Thursday 6 June 2019

Italian cycling tales from towns on the Giro d'Italia route - 2

Stories from the places on the 2019 Giro d'Italia route. One thing I liked about watching the Giro d'Italia cycle race was when the route went through areas that I am familiar with - either places where I lived or stayed when on holiday, or places I cycled through.

Here are some of the stages that brought me some fond memories.

Commezzadura (Val di Sole) to Anterselva (Stage 17)

The first section of this stage is an area I am familiar with, having done an event called the Giro di Dolomiti. It's a one-week cyclosportive in stages held in late July/early August, based in Bolzano.

The novelty about this event is that the General Classification is not based on the time taken to complete each of the stages, but just the time to do the main climb of each stage. The rest of the time people ride the remaining part of the stage at a leisurely pace, enjoying the Dolomites. You are even treated to a sit-down meal at altitude somewhere along the route.

Making friends at the Giro di Dolomiti
The year I did it, in 2006, Passo Mendola was the main climb of the first stage. I remember it well because I'd been so anxious about the event, and I was not sure if I would be fit enough. Italian bike riders use cyclosportives as de facto road races, so no one seems to ride on their own at their own pace. Or at least that's how things had looked to me.

In fact, it was at this race that I learned that cyclosportives need not always be a speedfest. In particular in this cyclosportive I knew I would only need to put in a hard effort for one climb, and the rest of the time it would just be a trans-Dolomiti social with folks from various parts of Europe.

Passo Mendola, which we climbed from Bolzano (the opposite way to the riders this year) was about 10 miles long, but it had a gentle gradient. Once I had gotten that out of the way I felt fine.

It was also nice because on that day I met some guys who had come to the event from Kent, and an Australian girl, Yvette who was half Italian and half Australian and working for Pinarello. We built up a camaraderie for the rest of the week, and met other people too. That contributed to me having a really good time at the Giro di Dolomiti. I would definitely recommend this event.

The riders in this year's Giro d'Italia took the main road to get from Bolzano to Ponte Gardena. However, it is possible to do this route on a traffic-free path. Google maps doesn't show this route for bicycles, however it is there and it is quite a pleasant tarmacked path that follows the River Adige. I cycled along it to get to Bolzano from Ponte Gardena.

At the time that I rode this I had been staying in Milan as I was working there, and for the August bank holiday I spent a long weekend in Canazei, in the heart of the Dolomites. As part of my return journey (which involved a train via Bolzano and then Verona to get to Milan) I got a bus to Ortisei (or it might have been Plan de Gralba), then rode downhill to Ponte Gardena from where I picked up the cycle path.

Along the way, a local guy on a bicycle decided to ride with me. I just thought it was just your average local who just says hello, where are you from, blah blah blah, and then carries on along his way at a faster pace than me.

However, this guy was not ready to do that at all. I told him that I wouldn't be going very fast because my bike was heavily laden. But he said he didn't mind. His car was sitting in a garage in Ortisei being serviced, so he had all day to hang around and was looking for something to do! So he was all set to ride with me for the duration! Cripes!

He was pretty harmless, and just talked about life and the universe, plus Italians' other favourite subject after football - the state of the economy and corrupt politicians - so I had two hours to learn about this blokes' thoughts on Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo, the Lega Nord, and a bit of Gigi Buffon!

Thankfully, just when I felt I'd had my fill of his opinions and he was about to say, "...and another thing..." we arrived at the outskirts of Bolzano, so he wished me a good day, and went on his way back to Ortisei. I like to think he had got everything off his chest!

This trip back to Bolzano was a lot easier than my outward journey. I had taken a packed train from Milan to Verona in which I and a load of other cyclists had been packed like cattle into a carriage with our bikes on an oppressively hot day. Then I picked up an equally packed train up to Ponte Gardena, from where I had planned to ride up to Canazei with all my luggage.

Progress was very slow as I sauntered up the road on my fully laden bike. The first 20km of the 30km route was uphill, as far as the Passo di Sella. Every so often I would phone the proprietor of the B&B where I had a room reserved, to say that there would be a delay in my arrival time, especially as it was getting to evening and I still had to ride up (and then down) the Passo di Sella.

Finally at around 7.30pm, when I arrived at Selva di Val Gardena I popped into a hotel and got them to call a taxi for me. The taxi driver told me it would cost 80 euros to take me to Canazei.

Delightful Dolomiti - the Sella range of mountains
Not wanting to pay so much I told him to take me just to the summit of Passo di Sella, and then I would roll 10km down the hill to Canazei. He reluctantly agreed to do so, fearing that I would catch hyperthermia riding down from the summit (which was at 2,218m) at that time of the evening.

He was right about the descent being really cold, but I just wore every bit of clothing in my luggage. It was a beautiful descent. Although it had been a challenging day, I felt lucky to have had the chance to see the Sella Ronda and the Dolomites rocks from up close at sunset. The area looked amazing.

Lovere to Ponte di Legno (Stage 16)

As the pre-planned climb of Passo di Gavia had to be removed from this stage of the Giro d'Italia due to snow, Mortirolo became the main climb of this stage. It was quite a spectacle watching the riders climb up it from the hard side, Mazzo.

Summit of Mortirolo
This takes me back to the time when I rode up the Mortirolo a few years ago when I was based in Milan and took the train up to Tirano for a long weekend in the high Italian Alps. As Mortirolo was not so far from where I was staying I decided to ride it one Friday afternoon.

