Saturday 17 February 2007

Riding In Italy: In the Tracks of the Tour of Lombardy

From Bellagio to, well, Bellagio--58 Kms of Paradise

I did this ride in July 2003

Whenever I mentioned going to Lake Como to anyone who had been there, his or her eyes would always roll upwards in contemplation of something heavenly, accompanied by a longing sigh. And so it was that during our bicycling holiday in Italy I came to drive the rental car northwards from the Barolo district near Turin along the Autostrada, around Milan on to Como. I had been told by my landlord that the road to Bellagio was well worth driving and so, after shifting my way through the very heavy traffic of Como without any disasters befalling me or Mr. Avis’Opel station wagon-–why won’t Europeans rent automatics?--I found myself on Route 583, heading north along the western arm of Lake Como.

The road climbs and descends very rapidly and I quickly decided that this was the most terrifying road I had ever driven on. In addition to all the climbing and descending and the curves necessitating constant shifting, the road was astonishingly narrow and there seemed to be a constant flow of buses and heavy trucks in the oncoming lane, all of which wanted to use up our lane as well. I have never sweated so heavily in driving a mere 30 kms and had so many near misses, or so it seemed. The Opel Corsa is not a particularly large car and yet it felt gigantic. Worst of all, my constant wrestling with traffic and the gearshift meant that I did not really have a chance to see some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe.

Lake Como, the deepest lake in Italy, is shaped roughly like a three-pointed star (imagine a bent up Mercedes-Benz symbol). It is nestled in between a series of beautiful mountain ridges and has a very moderate climate. Although Como is famous for its silk industry and is a proper city, the remainder of the region seems to be designed for tourists. The green, green hills are sprinkled with beautiful villas as far as the eye can see, ranging down to the shores of the deep blue lake. It has a tropical feel to it, magnified by this Summer of 2003 which saw one of Europe’s worst heat waves.

It was with some relief that we came into Bellagio at last. The hotel I had found on the Internet was located some distance above the town. Although it had a magnificent vista, it had no rooms available. This was just as well as it was somewhat isolated and going to and from town would have required negotiating an 11% grade hill for several kilometers. A better alternative turned out to be walking into town after parking in one of the lots located outside the small town and finding a hotel. One was located quite centrally and while not terribly expensive it seemed a poor deal compared to the places we had stayed elsewhere on the trip. But it was clear that Bellagio did live entirely from tourism and this was the price one had to pay to stay a few days in Paradise.

I went back to get the car and then, like threading a needle, I drove down the amazingly narrow street past the very old church to get to the hotel. I put the car in first gear and gently rolled through, giving pedestrians a chance to move out of the way when they were able to find a space to do so. Getting the car into the parking space at the hotel courtyard was rather complex as I had to make a right hand turn to get in and I almost knocked over a potted plant to get through the archway. But in the end the car was put away safely. Out came the bike case and I easily reassembled the Marinoni for the next day’s ride.

The whole purpose of being in Bellagio was to be able to ride to the famous Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, the “cyclists’ chapel,” that is so much a part of the tradition of the Giro di Lombardia. It was obvious to me from the drive that cycling around Lake Como would be rather difficult as the roads along the coast were very narrow and winding and the mountains exceptionally steep. But I was determined to do at least this one famous ride.

The remainder of the day was spent strolling around Bellagio. It was full of English-speaking visitors and tourists certainly outnumbered inhabitants by a large number. The buildings are all very beautiful, with soft terra cotta colours and tiled roofs. At the harbour are a number of grand hotels and there are at least two gorgeous villas. Bellagio is full of little boutiques, predominantly selling women’s fashions, neckties and Italian food items. It was extraordinarily hot in the afternoon and we had to retreat to our small room. Fortunately there was a small television so three happy hours were spent watching the Tour de France live.

