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Hitting the Wall: Il Lombardia Gran Fondo sportive review

5 Oct 2021

Il Lombardia takes place this Saturday and represents the final Monument of the year, and for many, the end of the road cycling season.

Coined the Classica delle foglie morte (The Race of the Falling Leaves) for its autumnal timing, Lombardia is traditionally a climber's race as its flip-flops between starting and finishing in either Como or Bergamo, riding the steep hills that sit above Italy's great lakes. In 2021, however, it avoids arguably the race's toughest challenge: the dreaded Muro di Sormano.

The climb is, however, part of the accompanying Il Lombardia sportive, which takes place on Sunday, the day after the pro race. Cyclist was on the start line for the inaugural running back in 2018.

Words Mark Bailey Photography Mike Massaro

Everything about Lombardia suggests today’s ride will be a serene and sophisticated affair.

The road slips alongside the Prosecco sparkle of Lake Como, passing chic locals sipping cappuccinos outside cafes. A seaplane lands on the water in a swirl of foam and froth.

Italian flags ripple in the breeze. If we’re lucky we’ll spot George and Amal Clooney, members of Como’s vacationing glitterati, on their morning stroll.

But despite the glamour, sunshine and beautiful vistas, something is haunting my mind in the moments before the start of the Gran Fondo Il Lombardia.

This event inspired by Italy’s fabled Giro di Lombardia pro race, and looming about 65km into the 110km course is one of the race’s most notorious obstacles – the Muro di Sormano, otherwise known as ‘The Wall’.

This twisted monstrosity may be only 1.7km in length, but it averages an appalling 17% gradient. On its most vicious hairpins that gradient hits a suicidal 27%.

A local rider tells me he has never made it up without walking. To illustrate what’s to come, he simply holds his hand flat then yanks it up until his fingers are perpendicular to his wrist.

The devilish climb made its first appearance in the race in 1960 but featured only three times before it was banished, with desperate pro riders forced to walk or accept illegal pushes from fans.

The climb fell into disrepair but a campaign by local cyclists saw it resurfaced in 2006. It made its return to the Giro di Lombardia in 2012 and it is now the sinister star of this gran fondo.

Gran designs

It’s early on a Sunday in October, and I’m in a pen by the shores of Lake Como with about 1,400 other cyclists.

They are mostly Italians, dressed in bright attire and cursing the pre-dawn cold, but in total there are entrants from 25 nations, including many from the UK.

At this time in the morning, simply finding a place to relieve yourself without getting collared by the carabinieri seems to be most people’s primary challenge.

The peloton flies out of the blocks just as the sun begins to toast the waters of the lake. Europe’s gran fondos aren’t like UK sportives, with a more competitive race vibe and riders hunting positions and times.

I decide that it is prudent not to get pressured into full-on race mode this early in the day, so I move to the side of the road as riders fly past like a squadron of fighter jets, undertaking, overtaking, whistling, shouting and cursing.

I’m only about a foot from the kerb but somehow a bony figure in red still manages to undertake me.

In the hazy dawn, we ride past bobbing boats and the grand shuttered apartments of Como. The church bells clang lethargically, as if they too have been awoken from their Sunday morning slumber for some exercise.

They’re still ringing in my ears as we tackle a short climb to Lipomo before riding past the neat gardens that line the shores of Lake Pusiano.

It’s reassuring to find the peloton protected by motorbike outriders and support cars, but as I roll along leisurely and take in my surroundings I realise that the vehicle that has just passed me is the broom wagon.

These Italian gran fondos really are designed for speedsters, so I step up my pace a bit and slip back into the main pack.

The roads are still open to traffic, and being in a bunch of riders offers a bit of protection from the constant stream of cars.

Later I speak to riders who were nearer the front who say they were protected by motorbike outriders for most of the race, but even they were spooked by segments of busy roads.

I’m relieved when I eventually turn off the main road at Asso and take up the more tranquil road to Valbrona.

On the descent to Onno, we glide down some switchbacks, catching glimpses of Lake Como framed by the mountains beyond.

From Onno, the route blasts along a narrow road hemmed in between steep rock faces and the shores of the lake on the way to Regatola.

The lakeside road is covered by fallen leaves in the earthy red and brown hues of autumn – a reminder of the Giro di Lombardia’s popular nickname – ‘the Race of the Falling Leaves’.

Centurions of the road

The Giro di Lombardia dates back to 1905 and is the last of the five Monuments of the season.

Previous winners include the Italians Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali, Felice Gimondi and Fausto Coppi, who triumphed a record five times.

And the day before this year’s gran fondo, which traces the final stages of the pro race’s 247km course, another Italian, Vincenzo Nibali, took his second win at the event.

Perhaps the best-known landmark in the race is also the first major challenge of our day – the ascent to the famous Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo.

It heads up along stone-buttressed hairpins to the hilltop church with an atmospheric museum that’s packed full of cycling memorabilia.

This climb was once dubbed ‘the poor man’s spaceship’ by Italian writer Gianni Brera because it allowed humble cyclists to leap to the heavens.

It’s 10.6km long with a total ascent of 552m, meaning the average gradient is a relatively benign 5.2%, but it includes several sharp stretches at over 10%.

By the time I arrive at the feed station at the top, riders are sitting around eating apricot-flavoured brioche and sweet biscuits, so I duly follow suit.

After the welcome pit stop, I rattle down the descent to Maglio, dropping 250m before beginning the climb that will take me to the foot of The Wall (in case the diabolical Sormano wasn’t tough enough in itself, the approach to it is a 7km climb averaging 9%).

