This is meant for all you brave urban bicycle commuters, who expose yourself to the hazards of city traffic at the worst times of the day. But it also applies to anyone who rides their bike in an urban environment.
There is a simple way to protect yourself (besides wearing a mask, which could help you too) from the worst effects of automobile exhaust. And you should take this seriously.
According to the American Lung Association, exposure to air pollution is one of the major risk factors for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), secondary only to smoking cigarettes.
COPD may not kill you for years, but it will sap your strength, crush your ability to work and play, and basically suck all the joy out of your life.
It's ironic (and sad) that by making a noble effort to improve the overall air quality, you expose yourself to the worst air pollution. But you can help minimize the problem by using a simple math formula to your advantage.
We're talking about the inverse square law, for you math people. What this means is that if you can double your distance from the tailpipe of an automobile, you're only exposed to one fourth of the pollutants. If you triple the distance, you're only exposed to one ninth. Get four times as far, and only a feeble sixteenth of those toxic fumes will ever have a chance of reaching your lungs.
There's an easy way to ride your bike far enough from commuting cars that you can cut out 50%, 90% or even more of the pollutants you would have been exposed to. Every city or town has busy streets that are jammed during rush hour traffic. These are usually the most direct routes, but you don't need to ride your bike on them.
Just find a parallel residential street (or if you're downtown, try to pick a route that runs through parks and alleys), and only ride on the main streets when you need to.
This could add a little bit of time to your commute, but the benefits of biking this way will add to your lifespan.
Disclaimer: I am not trained in medicine, and this information is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease. Always consult with a physician before participation in any physical activity.
This blog is not in any way affiliated with the American Lung Association. All opinions stated here are my own, and do not reflect the views of the American Lung Association.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way. If you would like to download the entire e-book, leave a comment below and I'll make sure you get a copy. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.
The archeologist in Rome told me my bike trip would be impossibile. Francesco assured me non e’ difficile. Leaving Terracina, I hope the journey will be easy but not too easy. It’s been a good bike tour so far, but I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen.
The ride out of Terracina starts to climb into the hills, and pretty soon I’m winding my way upward through a glittering jewel box of flowers, oak trees and olive groves. When I meet a farmer selling black olives on the roadside, I buy a whole bag and greedily devour them on rest stops.
The modern road, SS7, zig-zags through switchbacks as it winds up into the mountains. Each time around, I notice the route coincides with the remains of an older, grass-covered road bed. This is the true Appian Way.
The old road is undaunted by the mountain. It plods straight up the grade, unstoppable like the armies that used to use it. Riding up the modern road is challenging enough, but not daunting, and I’m thinking seriously about braving the weeds and stones of via Appia antica on my bike.
As if on cue, I wheel up to the entrance of an archeological park. Inside, I follow the usual basalt paving stones of the Appian Way, along with the remains of buildings from ancient Rome, the middle ages, and the Renaissance.
As in many places in Italy, the architecture here is a hodgepodge of different periods and styles. Each building is built up over an earlier one, and everybody borrows foundations, walls, and pillars from other buildings.
I got used to seeing this phenomenon everywhere when I lived in Rome. Much of the marble from the Colosseum, for example, was taken by the Barbarini family to build St. Peter’s square in the Vatican. Similarly, if you go into some of the older churches in Rome you’ll notice that the pillars don’t always match. This is because they were pilfered from different ancient Roman buildings.
As I ponder this, munching on salty black olives, I think how much our civilization, and even we as individuals, are collections of endless stories, ideals, influences and philosophies borrowed from different times and places.
As Bruce Lee was fond of saying, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.”
Perhaps my own bicycle quest is my unique addition to the long history of this majestic road and the beautiful lands it passes through. Think about your own journeys as you read this. What will you add to the world that is uniquely your own?
This is an excerpt from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.
This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way. I’ll be posting a chapter at a time, and the full length book will also be available as a downloadable ebook when it’s finished. Leave a comment below, and I’ll make sure you get a copy of the book (your email will remain private).
When you wake up early in the morning to throw yourself at an unknown pile of experiences, when the shoulder is gone from the road and you don’t know which of the passing trucks is going to kill you, when every spin of your bicycle wheels pulls you closer to the Unknown, that’s when every leaf and flower takes on a new and special meaning. This is when you know you’re on a real adventure.
I’m back on the road, making my way through a surreal version of yesterday’s ride through the park. But this is no ride through the park. I’m in the Pontine Marshes, and I’m not sure whether the drivers going to work on SS7 can see me.
Umbrella pines form a living green wall along the road, and the mist makes hard to see anything else. Shining yellow globes rush towards me and turn into the headlights of ubiquitous Fiats. I wish I had a strong cappuccino.
