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Beauty and the beast

Words and Photography by Nic Stevenson

I’m not climbing yet, but the road is rolling, and then I’m climbing. And then I’m descending, and still it rolls. The road is like a ribbon someone’s casually wrapped around a childish, fairytale dream of a lake. Mountains rise directly from the water, and the villages on its shore seem to have slipped there in a terracotta avalanche. 

It’s spring time, but I’m here to explore the race of the falling leaves, Il Lombardia. Blue skies and sunshine sparkling across Lake Como make me think that even if I’ve got the time of year wrong, I’ve not got the time of year wrong.

You can ride the whole way around the Y shaped lake along the sometimes scary road that circumnavigates it, but to do that would miss the real reason I’m here. I'm on a literal, and figurative, pilgrimage. The Madonna Di Ghisallo is a church, atop a climb that has been Italian cycling myth for generations. The Giro, and Il Lombardia, have long visited its sinuous route, so much so that the church at its finish grew over time into more than just another small village shrine, but became a sacred place for cyclists. As memorabilia gathered under its arches, Pope Pius XII made the Madonna the patron saint of cyclists in the late 40s. Since then, Giro winners, Italian champions and curious amateurs like me have passed through the small doorway to pay their respects and maybe leave a trinket or two. 

The climb to the church starts in Bellagio, a picture postcard lakeside town located at the crux of the Y. It’s not a hard climb, and it’s rarely lovely, but it is beautiful to those with a taste for cycling’s mythology. Along the way, there are many churches and false finishes - if you’re riding it in future, you’ll know when you get to the actual one, and you can relax, but don’t ease off before then. At the start there are lots of Italians swarming up the hill. I don’t look Italian as I climb - there is only one logo on my jersey, and I’m panting too much. One overtakes, I overtake another. We’ve climbed out of town, but it’s still suburban. The lake is behind me, there’s no view to speak of, a hairpin or two. Then there’s a descent, but no church, is that it? But no, we’re rising again. And then it’s there, and it’s obvious. What was mundane becomes triumphant. Perhaps only a church can do that. 

As I enter the small chapel, another cyclist joins me and genuflects. He looks around like me, takes a small sip of holy water from the font, dabs his forehead and makes the sign of the cross then leaves. I don’t speak this language, don’t understand its argot, the nuances and the history and rhythms, but I can see its strange power, grace, and awkward beauty, here more than ever.  

There’s a museum and I spend all the cash I brought with me on small Madonna medallions for the tribe with whom I usually ride. It’s only when I hand the notes over I realise I’ve left no money for an espresso. It’s ok. It’s Italy. They give me the coffee for free and I’m on my way. 

Unlike the Ghisallo, a climb I’ve idolised for years, I knew little about the Muro Di Sormano before I planned this trip. Ignorance was bliss. When I spoke to the man who hired me the bike, he was cautious. He told me he’d only ridden it once. It’s an hour from his shop, an hour’s beautiful ride. How bad was this thing?

Numbers and questions ran through my mind as I freewheeled from the church. 2k. 17% average. 25% max. Professional riders climbing off and walking. What does it take to lift 80kg of rider up a 25% gradient? How much sweat will be in my eyes? How much iron in my mouth? Can I do it? There is a climb before the climb, 7k or so, and not too steep. As I ride up I think ‘softly, Nic, piano’ but still I overtake four other riders and I’m scared. Scared they’ll tap past me again when it gets hard. Scared they’ll laugh at the gauche, pale Brit, under their breath as they pass, and out loud in the cafe later. Where does his imposter syndrome come from? I don’t know but it’s not supposed to be here. 

The climb starts. It’s hard. Then it stops. A small gate to pass. Then it really starts and Christ, it’s hard. Some cruel, brilliant bastard has painted the metres of ascent on the road. You start at around 800m and I have no idea when it will end. At its hardest the vertical metres seem to match the horizontal ones. But that can’t be right, can it? It’s got colder but the blood still thumps in my temple. If I stand the rear wheel lifts, if I sit the front wheel does. What am I doing?

I can’t even begin to imagine racing up this thing. It’s sick. A disgrace. It’s beautiful. Someone has painted quotes in Italian on to it. I don’t speak Italian but I pretend I do and they all say bastardo anyway. Lunacy. Beautiful lunacy. 

And then another gate, another hundred metres and it’s over. None of the others came past me. 

Out of the forest you can see the height of it, and how fast it’s gained it. I can’t imagine two more different climbs in such quick succession. Beauty and the beast. The Madonna and the Muro. 

On the descent, I pass the point where in Lombardia 2014, Quick Step rider Laurens De Plus misjudged a corner and dropped over the edge of the safety railing. Miraculously, he wasn’t too badly injured... but I can see how it happened. The railing calls to you as you pass, it wants you - wants you to try to be a real angel instead of this pretence. Commit to it, the thing whispers. Then in a flash it’s gone and I continue to drop. A good descender would outpace cars and motorbikes on this... I’m not a good descender.

Back around the lake then to finish. Tucking into tunnels and trying not to spend too long watching motorboats and seaplanes. The drivers are terrible but I don’t think they’re out to punish like British ones are. They have worse ‘got to get ahead ism’ than anywhere else I’ve ever ridden, but they don’t seem to hate me for existing. 

I try not to let it spoil my mood and remember that to ride in the cradle of cycling, in spring, is a rite for cyclists. Other places lay claim to be the birthplace of the bicycle - whether you believe the French, the Brits or even the Germans. But, it’s Italy, and the northern mountains around Milan, where the bicycle went from being an appliance to a be venerated as an object of lust, strength and sacrifice. And as snow still caps the mountains, the blue skies reflect in the lakes, and the green hills call you up to their peaks, I think I’ll make this an annual pilgrimage.


Nic Stevenson is a freelance photographer and Simpson contributor