I soft-pedal, trying to preserve as much energy as possible for the horror to come, but nothing can prevent the torture going on in my brain.

All I can think about is that the Muro di Sormano has a 3% steeper average gradient than Yorks Hill, scene of the infamous Catford Hill Climb, but the agony lasts triple the distance (1.7km versus 0.64km) and involves triple the altitude gain (280m versus 92m).

As I arrive at the base of The Wall, I get cheered on by an Italian family shouting, ‘Dai! Dai! Dai!’ in my face. It's not a threat, but a kindly urging – 'Come on!'.

The Wall

What exactly is a cyclist supposed to do? With my bike tilted at discombobulating angles, if I stay in the saddle my front wheel flips into the air and I am forced to painfully yank my leg upwards just to get my foot over the pedal in order to complete a rotation.

If I stand up, the angle is so sheer that I can only stomp down on the pedals in piston-like thrusts. This is less cycling, more heavy gym workout.

I later discover that the winner blasted up the hill in nine minutes. Here at the back of the bus, however, most are already walking, slowly shuffling and grunting uphill like Lycra-clad zombies.

A few try to get back on their bikes, but the angle makes re-starting impossible.

Not wanting to join the ranks of the walking dead, I settle on a rhythm of 10 seconds in the saddle, 10 seconds standing up. It’s a horribly frantic, anxiety-inducing sequence, but I just can’t last any longer in either position.

The road surface is decorated with lines marking every metre gain in altitude. On the steeper hairpins those lines are barely a bike length apart.

My pace has slowed to the point where I am essentially track-standing up the mountain, moving half a metre with every downward push on the pedals.

My temples are throbbing. My leg muscles are convulsing. If I tried to remove a hand to glug some water I’d fall off, as one rider does just in front of me. When he gets up and starts walking, he looks relieved.

‘Just step off and walk,’ whispers the devil on my shoulder. ‘You’re too weak to make it.

This is the climb that will finally break you. All you have to do is put one foot on the floor and this torture will all be over.’

‘You’ll never live that down,’ replies the angel on my other shoulder. ‘Just keep going.’

Such toxic mind games will be familiar to any cyclist who has truly suffered, but here on the Muro di Sormano the writing is, quite literally, on the wall.

Soundbites from former champions are neatly stencilled on the road. One citation from the Italian cyclist Ercole Baldini translates as, ‘This climb is simply bestial, impossible to get up.’ Thanks for the inspiration, Ercole.

Then, to my utter confusion, my arms begin to bonk. This is a first. Working hard to keep my almost motionless bike from falling sideways, my biceps and triceps have started to quiver and tremble.

So now all four of my limbs are flaming and failing. At least none of them feels left out.

I flirt with the idea of quitting upwards of a hundred times on the Sormano, yet somehow I stamp and grind and heave for 25 minutes and 30 seconds and the two-wheeled torture is over.

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It’s the hardest climb I have ever done but the sensation on reaching the top is extraordinary. I celebrate my achievement by lying face down in the grass, chest heaving, writhing in pain.

I suspect this is not how George and Amal spend their weekends in Lake Como.

The end is nigh

After peeling myself from the grass at the summit, I set about negotiating the final 43km.

Still groggy, and with leg muscles convulsing, I’m being overtaken by the previously walking dead, whose ambulatory tactics have left their energy levels intact, if not their honour.

According to the course profile, which I have printed on a piece of paper in my pocket, from the lakeside town of Nesso I can now enjoy a tranquil dash along the shores of Lake Como.

I ride past towering cypress trees and admire the hydrofoils tearing across the lake as I bear down on the finish.

However, having signed up for this ride at the last minute, in my haste I hadn’t noticed that my printer had cut off the end of the course.

So when I cruise into Como, expecting to tuck into some hot pasta at the finish line, the yellow arrow signs lead me out of town again and up the Col Civiglio, a final 5.7km ascent that averages 6.9% but jolts up to 10%. There’s still 13km to go.

Once I’ve crested this unexpected late climb and dashed back down into the bustle of Como, suddenly the yellow arrow signs are harder to spot.

I see the pasta party by the shoreline and relief washes over me. It’s been a beautiful but painful ride, and I’m more than ready to get off my bike, grab some food and wander around by the lake.

But something doesn’t feel right. No timing mat? No finishing arch?

After a while, I raise my concerns to an Italian rider who says I am in the wrong place (I later discover that gaggles of other riders also spotted the pasta party and, whether through poor signage or mind-bending hunger, arrowed straight there).

The finish line is in fact 500m away. Still, I won’t be happy until I have heard the satisfying beep of the final timing mat so I get back on my bike.

My little detour means that by the time I cross the finish line, six hours and 12 minutes after starting, the organisers are packing up and I ride over the timing mat moments before it’s torn up – the cycling equivalent of Indiana Jones rolling beneath a descending trapdoor, then stretching back to grab his fedora just in time.

Spinning back to the lakeshore for another bowl of pasta and ragu, I notice again the fallen leaves dancing around my bike wheels.

The leaves will return next year. And so too, I’m sure, will this tribe of hungry, hurting cyclists. Despite the pain, there is life beyond The Wall.

The details 

What Gran Fondo Il Lombardia
Where Lake Como, Italy
Distance 110km
Elevation 1,700m
Next one 10th Oct 2021
Price €70 (approx £60)
More info