Last year, we enjoyed the Tour de France stages so much, we decided to try out the Giro d’Italia, the equivalent Italian cycle race. If you ask the Italians, this race is bigger than the Tour de France, if not tougher, with steep hills all over the Italian landscape, particularly in the north. This was where we were going over a week break.
Landing in Milan we seamlessly picked up our rental for the drive north to Bellagio. The woman behind the rental counter said we were getting a Fiat 500. We were pretty sure we had seen one of these toy cars before and we were expecting something very small. But as it turned out, not all Italian cars were tiny and being the 500L model, it was well sized to fit our two bikes.
Lake Como is shaped in a long pronged tri-star, much like the Mercedes symbol, with steep banks and narrow villages along its shores. At its centre is the town of Bellagio, famed for its history of resorts and history grand opulence. Our stay was a few kilometres to the west in a small village called Lezzeno with accommodation booked in a high retreat near the Madonna dei Cippa church. The drive up cobbled path proved a challenge and it was incredibly steep and narrow in places. Mitch stuck the foot down to maintain momentum and control. Arriving at the church we were picked up by a small tractor to take us in. The place had an amazing view of the sunset as we sat down near the lizards who basked in the evening sun, but scuttled whenever Tam got out the camera. The Agritourism venture made all their own meats, dairy and produce. We even got to meet the goats and a few rabbits. For mains Tam had the goats cheese lasagne, while Mitch had the asparagus tagliatelle. We were joined outside by a group of Singapore Med students and a couple from Florida each making their way through Italy.
The next morning we put our bikes together and attempted our first climb up the Passo del Ghisallo. Using a supermarket parking lot to get ready, we set off up the hill. The ride was a nice introduction to climbing again, winding up from Bellagio at a max gradient of around 14%, but steady and safe. Despite most of the roads around Lake Como being narrow, this climb had space for cyclists. At the top of the pass was the Madonna del Ghisallo, more commonly known as the “Church of Cyclists” (Pope Pius XII even confirmed this). Inside the church is a collection of memorabilia, including jerseys from the Giro, Tour de France and World Championships. One of the main attractions is the crumpled bike of Fabio Casartelli, a Como local and gold medal winner who died racing the Tour de France in 1995 (He was team leader for Motorola, after the crash his team mate took the next stage victory and went on to lead the team – that team mate was Lance Armstrong). Beside the church is a cycle museum and a restroom, which strangely had a vending machine that dispensed cheeses…
Our descent via Asso to Onno was the most picturesque, winding down the cliffs we met an Italian cycle guide who put a lot of fear into us for climbing Monte Zoncolan the next week. Back in Bellagio we were shocked find a closed supermarket (but it made sense being a Sunday). We managed to persuade the girl washing supermarket trolleys to let us in the gates and get the car out. Her mother was not impressed. To fill in some time, we thought a relaxing drive around Lake Como. It was anything but… The roads were so narrow in places we had to squeeze past cars coming from the other direction. Italians seem to take it in stride. Even the buses rarely stop, coming an inch within a building or cliff face. We only got as far as Torno before a stressed Tam pleaded to return. Turns out the Como to Bellagio stretch was supposed to be the worst. Doing it twice was two times too much.
Back in Bellagio, we opted instead to take the ferry to Tremezzo and walked down to Lenno Stopping to admire the 16th to 18th century grand villas of the bourgeoisies built on the shores, now converted to hotels for the masses. Again, not much footpath and narrow streets, so a few parts we sprinted between alcoves. Driving the small road back to the hotel at night was a bit harder, any parks along the way were private.
Following morning after a small rain shower, Mitch attempted Passo del Ghisallo again, this time trying a bit faster, without breaks ,using the Garmin Virb video. Tam went for a bit of exploring to find some hiking tracks, but didn’t manage to find much higher up.
Taking the car ferry from Bellagio to Varenna we found highways winding north and eastwards through industrial parks and towards. Ponte Di Legno, the starting point for the next days Giro stage. The entire town was decked out in pink. We felt sorry for the shopkeepers as the rain had returned in force, driving away any customers. A few team cars were in braving the wet and getting supplies. In the next town over at Passo del Tonale we found this was where the all Tour riders were staying for the rest day. The Lotto Bellisol support team were playing bowls with their drink bottles. Tam tried to swipe a Movistar drink bottle, but got spooked in the act. Movistar was the team of Tams’ favourite rider – Nairo Quintana.