Top Rides: The Climb to Madonna del Ghisallo
You can’t fully appreciate the Race of the Falling Leaves without a closeup look at the climb to the fabled Madonna del Ghisallo church above the steep & picturesque shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. The deciding move often starts on this tough ascent, and for any fan, it’s a ride you gotta do…
Leave it to the Italians to have the first- and last – word on anything – so why should the ProTour be any different? The real “racing” starts at Milan-San Remo in March, and ends here at the Giro di Lombardia – a half hour north of Milan on the shores of stunning Lake Como – in the Alpi Orobie. Often called the race of “the Falling Leaves” because of the brilliant reds, gold and bronze colors found in the trees, this true classic features unpredictable weather, enough climbing to rival a grand tour stage, and always great racing.
View from the hotel Il Perlo, looking northeast to the east side of Lake Como. Go there with your sweetie – you’ll be glad you did.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit this amazing part of Italy several times, and to have hauled my carcass up this climb to the equally stunning church of the Madonna del Ghisallo – the patron saint of cyclists. That’s a whole story unto itself (tune in tomorrow for a tour inside) – the climb itself is the focus of this story. If you’re thinking of a trip to ride in Europe – and you’re looking for great food & wine, great shopping, and some of the absolute best riding anywhere – then you must – absolutely must – consider visiting the northern part of Italy.
Get up early for a coffee in Bellagio. From here you’re only a few hundred meters from the start of the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo.
Getting Your Butt There
Land in Milan – stay for a few days (your wife will love the shopping), then pick up a car and head to the hills. Or lakes in this case… We booked ourselves into the Hotel Il Perlo Panorama in Bellagio, on lake Como. We picked it for a few reasons – after a couple of days in London and Milan, we were ready to get out of the city to a more tranquil spot, and staying in the actual city of Como seemed too “squishatu” (Italian dialect for “squished”). I had visited the Lake district before and wanted to impress Mrs. Pez – and she was not disappointed (nor will you be) by the stunning natural beauty of the area – that is if deep tranquil lakes nestled amidst towering mountains, dotted with picturesque Italian towns and villas turns your crank.
Where the heck are we? Northern Italy – that’s where! The Giro di Lombardia race route basically circles Lake Como.
Lake Como is shaped like an upside down “Y”, and the town of Bellagio is stuck on the point between the two branches that form the west and east arms of the lake. It’s got a long history as a playground for the rich and famous, and you’ll see plenty of famous actors’ headshots plastered on the walls of local ristoranti. “Hey – Tom Jones was here – and that’s the 23rd pic I’ve seen of Marcello Mastroianni & Sophia Loren…” You might even bump into George Clooney, who owns a villa on the lake.
Be sure to try the fish (don’t worry about what it’s called) – it comes right out of the lake – and get the white wine for a change.
The lake itself is dotted with tiny towns, and there’s no shortage of hotels, alberghi and places to stay – you can blow the wad on super-luxury, or mind the budget and still be comfy like we did. The food is great – (you’re in Italy after all) – the local specialties are based on the variety of freshwater fish right from the lake.
In recent years, the climb to the Madonna has been situated about 45km from the end, perfect positioning to set up the major selection.
Today we RIDE!!!
The riding here is easily in my top 5 faves on the planet – great roads, tons of terrain, an amazing cafй run by a beautiful Italian lady every 5km – and an endless choice of routes, climbs of all lengths and difficulty, and of course descents to match.
The climb is peppered with these indigenous riders, cranking heavy gears, not wearing helmets – and they never ask for a push.
And you’re never alone – Italians love cycling – so you’ll likely meet up with one of the plentiful local clubs every day. No matter how many times I go back, I’m still blown away by the age of the average cyclist I meet on the roads there – we’re talking true tough guys in their 50’s and 60’s – barrel-chested, fully-kitted out – often in wool! – rarely wearing helmets, sweat dripping off their noses – out there putting in the kms with their buds. You bet you’re not in Kansas anymore.
You can see the grade of the climb by the slope of the road against the buildings – we’re going over 10% here.
The race route for the Giro di Lombardia typically runs of the west side of the east arm of the lake from Lecco to Bellagio – before turning up and dropping into the small ring. The road along the lake is barely wide enough for two cars, and dips and dives around turns and through tunnels just meters from the glistening jewel that is Lake Como.
Looking up the climb from the Hotel Il Perlo.
Let’s get one thing straight – this is a hard climb. In total, it gains about 550 meters and is 12km from Bellagio to the Madonna del Ghisallo church. It levels out a bit in the middle, but barely long enough for you to catch your breath.
How close is this hotel to the route? – I’m standing on it! (the route…)
Right from the base the road kicks up at around 8%, and gets steeper over the next 6 km with several long pitches at 14%. You climb out of the town and through residences built into the steep hillside, winding your way higher. You encounter a variety of local transportation modes – everything from old bikes, to tractors, the occasional Ferrari, and the ubiquitous Italian motos piloted by 14 year-old budding Max Biaggis (for who job one is muffler-removal from said moto).
About 1/3 up the climb, you can look back at your hotel (center) and the lake in the distance. It’s about a 10 minute drive up from the town, and situated right on the climb – see that road?
The climb’s switchbacks rival anything in the Alpes or Dolomites, and every so often you’re rewarded with a huge view back down to the lake from whence you came. Seriously – you’ll be asking yourself how you got so high so fast…
Unless you’re a pro – gear yourself accordingly – 39×27 or 28 will not go unused (don’t be afraid to fit a compact 34 tooth crank either) – and may quickly become your best friend as you push yourself higher. Time-wise – look to spend about 45 minutes to an hour getting up, and be sure to take a few pics along the way.
After about 4km you enter the trees. My guess is they’re here because it’s just too damn steep to build a house or even grow grapes. In a couple of more km the road actually becomes level, and you hit the middle part of the climb that is less severe and takes you through towns like Guello and Civenna. Along here you’ll pass a few more churches, and start to really appreciate how high you’ve climbed – but don’t get too excited- you are not finished – not by a long shot.
The view about 2/3 of the way up is a welcome break from staring at your front wheel.
About the last 3-4 km, the road kicks up again and you hit a series of 8-9 steep switchbacks. Looking up you won’t see the top – so don’t look up. Looking east you’ll see more huge vistas on the east arm of Lake Como – yeah, that’s more like it!
At this point – simply shut up and keep going, because you are almost there.
Finally, and always unexpectedly – over one more pitch and around one final bend it’s there right in front of you – the Holy Grail of this ride – the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo. I’ve been here 4 times and I still can’t believe how cool this place is – the entire small church is dedicated to cycling and cyclists. Inside it houses amazing collection of jerseys, bikes, photos, and memorablia from the last 100 years of our sport.
Last year they opened a new cycling museum here too, which is also worth doing the climb for.
The jewel of this climb – the Madonna di Ghisallo church.
We’ll go inside tomorrow – but for now, you’ll probably just want to get off your bike and lay on the ground, staring up at the crisp blue sky, watching the fall-colored leaves float by, and enjoying the sound of another 14-year-old Max Biaggi.
Ooh Yeah – the view from our room at the Hotel Il Perlo.
Check Out the Hotel Il Perlo website: www.IlPerlo.com
PEZ-SEZ: It’s 3 star, mid-priced, simple, comfortable, a little rustic – and had the most comfortable beds we slept in on our whole trip. I’d go back for sure.