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Biking in Italy: Part 2a - the Assault on Madonna del Ghisallo

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Biking in Italy: Part 2a - the Assault on Madonna del Ghisallo

Old 06-21-07, 04:12 PM
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bobby c
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Biking in Italy: Part 2a - the Assault on Madonna del Ghisallo

First of all - sorry about the length, but once I started I couldn't stop!

A few days after the wedding (as described in Part 1), we went north to the Lake Como area. Quite spectacular – great views, lots of water, lovely towns, fantastic food & wine – plus a biking mecca. One of the great bike tours, the Tour of Lombardy, always runs through this region in the fall (the final event of the Pro Tour). The climb up Madonna del Ghisallo is always a highlight of this tour (as it is on some Giros) so I had circled a climb up the mountain in the early stages of our trip planning.

For those not familiar with Lake Como – it is a huge alpine lake in northern Italy, very close to the Swiss border. Absolutely beautiful. Here’s a view from our hotel window (the camera is pointed towards Madonna del Ghisallo, it is in the big mountains behind that first lump of land, which hides the town of Bellagio).



And here is a view from our hotel to the local town of Varenna. Gorgeous.


Anyhow, on to biking. Something like 50 years ago a local priest convinced the Pope to name Madonna del Ghisallo the patron saint of bicyclists. Since that time the church has become a shrine to biking, containing jerseys, medals, bikes and other memorabilia. The church is quite small and recently a larger structure was built next door to house a cycling museum.

There are two major ways up to Madonna del Ghisallo (though there are others as well), the most popular one is from Bellagio and back down to the city of Como and the other is from Como and back down to Bellagio. Regardless it is probably 50 miles to do a full circuit. A quick spin around the block for the likes of jppe – but a little more significant to me, especially since some of the climbing is a 15% grade for awhile. So after making plans to ride this I spend some of the spring training in what passes as hills in my neck of the woods in hopes that I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself.

As for the two major routes for the climb, the Bellagio to Como direction is the steeper – from Bellagio to the church is probably around 15 miles whereas from Como to the church is probably more like 20 or 25. All the tours do the Bellagio to Como route and if you complete the circuit back to Bellagio by following a very hilly, narrow and twisty lakeside road, you’re probably putting in around 7,000 feet in climbing (just a guess though). So that was the route I planned on taking. I had done some research and while there was a bike rental place in Bellagio, a shop in Como came very highly recommended so I decided to start from there. My plan was to ride from Como to Bellagio with my wife (where she would continue riding around Bellagio & then head back to Como) and then I would head up the mountain and go back to Como. Here’s a quick view of what was proposed:



The blue dot in the upper right corner is Varenna, the town we stayed in. Lower left (green dot) is the city of Como where the bike shop was. The yellow dot near the top is Bellagio with the red dot is the Madonna del Ghisallo. So my plan was to take the purple line starting at Como (green dot) to Bellagio (yellow) to Madonna del Ghisallo (red) and back down to Como (green). Looked simple on a map – what could possibly go wrong?

To scope out the ride along the lake we decided to ferry from Varenna to Bellagio (only 15 minutes) and then take a bus to Como. Well that bus ride scared the bejesus out of my wife, it was very hilly, very twisty and very narrow. The bus had to stop and pull over often to let cars squeeze by, a pretty hairy route. So that put an end of her participation, which is fine, you need to be comfortable when you ride and that was just too intimidating to her. Since that time I’ve heard the less intimidating route from Como to Bellagio is on the other side (west) of the lake – go to Cadenabbia and ferry across to Bellagio. That will be for next time. But I was still pysched, until we got to Como and the clouds started gathering.

We had arrived to the region the day before to a fanfare of thunder, lightening and heavy rain. The forecast was for the same, though the day started out sunny. But dark clouds were gathering by the time I got to the bike shop. In hindsight, I should have started earlier, but by then it was clear that my plans may need to be altered or I could get pretty wet, if not fried. So after consulting with the excellent folks at Como Bike, I decided to alter my plans, I’d go counterclockwise from Como (through Cassano, Erba, Canzo, Asso, Lasnigo, Barni & finally Magreglio (where the chapel is). Once at the chapel I could ride back down to Como. So after a quick fitting and donning of my bike clothes, I kissed my wife goodbye and promptly got lost, spending a good 45 minutes trying to find my way out of Como. For anyone who has traveled in Italy, the roads aren’t always clearly marked, they change names every couple of blocks and on top of that, I was clueless as to where to go. I did have a map but that didn’t provide too useful. Eventually I got on the right road and headed to the hills.

