My visit to Italy for the 2010 Milan-Sanremo had already confirmed this as an amazing adventure, so after a rainy drive to Milan from Sanremo, followed by a rainy night, I was considering options to replace my planned ride at Lake Como. But the Italian weather site said Tuesday would be cloudy – no rain – and I hauled myself out of bed at the crack of 7AM, and started looking forward to the day.
Manuele, Michele, and Gianni – besides being excellent riding partners, offered up some prime motivation for my long term prospects with cycling.
I still had to contend with Milanese rush hour to extract myself from the city center and I’d soon remember I’d forgotten what a cluster the traffic in Como is… but by 11:00AM I was rolling out of the parking lot and heading up Lake Como’s west side enroute to cover some roads I fondly remembered from my last ride here in 1994. 16 years ago…
The plan was to head out of Como and follow the 2011 Giro di Lombardia corsa north along the lake, turning left at Agrigento and looping over a climb and past Lago di Lugano, then through Menaggio to the ferry at Cadenabbia, crossing the lake to Bellagio to rejoin the corsa for the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, and on to the finish, with a final inspection of the Civilgio climb at the end.
That Como traffic is a bitch, but soon enough I was rolling north and pretty much stopping every few hundred meters to snap another pic of the stunning scenery. The sun had shown its face, and brilliantly reflected off the waters of the still mist and cloud shrouded lake.
The Como area is popular with celebs and rich folks from all over – here’s a guest house for the super-exclusive Villa d’Este luxury hotel.
I’d passed several riders going in both directions, reminding me how popular this area of Italy is with cyclists – from citizens to amateurs to pros. On one of my photo stops, I was re-passed by a trio of Italians I assumed to be about my age, heading out for an apparently leisurely morning ride on the lake. The scenery, the winding road clinging to the steep slopes, and the colorful villas and houses added up to a most enviable training route.
Not all of the local luxury digs are currently in use.
I made a point of appreciating my own personal good fortune at being here to enjoy it. It’s the kind of ride you really want to enjoy with your buds, because they’ll never believe it when you tell ‘em…, but taking it in solo is just fine too. And let’s face it – some things are better experienced on your own.
The three guys in front were on a pretty easy pace and I couldn’t tell if it was a warm up, or a slow day, but I slotted onto the last wheel and followed. I could hear them talking to each other, and occasionally the last guy in line would look around or coureously point out some road junk.
Little did I know I was tagging along with some future pals.
For 10 or 20kms I just hung back, and noticed that one of the guys had taken the front and settled into pulling the group as we rolled through the warming sun past towns named Brienno, Argegno, and Lenno. Each town seemed more beautiful and colorful than the last, and I missed more than a few amazing photo opps in favor of sticking with my new riding buds.
The local works department is serious about clean streets…
As the road narrowed through one of the towns, we were blocked by traffic stopped while the local polizia – about 5 of them – attempted to direct two huge trucks past each other in a spot wide enough for only one… With all of us stopped, I introduced myself to my companions, and as we cleared the jam, I took up the pace setting – I certainly didn’t want these guys thinking I was some kind of jit.
I peeled off and it was clear the warm up was over, as the biggest of the three guys went back to the front and turned up the pace. On we rolled, past photo-op after photo-opp- and some of the most amazingly postcard-esque houses and buildings I’d ever seen – all perched just above the glistening waters of the lake.
These guys seemed to know everyone from riders to townsfolk crossing the streets we passed – they must have said hello to a hundred people on the way up.
Coffee in Menaggio.
Not knowing how long a ride I was in for, and enjoying the pace of the group, we rolled right on past the turn off to begin the climb at Argegno, and carried on up the lake to Mennaggio – about 35km from Como. A perfect place to stop – the sun was out in full force, and I was ready for some espresso.
The guys invited me to join them and here I got the full details on the group:
• Gianni: and ex racer from way back (ie: junior days), and still super fit – he was the locomotive on the front of this train all day. Age: 59
• Michele: Super stable on the bike – upper body never moves. Easy to see he’s got thousands of kms and many years of riding in his legs. Age: 57
• Manuele: The smallest of the group – reminded me of Pantani, and reported to do 20,000km a year. Turns out today was his birthday and he’d be buying the coffees. Age: 71
That’s right… Seventy-one.
