Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: My Lemond

When I arrived in the United States with my two bicycles I was worried that compared to Europe the riding would be very poor. I had visions of being shoved off of eight lane expressways by SUVs but instead I quickly learned that Washington, DC has an extremely active cycling community. And I saw quickly that many cyclists were riding very high-end machines. It was about this time that I discovered E-Bay and after a short while I found myself in October 2002 the owner of a beautiful 2000 Lemond Maillot Jaune, built up in 2002 with Shimano Dura-Ace parts and dramatic red Velocity rims. I bought it from someone in Wisconsin who had only used it for indoor training and discovered that it was too big for him.

When the box arrived, I was certain that the seller had forgotten to pack the wheels given how light it was. But it was indeed all there and looked great. I had always wanted a set of Speedplay pedals and I indulged myself. I also added the CicloSport 434M computer I had bought in Germany in the off-chance I might find a suitable bicycle to put it on. I also upgraded the stem and handlebar (which were a bit too big for me anyway) with new Ritchey WCS parts--very light, strong and cost-effective.

The Maillot Jaune was the top-of-the-line Lemond in 2000, made by Trek in Wisconsin, and featured an aluminum frame with an aero downtube and a very cool Time Stiletto carbon fork. It was the same frame that was used by the Saturn professional bike racing team and I acquired a yellow Saturn jersey, along with a classic-looking Lemond Racing Cycles one. I even found a matching pair of Lemond Racing Cycle socks on E-Bay. My wall also boasts a Lemond aluminum shop sign and I have a La Vie Claire jersey signed by the mighty Greg Lemond himself.

It was on this bike that I really learned to climb hills, to descend quickly and to race. I had joined the Potomac Pedallers Touring Club and rode with different groups in Virginia and Maryland. Although I tended to ride the Marinoni for big climbs, such as the Mountains of Misery, the Lemond and I spent a lot of time on Skyline Drive and doing a lot of centuries. During the season, which runs in DC from August until early October, we would typically do six century rides in five weeks, including one back-to-back century weekend in each of the last three years.

On Skyline Drive, June 2003

I will never forget the first long ride I did on the bike, which I did in June 2003 with my new friend Jeff, whom I had met at the Mountains of Misery a month before. We had hit it off well and decided to be Real Men and ride the SkyMass route, along Skyline Drive from Front Royal, to Luray, VA, up Massanutten and back along Fort Valley to return to Front Royal. Little did we know what seemed like a reasonable 82 mile ride would turn into one of the worst experiences either of us have suffered while cycling. The 82 miles consisted of what seemed to us, as neophytes, nothing but climbing. Massanutten, in particular, was dreadful, and we were suffering from exhaustion and too little food by the time we came to Fort Valley, which was like a furnace. For the first part of the trip the Lemond was shifting badly as it was not yet dialled in. Jeff's wife was flying back from a trip and was expecting to be picked up at the airport so we were under time pressure as well. We laugh about it now, but we learned a lot about cycling that day.

The Lost Boys at Cedar Ridge, August 2005
Mike, Jeff, Larry, Me (and Ralph is not here)


It was on the Lemond that I also spent many happy hours riding with the Lost Boys, a group of fellow Potomac Pedallers. We sometimes rode with the club or just by ourselves and always had a great time. There was always a slight edge of competition that made us all into better cyclists, and we always seemed to take a wrong turn somewhere on our travels in Virginia and Maryland.

I took the Lemond twice to the Wintergreen Ascent and to the Coppi Training Camp in April 2006, the camp in California this year and even climbing in Gatineau Park in Ottawa, Ontario. But this Tin Donkey is off to a new owner as tonight I sold my Lemond to a gentleman who works at National Geographic. He was looking for a commuting bike but realized immediately that the Lemond was something special. I will help him adjust it and I know then that he will have as much fun with it as I have had. I have included the Lemond Racing Cycles jersey--and the socks!--in the deal.

