Thursday 2 March 2023

Bella Italia by bike: Bergamo to Como

On the road again to Lecco

After my ride from Bergamo to Lecco yesterday, I was all set to do the longer ride up to Como via Madonna del Ghisallo. It was going to be a long day as the plan was to get to Como, go for a swim along the way, and then on my arrival at Como I would catch the train to Milan where I would return the bike to the hire shop.

Having done the Bergamo-Lecco section of the ride yesterday, I felt comfortable as I had an idea what the terrain would be like, and I knew it wouldn't be particularly onerous - at least the first section.

Riding through the suburbs of Bergamo I came across a new cycle path that I hadn't previously seen, and was curious to take it, hoping that this would take me towards the road to Lecco. It did go towards Lecco, but was along a main road.  

Initially the main road had a cycle path on it, which I had hoped would lead me all the way to Lecco - fat chance. Lecco was a good 25 miles away, so it was wishful thinking that the path would continue for that distance. In fact as I wondered to myself how long the path would last for, my question was answered when it came to an abrupt end on the city limits of Bergamo.

At this point I could have turned right to take the more scenic route through Valbrembo. However, I didn't want to lose time and this main road didn't seem to have much traffic on it. I had seen the roads of  Valbrembo the previous day, so was happy to check out this main road.

Where Valbrembo had narrow country roads up through woodland and past hilltop palazzos, the main road was gently undulating through less spectacular countryside, though still with the odd panoramic views of the Lombardy landscape neutralising the industrial or retail parks in the various settlements. 

Although it was Monday morning and on a main road, traffic was surprisingly light. This was early June though, and many Italians may have still been off work, having taken an extended holiday following the Republic Day public holiday.

Pedalling along the road in the sunshine, I felt relaxed and allowed my mind to wander as I ambled through this part of Italy that was off the tourist path, but was still very pretty. Every so often my reverie would be interrupted by a "Ciao" or "Salve", as an agile club cyclist breezed past me effortlessly full speed ahead. Given how lean they looked I am sure that one or two of these guys were professional riders. In his Bardiani-CSF kit he definitely looked like someone I might have seenn on TV.  

Soon I reached Caprino Bergamasco and got caught up in a traffic jam. After winding my way past the cars and vans I got to the front and found out what the hold-up was - a level crossing. Unsurprisingly right at the head of the queue were motorcyclists and cyclists. 

Given the queue it seemed like the barriers had already been down for several minutes. One train came past, and we all prepared ourselves for the barriers to raise. But nothing. "Ma dai!" (Come on!), the motorcyclist said as he began to lose patience. The cyclist explained that there was probably another train about to pass through. There then ensued a conversation between the cyclist and the motorbiker about how inefficient things are around there. "It's not right to make people wait for 15 minutes for the trains to come through. We have places to get to!"

Plus ├ža change, as they say!

Soon after the level crossing my route reached Cisano Bergamasco where a memorial wall caused me to stop and look at the numerous photographs with messages displayed of people who had died during the Covid pandemic. Some were just posters showing a photo of the person and the information about where their funeral would be taking place. Others were mini tributes and poems dedicated to loved ones. It was sad to see the range of ages of the various people. Some were just in their 20s or 30s. Let's not forget that Italy, and specifically Bergamo, for a time became the epicentre for coronavirus when the disease spread outside of China.

Apart from a mini climb up to Pontida, and a breezy descent to Cisano Bergamasco the road had been gently undulating or flat, and would stay like that until just outside Bellagio, which was fine by me. It was tempting to stop, but I knew I still had a long way ahead of me as I still had not yet reached Lecco, and after Bellagio the ride would become a slog up Ghisallo and an even longer grind in Sormano, before reaching Como.

The run into Lecco was really pleasant and tranquil, considering that there are quite a lot of busy main roads in the vicinity. A cycle path along the lake meant that there was no interaction with any motorised traffic and the route was just shared with other cyclists, walkers and joggers. 

Lecco as seen from the other side of the Y

Once in the centre of Lecco I then picked up the road to take me to the other side of the lake, meaning the inside of the upside down Y-shape of Lake Como so that I could head towards Bellagio. Immediately after crossing the lake my route took me straight into the village of Malgrate, with its delightful Lungomare from where you could admire the view of the sailing boats. Looking across the lake took me back to the recent past, yesterday -  in which I rode through Lecco and continued along a lakeside cycle path on the same side of the Y, to reach a tranquil beach near Pradello.  

From where I was standing, in Malgrate, it was hard to imagine that I was on the other side of this expanse of water less than 24 hours earlier. That's the beauty of visiting Lake Como. Well, enough of my reverie. It was time to push on. Next stop, Bellagio.

