Have bike, will ride. Have electric bike, will ride as though adoring angels pushed gently from behind.
Such was our happy lot on a cool morn in October as we rolled out of rustic farmhouse digs at Bellagio for a 45 km ride around the Lake Como countryside.
We’d picked up trusty electro-mounts from Bike It! Bellagio the previous afternoon, leaving enough time to charge ‘em up ready for an early morning start.
Bike It! Bellagio is owned and run by dynamic duo Luca Negri and Casey Thompson. Both are mad-keen cyclists. American Casey was studying in Milan when she met and fell for Lake Como local Luca.
A consuming passion for each other and cycling saw them tie the knot and open their dream business on Bellagio’s Via Valassina – and what a place for pushbikes it is!
When a giant Ice Age glacier carved out the deep valleys to form Italy’s Lake Como, it created one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.
With a total surface area of 146 square kilometres, Como is the third largest lake in Italy after lakes Garda and Maggiore.
It plunges to a depth of 410 metres, making it the deepest lake in Europe. Its inky dark waters accentuate and reflect the splendid, precipitous terrain around its shores.
Today the lake’s famous inverted “Y” shape is dotted with charming historic hamlets, some inhabited since the Iron Age, and it’s pretty hard to pivot to any point of the compass without being captivated by breathtaking scenery.
The Romans loved the place, and in that epoch many well-to-do citizens had summer villas in the region. The tradition has continued ever since.
Bellagio sits at the tip of the promontory where the two “legs” of the Y diverge, and the celebrated Lombardy town is a sightseeing HQ extraordinaire.
People come to the area year-round to hike, paddle, sail, climb, ski, cycle or simply soak up and luxuriate lakeside with the locals and jet set.
Increasing numbers are also coming to enjoy the regional delights on treadlies, and electric ones are all the rage among the less Tour de France grade punters among us.
Now we were off to see the area. We’d chosen a route suggested by Bike It! that would take us on a sightseeing loop around the promontory. We’d also experience a 700-metre elevation change while doing it. All hail the electric bike!
We rattled down through rustic back lanes on the eastern side of Bellagio, linked up with the SP583, clicked our uphill dials, felt those electric engines kick in, and glided up our first incline over the hill through Visgnola.
We then freewheeled down the other side and started our circular journey along the western shore of the eastern extension of Lake Como. A beautiful vista of water, mountains, forests and villages opened up before us.
The sun was rising, and on the far side of the lake we could see the small town of Lierna in the deep shadows of the peaks.
Most towns and villages in the area hug the shoreline due to the steep terrain, however there are also some charming hidden towns high in the surrounding backcountry, but be prepared to negotiate some tiny white-knuckle roads and tight hairpin bends to reach them!
The weather was a little overcast and the morning air cool, but the soft light and breeze added to the exhilaration of riding in this breath-taking part of Lombardy.
We wheeled through the villages of Limonta and Vassena, then pulled up in Onno for coffee and croissant at café Onnolulu.
“Hello,” said a lady standing with her friend at the counter, sipping espresso. “Where are you from? England?”
“No, Australia,” I said.
“I lived in Margaret River with my boyfriend for a few years,” she said in halting English. “Do you know it?”
“I lived and worked there for a number of years myself,” I said.
I never cease to be amazed when travelling how small the world can be. I could’ve been from Rooty Hill, Humpybong or Yorkeys Knob, but no, there was an immediate and close connection to home and a place I know very well. In my experience, the fact that there are around 7.6 billion of us in the world doesn’t seem to change the uncanny nature of chance.
Jacqui didn’t have a croissant (mindful of our rising tonnage, having already eaten our way across several Italian administrative regions), so it was clear she would lack energy for the mountainous road ahead.
We swung off the 583 onto Strada Provinciale 46 and started the climb into the mountains, greatly aided by our electric treadlies, of course. In fact, we glided up the steep incline like eagles on an updraft.
A few kilometres into the ascent we closed in on, and swept past, two lean, lycra-clad cyclists slowly (and manually) grinding their way up the demanding slope.
“ Buongiorno!” we called blithely, waving to the straining athletes. “Continua ad andare avanti. Arrivederci!”
They grunted as only the dog-tired can, and seemed to mutter indecipherable expletives about lazy people and electrics.
Yet Hubris can be a merciless tutor. About a kilometre later a pedal dropped off my bike, no doubt due to my colossal Neanderthal calf-muscles, and I ground to a limping halt.
It was a minor setback but obviously required a spanner. I gloomily started pushing my machine up the incline.
At that moment the abovementioned cyclists whizzed by us.
“Le gambe sono meglio!” one guffawed, which I think translates to something like “Legs are better!”
