Top Ride: Ghisallo-Sormano on Lake Como
One of my favorite rides in recent memory, and possibly ever – was a loop from Bellagio, up the Madonna del Ghisallo, then the Colma di Sormano, and back along the shores of Lake Como to my base at Il Perlo Panorama.
Like most Top Rides, a few factors converged between the roughly three hours it took us to ride the 52.1km loop, gain almost 1900 meters of elevation, and lose around 800m of it in one scenic but nailbiting descent to the lake:
• a new route – discovering new terrain is always a good way to spend time on the bike
• gorgeous terrain with the right amount of challenge
• a good crew – riding with people I’ve never met means the chance to make some new friends
I was staying once again at my favorite place on Lake Como – the Albergho Il Perlo. I’ve written about this excellent family-run 2 star hotel many times since my first chance stay here in 2004, and part of this trip in October 2014 was to meet Carlo Sancassano in person. As the hotel’s owner and resident Basil Fawlty (although with a completely opposite demeanor to the John Cleese character), Carlo and I had gotten to know each other on Skype over the past few years while working to tell PEZ Readers about the hotel’s evolution as a bike hotel.
The inn has been in Carlo’s family since the 1920’s, and makes an ideal base for a few day’s stay on Lake Como – close enough to the action of the lake and nearby towns, but far enough away to escape unwanted hubbub, ensuring a truly peaceful stay. It’s also located on the lower slopes of the famed climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo church which is much a part of the Giro di Lombardia as the cobbles are to Paris-Roubaix.
Although not as developed a ‘bike hotel’ as some of the other properties I’ve reviewed, Carlo has set up a bike program to offer guests a decent fleet of road bikes for rent, plus guided rides on the amazing local lakeside roads. The terrain naturally attracts fairly accomplished riders, and our guide for the day was ex-pro rider Fabio Negri, who rode for the LPR team – but never judge a man by his pro contract. He’s still in his 30’s, and is a trained massage therapist and soigneur, and is still involved with the pro scene with Team Lampre. But this being October, he arrived at the duly appointed hour of 10-ish for our pre-planned look at the feared Mura di Sormano.
Our route for the day started from Il Perlo – about 2km up the Madonna del Ghisallo climb, heading straight into the steepest slopes and a series of switchbacks that are really better taken after some warm-up miles, but do serve to get the blood going in short order. After passing the church at the top, a few kms descent lead to the Sormano climb turn off, and the road climbs to 1113m elevation – one of the highest points above the lake, and then a truly spectacular but white-knuyckle descent that drops 800 meters, to a rolling and picturesque run up the east side of the west arm of the lake back to Bellagio. At least the legs are warmed up for the final 2km ascent back up to Il Perlo (that is unless you stop for lunch in Bellagio). I had the rare benefit of travelling with Mrs. Pez, who was duly seated in one of the ‘posh’ lakeside ristoranti, patiently awaiting my arrival. I should also point out that Carlo had taken the liberty to book her a massage at a local spa while I was out on the ride – an excellent diversion should you find the ride taking longer than expected.
As many of you know, I’ve ridden the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo many times, and it’s been chronicled from all angles here on PEZ. But this would be my first time tackling the slopes of the Colma di Sormano – a roughly 9km climb that’s made a comeback of sorts in recent years appearing in the Giro di Lombardia after a long absence. The race uses the small off-shoot on the ascent known as the Mura di Sormano – it’s got some steep ramps between 15-25% – enter at your own peril.
About halfway up the climb the road flattens for a couple kms. It was at this very point, on my first ever ascent of the climb in 1994 that I somehow went straight past that little church (instead of following the obvious curve of the main road to the left) and found myself on a bonus climb into some woods, that added untold meters to my elevation gain. Eventually I came out the other side, almost at the Madonna summit itself, but I’d have to wait a few more years to complete the ascent properly.
Madonna del Ghisallo
A natural stopping point comes after the final set of switchbacks and the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo comes into sight. It truly is a magnificent vision, and it still steals my breath when I see it in person. I suspect you’ll discover the same sensation. The church is a story unto itself (Read the PEZ report here), but makes an obvious stopping point for several reasons… it’s iconic to our sport and you really must see it before you leave this world.
But after a short break to stare in awed silence at what’s inside, you realize you’ve only come a few ams since starting out, even if the warmup too 35-40 minutes. On my first visit here in 1994, my ride ended at the church,and we piled into vans for the drive back to Milan. Even from inside the bus, the beauty of this descent was not lost on me. It’s fast, pretty open and goes for 15-20km. It’s a real treat after the climb up.