Onwards to the blessed Madonna

Shortly after leaving sunny Malgrate I was plunged into a long dark tunnel. That was by far my least favourite part of the ride. Suddenly finding yourself in a practically pitch black, sharing the road with all sorts of vehicles including trucks. There was a strip to the side of the road which made for a de facto cycle path, but the road surface was rough. For this reason I had made sure to carry a light with me, as well as a high-vis jacket. In my experience I have found them to be useful, even essential to feel safe when cycling around Italy. Some tunnels are thankfully only about 500m, but in this area I had two tunnels, each one almost one mile long. By the time I emerged from the second tunnel my heart was pounding as I heaved a big sigh of relief. At least there would be no more tunnels until close to Como. 

Stopover and handy place for a dip on the way to Bellagio

Arriving on a stretch of road where all the traffic from the tunnel had magically disappeared was the perfect antidote. My road to Bellagio was peaceful and generally flat as it wound around the mountainous inner triangular area of Lake Como. At this point along the provincial 583 road I was right next to the lake shore, and there were laybys and parking areas where it was possible to stop and walk onto the shore, or even take a swim. A number of motorcyclists had had this idea, and I must admit it was a very tempting proposition to do the same. But I had had in mind to treat myself to a swim and a drink at Faggeto Lario, a designated Lido area and bar within Lake Como. So I pressed on, just stopping to make use of the water fountains at certain points along the way, which was very useful given how hot the day was.

Just outside Belllagio, the road began to climb. This is a town, known as the jewel of Lake Como is a place I have been to on numerous occasions and I can say with authority, that it is beautiful and worth a visit. However, I was pushed for time and I knew that if I went there I would be lured into hanging out in the town for quite a while. So I just continued along my way and followed the sign for Erba and Magreglio, and immediately entered into climbing territory. 

Madonna del Ghisallo: 9.4km; ave gradient 6%; max gradient 14.7%; altitude: 758m

I was all set for around 10km of climbing to reach the chapel that honours cyclists, and the adjacent museum. The Madonna del Ghisallo climb is always full of cyclists. At any time of any day riders can be found cresting this climb, all at various speeds, though most going faster than I! As I get older I feel myself struggling more and more with the opening kilometres, which are not far off 10%. The first time I cycled up this climb I took it easy, finding just the opening section, then the last part a little tough. There is a mid-section through woodland which where the road levels off. However, on this day I still found it hard-going. There wasn't any section where I felt I could relax, apart from a part about 6km in when the road went downhill and it's easy to mistake this section for being the summit. What kept me going during the ride were the spectacular views of Lake Como and the mountains behind it. I never tire of this view. There is really nothing like it.

Lake Como seen from the Ghisallo climb

Once at the summit, a couple of guys who had passed me on the way gave me a clap a cheery "Bravo". Although there weren't loads of people there, with it being a Monday afternoon, I still ended up spending a long time having lunch, taking photos and chatting to other riders. There was an American guy on a mountain bike who had taken some time out from riding the trails to ride up the iconic climb. Coming from Colorado he was no stranger to spectacular landscapes or hills. With his sinewy legs he had ridden up the trails within the Lariano triangle and up some of the peaks, and was due to ride more. I have walked and done a trail running race in this area in the past, and I know that the Lariano triangle has some tough trails. But I guess a rider from Colorado he will have felt at home up there.

I also chatted to a couple of French guys who were bike packing from Bergamo to Milan that day, but would be continuing to their home in Lyon by bicycle. Finally, a woman admiring the view had ridden up from Erba - literally down the road from where we were. It was funny to see a local person admiring the view in the same way as we were, when it's something that she could see almost every day. But then again, I still marvel at the views from Box Hill, Surrey, or from the Puddledock side of Toys Hill, Kent, even though they are comparatively local to where I live.   

Between having my lunch, taking photos, chatting to other riders and paying a quick trip to the museum and gift shop and chatting to the shop assistant there, I ended up spending over an hour at the Ghisallo summit. So much for only wanting to do a quick stopover in order to gain time! Meeting those different people was worth it though.

Madonna del Ghisallo Chapel

Struggle up Sormano

After my extended lunchtime break came the lovely descent followed by a sharp right-hand turn up the switchbacks to reach Sormano village. I could tell I was not feeling so fit because the hairpins felt like hard work even though the last time I was there, probably in 2018, it didn't feel like that much of an effort.

Then came the decision point at the fork, I could take the left-hand road down into beautiful woodland and then be met by the terrible Muro di Sormano. Or I could continue on the same road on a circuitous route along a gentle five-mile drag, the Colma di Sormano, to reach the same point at the summit car park and restaurant. This was a no-brainer; the Colma for me. It was not necessarily an easy ride up to the Colma di Sormano, but it was a darn sight easier than the alternative. At least this was rideable. I did try the Muro once a few years ago, and after almost bursting my quads then relinquishing and walking up the one-mile climb I said "never again"!