We phoned Bike It! Bellagio for assistance and they were amazingly helpful. Casey said there was a mechanic in Valbrona about 500 metres ahead – and sure enough an amiable chap emerged from a motorcycle garage, wrench in hand, and reattached my pedal. Moments later, we were back on the road. Bike It! offers F1 pit-stop efficiency.
Still ascending the rural countryside, we rode through the villages of Osigo and Visino, and then got pleasantly lost in the tiny labyrinthine strada and corsie of Asso.
We had Satnav on our bikes, but even this useful tool seemed bamboozled by the spaghetti-like layout of Asso. We finally got ourselves back on the correct road, the SP Per Bellagio, and continued northward to still higher altitude.
I’d been harbouring a secret on the ride. A proposal. Yes, marriage. To Jacqui.
We’d had a long stretch as de facto partners, a workable enough arrangement I thought, but the hints at marriage had intensified in both vehemence and regularity in recent times. I’d often look up to be startled by a naked ring finger thrust my way.
“When?” she would inquire sternly.
The pressure was on.
I decided that if the joyous act had to be consummated I would do so on bended knee (depending on my right patella issues) high on a mountain at the celebrated Santuario Madonna del Ghisallo at Magreglio.
This is a picturesque chapel, shrine and museum above the lake, dedicated to Italian cycling.
The revered sanctuary was also at the apex of our mountain ride and the views promised to be spectacular, even romantic, for punters with marryin’ in mind.
Most fitting, I figured, but the ride up there, even on electric bikes, is a challenge – especially for someone who hasn’t had a croissant for breakfast.
“I’m hungry, can we stop?” said Jacqui soon after we exited Asso.
“Let’s cover more ground; we still have a long way to go to the top,” I said, visions of my picnic pitch whirling in my scone.
Ten minutes later.
“I’m starving and need to eat.”
“Just a bit further. You should’ve had a chocolate croissant!”
Five minutes later:
“We have to stop or I’m turning back.”
I was plainly fighting a losing battle.
You see, dear reader, I’m descended from a long line of overly compliant men. We’ve even been called wimps and pushovers, and will do anything to keep the equilibrium, let alone the peace.
So, it came to be, somewhere north of Sant’Alessandro on the Via Cristoforo Colombo, in the middle of nowhere by a mountain stream, next to a small grotto housing a weather-beaten Madonna and Child, we pulled up at a roadside picnic table.
‘Twas there we feasted from the backpack and I requested her hand in matrimony, believing the Santuario Madonna del Ghisallo proposition was well and truly off the table.
Tears of joy burst forth and a new energy infused mon betrothed. It’s uncanny how the idea of imminent wedlock, a ploughman’s lunch of country bread, pecorino, prosciutto and a cheeky beaker of Barolo can invigorate the soul.
But it did and the ride suddenly took on a spritely new vigour. We continued upwards, passing by Barni on Via Adua and finally rolled into Magreglio, stopping to a look at the chapel and monument.
“This is beautiful – what a view!” exclaimed the affianced. “Why didn’t you propose here?”
Sometimes the inherent fickleness of the fair gender allows for no logical response.
“I suppose I couldn’t wait,” was all I could muster.
Italy’s (and the world’s) best cyclists come to the area to train and often pull up at Magreglio to rest and give thanks to La Madonna del Ghisallo, Patroness of Cyclists.
The route is part of the Giro di Lombardia bicycle race and has often featured in the Giro d’Italia – Italy’s answer to Le Tour.
The shrine includes bikes, jerseys and other mementos from all over the world celebrating road racing. There’s also an eternal flame for cyclists who have died.
One particularly notable artefact is the crumpled bicycle that Fabio Casartelli, a native of the region, rode on the day that he died in a crash in the Tour de France.
We didn’t spy any of Lance Armstrong’s gear holding pride of place among the paraphernalia, but perhaps that’s not surprising for the world’s greatest and most committed cheat.
We started our descent, wheeling through several hairpins and on into the beautiful town of Civenna. The outlook from the viewing platform across the lake to the mountains and the towns of Olcio and Mandello del Lario is simply gorgeous.
Then it was onwards, ever downwards, coasting through the villages of Palaino, Guello and Chevrio, where we had to contend with impatient truck drivers and motorists zooming through hairy sharp bends.
But by now we were electric kings of the road and didn’t really care about the somewhat impulsive Italian motorists.
Finally, we arrived back at our comfy farmhouse above Bellagio. The day had cleared and golden afternoon light illuminated the lakes and countryside – rather heavenly really. What a memorable (and important!) day it had been!
Mille grazie, Casey e Luca!
We can highly recommend the Bike It! Bellagio tours on your next Lake Como sojourn.
More information and bookings at: www.bikeitbellagio.com