11504 kms, and 104,345 m of climbing together. The bicycle still looks new and the Shimano parts function flawlessly. Seller's remorse? A bit perhaps, but there is a new Tin Donkey on its way!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: My Marinoni

Touring in Germany with the Marinoni

When I first began to relate the travels of the Tin Donkey, life was much simpler as I only had two bicycles: my 1991 Bianchi Limited and my custom-made 1998 Marinoni Ciclo. Now I have, uh, six bikes in my apartment.

For those unfamiliar with them, Marinoni bicycles are built near Montreal by Giuseppe Marinoni and when I first began to get serious about cycling in the mid-1990s they were the dernier cri for Canadian cyclists. Stylish, nicely-finished and nearly affordable, they came in a range of models. My bicycle was the entry-level version and was constructed with lugged steel tubing (Columbus Brain O/S, to be precise). I had it set up with a Campagnolo Athena group, a Racing Triple and Campy Atlanta aero rims. The bicycle has extra-long chainstays, an extra set of water bottle braze-ons and braze-ons for a rear rack and fenders. It is with this bike that I have ridden most of the Tin Donkey adventures and we have covered nearly 20,000 kms together so far. The bike, by current standards, is pretty heavy but it is amazingly comfortable and excellent for lightweight "credit card" touring.

Riding the Frankenwald Radmarathon in August 2001

This was the first bicycle I ever owned with integrated shifters and a triple chainring. Although I had done a few warm-up rides in Ottawa before I left for my German posting in 1998, my first introduction to serious cycling came when I was riding near Berlin in Brandenburg and got somewhat lost, turning what was supposed to be a 90 km ride into something approaching 150 kms. However, the Marinoni was so comfortable I felt that I could have just kept on going forever and this is when I realized how important bike fit is to a comfortable ride. And this is the bicycle I used for very long rides (224 km in one day in Holland; 220 km in one day around Lake Constance) and for hard climbing in the Swiss Alps and Sicily, as well as my epic ride along the Camino de Santiago.

En route to Castrojeriz

The bicycle is starting to show signs of wear and tear, but for a very reasonable amount the people at Marinoni will refinish it for me and we will continue to ride the scenic roads. The bicycle was a major investment for me, costing C$ 2000 but when I consider the immense pleasure it has given me since 1998 I consider it money well-spent. And not only is it painted in British Racing Green, as I requested, but the lettering is done in Sahara, a light gold colour and my name is even painted on the top tube. O Bliss!

There is a lot to be said for lugged steel bikes. They are high on the style quotient, with truly classic good looks. There is a Cult of the Lugs developing in North America and it is apparent at events such as the Cirque du Ciclisme and the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Not everyone wants to race their bikes (I do that too!) but just to sit back and enjoy the ride. Pride of ownership means a lot with something as personal as a bicycle, which was a significant milestone in industrialization yet remains a symbol of strong individualism.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

My Excellent California Training Adventure

Along the Pacific Coast Highway,
near La Jolla



In January I went to Southern California for ten days, where I attended Robert Panzera's San Diego Cycling Camp. It was good fun, although the initial superb weather became pretty frosty as Southern California hit record lows and most of the orange crop was lost. The irony was that DC was in the 70s at the same time.

Anyway, my JetBlue direct flight from Dulles to San Diego cost me $248 return, and an extra $50 each way for the bike and then I was picked up at the airport and taken to the hotel in Alpine, CA, which is about 25 miles east of San Diego and at an elevation of 1900 feet. I built up the bike and went for a short ride, past a very nice Indian casino, and got a feel for the landscape, which I guess would be called desert mountain. I had arrived a few days early to take advantage of the weekend but the camp itself began on the Monday and went to Friday.

