LAGO MAGGIORE: A BIKE EXPERIENCE
Chris Balogh and Paul Wright went cycling in The Italian Lake District; a few rides, a few glasses of wine, good food and the first edition of a Granfondo. Words by Chris; images by Paul.
When the invite to the Lago Maggiore Bike Experience landed in my lap, I did not hesitate. Another region of Italy showcasing its bike hotels, food, culture, roads and Granfondos? Having ridden pretty much everywhere else in Italy, guiding groups once a year every spring, my experience with this particular region was limited to some running beside Lago Maggiore many years ago. Invited by Lago Maggiore bike hotels, who in their third year, were ready to showcase what the region has to offer to the cycle tourist; the time had come to discover the region on two wheels.
I stepped off the plane on a very warm and sunny fall afternoon.
“What do the European Headquarters of the Australian Institute of Sport, the Orica Green Edge World Tour cycling team and the World Cup Rowing Series have in common?”
When Fabio, our host, asked me this question on our way towards Lago Maggiore from Malpensa International airport, his smile; which was like a beer barrel polka , gave away the answer. We had just passed the Aussie Institute’s European training centre in Gavirate, a mere 29kms from Malpensa and could already see the alpine foothills that awaited us in the Italian Lake District.
“They all have this area in common?" I answered.
“Yes…….the province of Varese,” sang Fabio, Roberto Benigni-esque right down to his over-the-top facial expressions.
It is also the home of some great cycling champions and of a classic international race; the Tre Valli Varesine. Run since its inception by SC Binda, a non profit sporting association that was awarded the organisation of the UCI World Championships in 2008, the Tre Valli Varesine is considered a fall classic. It first rolled through Varese in 1919, and has been won by greats like Bartali, Coppi, Motta, Merckx and Moser just to name a few. I was here to ride the inaugural Granfondo Tre Valli Varesine and to take in the 96th edition of the professional race won last year by the shark of Messina, Vincenzo Nibali.
Arriving at the Hotel Capolago, one the of ten Lago Maggiore Bike hotels, we were greeted by Andrea Nicosia, owner of Punto Tours and cycling guide extraordinaire. Punto Tours would be our punto of reference for the week. Andrea’s catchy logo, red van and red event tents were always in the middle of all the action.
I was very impressed with his thoroughness and with the quality of his Wilier rental bikes. Although I gladly made do on other trips with decent rental rides, these definitely raised the bar in that department.
While I joined the first group ride on my red Wilier, our photographer Paul Wright was treated to a white knuckle flight in an open cockpit. After pulling a glider off the ground the pilot roared above the lakes with Italian panache. Instructed by the tourism department to fly over our hotel, he spent the entire flight pointing and screaming; “Is that your hotel?” I don’t believe they ever actually found it, but Paul walked rather funnily for about a day.
Our rides took us around and above many of the seven lakes that make up the Lake District. The nearby Campo dei Fiori di Varese, is a large regional park that dominates the hills of Varese province. Divided by the Rasa valley, where the Olona river starts, it offers peaceful and challenging climbs. Whenever I got excited and commented; “Wow, this is a nice section!” it seemed like the answer was always Campo dei Fiori. The hills of Campo dei Fiori form part of the same range as the ever visible Sacro Monte. At 807 metres above sea level, it is one of the nine Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) in Lombardy and Piedmont which are Unesco heritage sites.
The area is also popular with athletes in the summer months because of its temperate climate. Andrea explained that when it is 35c in Tuscany, the shady forested roads that look down on the lakes always offer a comfortable mid twenties.
After riding a portion of the 2008 World Championship course, we piled into a local panificeria for a coffee. A few of the Italian riders in our group who were from another region waxed nostalgic about the traditional panificeria, a sort of convenience store that had disappeared in their part of Italy. Half-listening to the explanation of panificeria, I stood transfixed by the old chromoly frame hanging above the open fridge full of prosciutto and cheese. Only in Italy indeed.
Two interesting rides that we studied but could not fit in, related intimately to the lakes and rivers. The first begins with a twenty minute water taxi across Lago Maggiore from Stresa to the base of the impossible cliffs of Santa Caterina del Sasso monastery, which doesn't see a lot of cyclists. After a very Bond-like elevator ride, the real climbing begins from the municipality of Leggiuno, where riders can access beautiful loops with more than 2000m total ascending. . The other ride follows the course of the Ticino cycleway from Sesto Calende to Milano’s trendy Naviglio Grande and Ticinese areas. This route might be for those who struck a deal involving shopping in Milano . You might need your panniers.
Our group was made up about a dozen accomplished riders. The day before the inaugural Granfondo Tre Valli Varesine, which translates as the three valleys of Varese, Fabio our host arrived with all of our race kits. The hands-down best-ever swag bags were slick back packs that contained one of those sexy neck warmers, a great pair of cycling gloves with the SC Binda Logo , sunglasses, shampoo and to everyone’s delight, a testosterone boosting natural supplement.