Not being in the market for much of what was sold in the boutiques, the evening was spent walking around the steep stairs that pass for streets in the centre of Bellagio. There were also some cafés selling superb ice cream and we sat in the square in front of the 12th Century grey stone church, San Giacomo, drinking frappes or granites and then espresso as the light faded. We had an uninspired dinner at the harbour and watched the constant travel of the little car ferries as they headed across the lake in various directions. By evening the tourists had mainly gone and the town became quiet. Except for the constant hourly ringing of the church bells, right next to our room!While surfing the Internet and looking for places to stay in Bellagio, I had discovered a local bike club’s homepage and there were directions for a nice 58 km loop ride to the Madonna del Ghisallo. The translation, while not exact or literary, was clear enough: “Here how to try if you are fit enough.” And “A Tour studied for all the people with passion. A tour that will try your fitness.” Hmm. Well, I like to think that here in cycling’s Promised Land of Italy I am one of the people with passion, so at 7 o’clock sharp the next day I was rolling out of the courtyard into the cool morning air, the Marinoni eager for adventure.

The first kilometers were quite easy as I headed along Rt. 583 again, this time south towards Como. There was no traffic at all at this time of day and I was able to enjoy the view of the lake to the right as I kept a comfortable quick pace. It was a bit hazy but I had an excellent view of the Isola Comacina, the only island in Lake Como. It has been inhabited since Roman times and the Byzantines (what were they doing up here?) fortified it. The locals took it over, destroying the fortress and the seven Greek Orthodox churches there in 1169. It is very pretty now, with its villas and cypress trees.

The road really was narrow, even on a bicycle, but I was making good progress and had a wonderful view. This was the warm up phase and when I approached Nesso, 11 kms into the ride, I knew that the work was about to begin. A left turn took me away from the lake and then began a series of serpentines as I started to climb and climb and climb. The hills were heavily forested and the road had very little traffic except for the odd bus that I could hear approaching minutes away. In 7 kms, I had climbed about 600 meters and reached the little village of Zélbio where I noticed a grocery store. The sun had come out and I decided to rest for a bit.

It was already becoming quite warm and the climb had been difficult. I bought two bananas and some freshly-baked panini rolls and sat on a bench enjoying the quiet little town. Along with the store, there was a municipal building and a handful of houses and not much else.

As I was eating my bananas, I saw a rail-thin cyclist on a beautiful DeRosa bicycle riding up the main road, along the route I would be travelling. Although he was older than I am, he looked in far better condition, a typical Italian cycling fanatic with no body fat to speak of. Looking more closely, I realized that he was struggling up the hill. Soon he vanished up the road and I was left to my breakfast and my thoughts.

Sure enough, when I got back on the bike, I discovered that the road through town was actually very steep and I had some trouble getting started. After a short while, though, it became a little easier and as I rolled upwards through the rural landscape, I was able to enjoy the scenery. For another 5.5 kms this continued and I was thankful for the triple chainrings on the bike. I came to a little bend in the road and saw an observatory, of all things, on my left and a sign announcing that I had reached the summit at 1223 m ASL. There was a bench in front of the observatory and I thought it would be a good place to rest and admire the view over the mountains, down to the town of Sormano below.

This was clearly a road of choice for cyclists as several of them came up after I had stopped. They were all Italian men, many in their 60s, and almost all of them were riding gorgeous Colnago bicycles. As I was sitting, a gentleman came up to me and began speaking to me in English. He had noticed my Canadian maple leaf jersey and wanted to know if I was actually a Canadian. He was a Czech who was living in Switzerland but had actually spent a number of years in Rockville, Maryland working for the National Institute of Health. We chatted for quite a while; his son was studying international relations at the University of Bologna in the hope of becoming a diplomat.

We were interrupted by an anxious heavyset Italian man. Luckily my newfound friend spoke fluent Italian and was able to understand. The Italian was camping just down the hill in a meadow and was unable to get his car started. We walked down–me with my cleats–and working together with his wife were able to push the car forward enough so that he could get it going. Well, in some ways a standard transmission is a good idea!