I was having a bit of trouble finding the climb so a friendly local cyclist, Giulio, showed me the way there. He got me to follow his wheel along the valley road, and we arrived at Tovo Sant'Agata near Mazzo, where he dropped me off.

A butcher by trade, Giulio only worked in the morning and would spend every afternoon riding around the local climbs - Gavia, Aprica, Ponte di Legno, Bormio, Stelvio and of course Mortirolo. So for him to take a few minutes out of his afternoon to ride with me along a valley road was probably light relief!

I held his wheel like my life depended on it as he drafted off a rather speedy tractor. By the time he dropped me off at Tovo Sant'Agata the sweat was pouring down my face and I then I contemplated this monster I had to climb. "Just take is steady," Giulio said. "You'll be fine."

I came out of the climb alive, but it was not fine at all. The climb was so steep, and I ended up having to get off my bike and walk. I felt really stupid to have chosen the Mortirolo as my first climb of the trip when I hadn't found my climbing legs.

On the way up to Mortirolo from Mazzo
It was a Friday afternoon, and I was wondering if I would get back home before dinner! Eventually I came out of the woods - metaphorically as well as physically - and I had a lovely view of the Valtellina valley area.

Then I dropped downhill to a town called Monno. This descent was quite shallow and it made me realise that this was the side I should have ridden up the Mortirolo.

The views around were so beautiful and the descent was not technical, so with a nice end to my ride it made me forget about the earlier difficulties in the afternoon.

The rest of my weekend was spent riding up to Bormio and to Stelvio. Time didn't allow me to go up the Gavia, and I made a resolution to return there to ride. My next trip to the area was to go skiing in Aprica, and I haven't returned there since. So Passo di Gavia is still on my bucket list.

Ivrea to Como (Stage 15)

Lake Como at Bellagio
Of all the stages of this year's Giro d'Italia this is the stage I am most familiar with it. I have ridden in most of the sections of this stage.

As I spent 18 months in Milan, and still visit the area regularly I always make a point of riding around Lombardy.

The immediate outskirts of Milan are industrial, and sadly they don't have any preserved green belt areas like what you get around London, so a ride from Milan city centre to the nice areas that we know and love is actually quite ugly.

You pass industrial estate after disused factory, after out-of-town retail park, so I would generally cut out these eyesores and get on a local train to Monza or Como, and ride around the Brianza and Lake Como areas. Sometimes I would go to Lecco and Bergamo too.

Madonna del Ghisallo
Arriving into Como was always a nice feeling as I would get off the train and be right next to the beautiful lake. From there I would take the road along the lake, the SP583 to get to Bellagio, and then turn right to climb up to Magreglio, the site of Madonna del Ghisallo.

There are lots of options from here. I could turn back and enjoy the ride along the same road, which is the direction in which the pros cycled along this road during their first passage into Como.

But feeling energetic last autumn I decided to go on to Sormano and then tempt the Muro di Sormano, a quiet narrow, ridiculously steep lane which is a short cut to Pian del Tivano. In hindsight I should have done like the pros and taken the longer, but more gentle Colma di Sormano.

The Muro di Sormano is THE hardest climb I have ever seen on a bike. It is even steeper than those really steep roads in the Lake District. I have yet to meet anyone (outside of elite racers) who can ride this. Apart from the first 150m I ended up walking most of the roughly mile-long (1.7km) climb, and then got on my bike for the last 30 metres.

Embarrasingly when I reached the main road near Pian del Tivano a few hikers cheered at me for having managed to do the climb! I felt it necessary to come clean with them and say I didn't ride it. But they were just impressed I had ridden any part of it at all!

Which way? Turn left for the pain of the Muro di Sormano
The descent to Nesso is hairpin central - pretty technical. At least the pros had a clear road.

I had to deal with cars in front of me, making me either work hard to overtake them safely on the narrow road, or take it handy so that I didn't run into the back of them.

Then once back on the road to Torno it was a real blast to ride along the side of the Lake to get back to Como. I really appreciated the picture postcard that was the town of Como, with its lovely landmarks, in the distance.

The pros then had the pleasure of riding up to Civiglio. I would normally do this route as a separate ride either from Lecco and Ponte Lambro, which is the easy way down, or I would start in Como and do the tough climb up towards Brunate, then turn right to Civiglio when I was two thirds up the climb.
Lake Como as seen from Brunate

This road is not visible while at Lake Como as it is a quiet road that starts at the back of the town. However, while at the lake if you look up you see a lighthouse way up above, and that is where I need to go.....

It's quite daunting, especially as the first part of the climb is quite steep - probably around 12%.  with lots of hairpins. Even driving up there is quite tricky! A few years ago I wrote an article for the former Cycling Active magazine about riding around this area. We did a photo shoot in the area, and it was quite fun.

As Italians like to chat there were quite a few people who were curious to know what we were up to during the photoshoot, and I remember a guy who was quite happy to slow down in his car, while I was riding on a steepish hairpin, and chat to me about what I was doing and shout "forza, dai". It's an Italian thing, I guess.

A well-deserved ice cream awaits in Como
Talking of Italian things, all my rides around this area would end in the main square near Como cathedral, where I would have a gelato before getting the train back to Milan. I miss those times, but I also know that it is easy enough to go back there from London - something that I have done since those days, and will continue to do.

Related posts
Italian cycling tales from towns on the Giro d'Italia route - 1

Venturing out to Mortirolo

My Tour of Lombardy

The hills are alive in Tirano

Bella Sella ride

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