In the tiny town – and I mean so tiny that this might be the only building – of Sant’Alesandro, sits one of the prettiest churches and cemeteries I’ve seen in my travels. I noticed as we zoomed past in the vans in 1990, but it wasn’t until 1997 that I returned to actually explore it. That time was on a bittlery cold day in January, a dense a chilling fog blanketed the region (as it does in the winter here). I was alone and the fog’s way of deadening sound only made it more eerie. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not the sort of chap who frequents cemeteries, but like so many other things, the Italians have a way with doing them not so much as places of mourning, but as shrines and showcases of proud family histories, of lives lived, and people loved. Families prefer to be buried together, and many purchase crypts as the final resting place for several generations.
Colma di Sormano
The descent continues to the turnoff of the Colma di Sormano. It’s easy to spot the turn off, and on this day we chose the much more pleasant main road to get us to the top. You can read a very detailed and beautifully illustrated ride report of the full Sormano climb – including the the Mura di Sormano climb on PEZ here.
There are at least three ways to get to the top: one from the west that climbs from the shores of Lake Como (and would be our awesome descent today), and two from the east. From this eastern side, the really ugly Mura comes after a few kms into the climb, giving you the option to tackle the really steep stuff, or stick with the 6+% slopes if you’re on an off day. The Sormano climbs over one of the highest roads around the lake, but this day the skies were slightly overcast with intermittent rain rolling through the valleys, so visibility was not the best… too bad since there are some amazing views up here.
Looking around a big vistas is a big part of any goods climb – but with low clouds that was not possible on this day. I will say that once again the power of the group always makes a difference, as we basically chatted the whole way up the mountain, to the point of probably missing something cool to look at along the way. But enjoying the camaraderie is never a bad thing and does allow time to impress the group with skills like Fabio here, effortlessly removing, folding, and stowing his rain jacket as we continued the climb.
You know how some people seem born for a certain job? That’s Fabio and guiding bike rides. He appears to have lost none of his pro-level fitness, although he’s built now more like a healthy fit male than a starved & skinny pro bike racer. His English is excellent, and he really love riding and showing people around the region – at least that’s the feeling I got.
At The Top
We pulled into the small rifugio and osteria at the top for some coffee and cakes – another natural stopping point, especially on a leisurely excursion like this one. This is another thing about rides in Italy – and Europe really – these little places pop up with welcome regularity: ancient buildings made from ageless timbers, updated with the latest coffee making machine and sausage grilling device – the on-ride food is always delicious.
On this day we settled for a round of cappuccinos and espressos, and some of the local pane forte – and incredible treat that comes in several forms. Ours had a pie-like crust, and incredibly dense chocolatey filling. There really is no bar I’ve ever tasted that’s even come close to this – and it’s also why you can’t find energy bars for sale in Italy – when every local cafe is offering their own version that’s fresher & tastier.
But the hilight of this stop for me was the stuffing our jerseys with newspaper before the descent. It was considerably cooler at the top here, and there’s no denying the insulating power of newsprint (if they could only make it in four-way stretch…). Following Fabio’s lead, we each grabbed a section and stuffed our jerseys – priceless.
The clouds broke up a bit and sun rays poured down around us as we saddled up for the descent. Feeling far from civilization even though we’re just kilometres way from millions of people, the silence is notable. and a fitting soundtrack to the peaceful watch of the local Madonna, perched just above the rifugio.
Down To The Lake We Go
And then it’s time for the penultimate stage – the descent to the lake. The road is narrow, single lane in many places, with a shallow guard-rail at best to kep you from dropping into oblivion it’s figurative gesture at best. While traffic is low, we did encounter a moto racing up from below us, that surprised us around a blind corner (there are many).
The other thing that’s plentiful are switchbacks – right ones, left ones, tight ones and tighter ones. For a first time pass (like this was for me), there’s no point blasting it – aside from my ever-increasing desire to stay alive and healthy, the views of the lake become so specular on the lower half that easy riding and even stopping are highly recommended. I try to treat these types of rides with a “may not pass this way again” mentality, – make them last, and take as many mental photos as possible.
From descent pops you onto the lakeside road that’s 12km back to Bellagio on a gently rolling, slightly busier strip of asphalt that’s all gorgeous views to the lake (again).
I wouldn’t call this a hard loop (but it’s easy to slot into a larger ride coming from Como for instance). But taken at a leisurely pace in the Fall, with the autumn colours painted across the hills, and slight crispness to the air, it’s right up there as a Top Ride.