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Big Ride: Lake Como and Madonna di Ghisallo

Henry Catchpole
29 Sep 2016

Cyclist takes on the climbs of Il Lombardia past and present, including the iconic Madonna di Ghisallo.

This is a tale of two climbs and a route that we weren’t meant to do. Having arrived in the wee small hours of the morning, bodies still a touch fatigued from doing another big ride elsewhere in Italy the day before, we’ve all overslept slightly. And once the spectacular surroundings and the first breakfast espressos have both sunk in we – that’s Phil, semi-pro triathlete for Team Corley Blue, Jason, racing driver and triathlete, Paul, who regularly photographs household names (that’s names as in Mo Farah, not Wimborne Rectory), and me, a slightly ropey 3rd Cat racer – remember that one of the bikes broke yesterday and we need to repair it before we can start riding. The nearest bike shop is a little distant, but thankfully the hotel’s owner helps out by selling us a 105 rear derailleur from one of his hire bikes. All that’s left is for us to fit it, which is easier said than done when you only have the most basic of bike tools, a pair of scissors and the combined mechanical prowess of a flock of sheep. Anyway, after getting grease into hitherto undiscovered places, finding out that Jason actually does have some sort of engineering qualification, and squinting a lot while trying to thread cables through imperceptibly small holes, we end up with a bike that will swap between some (if not all) sprockets upon request. The patron saint of cycling is clearly watching over us…

Our intention, or more accurately our instructions from Cyclist HQ, had been to catch a ferry across Como and head up over the spectacular Passo San Marco and then loop round to the Colma di Sormano. But after a bit of looking at watches, shuffling of feet and mumbling about the need to get photos done, we decide to ignore most of this and instead do our own (slightly shorter) tribute to the Giro di Lombardia, starting with its most famous climb, which happily also happens to go straight past the entrance to the hotel we’re in.

Some years ago, when I was in my road cycling infancy, I coveted a titanium frame (still do) and there was one in particular that fascinated me – the Litespeed Ghisallo. I knew it was the lightest bike in its range, designed to float up the toughest climbs and named after one of them. In my innocence I imagined the Ghisallo (pronounced with a hard G, Gee-zar-lo) to be one of the mountainous cols that I was gradually learning the names of. I daydreamed idly of a road twisting and soaring up into puffy clouds that were as light as the bike named after it. Little did I know it starts at a small roundabout before heading through some traffic lights.

We descend the kilometre from the hotel to the junction of the SP41 and the SS583 before heading up between the houses and passing a ‘start’ line painted on the road. Initially at least it doesn’t look like a terribly inspiring setting for a famous climb – the view is behind you and the gradient isn’t even very steep. I decide that effort is the best form of warm-up and begin grinding a big gear with some purpose. If I had known that we were going to cycle this route I might have looked at a profile before we came out here but, as it is, we’re cycling it blind. I have no idea how long it is or how vertiginous, but as all the mountains appear to lie across the other side of water I assume that it must be short and steep – an explosive launchpad of a climb but not too long. Never assume.

Past the hotel, signs of habitation recede and the road narrows as it begins switchbacking between thick banks of deciduous trees. The air is still, and trapped in this dark green tunnel it’s impossible to gauge how far you might have left to climb or even what’s around the next corner. It even visually disguises the gradient, which by now has ramped up considerably. The fear of the unknown sets in and you instinctively drop some gears to give your already lactic-sluiced limbs some leeway. Eventually you reach the small group of houses that make up Guello and the gradient eases, surely signifying that the torture is over. On the far side of the village is a small chapel and I know that a chapel stands at the top of the Ghisallo. Not this chapel though. 

False summit

The bald stats for the Ghisallo state that it is 10.6km long (in my head it didn’t feel like we’d covered 10k but my legs were already happy to believe the ascent was over) and the average gradient for the whole climb is just 5.5%. The key word in those stats, however, is ‘average’. You see, the gradient so far had been hovering around a much more punishing 9% and the final kilometre and a half also rears up to well over 9%, but in between there is an average-reducing false summit. For 3km we race along in the big rings, enjoying the feeling of a vaguely cooling slipstream, the road even beginning to descend slightly as the lake appears dramatically to our left at one point. 

I’m leading when the sting in the Ghisallo’s tail comes into view on the exit of Civenna but, blissfully innocent, I stay in the big ring and attack with a rouleur’s confidence, sure that it would peter out round the corner, nothing more than a glorified speed hump. Instead it’s me who peters out round the corner, frantically climbing the chain up the rear cassette, Di2 whirring like a compact camera zoom, as I realise my error and the road resumes its 9% ascent. 