I love an adventure, though I sometimes get a bit distracted right before a big one. This was the case here, in my haste (and heavily beating heart), I didn’t test the bike thoroughly. It didn’t take long for me to discover that the seat was too low, not tall teenage kid on a banana seated bike too low but too low by far. I checked the bike bag they gave me – a spare tire & levers but no allen wrench. My bad, I wondered what was in store for me as I started a long 6-8% climb up into the mountains.

The ride out of Como to Erba (probably 15 miles) was pretty heavily trafficked, but at no time did I feel threatened or in danger. Nice roads and a good view of what was to come. Erba is a pretty big town and from there you turn north into the mountains. I have to say that once you get your bearings the towns were well marked so I felt pretty comfortable. I was to pay for that later…..

From Erba north is a series of small, picturesque towns – really gorgeous. Tile roofs, church steeples, piazzas & castles dating back hundreds of centuries. To me this was the fun part, feeling steeped in something much larger and more significant than me. I was riding solo, though a few rides would come screaming down the other direction, which gave me hope that I was going in the right direction. Here’s a few pictures I took on the way up, but because of the impending storm, I didn’t stop as much as I wanted.

A nice waterfall – really cooled me off with the mist….



One of several tunnels…..



I think the town of Canzo…..



One of numerous roadside shrines (perhaps to fallen American tourists?)




Part 2b to follow.....
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Old 06-21-07, 04:31 PM
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Fabulous Bob.....can't believe you cut us off just when the story started to get exciting......when does part 2b get posted**********?
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Old 06-21-07, 04:38 PM
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I am speechless. Wow!
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Old 06-21-07, 06:20 PM
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I was in Varenna this past March. I stayed at the Royal Victoria hotel, just across for the church. It was renamed in 1837 when queen Victoria stayed there. The restaraunt is right on the lake and looks out on Bellagio. The rooms were 60 Euro/night but the day we checked out was the start of tourist season and the rooms went up to 180 Euro/night. I loved it there but only had a night and an afternoon. I went up in the mountains the next day to audit a foundry supplying material for our new project. I would love to go back and ride that area. RR and I are hoping to go back there this fall when I can tag on a vacation to my last business trip to Venice. Beautiful pictures and the ride description makes me just want it more.
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Old 06-21-07, 07:00 PM
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Very nice!!!
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Old 06-21-07, 11:13 PM
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OK, let the other cleat drop. Send us 2b!
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Old 06-22-07, 08:24 AM
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I really enjoyed this article because Italy is my favorite European country. I travelled there frequently on business for a period of almost 10 years, mainly to Turin, which put me close the the Alps. I took driving trips through the mountains on weekends. I was not into bicycling at the time, but did wish often to be on my motorcycle. Like you, I enjoyed going through the small hillside villages that have been there hundreds of years, with streets so narrow that traffic can only go through in one direction at a time. One time I even crossed into France and drove up Alpe d'Huez without having any idea of its association with the Tour de France until I saw Lance go up it several years later.

I can't wait for "2b" to see how the rest of your adventure went!
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Old 06-22-07, 08:54 AM
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Originally Posted by cgallagh
I was in Varenna this past March. I stayed at the Royal Victoria hotel, just across for the church. It was renamed in 1837 when queen Victoria stayed there. The restaraunt is right on the lake and looks out on Bellagio. The rooms were 60 Euro/night but the day we checked out was the start of tourist season and the rooms went up to 180 Euro/night. I loved it there but only had a night and an afternoon. I went up in the mountains the next day to audit a foundry supplying material for our new project. I would love to go back and ride that area. RR and I are hoping to go back there this fall when I can tag on a vacation to my last business trip to Venice. Beautiful pictures and the ride description makes me just want it more.
Varenna is a special place, we loved it. If you do go back this fall, it would be nice to time the trip to coincide with the Tour of Lombardy - that would be nice. Nicknamed the 'Race of the Fallen Leaves' I can imagine it would be quite a stunning time to be in the area. Take me with you please!
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Old 06-22-07, 09:21 AM
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OK - part B coming up shortly in another post....
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