There’s something about a ferry ride that adds to any great ride.
It was clear these guys were riders – easy to see in their smooth pedaling styles. No rocking or rolling, just years of muscle memory rolling the gears. Hills were taken out of the saddle – no sitting for these guys.
Their plan was to head back to Como via a route through nearby Switzerland, and I explained my plan to catch the ferry and climb the Ghisallo. “Molto forte” they said, pointing their hands up to indicate the steepness of the climb to the Church. “Molto dura”. I remembered it was a hard climb, but that was 14 years ago and I was looking forward to revisiting the roads in my near future.
The 10 minute ferry from Cadenabbia to Bellagio seemed like a good time to send some texts – and informing wives of delayed lunch plans.
After a brief, and semi-animated discussion, the boys decided that we’d tackle the final 40km of the Lombardia corsa together. Sounded good to me, local knowledge is never a bad thing, and I could see Gianni’s power on the front would be a welcome addition to the rest of the day.
Bellagio ahoy! Another amazing place to spend some time.
I’d payed for the coffees before they could ask for the bill, to which Manuele jokingly protested – but they got me back by buying my ferry ticket. These guys were a class act, and it was turning out to be an awesome day.
To The Ghisallo!
I’ve been back to the Ghisallo climb twice since I first rode it in 1994, but this was my first time back with a bike. I won’t go into the full details of this most awesome strip of cycling roadway, we’ve detailed them before, but there’s something about sharing the pain of a tough climb with a group of guys that pretty much turns you into friends… you know what I’m talking about.
I could barely wait to get onto the slopes, but we took it easy as we ramped out of Bellagio and rolled the few hundred yards to the start of the climb proper. Then it just turns left and heads straight up. You’re at 10% right away, and it stays at double digits for while – a l-o-n-g while. The elevation gains quickly – feels like an elevator going up. Each switchback reveals an even more spectacular view of the lake below.
Here’s a great view of the lake, looking back to the alhergho Il Perlo Panorama. I stayed there on ’04, and you should too if you get the chance.
I pass the Albergho Il Perlo Panorama (see that pic above), and peel in for a quick hello while my friends continue up the climb. I’m hoping to meet to the owner Carlo – who knows PEZ well, but he’s not here today. I leave a card with his mother (the best businesses in Italy are usually family-run) and hit the climb to catch my group.
The climb winds up through a few more switchbacks, past the Ristorante la Busciona – where Mrs. Pez and I once enjoyed a fine meal of the local fish caught in the lake, and the spectacular views from its terrace.
About 6km up, the road flattens for some welcome recovery. The roads travels through a saddle on the climb, past scattered farms and hamlets, and wooded meadows. It’s a beautiful place to ride. There’s almost no traffic.
Here I rejoin the gruppo and we take it easy before dropping into the town of Olivetto, on the other side of which begins the final ramps to the Ghisallo. I’m struck by the camaraderie of my three amici – there are no mind games or trying to drop the others, it’s all about keeping the group intact and riding a steady but fast enough pace. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable – perfect to enjoy the day and the ride.
Views of the southeast arm of the lake begin to appear from Olivetto.
Then there’s the business of the last km that climbs a few steep switchbacks. Michele is tired and drops off the back, while Gianni and Manuele press on ahead. I snap some more pics, then Gianni offers to take of few of me – good stuff for the archives I figure. I ride alongside Manuele for a while, until the adrenaline of the climb takes over and I begin my own surge for the top. Gianni keeps my pace and snaps a few more shots.
This isn’t the hardest climb in the world, but it’s not easy by any means – and just when I’ve about had enough – the statue of the two riders comes into view. It’s the first thing I see as we round a final bend. The summit is here and my hosts graciously let me take it alone.
I roll to a stop on the cobbles in front of the church. No talking just yet as my heart and lungs continue their protest of the last few minutes.
