11 Minute Read
11 Minute Read
Back in early 2019, which seems so long ago these days, my girlfriend found something on Instagram for me. It was a local group, based out of San Francisco, called Mission Cycling. They were planning an epic week of riding in France, in the French Alps, of all places. Price was great, timing worked out for me, and I went.
Needless to say, it was an incredible trip.
I’ll definitely need to dedicate some more entries to document that trip, don’t you worry.
I was looking back on some photos earlier today and saw some photos of a ride I did immediately after that trip. This part was done solo and happened to be in a very different place.
On a spur of the moment decision while sitting in my wonderful hotel room in Montreux, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Geneva under a rain storm, I made the decision to skip out on the last few nights of my hotel and onboard a train that took me 4 hours southeast to Milan, Italy.
The ride that I had my eye on previously, that I had been hoping to do while I was out in Europe last year, is a famous one that a lot of cyclists do when visiting the stupidly beautiful region of Lake Como. It follows the lake around from the city of Como, through some tunnels and winding streets, past amazing villas, up to the Madonna del Ghisallo, then back around to Como.
I know what you were thinking, could the Italian people BE any more serious about their cycling heritage? The answer is no, and I found out first hand when doing this loop. The highlight of this loop is the Madonna del Ghisallo, a small church dedicated to the patron saint of Cycling (it’s an official designation), and houses a variety of cycling related paraphernalia from riders who have, in most cases, met an early demise during their racing careers. A bit humbling, actually.
I found a hotel next to the main train station, the Milano Centrale station, built up my bike from the case, then proceeded to take the 45 minute train ride to Lake Como. Fun aside, I got to go through the Monza region along the way (for any of you racing fans out there).
Once there, I rode down into town (there’s a nice walkway past a crazy hand statue) and found a sweet little coffee shop that had a ton of great bike merch in it. Definitely recommend it if you’re in the area: Sartoria Ciclistica.
The first part of the ride out of town is the only really “sketchy” part, as there isn’t much of a bike lane, there’s a slight uphill section, and there are a couple somewhat-short tunnels that don’t have a ton of lighting. The nice thing, however, is that people out there aren’t driving too quickly, and they seem fairly accustomed to cyclists being out on the roads.
I think the most difficult part of this ride for me at the onset of it was not wanting to stop every few hundred meters to take a photo. Or just sit and stare. I simply could not believe my eyes at how stunningly beautiful Lake Como is. It basically made me rethink a lot of my life choices up to that point in order to maximize my time to experience the region. I luckily got a photo of me fairly early on by a father and son who were also visiting on their bikes.
I remember being particularly excited that day wearing my La Passione jersey, as it was about as Italian of a brand as I had on me at the time!
I honestly didn’t realize that this was the original town that the hotel in Vegas was named after. After having been to both, I definitely would prefer to be at the original. With carefree boats, shoppers and diners, along with beautiful stone steps leading gently up the side of the hill from the water all added to a wonderful atmosphere that just relaxed and excited me.
I could have just sat there all day watching the boats go by.
Or just walked through the stone-lined street markets of the town, I suppose.
Gently rising out of town is the start of the procession that is the Madonna del Ghisallo climb. I had just been riding in the Alps for the week, so while I definitely had some leftover lactic acid in my legs, I didn’t find this to be too much of a challenge. However, it also wasn’t necessarily easy, either. I was taking it slow, mainly because of how rewarding the views were and how smooth the tarmac was.
You basically wind up and around in through a few small towns, and even cross paths with a bike shop, Como Lago Bike just out of town that regularly hosts group rides.
Eventually you find yourself looking at the Madonna del Ghisallo, towering over the top of a hill, with a pristine view overlooking the lake, looking north, back down towards where you came from. It’s here where you likely will want a photo with its sign.
I wish I had known more about the former professional and titanic riders who are featured in the Madonna church. Still, I felt like it was both somber and inviting. The sport has had its share of problems, but remains embracing, as cycling is a huge part of both fitness and transportation for so many people.
The nice thing here is that you’re allowed to walk right in, cleats and kit and all, and spend time reflecting at the sheer amount of history that exists inside. Right down to the broken bikes and artifacts owned by their former owners.
In an interesting bit of striking contrast, literally across the parking lot from the Madonna is a very modern looking museum dedicated to cycling. I seriously could have spent hours in here, as this place had hundreds of bikes from every decade that bikes have been a thing in modern society.
