Drawing on the memories of the early 20th century exploits of her great-grandfather discovered in an old notebook, the heroine of this story retraced the 1,000-kilometre-plus route between Rome and Marseille by bike – and back. A journey into the past with very modern solutions that also raised funds for a not-for-profit that provides women in emerging countries with bikes.
This is a cycling tale. One of those great stories that only the world of amateur cycling – removed as it is from speed and chronometers but made of people united by a shared passion - can yield. Like all self-respecting tales, it began a long, long time ago. In 1905 to be precise. Neither of the two World Wars had happened yet, Einstein was only beginning to get an inkling of what would become the theory of relativity, and Italy was barely 50 years old. At the dawn of the new century, Daniele Tatta, a 27-year-old tailor from Rome, decided to make his way from the Capital to Marseille and back by bike.
At the time, the roads were essentially cart tracks with broken gravel and dirt surfaces (which turned to mud when it rained); cars were a rarity and still sported spoked wheels, rather wobbly tops and engines at the front. Bikes were as heavy as gates, weighing in at over 20 kg and had leaden wheels and seat-breaking saddles. The Giro d’Italia hadn’t even been born. Rome to Marseille and back was thus pure folly. Two thousand kilometres on a bike – Tatta might as well have been going to the moon. But he had made up his mind. He was also a very precise sort of fellow. Crazy but prudent. To prevent any untoward speculation or disbelief, he set off on his journey with a trusty notebook in which he jotted down with minute precision the route and how it unfolded. He also filled its pages with myriad stamps and signatures certifying his transits, stop-off and the localities he passed through. By the end, Tatta had 45 pages thick with irrefutable proof that he had “completed Rome-Marseille and back cycling record in 11 days, 8 hours and 20 minutes” as the Gazzetta dello Sport proclaimed at the time. Stamps and signatures from customs posts, hospitality providers and delegates from Touring Club Italiano, which was then just 11 years old itself. Without knowing it, Tatta had become the first official randonneur in history.
The years passed by. Then decades. Then the entire century. Tatta’s achievement and his notebook were lost in the mists of time and consigned to the dark of a cellar. The world changed, cars devoured bikes, the roads became smooth as a billiard ball, and men actually did go all the way to the moon. Arianna Meschia, a talented young writer with a passion for travel and a longing for adventure in her heart, lives in London. She was born in Genoa but moved to England for work. She has lived all over, anywhere her thirst for dreams brought her: Egypt, Malawi, South Africa. She is also Daniele Tatta’s great-granddaughter and has inherited the love of freedom that saw the Roman tailor get on his bike 117 years ago. Arianna only heard of Daniele’s great feat during a very normal chat with her family which also resulted in the famous notebook being dug out. But just seeing its tired, rather faded cover was enough to spark Arianna’s imagination and she decided to repeat her great-grandfather’s great feat by cycling from Rome to Marseille. “Opening up that yellowed notebook made me think about writing a story about it,” she says. “But then during the first lockdown, I started weighing up the idea of actually reliving that story, of doing the same well documented route – by bike”.
There was, however, one problem with this: by her own admission, Ariana was not a cyclist per se. “I have always used bikes to getting around the city but nothing more. All the rest – the training, gears, distances, materials, cycling wear, etc. – was a completely new world to me”. However, that was not going to stop a 30-something citizen of the world doing what she had set out to do. In her head, Arianna was already on the road but was using her hands to get the project nailed down. A project that she would go on to give the very pertinent title of “Prima del Giro”, meaning Before the Giro, to highlight the fact that Daniele Tatta did what he did before the Corsa Rosa was born. She put up a website about the project and used Facebook (www.facebook.com/primadelgiro) as her notebook, documenting in the same meticulous detail as her great-grandfather how the idea came to her and updating its progress as it unfolded.
Arianna began training and sparked a whole string of miracles that make this cycling story unique and also prove that if you believe in it enough, you can do anything you set your mind to. However, because she knew nothing about cycling, she made every mistake in the book. First and foremost, she didn’t even have a bike. Yet fact that she was even thinking about cycling a thousand-plus kilometres without owning one was a measure of her determination. While she was waiting to buy one, she cycled bikes borrowed from friends. Some were lovely but they were all different sizes and often different kinds of bike. To cut a long story short, it was a slightly clumsy and not very productive start. Arianna was also cycling in trainers and very attractive but decidedly low-tech vintage kit (if not an actual sweatshirt!).
But she didn’t lose heart or waste time. Instead, she contacted the FIAB (Italian Federation for the Environment and Bikes) which took the project to its heart and gave her tons of useful advice as well as providing support from its various local sections. A timely full immersion in cycling, slow travel and solidarity tourism that proved both vital and successful. But that’s not all: LIV loaned her a bike and Santini Cycling completed the job with a full wardrobe (and changes) of technical kit. “I have to admit that cycling in the right cloths changed my whole perspective on the journey,” Arianna explains candidly. “My movements were smoother and freer, everything was more comfortable and, most of all, I had a real chamois pad: you really feel the difference as the kilometres clock up”.
Arianna started out from St Peter’s Square on August 25th 2021 and cycled into Marseille on September 13th after completing her journey in 50/70 km stages that were a mix of faces, encounters, hugs and smiles more than sweat and exhaustion. Social media sprinkled the word about the trip like rain and the route became something of a live progression: people came to cycle with Arianna and keep her company for kilometres at a time, others put her up, everyone supported her. People who think on their bikes, thrive on proximity. They know how to open their arms and welcome. That kind of sharing takes you a long way, even further than Marseille. In this case all the way to Cambodia. In another miracle of sorts.
Before starting out, Arianna explained her goal. Her grandfather’s journey was the pretext but her real aim was to raise funds for 88bikes, an American organisation she had gotten to know in South Africa which provides bikes to women living in depressed areas, particularly in South East Asia but also in South America and refugee camps in Europe. “These are places where having a bike makes an enormous difference,” Arianna explained. “It means children can go to school without having to walk 8-10 kilometres, and women can get around and be more independent. It gives them security too because if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, they can get away faster”. Anyone can donate any amount they wish and every 88 dollars collected will provide a bike for a young girl or woman.
The response was huge. Cyclists are genuinely generous people: feet on their pedals, hands on their hearts. During her journey, Arianna raised enough money to buy 39 bikes, all going to Cambodia. These are the miracles bikes can work. Not bad for a woman that knew nothing about cycling.