Change of Plans
I had interviewed Silvio Martinello. I planned this thing, clearing it with my kids and their mother weeks in advance. And Silvio bails on me [actually, the turnout was not what the organizers were expecting, so they are postponing it to next year]. It also gives Martinello a year to get in better shape, there were rumors that there were concerns. Anyhow, there was no way that I would miss out on a weekend in Lombardia, specifically a Top Ride around the Como, Lecco and Bellagio areas. I’ve been a couple of times, but never with my bike. With some help from Carlo Sancassano, hotel proprietor, regional promoter, cycling fan and just swell guy: Welcome to Plan B.
This is the western side, coming up from Como
Italians generally do not attribute lucky-ness to the number seven, but I do. So when the receptionist (Carlo’s mom) at the Hotel Il Perlo Panorama gave me that room number, I knew that this story would now get a backbone, a structure to link together the next seven events that would frame my stay in Bellagio (seeing as the main one had been cancelled). I quickly checked in, dropped the bag off in the small, yet tidy room and got into some cycling kit for a quick ride before dark.
A nice, tidy room…
… with a daunting view, right up to Ghisallo, these ramps hit 14%
Event No.1: Cycling Gods Love Irony
Let’s backtrack a bit. The end of October is traditionally when the Giro of Lombardia takes place. However, this year it was moved up a month to accommodate the Tour of Beijing or some such race. The Giro is supposed to be the last major race of the year, the last classic. And it bookends nicely and symmetrically with the Milano-Sanremo as the first classic. Italians call the Giro the Race of the Falling Leaves (actually Dead Leaves, but Falling translates better) because of the timing. And part of the deal is usually cold, wet weather.
Joaquim Rodriguez enjoyed the traditional autumn weather a month earlier this year on his way to a great solo win in the Giro di Lombardia.
Despite moving the event up to mid September, the Cycling Gods complied and supplied truly crappy weather this year; cold and wet with heavy downpours. Purito Rodriguez went on to take a very well deserved victory. Accordingly, I readied my old, aluminum bike (a smashing Bianchi MegaPro in Mercatone colors) in anticipation of the typically inclement weather. But the Gods would have none of that, insisting on giving me a splendid weekend. A crisp, clear sun with cool mornings and perfect midday temperatures. Oh well.
The Cycling Gods gave us great weather
Event No.2: Tainted Cycling, Dinner Part 1
In Italian, they say one melts their legs or their muscles, meaning that they are warmed up. It’s an apt description. Sometimes I like to go on short 30km rides to spin the legs a bit and melt the muscles, kind of like a recovery ride without any recovery needed. After checking-in, I took in one of these by backtracking down the western side of the peninsula towards Como. The sun was setting and giving the lake and the surrounding mountains a hazy glow. Got back, got showered and went out for dinner. I was booked at the Sporting Club. Though the restaurant is located next to tennis courts and soccer fields, the name is a bit of a misnomer. While I was imagining a casual, bar-type thing attached to a club, the place is actually quite chic. Table cloths, fine tableware, the whole number. Yet, it has (relatively) reasonable rates for this exclusive area.
Before dinner, I had an aperitivo at the bar and checked out what the Gazzetta had to say about the unfolding Doping Scandals. The headlines included: Lance being dropped by every sponsor that had so greatly profited from him in the past 10 years, while Scarponi was embroiled in the Padova/Ferrari investigations. A real nightmare for us, the fans. Everyone seems so fixated on the cyclists and the UCI paying the price for deceit, but there’s very little mention of the fans. It seems to me that we are the ones paying a steep price, forced to defend the sport we love despite being let down by even “good guys” like Michael Barry (reading the riders’ affidavits is most enlightening). Scarponi is also a big blow, he is one of the nicest, funniest and most down-to-earth guys in the pro ranks.
Dark times, these
As my duty to PezReaders, I chose to sample (and enjoy) famed Lombardia dishes like saffron risotto and osso bucco with grilled polenta. And of course, coupled them with a regional wine that does not seem to get a lot of attention, Valtellina. In the past 15 years, lots of small, lesser known Italian varieties have made huge leaps in quality due to the pressure from a competitive and savvy global market. Many Italian wines have gone from pleasant little things to serious wines. Valtellina, a medium to full bodied red made from nebbiolo grapes, can now be included in this group.