A tightly packed set of hairpins signals that the end really is in sight and eventually a line on the tarmac saying ‘Finish’ gives the game away entirely. You won’t need much persuading to stop at the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo that marks the summit, but even if you’re on a day where you feel like you’ve got Philippe Gilbert’s legs, you should take a moment to dismount and wander. 

There are four busts outside the small church; the names Bartali, Binda and Coppi need no introduction, but the fourth is of Father Ermelindo Vigano, who proposed that the apparition of the Madonna del Ghisallo (so named because it saved the medieval count Ghisallo from bandits) become the patron saint of cyclists. Go inside the church and you enter the most incredible Aladdin’s cave of cycling history: signed rainbow, pink and yellow jerseys, photos and, most incredibly of all, bicycles with the names of their owners attached all cover the silent walls. On one side a Francesco Moser TT bike alongside Gimondi’s 1976 Giro Bianchi. On the other side, poignantly, hangs the bike that Fabio Casartelli was riding when he crashed on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the 1995 Tour. You could spend hours in there.

Saturated with nostalgia we descend towards Asso. It’s a good fast descent on a wide road, and the only real distraction is looking out for the right turn onto the SP44 towards Sormano. It is in fact the only right turn on the descent. A nice big junction with lots of obvious road furniture. All of which Phil ‘Homing Pigeon’ Holland, displaying his usual uncanny navigational skills, chooses to completely ignore. We half-heartedly shout after him but he’s got his head down and the lure of gravity is obviously clogging his ears, so we resign ourselves to waiting for him to look back and realise his mistake (hoping he doesn’t think he’s achieved some glorious breakaway and push on for Milan). 

Eventually he comes bobbing back into view having apparently enjoyed the extra bit of climbing back to us. ‘Date?’ he cheerily enquires once he’s got his breath back. We all look slightly awkwardly at the ground assuming he’s mooting some sort of candlelit soiree, until thankfully he produces a bag of wrinkled fruit from a back pocket and declares them ‘nature’s own energy gels’ while stuffing a couple in his mouth.

The climb of the Colma di Sormano was reintroduced to the Giro di Lombardia, the late-season one-day Classic, in 2010. Coming just 6km after the top of the Ghisallo it’s a nasty proposition on tired legs as the road zigs and zags up through 11 hairpins on route to the halfway point at the town of Sormano itself. At a more manageable 5-6% I feel stronger on this climb and actually give Phil more of a run for his money. Each of the tight hairpins is wonderfully cambered too, so you can stay tight to the inside of the turn, ride them like berms and slingshot out the other side.

Clearly not satisfied with the smooth main roads (or possibly just because he’s lost again) Phil dives off among the houses once we’re  in Sormano and then emerges a couple of minutes later claiming to have found an awesome little climb up a side street. It turns out to be not only steep, but no more than a bike-width wide between the houses and rough as the Arenberg trench. We crank up it at barely more than an inching trackstand and I don’t think it will be appearing in the tour of Lombardy any time soon…

There’s a small café in town, from which we order various combinations of bread, meat and cheese before slumping into some plastic chairs on the other side of the road (we think they belonged to the café and weren’t the garden furniture of the house opposite). Because I happen to think it’s a crime to go to Italy and not have ice cream, I also order a couple of scoops of the cold stuff while the others have coffee.

Climbing the walls

The Colma di Sormano continues for another 4.5km but we’ve got other plans, because hidden in the trees is a short cut… of sorts. It’s definitely shorter in distance, but perhaps not time. The Muro di Sormano appeared in the Tour of Lombardy for just three years between 1960 and 1962, before it was removed for being too difficult. That’s right – for the past 50 years it has been deemed too hard for the pros. But in 2012 it once again made an appearance in the Giro di Lombardia, where the likes of Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Philippe Gilbert battled up its insanely steep slopes in freezing mist and rain. On that day in late September, Gilbert, wearing his new World Champion’s jersey, eventually crashed out of the race on a descent, and Rodriguez went on to take the win.

It might be only 1.7km long but muro translates as ‘wall’ and it’s not much of an exaggeration. You need to dive off to the left of the SP44 just after you pass the sign saying ‘Sormano’ with a big red line through it and descend for 100 metres or so on a narrow side road. The start is next to a large stone trough and although there might be the odd vehicle parked next to it, no cars are allowed on the wall, which is one less thing for us to worry about but not great news for the valiant Paul, who has to walk up lugging his Canon and a variety of lenses.

