The cobblestone streets of Rome are rough on bicycles. That includes two-wheelers ridden by Catholic seminarians at the Pontifical North American College.
One outdoorsy priest-in-training from the Archdiocese of Portland decided his 250 peers in the Eternal City needed an expert when it comes to bike fixes. Peter Julia, a former bicycle mechanic, proposed that the school open an on-campus repair shop. A student committee consented and put Julia in charge.
His official title: Bicycle Shop Prefect.
“My friends kind of know me as a gear guy,” says Julia, 37. “If it’s bicycle- or climbing-related there’s a good chance I have something to say about it. I wish my mind was as encyclopedic at theology as it seems to be for climbing and cycling gear.”
When Julia arrived at the Roman college, a half mile south of St. Peter’s Basilica, he noticed that 1 in 3 seminarians had a bicycle. The jarring pavement made for frequent flat tires, loose bolts, broken spokes and other mechanical indignities. Word got around that Julia was a bicycle expert from Portland, known as the cycling capital of the United States.
“After being at the college for only a couple of months and seeing how beat up bikes can get on the Roman cobblestones, I had more repairs lined up than I had time to fix,” Julia says.
After the bike shop plan won a green light, he ordered tools and bike stands and had them shipped to Rome. Another seminarian-mechanic joined him in adjusting chains, calibrating derailleurs, replacing brake cables and truing wheels.
He feels good helping out his classmates and gets to meet a lot of them.
He named the shop after Our Lady of Ghisallo, patroness of cyclists. Cyclists built a shrine to her on a hill near Lake Como.
Julia began cycling on his grandfather’s red Nishiki road bike, purchased in the 1980s. He recalls the cycle with near-ecstasy.
“Japanese lugged steel frame, a true quality machine,” he says.
In college at Baylor, he embraced road cycling and made many friends in the sport. Along the way, he picked up mechanical skills, always having been a tinkerer.
After college, he moved to Colorado Springs and was hired by a large shop as operations manager and then became sales manager at the flagship store in a Denver suburb.
“I fit people for bikes, fixed bikes, sold bikes,” he says.
Eventually, he moved to Portland through contacts he’d made in the cycling industry and became general manager of a new shop on trendy Northwest 23rd Avenue. But that was 2008, just as the economy was crashing like a mountain biker who didn’t see a cliff. The shop failed.
Julia turned to his other skill, climbing, and was hired as a climbing coach at the Multnomah Athletic Club.
That’s when his discernment got moving. He went to Rome three years ago.
Asked if riding a bicycle in the Italian capital is safe, Julia takes a deep breath.
“The first thing you must do is forget every rule and law that you know about riding in an urban environment in the United States,” he says. Moped (motorini) drivers rule the Roman roads, racing to the front of the line at stop lights, darting between vehicles and generally doing whatever they want.
“Bicycles basically get to do the same thing,” says Julia. “Riding in traffic like this is not for the faint of heart, but truth be told, because Italians are so aware of motorini drivers and cyclists in their midst, they have a far greater awareness that we two-wheelers are all over the place. Thus, what feels like chaos seems to have an amazing amount of efficiency.”
After the bike repair shop opened at the college, ridership increased. Now, about half of seminarians have bicycles. Many cycles tend to be hand-me-downs and not of the highest quality. That means the repair schedule stays full.
Julia calls the bike work a good diversion from study and a good source of reflection on belief. “God meets you in that quiet time,” he says.
He also finds that a long bicycle ride, with its cadence, is prayerful. He finds himself praising God spontaneously or saying the rosary while he rolls on Italian roadways.
And Julia tends to use bicycle metaphors. In a meeting with the rector last year, he compared formation to the priesthood to truing a bicycle wheel.
Bicycle wheels go out of balance as one rides down the bumpy roads of life, Julia said. Eventually the wheel needs to be put into a truing stand so the mechanic can bring the wheel back into alignment by gentle adjustments on each side.
“We all need this truing in our lives, and formation, the sacraments, and liturgy are means to get ourselves back to the true center that is Christ,” he says.
Julia notes with appreciation every time a competitive cyclist crosses a finish line and makes the sign of the cross.
One of his heroes is Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Italian known for his love of climbing, cycling, horseback riding and soccer.
“He would have been a great Portlander,” Julia muses.