On Sunday evening I met up with Robert and the rest of the group. There was an Old Hand from New York who had raced in Belgium in the 1960s, two triathlete types from Seattle and myself. Robert is a very experienced rider, doing about 50 (!) races a year. There is a very well-known coach in the San Diego area, Arnie Baker (a fellow Canadian, I might add), and Robert is one of his disciples. We discussed the kind of riding we were going to do over the coming days, and it seemed like a friendly little group.

the Viejas Casino near Alpine


The next morning after breakfast we rode out, joined by Jimena Florit, an Argentinian mountain biker who has recently ended her 12 year pro career as she retired from the LunaChix team, and during the week a few other local riders joined us too. The first day we did about 55 miles, with 4000 feet of climbing, and with a break at a store in between. The roads were very scenic and pretty empty for the most part. The following day we did a truly spectacular course, 62 miles and 6000 vertical feet, taking us through a big park along the very narrow Pine Valley Road, with inclines of 20 per cent. We reached an elevation of 6000 feet, passing the Pacific Coast Trail and a view of the Salton Sea, and enjoyed a 12 mile 6 per cent descent into Pine Valley.

On Wednesday we did a 76 mile route with 7300 vertical feet, including a superb road that was, for the most part, closed to traffic. It brought us back up to the summit of Mt. Laguna. The descent was a bit harder this second time as the temperature had really dropped. My downhill handling was really good as I was in a hurry to get down to a lower level as quickly as possible; I was hitting stretches at nearly 90 km/h on the way down, having gotten over my fear of cattle grids. The next day the forecast was so poor that instead of riding in the mountains we had a welcome respite, riding from La Jolla to Oceanview and back (54 miles) along the Pacific Coast Highway.


Eating at the surfer's restaurant in Oceanview








The last day we rode to Mt. Helix, which has a great corkscrew-like road that gives you an excellent view when you reach the top. We rode 55 miles, with a gain of 3900 feet for the day.

Camp over, I was planning to ride the next day but it was so cold that I just packed up the bike and went down to San Diego proper for the next two days for sightseeing and recovery.



The camp is an excellent value and Robert is extremely pleasant and very knowledgeable. We sat down one evening and went over my training plans and he sent me a suggested four month schedule to prepare for the Wintergreen Ascent. At his suggestion I also purchased Arnie Baker's e-book (for more information look at "High Intensity Training" at www.arniebakercycling.com) on high intensity training and the workouts are already exhausting me. I was very satisfied (except for the freakish weather!) and can recommend the camp for an early season start and great motivation. In January 2007 alone I have already ridden nearly 20 per cent of the mileage I did for all of 2006! And worked some hard hills.

There is another camp late in February at another location near San Diego. For more information you can go to: http://www.robertpanzera.com/cyclingcamp.htm

And check out the photos! The one of Robert and me climbing Pine Creek road makes my legs hurt to look at.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Look Ma! No Brakes! A Tour of the Berner Oberland

It is a general rule of cycling that all hills basically just go up. Once you have gone to all the trouble of climbing a b-I-g hill on your bicycle, however, you should enjoy the luxury of the wind blasting past and a downhill run unimpeded by the need for brakes. But in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland, on some downhill rides it is hard to determine whether the source of all that screaming is the brakes or you.

Located a very short distance from Bern, Switzerland's capital, the Bernese Oberland boasts beautiful lakes, picturesque villages and, of course, the magnificent Swiss Alps. Here are the Big Three, all stunning jagged granite peaks--the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Mönch. This being Switzerland, you can ride a comfortable train to the top of the Jungfrau and enjoy kaffee und kuchen without using ropes and pitons.

One of the great undiscovered pleasures of European travel is bicycle touring in Switzerland. The scenery is glorious, the roads perfectly-kept and superbly marked. The country is small enough to cover a lot of ground in a short time and there are excellent maps available. The trip can be a strenuous climb through bare mountains or a relaxing roll through alpine meadows. And everything is so well-organized that you do not really need to go to the expense of a group tour to enjoy a bike trip.

Acting on the advice of a railway brochure "Rent a Bike," we elected to go for big hills and great scenery. A short train ride from Bern took us through Thun and alongside the Thunersee, a beautiful lake ringed with snow-capped mountains. At Spiez, the train turned south and uphill, towards Brig. We got off at the attractive town of Frutigen with our bicycles and looked around for a while before grabbing a Postbus.

