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19-10-2021 | Peter Koens

Il Lombardia: a crazy Italian cycling spectacle

The Gran Fondo Il Lombardia has been ridden on Sunday, October 10 in beautiful Italian Lombardy one day after the pro race 'the Tour of Lombardy', also called 'the race of the falling leaves'. It is traditionally the last monument of the season.

The event takes place in the great lake area between Como and Bergamo in northern Italy. Here you find the southern foothills of the Alps; a recipe for beautiful climbs. I decide to travel on Thursday so I can do a reconnaissance on Friday and Saturday and watch the pro race. Sunday will be followed by the GF Il Lombardia and Monday I'll do a final ride to end my long cycling season definitively. When I arrive at the campsite early Friday afternoon, I decide to explore the first and most spectacular climb, the notorious Muro di Sormano.

A steep beast

The Muro di Sormano is a landmark in the illustrious history of the Tour of Lombardy. After the slope was included in the route in 1960, 1961 and 1962, it was removed after protests from the riders ("too steep!"). But in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Muro was back. The monster has maximum of 27%. The return was due to a brand new road surface. Not that the Muro has become that much easier as a result, percentages of 17% average and 27% maximum are just too brutal. There are also no rest points in this 2 km climb. 400 meters below the summit it becomes relatively quiet as the climb briefly drops to around 9%. This is still a steep percentage, but because of the fireworks before it, it is a slight blessing for the muscles that are about to burst.

The Sormano does not stand alone, which makes it extra tough. It is the extension of the Colma di Sormano, a slope that starts in Maglio and is 7 kilometers long. Where the SP-44 takes a swing outside (which is still firmly uphill), the route via the Muro goes fairly straight up. The distance is therefore shorter, but the road surface is also much, much steeper. You have to be careful that you keep pedaling, otherwise you fall backwards. The Sormano can be climbed in under 9 minutes, but then you need to have the legs of the year. The summit is at 1,124 meters.

Not in the pro race

By the way, the pros are not riding the Muro di Sormano this year, but it's present in the gran fondo the next day. I want to be sure that I can ride up this climb with my smallest gear of 36x30. I'm able to do so, but I also see that I have to concentrate to avoid stopping because I couldn't get back on my bike. The descent is steep and quite dangerous. In the 2020 edition, Remco Evenepoel crashed pretty badly in this descent after he fell over a wall into the ravine.

Satisfied with the recon, I return to the campsite. The next day I first go and see the pros in the little town of Cantu. Here I immediately experience the Italian enthusiasm for cycling. Then follows the recon the second important climb, the Madonna del Ghisallo. This one is with 9 km slightly longer, but also less steep: 5.5% average with a peak to 11.5%. Madonna del Ghisallo is the patron saint of cyclists and at the top is a museum and a church.

The gran fondo

On Sunday morning the start of the gran fondo is early. It is still dark when I leave the campsite at 06:30 together with a nice Englishman who has lights on his bike to the start in Cantu. He has no headlamp so he is happy to ride with me. When we arrive at the start we still have half an hour and he treats me to a coffee in the local coffee shop. We say goodbye and wish each other luck, and I join the second starting group. At 7:30 am the start takes place with a lot of Italian noise in the form of an enthusiastic speaker and many motorcycles around the peloton. At a high pace the pack moves to the first climb, the Colma di Sormano. After 25 km we reach the foot of this climb, until then I have been riding with the front groups but right at the foot of the climb I find my own pace. I know what is coming.

Chaos to the max

The first 5 km of the climb I save my legs to survive the last 2 km of the dreaded Muro di Sormano. I make it to the top, but the pace is so slow at times that my bike computer occasionally auto-pauses the ride. Once at the top, I plunge into the descent but not with too much risk. It is also quite chilly. After the descent follows a beautiful stretch of about 15 km along Lake Como. My legs still feel fresh so I decide to take a break just after the start of the climb. The riders who overtake me I can catch up with afterwards. When I have climbed back on my bike I am surprised when a kilometer further on a number of motorcycles with broom wagon overtake me. I am not riding at the back, am I? After that there are no more motorcycles riding around our group either.

During the climb this is not a problem but when I am 10 kilometers downhill I notice what it means. The barriers at intersections and traffic circles are no longer optimal. In addition, at this time of day car traffic has also become busier. After the descent it is still about 30 km to the finish and we ride with large groups at a high speed on public roads. There are bizarre traffic situations where cars simply enter the traffic circles while a group of cyclists is approaching. Several times there is honking, cursing and shouting and we as cyclists have to overtake cars left and right. Because of the busy traffic there are also small traffic jams which we have to wriggle through. I would almost call it typical Italian traffic conditions. I have to laugh about it but at the same time I have to be very careful not to cause any accidents.

A crazy Italian spectacle

After more than 109 km and 2100m+ I cross the finish line. The last 400 meters it goes up 10% to the finish. The finish line is located on a small square in the city where all participants are welcomed by an enthusiastic speaker. When I go to a coffee shop on the square, I notice that I am not at all the last riders. There are still many riders after me across the finish line. In the results I see that I became 170th of more than 500 participants, 8th in the category M6. So apparently the broom wagon went after the first 150 riders and then the remaining 350 riders were left to their fate. Not so bad in itself but the road closures could have been better after that.

I still have a very good feeling about this crazy Italian cycling spectacle with very enthusiastic people and a bizarrely steep climb.

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