Saturday 8 February 2020

Beautiful ride around Bergamo - for those who like cycling up hills!

After a day of riding around the flat roads in the Milan area I decided to tackle something a bit more challenging. It would have been rude not to ride around some of the beautiful hills in Italy!

Rossignoli bikes in Corso Garibaldi
I had the bike (a Cinelli Saetta hired from Biciclette Rossignoli), and in theory I had the legs, so why not go out for a ride.

So I cycled to Centrale Station in Milan and took the 55-minute journey to Bergamo.

Note that you can take your bike onto a regional train and hang it in a special compartment for bikes.

Trenord, the train company, has a policy that you buy a ticket for your bike for 3 euros 50, and it is valid for 24 hours from the time you stamp our ticket.

Trains carry bikes. Remember to by a ticket
On leaving my apartment near Porta Romana I was a little unsure as to whether I was doing the right thing going there. The air was full of mizzle and I figured that whatever it was doing on the flat lands of Milan, it would be worse in the hills further into Lombardy. So it was tempting to step back into my apartment and relax in front of the telly in the dry.

In the end, I willed myself along, deciding that at the worst case scenario I would just ride around the city of Bergamo - which is hilly enough - and then return to Milan and go shopping.

Surprisingly, when I emerged from the train station in Bergamo, the city was bathed in glorious sunshine - all very pleasant!

From the station I just needed to head straight on along the main Viale Papa Giovanni and Viale Roma, following the signs for the Muro di Bergamo/Citta Alta. I wasn't alone, as various other club riders were out on this Saturday morning. Very quickly my thighs began to feel the strain as the roads rose up in front of me. It was a slight shock to the system.

When it comes to uphill, they don't mess about in Bergamo. As someone who lives in Crystal Palace, a hilly part of London, I am used to climbing. So initially I felt at home - albeit in an ornate and touristic version of my neighbourhood.

However, the 8% gradient was unrelenting and continued for longer than what I was used to. Once on the citadel and the gateway into the old town I could heave a sigh and relax a little. But it wasn't over. The road continued up and up, and at moments the gradient went to around 16% as I was led further into the ancient town.

This area had quite a lot of local tourists and walkers who looked on in admiration at cyclists who had the guts to attempt this climb, and I must admit I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of them. So I tried my best to look graceful as I went up the hill, even though my quads were burning!

Quite a lot of cyclists overtook me. This was probably just their regular Saturday morning ride which they would do without breaking a sweat! The area was so pretty that I couldn't help but stop and take a photo - well at a point where I knew I could get back on the bike easily. Some of the riders passing me found it amusing that I would photograph an area that was just their bog-standard route.

Climbing through the upper old town of Bergamo
I wasn't that sure which way to go, but in fact all I needed to do was to follow the other riders! That took me towards the Val Brembo.

Being in Bergamo must be great if you're into hill running too, as I saw many of them as well. Many a fell runner must have originated from here. Eventually I reached the summit of the climb, after what must have been 6.4 km (4 miles).

Although it was sunny the temperature at this altitude (500m) had dropped and I needed to wrap up quite well for the twisty descent through Val Brembo. From there, I followed the signs towards Villa d'Alme, and then on to Costa Valle Imagna.

There was a bit of respite as I rode through the valley and along the lower slopes. This section was less picturesque as I passed out of town shopping centres and industrial estates. Also, like anywhere else in the world there was a fair amount of Saturday traffic.

Once past Almenno San Salvatore, things quietened down and I was treated to the typical hillside views of the area. Even though I was on my own I didn't feel alone. As I was starting the climb up to Valle Imagna there were a lot of cyclists around, and they all greeted me. Given it was almost lunchtime I suspect that many of them were completing their ride as I was just getting into the business end of my ride. One guy even expressed concern that my rucksack would be too heavy. Well there wasn't much I could do about that - short of him riding alongside me and carrying it! I replied that I was fine.

The climb up to the town of Costa Valle Imagna seemed interminable, as it twisted and turned around the hills. I took it easy, knowing that it wouldn't be beneficial to rush given my lack of fitness, and I wasn't trying to keep away from a broom wagon. I was slightly concerned at how much snow was on the hills and I wondered if I was going to arrive at the summit and suddenly hit snow-covered roads or arrive at a mini ski resort. There are a few in this area.

After around 5 km (3 miles) of climbing I realised I was very much on my own. Apart from Bedulita there were no villages, barely any cars passing by, and no cyclists overtaking me or passing in the opposite direction.

It was quite eerie being here on a Saturday afternoon with all this landscape to myself. The views over the Bergamo countryside were pretty spectacular with hills and woodland all around, then mountains in the distance. I just continued to grind my way up this steady 6% gradient going round countless hairpins.
On the way to the Costa Valle Imagna

When I have a long way to climb I tend not to keep track of anything because it makes the task seem onerous as the countdown always seems slow - probably because it is, given the speed of my cycling!

Instead, I prefer to let my mind wander onto other things like imaging what it must be like to live in this area, what past-times folks have, how their daily lives are, what I'm going to eat, who I'm going to visit later, will there be a place selling ice cream - that's the part that really incentivises me. Yes, I am happy to eat ice cream even in mid-winter!

Before I knew it I was just a couple of miles from Costa Valle Imagna, and I would be treated to a lovely descent - hopefully towards Lecco, on the edge of Lake Como.

The top of the ascent was marked, in typical style by a line chalked in the road that said GPM. The village, just a couple of hundred metres beyond the line. It was a fairly unassuming non descript town, rather than something picturesque like what its name might have given people to believe.

However, it will probably have been heaving with cycling fans during the month of May and October as these have been included in editions of the Tour of Lombardy and the Giro d'Italia. But today the most interesting thing I saw in the village was the local bus driver there with his bus, waiting in his depot chatting to other locals before the time came for him to start his service, maybe back to Bergamo.

He wasn't the only one returning to Bergamo. Sadly, I wasn't able to proceed further along to Lecco as time had run out, and my ride would not have gone downhill without me doing another climb full of switchbacks to Valcava and then a big drop through Torre de Busi and on to Lecco. It looked like it would have been a spectacular drop.

Sadly, time was tight as I had to be back in Bergamo to catch the 4pm train, so rather than continue further into the hills I doubled back to take the downhill run to where I started. Fortunately, there was still a choice of routes for this ride back to Bergamo and I was able to take the road through Roncola and Barlino. It was exhilarating having over  12km of downhill along twists and turns in the roads - something I hadn't experienced for over a year.

At times things got a bit sketchy on tight turns as the road surface was still wet from the melted snow. Also, at one point I had to stop and rest up as I even felt slightly dizzy from all the turns! But it was pure adrenaline.

My final run in to Bergamo was traffic-free, as a group of mountain bikers pointed me in the direction of  a network of cycle paths along the Quisa waterfall in a lovely woodland area near Paladina. This was quite a popular area with walkers, joggers and cyclists. My route was limited to just the hard-surfaced paths, but there were lots of other trails that would have been fun to do on a gravel bike. Note to oneself to return to this place on my next visit to Bergamo.

With Giovanna Rossignoli
Back in the city I breezed through the relatively quiet streets that took me straight back to the train station, and within an hour I was back in the heaving metropole of Milan. From there it was a quick ride from Stazione Centrale back to Biciclette Rossignoli where I returned the bike and had a nice chat with Giovanna, the manager.

The route on Strava can be found here

Related posts
Naviglio of Milan and suburban ride

Italian cycling tales from towns in the Giro d'Italia

First club run in Milan

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