Frutigen had been around for a while since the church was originally built in 1421. One of the most charming aspects of the town, along with the flowers so characteristic of Switzerland, was the use of beautiful wrought-iron signs over the shops. There was a wonderful pair of glasses for an optician, some scissors at the hairstylist's, a hammer and pliers for the hardware store. We had never seen such elaborate metalworks, clearly the design of one person, in a small town before.

Frutigen also had an airport, or, more accurately, a substantial runway. There was no sign of a terminal building or other related services. It did not appear to be one of those secret mountain Swiss Air Force bases, particularly since it was within the town boundaries. Perhaps it was a case of "Well, we have enough money for a runway or a terminal, but not both."

The Postbus awaited at the railway station. Smaller Swiss towns in the mountains are served by these buses, which are an extension of the train service using the same tickets, on a regular basis. At the back of our modern bus was a rack with hooks for bicycles. It was just a matter of hanging the bikes by the front wheel and then sitting back in comfort as we made the definitely uphill drive to Adelboden, about 30 kms away from Frutigen.

As we continued climbing past little towns on a narrow and busily- travelled road, we became apprehensive about cycling back downhill. The traffic would be enough of a problem, but then came several long and extremely dark tunnels. Non-cyclists do not realize how unattractive it is to bicycle with insufficient light through a black, narrow tunnel with water dripping everywhere and cars rapidly approaching from behind. However, the Swiss, in their efficient way, have made provision for bicycles by routing them along a different, and safer, path.

The bus continued to grind its way up, up and up. The scenery changed from rolling hills to the narrow Engstligen valley, with lush green pine forests leading to grey mountains capped with snow all year. One final turn and we reached our cycling jump-off point, Adelboden.

Adelboden on marathon day

Adelboden was everything you expect a Swiss resort town to be. It was filled with gorgeous wooden chalets and restaurants with terraces and umbrellas and more flowers. At nearly 1400 meters above sea level, the air was sparkling clean and the views down the valley looked like they were from a chocolate box. Behind the village loomed the mountains, with their great grey ridges and ancient glaciers.

Everyone in Adelboden was in a holiday mood and the whole place was buzzing. It turned out that we were there on the day of a half-marathon race, and Adelboden marked the finish. Hundreds of runners had made the trip from Frutigen uphill on narrow mountain paths, the same paths we were about to ride downhill. No question as to who would have the easier time!

In spite of its freshly-scrubbed, resort appearance, Adelboden did boast some cultural treasures. The church was 550 years old and contained a modern stained-glass window by Augusto Giacometti.

We rode around Adelboden, taking in the sights. There was a huge public swimming pool, with a panoramic view, and cable cars to take you even higher up, to Silleren or Hahnenmoos, about 9 kms away and 600 meters higher. It is possible to take bicycles on some cable cars and ride back downhill, but it would probably be best to use mountain bikes for this.

This is why it is the Panorama Route!

With the last runners staggering in to the town square, we began our downhill run to Frutigen. Signposts included the familiar red arrows known to every cyclist in Switzerland. Our route was "the Vogellisi Panorama" and they weren't joking about the panorama part. Our progress was continually impeded by the need to stop and take another photograph of the breathtaking scenery. Soon we discovered a breathtaking upward climb. Trudging uphills is normally a dismal experience for cyclists, but with scenery like this, it was a pleasure to linger a little longer.

The road was about the width of one-and-a-half cars and was not just a bikepath. It was actually used by cars in both directions, necessitating some reversing into driveways. Cyclists should take care because there are many, many curves in the road.

Once past the big hill and having drunk our fill of mineral water and views of Adelboden, we discovered something else. Painted on the road was a picture of a bicycle with the words "Ride Carefully" in German. We quickly learned that every time one of these signs appeared, we were about to be treated to a roller-coast downhill ride, with plenty of hard curves. The road sent us screaming down over little bridges and cold, glacier-fed streams, around tight bends and through cool, pine-scented forests.

This is a two-way road!