Event No.3: Top Ride with Fabio Negri
Nine times out of ten, Italian cyclists will ask me where I’m from after introductions. Upon hearing that I’m from Texas, ten times out of ten, they will say, “oh like Lance.” Either they pronounce it Italianized “LAH nse” or attempt (what they believe to be) an English one as “LAY nse.” In both cases, off the mark, but somehow I prefer the Italian one better because it seems more honest. Saturday morning, precisely at 9:00am, Fabio Negri met me in front of the hotel for a personalized ride around the area and pronounced it the Italian way. Fabio raced with Pro Team LPR for three years then De Rosa for another and then was left without a contract. He went back to school to study physical therapy and now works with junior teams as well as the ComoLagoBike club (more on this later). It must be quite funny and demoralizing when your soigneur can drop you like a bad habit any day of the week – they don’t call him the Locomotivo for nothing.
Here’s Fabio hanging out with Ivan Basso
Since Bellagio is located at the tip of a peninsula, it offers three main routes of escape/departure. The west side down to Como (my non-recovery recovery ride), the east side down to Lecco or right down the middle where Ghisallo resides. Actually there are another two possibilities: you can take a ferry to the western side of the lake or one to the eastern side, and then start your Top Ride. A quick chat with the punctual Fabio and we decided to head down to Lecco, meet up with his girlfriend and then circle around and up to Ghisallo, taking in the Colle di Brianza climb. Difficulty: medium. Distance: 80-ish km.
1) Bellagio, 2) Lecco, 3) Ghisallo, 4) Como & 5) Sormano – and the red line is our planned route
The morning was quite chilly, I put on everything I had and a wool cap too. After rounding the tip, we were hit with a warming direct sunlight all the way down to Lecco, about 30km worth. A light tailwind and Fabio in front meant that we were cruising well over 40km/h with very little effort required. There were a couple of long tunnels with decent lighting, but I wish that I had brought a little red light (I had even pulled one out but forgot to pack it). We arrived in Lecco and rode along the Giro’s finish line where we met up with the lovely Laura for a coffee in the town’s center.
Here’s Fabio hanging out with me
Fabio led us around trafficky areas, taking in the Annone and Pusiano lakes. A long-ish climb up to Colle di Brianza, a quick descent and then the long, yet (relatively) easy slog up to Ghisallo took up the next couple hours. We parted with Laura along the way and as we crested the final climb, an older lady walking with (I’m guessing) her smoking daughter pushing a child-packed stroller said, “che belli baggaii” or something that sounded like the word for baggage in Italian. Fabio told me that it was instead dialect and meant that we were good looking guys. Perhaps she was merely trying to insult her lazy daughter more than compliment us, but I’ll take it anyway.
Laura and me
Event No.4: The Legs Were Surprisingly Good
I’ve seen the race on TV a bunch of times and I’ve driven around these roads, yet not until I went over them on my bike did I realize how hard they really are. The roads are rarely flat (and when they are there’s often a strong, unpredictable wind coming off the lake). They are narrow with barely enough room for two cars, much less two cars and a cyclist. The elevations spike up irregularly. And the descents are tricky. Riding here, you immediately learn that the guy who wins the Giro deserves it. In addition to the difficulty of the course, it rewards a rider that can handle their bike well and most importantly is willing to take the biggest risks. Contador will never win this race – you heard it here.
Contador rode well in Lombardia this year finishing in 9th but will never win it according to Corey!
I think this is why most of us want to ride the roads of our favorite classics. Understanding the nuances, experiencing a taste of the actual percorso and especially being able to experience it at the right time of year is a real treat. However, I was actually a bit worried. I seemed to have peaked back in July and haven’t been able to get back in form. I voiced my concerns to the Pez about being only 75% and like a good coach he answered that his 50% was envious of my 25% advantage. Accordingly, Fabio and I worked out an 80km course that took in a couple of climbs, yet avoided the really hard ones and the highly trafficked areas – highlighting the need for an experienced guide, especially if your time is limited and precious. In the end, the legs held up well and I had plenty of gas left in the tank. If I had to do it over again, I’d take in the Sormano too.
