Dancing through the falling leaves

As you head north from the plains of northern Italy the vista suddenly changes, almost as fast as a supermodel on the Milan catwalk. The horizon suddenly becomes rippled, and as you get closer those ripples turn to Alpine mountains, which are often snow capped. Then you reach the stunning lakes of Como and Maggiore, picture perfect images of everything you’d expect of a sexy sixties Italian movie; terraced hillsides, imposing churches, paved piazzas, glamorous ladies sipping cappuccino and eating gelato and fast cars; it really is the true Italian dream at it’s finest, and of course no Italian dream can be complete without the ciclismo, and this region has plenty of it!

There are several places around Europe, and indeed the world, that can be proclaimed as cycling Mecca’s, or at least that can lay claim to be home to a disproportionate number of top level pro bike races, and this region to the north of Milan and centred around the lakes of Maggiore and Como is without doubt one of the World’s true great bike racing Mecca’s – and is home both for many home grown and overseas pro’s. It’s long been a hotbed for top Italian racers, but it really hit the headlines when the Motorola team first based it’s self here – including Lance Armstrong. Since then the region between Como and Varese has played home to the likesIvan Basso, Oscare Frierre, Cadel Evans and the entire AIS and GreenEdge so on any given day of riding in the area you could find yourself hooking on to the wheel of one of the giants of the peleton.

The riding possibilities in this area are endless, and endlessly varied. Out of Como it’s self is stunning and hilly, and is home to the legendary Ghisallo climb, the brutal killing blow in the Giro di Lombardia. To the west of the lake are numerous great climbs, often used as testing grounds for the local pro’s – including Cadel Evans; this is where he hones his Tour de France climbing condition, while his time trail work is done just to the west of the hills, on the flatter roads north of Varese.

And of course no ride in this area is complete without a visit to the tiny yet hugely impressive and humbling Madonna di Ghisallo. This is a place like no other in cycling terms, and the memorabilia on display is truly amazing, while the roll call of fated fellow cyclists and the eternal flame brings a lump to your throat. But for me it was the glance upwards to see the crumpled Caloi that took Fabio Casartelli to his death on that fated July day in 1995 that really brought home the significance of things.

Further to the west the riding is almost a mirror image of the riding around Como, with stunning lakeside rides around Maggiore and numerous meandering mountain roads leading away from the lake. This is where the local pro chain gang trains on most days of the week, so you really should keep one eye over your shoulder.

If you are only planning one trip to Europe this region really should be on your agenda, it truly is a bike rider’s paradise.

The Giro di Lombardia

The Tour of Lombardy is the regions most famous race and is affectionately known as “the race of the falling leaves” because of it’s October scheduling. The race’s first outing in 1905 – when it was known as Milan-Milan, although that all changed 2 years later when it took it’s current name.

The race is traditionally the last serious classic of the season, and is one of the toughest single day races there is. The course of the race changes frequently, but always includes the climb of Ghisallo towards the end.

Madonna di Ghisallo

The story of the Ghisallo goes back to medieval times; it is believed that Ghisallo was travelling through the area and was attacked by robbers. Suddenly an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared at the site of the current church, Ghisallo ran to the spot and was saved. Ever since then the church has been a place of patroness for travellers.

In 1949 the Pope proclaimed Ghisallo as the patron saint of cyclists, hence it’s standing. The small church sits at the top of the climb, and is a must visit place for all cyclists. Inside there is an amazing collection of cycling memorabilia form many of the great champions – past and present. Bikes from the likes of Coppi, Bartali, Moser’s hour record bike and jerseys and trophies from many more great champions adorn the walls and ceiling of the church. There is also a long roll call of dead cyclists. But perhaps the most humbling things are eternal flame for dead cyclists, and Fabio Carsatelli’s bike; crumpled and bent from the crash that killed him – Fabio was a local boy.

Next to the church is a huge cycling museum, which is a must visit.

The climb stats

Distance; in total 10km, although can be 8.8km if you don’t count the lead in (but you should!)

Maximum gradient; 14%

Grade; surprisingly steep and tough

Bottom gear; 39 x 25 (for most regular riders)

Altitude; from 206m to 754m

Giro di Lombardia Gran Fondo

The gran fondo version of the classic “falling leaves” race takes place each October, usually the day after the pro race. This is a truly stunning coastal and mountain ride, with the ascent of the Ghisallo being the highlight.