Falling Leaves in Como

The end of the road season for the pro peloton is traditionally marked by the fifth and final monument, Il Lombardia (formally Giro di Lombardia). It’s a tough one day classic, over 200km long, with iconic climbs such as the Muro di Sormano and Madonna di Ghisallo. The route varies each year, but takes in the countryside of Lombardy between Bergamo and Como or vice versa. Organised by the same group that runs Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, this year they hosted a granfondo on the day following the pro race.

I got out to Como on Friday, taking a sleeper train from Catania all the way to Milan – a long 19 hour journey, but saved me having to fly with the bike and pannier bags. I originally intended to cycle to Como, but since my train was late in to Milan, I grabbed the train (having to pay for first class) as my friend was waiting there to go for a ride.

Muro di Sormano

I joined my clubmate Adam from Kingston Wheelers, with the rest of the crew arriving in the evening. Adam and I went for a spin, deciding to check out the Muro di Sormano – the ‘Wall’ of Sormano. I hadn’t heard about it before the trip, but after some quick research on YouTube I saw that it would be quite an intense climb. 3km long with an average gradient of 14%, with a maximum gradient of 27% on the steepest sections. Ouch.

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Descent off the Muro di Sormano

We went there direct from Como, heading east to Asso, before joining the start of the climb. The ascent begins fairly gently before reaching the climb proper. You head onto a gated walking path, which quickly ramps up to 20% then continues without let up for 3km, each bend snaking around to reveal another piece of wall ahead. With a compact on the bike and 28 on the back I was still out of the saddle all the way up. Not terrible, but I knew it would be tough on Sunday for the gran fondo with riders likely to be pushing their bikes up the climb.

After the climb it’s a technical descent back down to the lake, lots of blind bends and chestnuts on the road. We took it fairly easy back down then Adam lay down the hurt on the rolling road back to Como.

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1218049886

Madonna di Ghisallo

The next day with our whole contingent of Wheelers we headed out to the Madonna di Ghisallo. Heading north from Como up the side of the lake towards Bellagio, approaching the climb the same way we’d do it on the granfondo. It’s a pretty awesome climb with some tough ramps, but generally the gradient is pretty steady so you can get a good tempo going. At the top we stopped to look inside the church – an amazing homage to fallen cyclists and containing bikes from the Coppi, Bartali, Merckx and Moser amongst others.

After taking a group photo at the top we had a chilly descent down, coming back to Como via Asso. With the group together the pace ramped up and as Ed and Declan flew up some of the ramps back into town I decided to sit up and save my legs for Sunday.

Ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1218893801

Back in town we collected our numbers and timing chips for the granfondo. The chip was a 10 euro deposit, 5 of which you get back after the ride… hmm! The goodie bag was pretty decent though, including a bag of pasta (made from lentils) and products by Named Sport and Weleda.

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Wheelers Corner…

In the afternoon we regrouped at 3pm and headed to Civiglio to watch the pro race. Riding out in civvies in the afternoon sun it got pretty warm and half the group ended up riding the climb stripped to the waist. I went to the top with Ed, then headed back down about half way to find the others and wait for the race to come through. It was pretty cool seeing the riders up close, you could see the pain itched on the faces coming up the ramps after over 200kms of hills in the legs.

Ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1220865902

Gran Fondo

On Sunday the main event for us amateurs arrived, a route a shade under 110km with three of the major climbs that the pros take on in the race. Not as long as most of the European trips I would travel to, but with enough elevation to make it a tough few hours in the saddle… especially if ridden at Italian gran fondo pace!

The start was typically frantic with several groups emerging up the road. I spotted Declan chipping off up the road and chased up to his wheel and we proceeded to accelerate through the groups until we reached the front of the granfondo. I think they had split the local teams who were racing for points and the rest of us, so technically we were at the front of the sportive. Needless to say everyone was still treating it like a race and there was a pretty brutal pace being set on the front. At some point Declan went away with a few other riders and I decided to sit in and save my legs (a common theme).

As we approached the Ghisallo I made my way to the front of my group and accelerated up the road, knowing that I would be stopping at the top and waiting for the rest of my clubmates. I was surprised to see Declan half way the first set of ramps and I caught up with him and we pushed on together. Half way up the Ghisallo is a small descent and we must have been taking it fairly easy because the pack rejoned us as the road went up. We pushed on again, taking a few others to the top with us.

At the top of the climb we stopped in the bar for a coffee and got approached by Ciclo Turismo Magazine for an interview, who also took a few group shots when the rest of the group arrived. When everyone was together we headed into the church and left a bracelet for our friend Maria who recently passed away. It was a sad moment, but a special tribute in the church of cycling.

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Riding with Declan up the Ghisallo

After the Ghisallo we took the descent down the hill, before peeling off right to head towards Sormano. After a lengthy stop at the Ghisallo most of the field were now ahead of us and as I suspected it was carnage once we hit the steep sections with riders both sides of the narrow path pushing their bikes. I managed to negotiate my way up shouting “occhio” as I weaved through walking riders. The top came as a welcome relief as I was really feeling it in the legs and I had Ed coming up quickly behind me.

Off the top of the Muro came the quick technical descent. I played it safe, letting Declan disappear down the hill. When I reached the lake I could see him just up the road, but without anyone to work with he’d soon disappeared out of sight and I pushed onto Como in the drops trying to get as aero as possible.

On reaching Como we were diverted left up towards the start of the climb to the Civiglio. Having recce’d the climb the day before I knew what to expect and went out with a decent tempo, catching Declan about a third of the way up. We rode up most of the way before I found myself solo and pushed on over the top to begin the descent back down to Como. I channelled my inner Nibali and made it down the hill first for the final run in to Como.