When the Romans built this section of via Appia they wanted to get through the marshes as quickly as possible, so they built the road in a straight line. Years later, they took the time to drain the swamps through a series of channels, but in the beginning they just drove heavy wooden piles into the mud and built the road right over them.
As the fog clears you can see meadows and crop fields. A drainage channel on the side of the road keeps the marshes from returning and covering the ancient Appian Way. You get a glittering gift of wildflowers as you shoot straight towards Terracina.
This is really where Rome ends and the true countryside begins. A happy German shepherd jogs along the opposite side of the drainage ditch, almost as excited as me. I pass a herd of water buffalo whose milk is used for mozzarella cheese.
As the sun climbs higher in the sky and burns away the fog, I start to feel grateful for the trees. In addition to the shade, they will also become my secret to finding my way.
Most of the Appian Way is lined with Rome’s iconic umbrella pines. From above or from a distance, you can often see the via Appia as a dark green line against the grassy landscape of southern Italy.
Many times on this journey, when I’m not sure where to go, I’ll get up on top of a hill, a bell tower, or something up high and look for the ubiquitous umbrella pine. Even in the most remote parts of Puglia and Basilicata, where the via Appia was little more than a trail carved out of the ground even in its heyday, you can still find a lone pine tree to show you the way.
Travel tip: The modern SS7 from Rome to Terracina is a very good approximation of the original Appian Way. But if you want a somewhat safer bike route, follow via Latina to the south. It will take you through Italy’s national park Circeo, named after the enchantress of Homer’s Odessey, who turned Ulysses’ crew into pigs. There are a lot of campsites along the coast in this area, and you can rejoin the via Appia route further along.
When I reach the edge of Terracina, a barrista named Francesco tells me how to get to the Campo dei Paladini at the top of a steep hill.
“Non e’ difficile,” he assures me. “It is not difficult.”
He rolls a cigarette as I sip my espresso. A young woman walks in and greets him with a “Ciao, Francesco.” He introduces me as the crazy American who’s going to ride his bike all the way to Brindisi. When she’s not looking he gives me a nudge and whispers, “Non e’ difficile.”
I want to get going, but it’s always a good idea to talk to friendly barristas in Italy. They spend their whole day drinking coffee and chatting with travelers, so you’ll almost always learn something interesting.
Francesco tells me the story of Terracina, from the Samnites and the Volscii to the Kingdom of Naples and the Gothic Wars. He tells me that the archeological site lay underground and forgotten until allied bombing in World War II brought it to light. Francesco fills me in on the best local bands and where to hear them, where to get good wine, and how to pick up Italian women.
These final comments bring a wry smile from his female companion, who finishes her cigarette and wishes me luck on my travels.
“We’ll see if I make it,” I joke in Italian.
“Just do it a little bit at a time,” Francesco assures me. Non e’ difficile.
Twenty minutes later, as I creak and grind my way up to the Campo dei Paladini, I wonder what kind of tobacco was in Francesco’s cigarette.
Campo (Italian for “field”) dei Paladini was a traditional rest stop for the ancient Romans along the via Appia. The old “high road” went up this way, skirting the city and coming to rest in a large square or piazza bearing this name. Here at the top of the steep rise, travelers would take a well-earned break.
This lofty, rocky perch is above the city of Terracina today, and it’s shared with the Temple of Jupiter in Anxur. Of course you’ll see views of the city, the sea, and the surrounding countryside. From up here, in fact, the green line of pines marking the via Appia couldn’t be clearer.
But the city of Terracina herself is worth a bit of look, too. It’s the classic European walled city, and as you enter the gates you almost feel like defenders are aiming their crossbows at you. At the top and center, a trace of the original Appian Way runs straight through the wide town piazza. An ancient cathedral covers one end, built over an ancient Roman temple and combining architecture and decoration from ancient Rome, the middle ages, the Renaissance and the 18th century.
Terracina is a bit off the path for most travelers to Italy, but you could do worse than to stay in this quiet beach town, surrounded by hills and countryside ready for hiking and biking, and just a day’s journey from Rome.
But I’m committed to biking the entire Appian Way, and I don’t have nearly as much site-seeing time as I would like. So I make my way back down to the sea-level and take advantage of an engineering feat that was executed over 1800 years ago.
The steep climb and descent along Terracina were an unavoidable part of the Appian journey for the first 400 years. A finger of the Apennine mountains sticks out to the sea, and the first Romans had to go over this rocky wall. There was no other way.
Then in the first century AD, the Emperor Trajan ordered engineers to cut a pathway through the stone barrier. The modern Appian Way, SS7, follows this renovation, which saved a day’s travel for ancient Romans.
As you leave the city and pass through this steep rocky gate, look to the left for the Roman Numerals carved into the rock. The diggers marked the depth of their work at intervals, and you can easily spot the C, CX, and CXX which mark the final 100, 110, and 120 foot cuts.
This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.