There is no polite pre-amble to the climb and your heart rate soars upwards as quickly as the road. You’re straight down into your 39 or, if your lucky, 34-tooth chainring and up out of the saddle. Trees crowd claustrophobically round as you negotiate the first corners into woodland, which at least provides us with some shade from the sun. There is a small barrier to negotiate and then the writing’s truly on the wall (sorry, I couldn’t resist). In a sort of Star Wars style, names and numbers were neatly transcribed onto the tarmac when the climb was saved from crumbling and returning entirely to nature in 2006. There are lists of the first 10 up the climb each year it was in the Tour of Lombardy, the times taken and the gears used. A quote from Baldini finishes with the encouraging words ‘The climb is simply beastly, impossible to ride.’ There are also markers ticking off every metre
in vertical ascent that you make. They are horribly close together.

By halfway up I’ve lost all interest in where Phil and Jason are on the climb (although internally I haven’t stopped cursing their weight advantages). My quads are now crying for me to unclip and walk or for a push like the partisan Italian crowd would give to their favourites in the 1960s. Every lean down on a pedal and concurrent heave up on the opposing side of the handlebars is a supreme effort seemingly straining every sinew in my body. It’s quite interesting to reach that state where keeping going is purely mental, where you have to talk yourself into prolonging the agony a few pedal strokes longer, embracing and yet also blocking the pain. It’s a state that very few of us can push ourselves to on the flat – it’s too easy to ease off a little – but on a climb this steep you don’t have that choice. It’s all or nothing.

The climb has blasts of 25% to 27%, which in isolation I can cope with – there are a few similarly steep patches in the Surrey Hills near where I grew up. It’s the Muro’s crippling average of 17% that is threatening to be my undoing because there is simply no rest, no let up, no chance to relax. Gino Bartali, the great Italian rider of the 1930s and 40s, said, ‘A passista (non-climber) has no alternative. He must arrive at the foot of the Muro with
at least 10 minutes’ head start, so that if he walks, taking a quarter of an hour or more than those that ride it, he will arrive at the top five or six minutes in arrears and still hope.’ 

Once out of the trees the setting is stunning; wild flowers filling the overgrown banks, butterflies flapping lazily, sprawling views of distant craggy mountains. To a bystander the scene would look so tranquil, yet on the bike your body seems to be inhabiting a world of noise as the sound of pumping blood fills your ears and tortured muscles silently scream.

Eventually it ends and at the top there are a few other cyclists just hanging out on the grass, most having climbed the less severe ascent. It’s bliss sitting in the sun just watching the world pedal by for a few minutes as strength returns to your legs. Mostly it’s a steady trickle of old Italian men astride beautiful steel Colnago frames, a miasma of multicoloured and fluoro- trimmed tops covering their mahogany skin.

A quick look at the GPS trace for the day and you could almost mistake the Muro for an anomalous blip, a spike where the satellites have dropped out. After a while we all remount and descend (via the main road) back to the Skoda, revelling in some decent speed for only the second time that day. Jason overtakes a car just for good measure. At the bottom we decide that will do for the afternoon because we need to get the dodgy rear derailleur to a proper bike shop in Lecco before our next ride tomorrow, 200 miles away. At which point Jason casually asks where Phil is. Turns out he’s gone off to scale the Muro again, just for fun. Maybe we should have accepted his offer of a date after all.

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How we got there 

Travel

Although we drove out, it’s a 1,000km journey from Calais to Bellagio, which lies in what can only be described as the crotch of Lake Como, so flying might be more attractive. 

There are two airports near Milan – Malpensa (MXP) and Linate (LIN) – and there’s no real reason to choose one rather than the other, which opens up a whole host of possible flights. The journey from either airport should take just over an hour by hire car, but a note of caution – the final roads into Bellagio are very narrow. Alternatively there are transfers to Bellagio available from as little as €35 through www.flytolake.com.

Hotel

We stayed at the Hotel Il Perlo Panorama (www.ilperlo.com), which is approximately 3km from the shore of Lake Como and, being up above Bellagio, has absolutely stunning views. There is plenty of parking and although you wouldn’t call the rooms luxurious they are clean. The hotel prides itself on welcoming cyclists and even offers a specific three-night/two-day cycling package, which includes bike rental and entry to the Ghisallo Museum (adjacent to the chapel). 

Bikes

If you want to rent a bike, try www.comolagobike.com – although it doesn’t exactly offer the flashiest steeds. For a lovely little bike shop try The Bike on Via Promessi Sposi, in Vlamadrera-Caserta, near Lecco.

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