Cycling in Italy will more often than not, offer incredible views, smooth roads and great weather and Lombardy is no exception. Often referred to as the race of the falling leaves, Il Lombardia signifies not only the changing of seasons but also a glorious end to the season for one lucky world tour pro able to nurse their form into the dying embers of the racing year and score a bigger contract for next year. Bauke Mollema’s perfectly timed attack with 18km to go lit up the race.
Relying on the fact that he was not on the favourites list in a field so rich that it contained the winners of all of this year’s grand tours, he made good his escape and by the time 2018 World Champ Alejandro Valverde and this year’s Tour victor Egan Bernal lit the afterburners and enacted the chase, it was too late with Mollema finishing 16 seconds clear on the waterfront in Como with his arms raised, his smile on the line letting us know he was as surprised as we were.
For us mere mortals and enthusiastic amateurs, an October trip to Lake Como is the perfect extender to the season. A chance to get one last use of that form built over the summer months before the best bike is packed away and the dark months of winter rain and turbo training begin.
Less than an hour from Milan’s airports getting to Como is a doddle, getting the bikes built and heading out for an evening spin is the first port of call. Heading up the western shore of the lake as the early evening light turns golden it seems like a dream, the rolling roads are smooth, and the lake views are jaw-dropping. A little like the French Riviera, there’s an exciting buzz to Lake Como. There is a rarefied air about the place, it must be a combination of the views and the exclusivity as you ride past multiple, multimillion-euro lakeshore villas and frequently overtaken by various supercars. Nonetheless, it feels special to be here, and it seems to lend the legs a little extra zip, that is until you turn left and head uphill away from the lake. You imagine as you arrive that the steepness of the mountains rising from the cool, blue water would make the climbs somewhat of an ordeal and you’d be right! Our ‘warmup’ ride includes an 8km ascent at between 7% and 14%, ‘warm’ is certainly one of the sensations felt by the summit (along with breathlessness) but the climb is spectacular and is so quiet compared to the lakeshore road. There’s time for an espresso at the top before the exhilarating descent back to the lake, the cool evening air biting a little but never enough to spoil the ride, this really must be near the end of the season.
Then there’s dinner… Only in Italy is it harder to find bad food than good food, take to the streets in the evening and anywhere with a gaggle of locals at the tables is sure to be a winner. The Italian restaurant experience is second to none, purely because the passion for good food is so intense. The detail of the ingredients on the local menus can sometimes be extraordinary “lamb from the north side of Mt. Tiberini”, I’m sure the lamb from the south side is utterly inedible… Make sure to fuel for the next day’s ride, so ensure to take in the full range of Antipasti, Primi, Secondi and Dolce washed down with a glass or two of Montepulciano or Chianti. You may even need another espresso to help you digest and keep you awake enough to make it back to the hotel.
The Pro Race
The pro race is on Saturday’s in Italian Monument races and Lombardia departs from Bergamo near Milan in the late morning. This gives plenty of time in the morning to get a good ride in and either set up on the course to watch, or as we did this year to get back to Como, shower, lunch and watch the race unfold on TV before heading out to watch the victor cross the line with all the hubbub of the race finish.
After the winner crosses the finish, group after group of downtrodden chasers, domestiques and unfortunates who haven’t had the day they were hoping for. The teammates and soigneurs of the champion high five and cheer with a swarm of photographers capturing the dejected looks shot from those who didn’t have the legs or missed the move.
The modern tragedy of world tour bike racing is a thing to behold, and with only thin barriers, you feel caught up in the post-race magic. The trophy presentation fills a small square opposite the ferry terminal, and everyone can get close enough to snap a photo of the podium.
When Sunday morning comes, it’s our time to take on the course in the Gran Fondo Il Lombardia. Not the full 245km that the pro’s tackle, in fact, the Fondo is a mere 110 km, but the infamous climbs of the Madonna del Ghisallo and the Muro di Sormano feature every year.
Ride the Granfondo Lombardia for yourself with Sportive Breaks
Il Lombardia Gran Fondo
A typically furious start for an Italian event as local Gran Fondo teams go hell for leather leads to the Muro as the first major climb. The ‘wall of Sormano’ was first used in the early sixties but when riders complained and threatened to boycott saying it was too steep for racing because they were either having to walk up or be pushed the climb was removed from the race and only made its return in 2012 having had its surface repaired and emblazoned with 60’s era rider quotes and distance markers. The fearsome final section of the climb has an average of 17% with pitches of 28% at times and is the only climb I know that is so brutal over such a short distance that its length is given in metres, 1940m to be precise. Be sure to bring your biggest cassette. You’ll never regret having too many gears.
Once the Sormano is out of the way, there’s a tasty, twisting descent down to the lake and a beautiful ride along the lakeside road before doubling back to start the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo. This is the longer of the two main climbs, but at an average of 6% with ramps of 14% at times, it is much more enjoyable.
the Madonna del Ghisallo: Lake Como’s Cycling Shrine
If you have been cycling in Europe, you will probably have encountered historic monuments that pay tribute to our beloved, two-wheeled way of life and cycling in Italy is no different. At the summit lies the storied chapel to the Madonna of Cycling filled with tributes left by former riders. These tributes have to be seen to be believed varying from yellow jerseys, to world champions stripes to hour record bikes from the likes of Italian legend Francesco Moser. If you get a chance to visit on another day or if you don’t mind a stop mid-Fondo, then it is a thing to behold. Don’t forget to remove your helmet before entering out of respect. There is also a wonderful Museum of Cycling with some history of the race, the Giro and Italian/world cycling more generally.
Descending from the Ghisallo, the worst is behind you and the final rolling terrain into the finish line can be enjoyed with a smile (as long as you haven’t gone too deep with your efforts). It may not be the most gruelling fixture in the sportive calendar, but there’s no better way to finish the autumn. What a weekend!
Ride the Granfondo Lombardia for yourself with Sportive Breaks
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