While attaching our race numbers to the bikes, we were treated to the arrival of the Wilier Team caravan as well as the media helicopter on a trailer, which parked a few metres from our busy group. We were starting to feel very pro. The consensus was that all but one of us planned to take on the full 157km version.
The way the course was set up, the decision to bail and do the short version could be made after about 85kms. Sweet!
Pristine and sun-drenched, the day was perfect. After a short warm up ride from our hotel, we became part of the sights and sounds at the Velodrome start area. Having lost my colleagues and breaking many Velominati rules, I walked my bike into a crowded velodrome with a disorganised hoard of fellow cyclists. Shouting greetings and taking selfies, there was absolutely no flow. It was joyously more crowded inside near the man with the microphone who had his arm around Oscar Freire. I cozied up to Francesco Moser who remembered me from a past Giro talk. Pedals hooked forks, water bottles rolled out of reach and everyone laughed and squinted into the morning sun. Surely this kind of Italian mayhem was the secret to diffusing pre-race nerves! Back at the Punto Tours tent I found an island of calm where to make my final nutrition and arm warmer choices before heading to the start line.
Although I consciously held back over the first 20km of downhill aggression, I was close enough to the front to hear the rumour. Apparently Vincenzo Nibali had jumped into the lead group and was setting the tempo up the first long climb.
On a very narrow climb I came upon Paul trying to make himself small on the back of an official motorcycle. Having no luck with pilots, Paul’s escort was honking and screaming at cyclists who were mere inches away at times. It was a priceless scene.
Over the next five hours, I thoroughly enjoyed the varied scenery and the company of the Italian riders. It was a real treat to ride for a long stretch with Francesco Moser and his entourage. He laughed with his buddies and complained that the organisers had gone out and found every possible uphill section in the area. Later, sitting two bikes behind him, I watched him casually pick his line along narrow roads at 57km/hour.
Despite almost introducing myself to the guardrail on one incredibly deceiving switchback, I was ready for more at the roundabout where the two distances split.
The weather was so fantastic, I just wanted to keep riding. The extra loop was quite euphoric with fewer riders on the course. Coming into Varese, I got somewhat lost on the final stretch to the velodrome. I laughed with a group of five Italian cyclists who actually asked a driver for directions! Back at the tent, we exchanged stories and enjoyed the sun. The man with the mic rambled on and the post race food was abundant. All of what we expect from an Italian Granfondo!
Over the next two days, we maintained the torrid pace set by our hosts. The casual excellence of the cuisine, always accompanied by a story, was really unforgettable; as is somehow expected in Italy. Of the many wonderful restaurants that a hungry cyclist can rave about, Al Matarello an osteria near the old centre of Varese, rolled over me like a symphony; hearty polenta, fried gnocchi, mozzarella di bufala, local prosciutto, a fabulous rizotto and a main course beef filet, all framed by a few bottles of red - the highlight being a Sicilian Nero d’Avola, which just had to be repeated.
We visited a few fantastic bike hotels, had a recovery ride with the ADRIA pro squad from Slovenia and toured the impressive Boromeo castle; the best place to absorb the history of the region.
Acquired in the middle ages by the Borromeo family, the castle overlooks the lake region from the southern shores of Lago Maggiore. The Borromeo family played an important role in the duchy of Milano, as bankers, merchants, and cardinals. They also gave us the geometrically puzzling Borromean rings, the symbol of the family.
The walls of the castle revealed another symbol that fits nicely in my factoid repertoire; a serpent repeated on a faded mural, the Biscione of Milano. The great serpent is the symbol of the Visconti family, originally lords from the lake region who came to rule Milano. Bet you can’t guess where the snake in the Alpha Romeo crest comes from?
The following day, downing my prosecco in the VIP paddock as the pros flew through the finish line, with 4 laps remaining, I was told to stand next to the man with the red shirt and the walkie talkie. The town was buzzing. People walked the course and watched from the ornate balconies of office buildings. I smiled as an official car stopped on a dime for me and threw open its door. Frozen for a second, I starred at the Alpha Romeo logo before the driver hit the horn, waving at me to get in.
Varese truly cherishes its race. It is considered a monument. The motto on the volunteers’ tee-shirts is, “ONLY ONE RACE IN OUR HEARTS.” There is an ease to the way the Carabinieri put their hats on the bar and watch the race on television, only to step onto the terrace moments later to see the peloton scream by. The innocence and the passion of Italian cycling is truly alive in Varese for this event.
September also proves to be one of the best times to ride in this region. It is one of the driest months to which we can now add the new Granfondo Tre Valli Varesine to the calendar.
For the Granfondo http://www.trevallivaresine.com
For Punto Tours https://puntotours.com
Bike hotels around Lake Maggiore http://www.lagomaggiorebikehotels.it/en/choose-your-bike-hotel-in-varese
For general tourist information http://www.in-lombardia.com/tourism-in-lombardy/tourism-varese
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 2017