Event No.5: Death of a Legend
Another significant event this weekend was the passing away of Fiorenzo Magni. While everyone knows Coppi and Bartali, Magni gets largely left out of the picture, despite winning the Giro, Tour and three Flanders. All the more ironic because the following week was set to launch Auro Bulbarelli’s new biography of Magni titled “The Third Man” (or something like that). Though he was 92 years old, he was in excellent physical shape, but died from a brain aneurysm.
The museum was closed, but the Chapel was open for mourners
Magni lived nearby in Brianza (Monza). He was closely involved with the Cycling Museum in Ghisallo, serving as the President, rustling up sponsors and even putting in his own money to keep it afloat. Saturday afternoon, I was supposed to be given a private tour by the director, Carola Gentilini – but the death/funeral kinda messed this up. So naturally, the museum was closed. I went up there anyway to pay my respects at the Chapel. Though the famous riders and their memorabilia get most of our attention, there are lots of tributes to regular, passionate cyclists. And somehow these are just as moving, especially the young kids in their team kit.
Event No.6: An Unpaid-for Sales Pitch
ComoLagoBike is a cycling club, but a little different than the usual, a-bit-too-serious ones found in Italy. They don’t race the Gran Fondos, though they’ve done the Eroica. They’d rather meet up on Sundays for a nice ride around the lake. And they’d also rather ride with tourists to promote the area that they proudly claim as their own. The club’s President Luca Molteni, along with Fabio Neri and Carlo Sancassano, planned the Silvio Martinello Ride and have put together a series of promotional materials and travel packages to other destinations like the Stelvio. They are in the beginning phases of their project to bring cyclists to the area. So sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t.
While I was riding with Fabio and afterwards talking a bit with Carlo, I couldn’t help but let the Advertising Man in me help them. Logically, here’s my Top Seven Reasons for Coming to Como/Bellagio:
1. Mythical Cycling Destination and relatively close to others
2. Perfect for Non-Cyclist Spouses or Friends; beautiful landscape, sightseeing & shopping
3. Accessibility, a stone’s throw from Milan’s Malpensa airport
4. Challenging Roads
5. As Challenging As You Want Them To Be (with help from a local guide)
6. The Food and Wine
7. Un-Italian Punctuality, Functionality & Cleanliness (remember it’s right next to Switzerland)
Event No.7: Catching Up With Old Friends, Dinner Part 2
Saturday evening presented another surprise: dinner with Jered and Ashley Gruber; Rising Stars in the world of cycling photography. They are certainly busy these days and were passing through on their way back to the States to shoot photos for a client. I met them four years ago and have been regularly exchanging emails with Jered ever since. Many of which consisted of me telling him what he was doing wrong with his writing or photography or career choices. Good thing he rarely listened to me!
These narrow streets quiet down after dark
The Grubers, Carlo and I ate at a local restaurant called Far Out. While the days are packed in Bellagio, most of the visitors are day trippers, so the evenings have a quieter, more intimate feel. You can stroll along the little streets and somehow feel that it is your insider place and it becomes all the more special. We all ate the same dish, rice with fish fresh out of the lake, I think it translates to perch. It was amazingly buttery, but wasn’t greasy – I’m not sure how the kitchen pulled this off, but it was light and rich at the same time.
Undeniably beautiful here, ripe for adventure
If you only see friends once every four years, there’s always plenty to talk about. So we were the last ones to leave the restaurant, well after midnight. And it was a perfect, warm way to end this ambiguous trip. The older one gets, the easier it gets to say “no” to things, especially new things or things that require changing your safe routines and responsibilities. Yet, very few adventures come from the routine. I was reminded of this lesson once again on this trip and look forward to next year’s Ride with Silvio, even if he doesn’t show up again!