Every time we caught our breath, the road dropped out from under us again. Our exhilaration was tempered somewhat by the smell of our scorching brakepads and the knowledge that there could be a car coming uphill just around that sharp corner. The wheel rims became almost too hot to touch from the friction of the brakes and our wrists became numb with the exertion of holding down the brake calipers.

Down, and down and down we went, with the valley falling away straight down from the left edge of the road, no barrier obstructing the view. On the right were more forests and ski chalets and little farms offering homemade cheese. Finally, the road became so steep we could not hold back the bicycles anymore and for the first time ever we had to walk downhill while trying to keep the bicycles away from their determined tryst with the force of gravity.

The path continued for nearly 30 kms, almost all downhill. We met almost no others, just a few hikers, several motorists and a determined mountain biker going uphill past us. How the marathoners could run to Adelboden on this route was a complete mystery. Or too awful to contemplate...

Riding our bikes once again, we quickly reached Frutigen. While filling up our water bottles at a flower-encircled public fountain, we learned from another cyclist that rather than riding alongside the main route into Spiez, a busy highway, we would have a more enjoyable trip by going around the airport and going through the towns of Reichenbach and Wimmis. He said that there would be one short uphill climb and that while we would have a headwind, it would be bearable. Other cyclists, especially locals, are always a valuable source of information when bicycle touring since the best roads for biking are not heavily-travelled.

Reichenbach

Sure enough, our first stretch past the airport was uphill, but compared to the mountains around Adelboden, it was very easy. Then downhill we went again, through gentle green meadows. Reichenbach quickly appeared, with its ancient church tower and long row of 18th century wooden houses. There was a small but elegant hotel, the Gasthof Bären, which dated back to 1542 but looked as if it had always been impeccably maintained.

The road went downhill faster now. We crossed under the highway, passing one of Switzerland's famous funicular railways and then a slight uphill gave us another superb view of the countryside. The terrain became quite flat and we sped past summer cottages and more small farms until the road forked, left to Wimmis and right to Spiez.

Spiez

Spiez and its railroad station was our destination. The station was easily found and had its own panoramic view. It overlooked a steep hill leading down to the ancient town, the harbour and the Thunersee beyond. Sailboats were everywhere on the sparkling blue lake and the grey mountains once again provided a dramatic backdrop.

Leaving the bikes in the rack in front of the station, we walked downhill, past the municipal swimming pool and the marina, and strolled past the shops and outdoor restaurants along the lake promenade. Looking down on us was the Schloss, the brooding medieval castle whose keep dated back to the 10th Century and which looked a bit incongruous in the cheerful sunlit lakeside setting. The church was endowed by King Rudolf II of Burgundy at the turn of the millennium. More to our liking was the lakeside restaurant, where the successful conclusion of our great downhill excursion was celebrated in fruity, clean (and well-deserved) Swiss wine.

This is the account of a ride I did in 1996. I would go back anytime!

Monday, February 19, 2007

What is this "Tin Donkey" thing, anyway?

Good question. I like the sort of antique sound of the name. Of course, I can call my blog anything I like but people want better explanations.

OK: a very early metal airplane built by Junkers was nicknamed the "Tin Donkey" and one of the world's first successful airliners was the Ford Tri-motor, known better as "the Tin Goose." A German nickname for the bicycle is Drahtesel, or "Wire Donkey," not to be confused with the old Mandarin word Tiema, or "Iron Horse." But I am particularly fond of the donkey connotation when I think of Robert Louis Stevenson's book, Travels with a Donkey, where he says:
But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world--all, too, travellers with a donkey; and the best we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many.

Saturday, February 17, 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.

The Tin Donkey Returns!



Several years ago I had My Very Own Website about cycling in Europe. Lots of people enjoyed reading about the travels in Travels with a Tin Donkey, but it was pretty time-consuming to write and expensive to maintain. I copied all the material I had put on it and in 2003 I shut it down. In the meantime, blogging was invented and now I have a way to bring back my stories about great rides and the cycling life.

I plan to repost the old articles and then start adding new ones for your reading pleasure. I hope that you enjoy the New! and Improved! Tin Donkey website.

The Sprocketboy