubblica, but she also translated for the transaction: a six-speed bike with a luggage rack and generator-powered lights. A lock and helmet brought the price to about $300.
Riding in Australia was fun, once I got used to reversing my instincts and riding on the left side of the road. But riding in Turin changed my entire Olympic experience.
We had heard about Turin before the Olympics. Gritty and urban. Down on its luck, like Fiat, the carmaker headquartered there. Sort of like Detroit. Slideshow: Awesome Australia
Which was true, but the city also has a charming Baroque center unlike anything you'll find in Detroit. If you made the seven-mile journey every day by Olympic bus between our rooms and our offices, you bypassed all that. Having a bike opened the place up for me.
Turin is a fairly bicycle-friendly city, with a growing network of bike trails. Off the bike routes, it can be scary for the non-urban cyclist, with big gaps in the paving stones on some downtown streets, and the dance with cars at intersections unchecked by traffic signals or stop signs. But unlike in New York City or its suburbs, where I do most of my riding, auto drivers pay attention to you.
I'm already wondering about the possibilities of joining an army of cyclists at the Olympics next year in Beijing. Will the venues be too widely-spaced to bother? That's why I didn't get a bike in Salt Lake City in 2002. Will my language skills fail me? That's why I chickened out in Nagano on 1998.
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The drawbacks of cycling around a foreign city are similar to the drawbacks anywhere. You have to plan some extra travel and cool-down time. Bad weather can stop you. I wouldn't recommend it to a rider who's not already used to cycling in heavy traffic. But in Turin, the ability to ride through the 18th century en route to the 21st made the inconveniences well worth it.
Unless you're planning on boxing up the bike and taking it home with you, which can be expensive and complicated, you'll want to sell it before you leave. I managed to sell each of mine by making the words, "Want to buy my bike?" part of every conversation I had during the last week of the trip. Slideshow: Italian dreams
In Sydney, a TV producer overhearing me offering to sell it to an Olympic security guard took it off my hands for about half of what I had paid for it three weeks earlier.
In Turin, a colleague from Rome bought the bike and the lock for a little less than half. I kept the helmet.
Until the other day, of course.
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