Definitely plan to spend some time in here looking at what was deemed “cutting edge” technology in their respective day.
Oh! And they give you a euro off the entry fee if you come in with your riding gear! They also have a nice guard attendant who watches your bike for you just outside the entrance. And you get to put on a pair of crocs that they have lying around so that you don’t have to walk around in your cleats on their nice floor.
And no, that’s not meant to be a clickbait title.
After meeting a random Italian who wanted to take a photo of me (I’m still waiting to find it somewhere online), I took off into the (now) afternoon sun. The descent down the back side of the hill that the Madonna sits on is quite nice, and is a gentle, but fast descent. I remember coming up on a few other riders, one of which was a younger guy who seemed to just be cruising.
My turn off didn’t take me all the way down the hill, however. It took me back up. And back UP.
This was entertaining to me, as I kept seeing signs for this like it was some kind of Disneyland attraction in X number of miles. There’s actually a decent amount of climbing to be had just to get to the beginning of this climb, too!
…and another one.
There’s a lot more historical context around this here, but I’ll just simply quote them with this:
The start is inviting because you’ve already climbed several kilometres of 6-7% gradients just to reach the village of Sormano and the climbing continues out of the village. As you approach the turning for the muro you see the gradient leveling out if you take the muro option. There’s a flat road, a fountain, a quiet picnic area and it all vibes calm. You quickly realise it’s a trap and the road rises up at 14%.
But then again, you’re a cyclist, so you’re very likely a masochist when it comes to climbing. I feel like the rewards always pay off in spades. But that’s just me, of course. Sormano is a beautiful little town.
If you’re into climbing like I have somehow become (I know, I’m still shocked, too!), this should be on your bucket list. Numerous professional riders have said that this road is “too steep” to race on, and it’s an intense one, drenched in history. It averages 14-17% with several pitches well above 25%, and lasts a little more than a mile. No cars are allowed on it, either.
I actually had to stop and walk my bike up about halfway up. I just couldn’t keep my legs moving on the incline! I remember passing a lady coming down the hill with her dog and we both just laughed at how ridiculous this hill was.
Besides it also being so beautiful? Well, for me it was the road markings.
Other websites have captured this, too, but there are quotes along the way painted on the road. At the top they actually have the various times that other professional riders have done the climb in. And each meter climbed vertically is represented by its elevation painted on to the road. What this means is that as the road gets steeper, the numbers get closer together. It’s a fun and different way to visualize climbing.
Riding this road really makes you feel like you’re riding on a part of history.
After the feeling of sense of accomplishment of pushing my bike up the hill like a kid unable to get back up his street home, I stopped in at the cafe at the top to fill up my bottles with more water (they had a spigot out back around the corner). I passed a small observatory, and then made a very winding descent down back towards the water.
This part was heaven.
I don’t have footage from my GoPro of this point, nor did I stop for many photos, as I was hoping to get back to that bike shop before they closed for the day. But I audibly said to myself “this is what I imagine heaven to be like” during this portion of the ride.
The sun glistening over the lake to your right.
Beautiful green-lined mountains cascading into the water.
Boats and beautiful houses casually strolling and laying watch to the region.
Flying along on your bike, feeling connected to it all simply because you’re the one pedaling the power into the pavement.
I love descending and enjoying the rush of wind in your face, the leaning of the bike into the curve, the feeling of the centripetal force pushing your tires into the pavement, all of it. This, combined with everything else (not to mention the endorphin rush from all the riding I had been doing for the past week!) truly made this into my favorite day on the bike (so far).
What’s a ride without post ride snacks?
And gelato of course!
Whenever I have a rough day at work, or maybe life is just stressing me out and getting me down, I think back on this day (and the previous trip in the Alps!). It’s a wonderful experience to think back on for all of the above reasons and more. I did this solo, I did it not thinking of the expense at forgoing my hotel fees back in Montreux, and instead opted to follow my heart and run off and ride my bike somewhere magical.
I even later that night had some incredible ripasso and the best pizza of my life while enjoying Italian television, not having a clue what they were saying.
It’s a wonderful feeling to feel like you’ve grown up, that you’ve been able to choose your own adventure, and that you’ve planned and prepared for it, and it all went off as well as you could have expected it to.
So until next time, Como, Ciao!