I was cursing as at some point I missed a turn and ended up in the piazza, the wrong side of the finishing arch. I then had to cycle back along the side of the course until I could re-enter and come back under the arch. Luckily everyone else had the same problem so I was still first back. It seems the marshalls had packed up early, treating it more like a race rather than a strung out gran fondo. Overall it was a great route with beautiful views, but I would liked to have done the San Fermo della Battaglia as part of the course. Post-ride we headed to the pasta party in the sun, a great end to the ride with some of the group jumping in the lake.

Ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1220866060

Monte Generoso

The day after the gran fondo my clubmates departed for London so I went for a solo ride. Monte Generoso separates Lake Como from Lugano in Switzerland and I had heard from friends that it is a great climb. I cycled up the western side of the lake, peeling off at Argegno to start the climb. It was nice and steady hairpins, weaving up through the villages, which were becoming increasingly alpine in feel the higher I ascended. Around Casasco d’Intelvi I lost the route and after some backtracking I found the road that continues up to the highest point, the village of Orimento.

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Top of Monte Generoso

Around 3km from the summit there is a single-track road that heads up to the summit. It’s a stunning view as the road curves up and around, winding its way to the top amongst fields of dairy cows, with their bells ringing. After 15 minutes of climbing I reached the summit and decided to shoulder the bike and climb the final part on foot to enjoy the view. After a couple of photos I came back down and enjoyed a panino and coffee in the bar at the top.

From here it was back down the same way, minding the pot holes on the descent. Passing through several Italian towns then the descent to Switzerland begins, 14% lacets that wind down through the mountains. Spectacular!

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View from Monte Generoso

The landscape and changes as soon as you reach Switzerland, with quaint Swiss architecture in contrast to the Italian villas the other side of the mountain. Around Lugano it gets a little busy, but then you skirt around the lake and back to Como between the mountains. When I reached Lake Como I was low on food and started to bonk on the way back… it was a relief to get back and have a coffee and cake at my new favourite cycling café – Sartoria Ciclistica.

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1223722185

Ride Around the Lake

Before the trip I’d mapped a route that took in the whole perimeter of the lake. It was 162km with around 4,000 metres of climbing – surely a Strava Routes overestimation? I needed to get back for 2pm when my wife arrived, but after a night battling mosquitoes having left the bathroom window open I ended up snoozing my alarm until 7.30am and started later as planned. Nevermind I could still do most of the lake but cut out the final lump between Lecco and Como.

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North side of Lake Como

I followed the western side of the lake to start the ride, chosen because it was in the sun at this time of the day. It’s filled with pretty villages and grand hotels; the rich side of the lake. Around the top of the lake the mountain range comes into view, standing over the valley below. I crossed a bridge over the river and continued east to begin the return leg towards Lecco.

At Lecco it got pretty busy with cars and my Garmin was trying to take me back to Como on the motorway. I had to cycle back up the layby, then found my way onto a cycle path that took me towards Asso where I took minor roads back into town. Maria had just arrived when I got back after 5 hours in the saddle. Good timing!

Ferry to the Ghisallo

We’d arranged bike hire for Maria Grazia from Cicli Ferca in Como. In the morning we headed over to pick up the bike, a Pinarello Gan and her first ride on carbon. We had a leisurely start after a coffee at Sartoria Ciclistica then headed up the western shore towards Menaggio. Here we took a ferry across to the other side, the pretty but touristy town of the Bellagio.

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Ferry to Bellagio

This is where you can start the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo. It was my third time climbing it this trip, it was nice to soft peddle up with Maria Grazia and enjoy the views after the two previous full gas efforts. At the top we went in the church and I was happy to see Mazza’s necklace still proudly hanging in the church.

After a coffee and cornetto at the bar at the top – the proprietor seemed pissed off we didn’t buy lunch – we descended back down the way we had come to Bellagio. It was a fairly rolling ride back to Como, and Maria Grazia was pretty knackered – actually so was I after a week of hard riding! We got back around 4pm and had a late lunch at home of pasta, sausages and wine.

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Pleased with their Pinarello

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1225377967

Civiglio & San Fermo della Battaglia

The last day of our trip so I decided to get up early and do a couple of local climbs. Since we were staying on the road that begins the ascent to Civiglio it seemed rude not to! With little warm up I hit the Civglio climb and gave it an all out effort, but my legs were pretty done it. It was a great descent again until I hit the morning traffic in Como, and navigated my way to the San Fermo della Battaglia climb. The battle of San Fermo is in reference to Garibaldi leading the ‘Cacciatori delle Alpi’ corps to defeat the Austrian forces and defend Como. On Eurosport the climb was described as a mere ‘ramp’ when Nibali was flying up it so I wasn’t expecting too much. Turns out it’s actually 2.2km at with an average gradient of 8%, tougher than Box Hill let’s say. On the descent, I stopped to grab a bag of cornetti and headed back to the house ready to head onto Milano after a decent week of riding – 630km and 14,000 metres climbing.

The ride on Strava – https://www.strava.com/activities/1226419415

In Summary

Como isn’t the cheapest place as a tourist, but if you are smart you can do it on a budget. The best ice cream was at Gelateria Lariana by the lake and the cycling café Sartoria Ciclistica is a great place to start a ride if you like decent espresso, the owner Alessandro rides for Dafne Fixed. We went out of season in October, but I would imagine in summer it gets busy around the lake so be prepared to battle with cars. Also bring lights for the tunnels, especially the long one I ended up in mistake spotting the “no cycling” sign too late.

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Maria Grazia climbing the Ghisallo
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