The Czech was about to depart but was kind enough to take some pictures of me at the top of the hill with my camera. He came back a moment later and gave me another banana, knowing how much food you need while cycling! Then he drove off with a wave. A moment later an Italian on another wonderful Colnago rolled up. We talked for a bit in broken English/broken Italian and hand signs. He had ridden from Como on his regular training ride and was going on a flight to the US the next day. We talked a bit about cycling and then his friend ride up to the peak. They invited me to stop at the nearby hotel for a coffee with them and as much as I wanted to do it, I declined as my legs were getting cold and I still had most of my ride to accomplish. I thanked them and then headed down the hill, with some regrets.

The Czech told me that this hill, leading up from Sormano to the summit, is a famous one that is often used in the Giro d’Italia because of its length and its difficulty. Luckily, I was going in the right direction for a change and went downhill at a steady 50 km/h for what seemed like a good 10 kms. It was exhilarating but the traffic was very light.

I reached a crossroads but was not exactly sure where to go, so I called out to another cyclist on a racing bike for the directions to the Madonna della Ghisallo. He said to come with him and I followed him as best I could. It was embarrassing to be barely able to keep up with a 65 year old on a downhill but the Italian cyclists all seem to be in amazing shape. We came to a branch in the road and he pointed me in the right direction.

The road here was quite different from the one on the shoreline, being fairly flat and straight, and running alongside the little Lamboro River. There was some traffic as the road was the alternate way to Bellagio and there was some gentle climbing for the next 20 kms or so. I passed another 12th Century church, San Stefano, and soon found myself passing the town of Barni, almost the last place before doing the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo.

The road headed a bit to the right and as I began to climb, I noticed that there was a turnoff leading to the village, and it appeared to pass a very nice covered spring. There were a number of old people there filling up bottles with water, and I changed direction and went down to join them. They were impressed that I was riding up to the church and they assured me that the water was excellent and they let me in line ahead of them since I only had to refill my two water bottles. There was, as usual, much waving and gesticulating and friendly comments–has there ever existed a people as animated as the Italians when meeting foreigners? But there was no escaping the climb, so back I turned to the road.

The climb, compared to the one I had ridden through Zélbio, seemed fairly reasonable, probably around 5-6%. I passed some pretty villas, but most of the ride was through forest. Then I approached the village of Magréglio and passed very quaint and quite substantial-looking hotels and restaurants. This was the main street and still climbed noticeably. When it flattened out, I passed a parking lot on the right side with a little café and there, suddenly, was the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo, so small I almost passed it as I concentrated on my riding.

Since 1905, the Giro di Lombardia bicycle race, known as “the Race of the Falling Leaves,” has taken place in the province and the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Ghisallo is generally a fixture of the event. The chapel, with three Romanesque arches, is much older than I expected, dating to 1623, but its fame became universal in 1949, when Pope Pius XII decreed the Madonna del Ghisallo to be the patron saint of cyclists and, of less note, motorcyclists. It had been the habit of cyclists to pray at the chapel in gratitude for surviving the rigours of the road and they had often left remembrances of some kind behind. This custom has grown over the years and the little chapel is stuffed with interesting cycling memorabilia today. It is, however, an active church and there is a sign near the door pointing this out and suggesting that the proper respect be paid.

The chapel, at 745 ASL, commands a wonderful view of the eastern branch of Lake Como, the Lago di Lecco. Two busts, erected in 1960, stand directly to the left of the chapel. They portray the Italy’s most beloved competitive cyclists, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. One ran off with a married woman and died young of malaria; the other, a good Catholic boy, only died two years ago after a long and respected life.

I walked around the chapel. On a little rise to the right of it stood another sculpture, this of two cyclists life-size and dating from 1973. One of the riders is raising his arms in the tradition salute of victory, while the other has fallen to the road and holds his broken bike. It is probably a bit of kitsch, this statue, but I liked it anyway. And the view from the rise, looking down on the lake far below, was sublime.

