Monday 2 July 2012

Italy Part 2: The Pilgrimage

Cycling has a spiritual angle. Professional road cycling, with roots in Spain, Italy and France, has a religious one. There are many places that have significance - legendary climbs, memorials to fallen riders, stretches of cobbles and finishing straights. On our first ride of the trip we visited two of these places - the church of Madonna del Ghisallo, and the Muro di Sormano.

We'd arrived on the tour a day early for three reasons. We wanted a more relaxed start to the holiday, to get an extra ride in, and the flights were slightly cheaper. We'd had the relaxed start the day before and on the Saturday morning, as the other guests were sitting cramped in cheap aircraft seats, we kitted up and rolled out of the hotel.

If you ride South out of Bellagio and bear right slightly, you start the Ghisallo climb. This has been mainly used in the Tour of Lombardy, the last "monument" of the road cycling season - also known as the "race of the falling leaves". It's also been used frequently in the Giro d'Italia. The climb is a bit cheeky at the start - 8, 9, 10% - before a short downhill section and then another kick at the end. The steep beginning gave David and Tony a chance to show their climbing skills and they soon dropped me. Thankfully, I'd dropped Phill, so I didn't feel too bad about it.

The Madonna del Ghisallo was an apparition who appeared in medieval times, and the church is dedicated to her. It's a shrine to cycling and cyclists - there is an eternal flame that burns for the fallen, memorabilia from the history of cycling and a daily mass for cyclists too.

The Coppi statue:

There's also a museum of cycling, that was built to house part of the collection of items donated to the church. It's cheaper to get in if you have cycling kit on!

An Eddy Merckx bike
A few pink jerseys...
We paid further respects with coffee and Coke in the cafe, before heading off to our second place of note - the Muro di Sormano. This video gives you an idea of it...

Now, I can't say I wheelied up it... but given there were sections at 25% my front wheel did pop up on occasion.

It was brilliant. More a challenge than a proper climb, it should be on every cyclists to do list. The road was retarmaced after falling into disrepair, and was painted with quotes, time splits and elevations.

At the top we recovered with more coffee and ice cream. We were assured that it was all downhill from here, but you know what guides are like...

Surprisingly, in this case, correct. The descent down to Lake Como was one of the best I've ever experienced. Tight and twisty, through villages and woods, all with the lake in the distance. There were a few pedal strokes to accelerate out of corners but nothing that counted as exercise. The occasional oncoming car added some spice too - it seemed everyone wanted to use both sides of the road that day.

At the bottom we spun along the lakeside before returning to the hotel to meet up with our other four riders. Dinner, beer, wine and ice cream were taken on board to prepare us for the first real day of the tour.

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