Along the way, I was passed by a few local riders who said a friendly "Ciao" as they ambled up the road. One guy rode alongside me for about half a mile, chatting. I warned him that I was too tired to go any faster, but he said he didn't mind. "So why didn't you go up the Muro di Sormano?" I asked out of curiosity. "The Muro?" he said, like I had asked him a totally absurd question. "No one goes up there. It's crazy! You think you are taking a three-kilometre short cut but you end up spending half-an-hour to get up there. It's not worth it. I want to enjoy my ride." So I was glad to know I wasn't taking the wimp-out option. Eventually, he rode on saying he'd be waiting for me at the top. "Okay," I said, thinking that he had just said that to be polite.

Meanwhile, I pressed on at my own snail pace in the heat, feeling more comfortable about riding slowly and not slowing anyone down. I had forgotten how much of a climb the Colma is. It actually climbs noticeably. In fact, the Colma di Sormano is nearer to 10km, with a gradient of 7%, with sections at almost 9%. That makes it comparable to the Ghisallo climb in effort, and at an altitude of 1,116m, is significantly higher than the summit chapel in Magreglio.  

Eventually I reached the summit, from where a car park provided spectacular views over the Pian del Tivano and the various peaks of the so-called Triangolo Lariano, the terrain within the upside down Y-shaped Lake Como.

Colma di Sormano: 9.5km; ave gradient 6.7%; max gradient 13%; altitude 1116m

Surprisingly I found the cycling buddy who had passed me, in the car park. I can't believe he really had waited for me at the top. I imagine he'd probably had a three-course at the restaurant to kill time while waiting for me. 

"Gee, I'm knackered," I said to him. Thankfully it is downhill now," 

"Well, I guess you're not used to it if you are from London." 

He had a point. Mind you, I can't say I'm used to all the hills in London either! When I told him that I had started from Bergamo and was headed for Como he was very impressed. "Brava!" he said. Then we parted company as he was returning to his base back down in Sormano, while I pushed on in the opposite direction.

Breezing back down to Lake Como

The descent to Nesso was amazing, though a little scary, given the tight hairpins that appeared to be practically stacked on top of one another in parts. Thankfully, there were not many cars on the descent that would make me go uncomfortably slow on the narrow and twisty roads, and make overtaking difficult. Once again, the views were amazing, especially as Lake Como came back into view. 

Finally, I was back on the SP583 lakeside road back to Como. Time was marching on and it became a race against the clock, as I wanted to get the train straight from the Como Lago station down to Milan-Cadorna, which was just a short ride from the bike hire shop. Those trains were only one every half-hour, so I wanted to get one promptly in order to arrive in Milan before the shop closed.

Still, I wanted to enjoy my time in this beautiful part of the world, which I had not been able to visit for the last couple of years. So at Faggetto Lario I took the very steep road down to the lake shore to check out the lido and bar. Even if I only had a 10-minute dip, it would have been bliss. On my arrival, the place looked a bit of a disappointment. There was a Lido, there was a bar, and there were sun-loungers too, giving a beautiful close-up view of Lake Como and the mountains shrouding it's clear rippling water. But there was pop music - the kind I am not keen on - and folks that reminded me of Brits abroad. They weren't Brits though, they were Italian. At least all that cavorting behaviour on the beach is not restricted to folks from Blighty! Anyway, I was in a rush and I judged that it was not worth me changing into swimwear. So I just turned round and bust a gut riding back up the 15% gradient hairpins to pick up the main road, and enjoy a brisk lakeside ride back to Como.

Another thing that hadn't changed from back home was the traffic. Como, being a popular place attracts hordes of visitors including those travelling in by car, and the approach roads into the town centre always end up being chock-a-block. So from the tranquil start that I had had from Bergamo in the morning, I was faced with all the late afternoon chaos on the streets of Como. Using my London cyclist skills I managed to weave around the cars and reach Como Lago train station, just in time to board the 1646 train to Milan-Cadorna station. It's a pity there had been no time to stroll around Como, or get a gelato, but no worries. I've done that in Como many times before, and there will be many more times to do so, I'm sure.

Darsena Waterfront, Milan

Once I dropped off the bicycle, I enjoyed a nostalgic stroll around Central Milan, and a gelato plus anti-pasti on the Darsena Waterfront. With 108km and 1800m of climbing on the clock, I think these treats were well-deserved. 

Related posts

Bella Italia by Bike: Bergamo to Lecco

Beautiful ride around Bergamo

Navigli of Milan

My Tour of Lombandy - Ooh Sormano!

Ciao Felice Gimondi

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