What's Cool In Road Cycling

Lombardia’08: The PEZ Route Inspection

What’s long and lumpy, hurts in the middle but feels great when it’s over? Okay – a lot of things might fill in that blank, but today we refer to the one and only Race of the Falling Leaves – The Giro di Lombardia. PEZ-Man Ed Hood drove the corsa for a closer look at what makes this a true ‘classic’.

The Giro di Lombardia started for a number of years in Mendrisio, but is taking up a new home of late in Varese. The World Championships were a huge success, and why mess with the great infrastructure? Varese is also the home of a number of big pros – Gustav Larsson and Stefano Garzelli to name two, as well as Team Bigla’s Veronica Andreason.

The 242 km around the lake make an excellent Saturday ride.

The race picks up Lake Como just 25km from Varese, before turning north for the circumnavigation of this glittering Alpine jewel. Como the city, is synonymous with glamour, this is true of it’s lakeside aspect but it’s environs spread messily in a maze of traffic lights and industrial estates; however, reach the water and it’s a different world.

• There are a few tunnels to contend with along the route – this one is in Como.

George Clooney has a villa here, along with some of the richest people in the world; the race route twists and turns along the lakeside. The gardens and hedges are immaculately tended and the most exclusive houses have little bridges across the road, so the lakeside boat house can be reached without the inconvenience of having to cross the road. The road is so sinuous and narrow that we wonder if we really are on the race route, but the Gazzetta dello Sport sign confirms that we are where we’re supposed to be.

The route follows the lake north, beautiful views alternating with dark tunnels. Argegno and more contrasts, the winding but flat and fast lakeside road is just a memory as a sharp left-hander leads onto the Intelvi Pass, hairpin follows hairpin on a surface scarred by years of road works; if it’s not your day, you’ll be made aware of the fact right now.

Looking south towards Como from the lower slopes of the Intelvi climb.

The first test of the day comes at the Intelvi climb, but it’s only at around quarter distance and not a crucial point of the race, still – the first selection could start here as it rears north and west towards Lake Lugano. The climb isn’t really hard (8-9 km at around 6-7%) – but that depends how fast the pace is.

The first part of the race…

The descent is technical, rock faces to the right, barriers to the left; if you can take your eyes of the never-ending hairpins, you’ll get the most wonderful view of Lake Lugano, soon followed by the much smaller but equally stunning Lago di Piano…

… the mountains rise straight from the blue waters and the petro-chemicals works which help power Lombardy’s mighty economy might as well be on the moon.

View across lake from Argegno to Bellagio on the point – the Ghisallo climb heads up to the right.

We stopped by Mendrisio for a quick look – It’s a cycling town, Eddy Merckx won the world professional road race championship here in 1971; it also has the best named street in the world – Via Gianni Motta, in honour of the handsome Italian who won the Tour of Lombardy in 1964.

Mendrisio, like the race, is a place of contrasts; not least being that one of Italy’s great one day races often starts in Switzerland – and just like the race and the northern province, which gives the event its name – there’s rare beauty cheek-by-jowl with messy urban sprawl and industry.

• The grapes are ready for harvest near Mendrisio.

After the Intelvi up-and-down, there’s sweet respite as the route tracks the Lugano lake shore then heads east through a gash in the hills, lumpy but not too sore. At Mennagio the route finds Lake Como again and follows it all the way round, north, then south to Bellano.

The north end of the Lake and the eastern bank in particular aren’t as affluent as the southern end, where the millionaires play, but the views across the Lake are still stunning. Whilst it’s the mythical Ghisallo, Civiglio and Battaglia climbs which are regarded as the final and decisive phase of the route…

…the climb of the Parlasco, which rears, Intelvi-style straight from the Lake at Bellano, should not be underestimated. It’s narrow, twisty and badly surfaced and no one will notice the great views over the lake, all eyes will be on the rear brake in front. And don’t forget about the tunnels…

There’s a tricky descent off the top with nasty tunnels and then it climbs again, the Balisio. This time it’s not the Alpine idyll, it’s grey apartment blocks and a road which stubbornly drags up and up, the big peaks in the distance look down in silent approval. These climbs may not get the tifosi that the Ghisallo with its legendary chapel does, but all the time they are chipping-away at the “energy block” inside the riders, piece by piece.

The business end of the race.

There’s a long drop to Lecco and its horrendous traffic and more lakeside flat – but if you feel rough at this point, then forget it. Through Lecco the race turns north again to the center spike of the lake to the real tests of the day.

The corsa gets pretty again as the riders head through Onno with the lake on their right…

The Big Three
The decisive ‘big three’ ascents, starting with the Ghisallo (read the full PEZ-Report here) all come after the 200 kilometre mark, this is the Lombardy of legend – the narrow roads, the views across the lake, the chapel, the autumn leaves falling through long shadows as the huge groups of enthusiasts who have cycled-out to watch their heroes, wait expectantly.

• … another storybook church spire in Italy… about 2km from the top of the Ghisallo.

• The newly opened museum atop the Ghisallo climb is a perfect thirst quencher while waiting for the race.

• The top of the Ghisallo is THE place to see the race.

The days of Coppi, Merckx and Simpson arriving minutes clear at the finish in solitary splendour may be a thing of the past, as is the legendary velodrome finish in Como, but the last three climbs in this ‘Classic of the Falling Leaves’ are still as close as cycling comes to its ‘Golden Age’ – a time when the world was just a little more innocent.

Up next, we take a look at the riders to watch!

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