There were a number of other cyclists, including some club riders. Some tourists walked by and, noticing my Canadian jersey, a man asked me if I was from Canada. This jersey certainly is effective at starting conversations! He spoke French very well, so we talked a bit about his visit to Montreal, where he had family, and I told him how much I liked Italy.

I was pretty well by myself after a few minutes and I took out the camera for some shots of the chapel. It was almost noon and the sun was blazing down so it was not the ideal circumstance for a photo but I had no idea whenever I would come back to this hallowed spot. Another cyclist noticed me and, with more smiling and handwaving, he volunteered to take my picture. He did this with great enthusiasm and there are slides of me in front of the chapel, in front of Fauso and in front of the big statue with my bicycle to prove that I actually had been there.

But now it was time to enter the chapel itself. I put the Marinoni in the rack outside and walked in. I was surprised by how extremely small the building it was but also with how much bicycling stuff had been jammed in there. The walls were covered with photographs of deceased cyclists, commemorated by their clubs, but higher up the walls were covered with racing jerseys. These were not only from innumerable amateur clubs but also from the most famous professional riders. They included the rainbow jerseys of world champions, the pink leader’s jersey from the Giro d’Italia and a number of yellow jerseys from the Tour de France. The names were a roll call of legendary Italian cyclists: Binda, Bartali, Coppi, Magni, Fondriest and, of course, Mario Cipollini, represented by a nice new World Champion’s rainbow jersey. But other nations were represented as well, with Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain prominent.

Moser's One-Hour Record Bike

At the highest level on the walls are the bicycles of these famous riders. There are celeste Bianchis, belonging to the great Coppi and Felice Gimondi; an orange Eddy Merckx bike; the aerodynamic bike Francesco Moser used to go after the one hour record in 1984, reaching 50.808 km/h and breaking the record held by Merckx for a dozen years. And, poignantly, there was also
the Motorola team bicycle of Fabio Casartelli, as well as his 1992 Olympic road champion’s jersey. Casartelli, a teammate of Lance Armstrong, died in an accident during the 1995 Tour de France.

Fabio Casartelli's Bike

The chapel is a charming place and one that all cyclists can enjoy, whatever their religious leaning. You can even buy postcards from a vending machine near the front door. I was touched by the tributes, the flowers and miniature photos, for all those riders who were never famous except during the Sunday afternoon sprint with their little town’s bike club. The Madonna del Ghisallo is so small, and the affection of cyclists so generous, that a cycling museum is under construction next to the chapel. Its architecture echoes the serpentine roads and it should also have a marvellous view when it is finished.

After walking around the dark, quiet chapel, I went back into the hot Italian sunshine and got back on the Marinoni for the next stage of the trip. I would now ride the famous Wall of Ghisallo, but rather than climbing for 11 kilometers like they do in the Giro di Lombardia, I had already done most of my climbing for the day and was now about to enjoy a wonderful downhill ride back to Bellagio.
Rider Triumphant, Rider Fallen

Once past the chapel, the road starts to drop quite rapidly, and there is a series of tight hairpin curves that snake down into the picturesque village of Civenna, which has superb views of the lake and even a belvedere from which to enjoy them. On and on I descended, whizzing past well-tended villa gardens and little stands of forest. Passing Guello, I stopped for a moment and took some photos of Bellagio far below and then dropped down out of the mountains at high speed and swooping into Bellagio, along the beautiful waterfront roadway with the high wall on one side, feeling triumphant. 58 kms ridden on one of the most beautiful rides I have ever done. It was noon, and time for a frappé, a cold mineral water and an espresso in the church square sidewalk café. I could count myself as one of “all the people with passion.” And the notes had said, and I quote: “You will needa medium fit.” But I felt much better than medium fit. Tutto bene!

Profile: all downhill for me!

Hilarious translation note: Internet Explorer has a translation function that is quite amusing in its literalness. One Italian website I looked at for some background on the sculptures was great: Fausto Coppi came out in English as
Faustus Goblets. A great name for a celebrated bon vivant and Man of Style.

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