The church of the Madonna del Ghilsallo just never gets old. I’m as awe-struck and inspired today as I remember from each of my previous visits. It’s a good feeling. We snap some pics, and it looks like the new museum is closed today – which is a good thing considering we’ve still got some miles to go.
But ahead lays one of my most anticipated descents. I’ve driven it a few times, and today would be ticking off another on my “stuff to do before I go” list. The drop does not disappoint – although it’s a lot colder than I expected so I stop to pull on a jacket.
The 10km drop is wide open and gently curving – the bike runs with gusto. We regroup after a few kms and Gianni takes up his designated spot at the front. Michele slots in next, then me with Manuale a couple bike lengths back. I wonder how he’s feeling…
He’s looking tired, but then you never know with these older guys… I’m sure he’s got something left in the tank.
We roll a few more kms across the southern flank of Monte Palazone, and Gianni asks if I’m up for the Civiglio climb. Of course I am – let’s Go!
To The Civiglio!
Michele goes to the front for one more pull on a slight rise through a tunnel, but it’s his last effort. He rolls to the back, and a few kms later he goes left and we go right – up. His departure signals the start of the Civilgio – three nasty kms with ramps up to 10% that figures as a launch pad for many a Lombardia-winning move.
I only had time to shout “Ciao, Grazie!” as he disappeared below the barriers and the rest of us down shifted on the first ramps of the climb. He was cooked and even though we didn’t speak the same language, I knew exactly how he felt.
I shot this as we climbed the Civiglio. Watch Manuale at the end – he goes to the front and starts his move…
We were about 3-1/3 hours into a ride I’d long ago decided would be one for a lifetime. I was tired, and little concerned that lunch of espresso and coke would stick with me till the end, but the joy of being here was all that mattered.
Gianni was on the front, as expected, setting the pace with me on second wheel and Manuele right behind me. It’s not the hardest climb I’ve ever seen, but it’s easy to see how after 250+km, this has been a pivotal point of Lombardia.
After some switchbacks and some very quickly gained altitude, Gianni slowed and both Manuele and I rolled up beside him. I was shooting video and Manuele rolled onto the front.
After a full ride of commaraderie and a refreshing lack of guys riding smack, I didn’t pay much attention when Manuele gapped us by a couple bike lengths, then it was 3, and then 4… And here it was. The move. And coming from a guy who’s 20+ years my senior spent a good part of the day saving his energy for this. Cagey old bugger.
…Some of your local, free-range chickens… in someone’s yard… on the Civiglio.
As much as I didn’t want this getting silly, I couldn’t resist the urge to accelerate and join him. I admit there was some ego involved here. But let me say – for the record – that I’ve no problem being beaten by a guy so much older than me – but it wouldn’t be sporting to let him go without a fight…
Stopping on your way down the Civiglio is worth it, if you like nice views of Como.
The pace was high – not on the rivet, but close to it. Even Manuele had stopped talking. It was just the sounds of us breathing and working it up the climb. Not knowing what was ahead or where this bad boy ended was enough to allow Manuele the courtesy to lead the way. I knew to was ‘only’ 3km, but I also remembered how far a km is – especially after riding some particularly long ones on the Col de Madone in France a couple days ago.
All the time I marveled that I was being put on the ropes by a guy who was 71 years old.
The really hard part of the Civiglio is the descent. It’s easy to see how the guy with the best brakes and worst sense of self-preservation can make the gap here. Remember Cunego in 2008? This drop is steep – and packed with tight turns, narrow road, rough surface with bumps a-plenty. The pain in my brain quickly switched from my legs to arms and shoulders. Molto Peliculoso. Very dangerous indeed.
Of course the cherry on top of this day was my negroni – taken at a cafe near the Duomo.
And then I’m back into Como, cruising along the lakefront, the young couples kissing on the park benches have no idea how much pleasure 4 hours on your bike with some friends can bring.
What a ride. What a day. I exchange contact info with my new pals and wish Manuele a ‘buona festa’ for tonite. Driving back to Milano, I‘m tired but full of the endorphins and thoughts that confirm this is a Top Ride. My advice: next time your car is pointed at the cliff… give ‘er some stick.
Huge thanks to Gianni, Michele, and Manuele for making this a Top Ride!