Thursday, October 14, 2010

Adventures in Italy: Nesso to Colma di Sormano

More on my recent trip to Italy, which focussed on the Lake Como region.

I was staying in San Siro north of Menaggio. My favorite ride of the trip, and my first after getting my work cables and housings repaired (allowing me to shift), was the one where I took a ferry to Bellagio then immediately climbed to the legendary Madonna del Ghisallo. After checking out the church and the museum, then enjoying a leisurely lunch in the cafe, I continued upward to San Primo. But my ride wasn't done, not even close. I had a longer looped planned, modeled after stage 7 of the 2010 Giro Donna, the stage race for professional women in Italy modeled loosely after the Giro d'Italia.

Stage 7 of the Giro Donne

Okay - full disclosure. I didn't know much about stage 7 of the Giro Donne (although I followed Mara Abbott and Team USA's successful fight for victory in that race) other than what I learned by that Amanda Miller had the QOM up Ghisallo, and the overall KOM up the longer, more challenging climb from Nesso to Colma di Sormano. Here's the Strava page for her ride in that stage. I was hoping to beat her time up both of these climbs, ideally getting the Ghisallo as well.

The women climbed Nesso first, but my route was the opposite. I wanted to climb Ghisallo on fresh legs, and in any case doing Ghisallo first made for a better route starting and finishing in Bellagio, the ferry access point. Here's my partial ride data. I say partial because I had battery issues with the Garmin 500. After descending to the south from Ghisallo, I rode to Como following the "obvious" route (bypassing the ultimate climb in the Giro di Lombardia, which is this Sunday; unfortunately I hadn't checked the route of that race before this ride, or I would have done that climb as well).

In Como I shut off the Garmin when it issued a "low battery" warning. I'd lost my USB data cable which is used to charge the Edge, and I'd neglected to purchase a new one when I'd ridden to Como the day before. This time, I stopped at a camera shop and paid what I suspected to be the inflated price of 25€ for the cable (it's used with Nokia phones, as well as various cameras, in addition to the Edge). It was worth every penny, and more, but it wasn't going to help me on this ride. I had to save the Edge for recording my forthcoming climb.

So i rode up the coast to Nesso in data silence. The road was spectacular, with fantastic views of the lake off to my left, car traffic surprisingly light on the only two-lane road. Were this in the United States, I was sure it would be virtually unridable. Italians just tend to be more content to be where they are, rather than feeling the need to drive somewhere multiple times per day.

At the turn-off for the climb to Colma di Sormano I turned the battery back on and prepared myself for my big attempt. I was tiring and felt the onset of depletion which signals an oncoming bonk, but the adventure of this new and challenging climb excited me. I felt fairly sure my Edge battery would have enough for at least the full climb based on the % remaining indicator and how long it had run so far, so I restarted the computer, waited for it to lock onto a satellite signal, started the "timer", and began the climb.

It didn't take long before I was humbled by a passing rider. This guy was all business. I managed a quick "ciao" in my flawless Italian (errr....), and tried to follow his pace. That didn't last long: after a few corners i had to let him go.

getting dusted

The climb wasn't bad: while fairly steep, the grade was never truly steep, and given the wonder of being here, on this road, in a heart of Italian cycling made it impossible to anything other than savor the experience. I had a rough recollection the road gained around 900 meters of altitude (it's actually 839 meters), so I managed my progress via my altimeter, and despite my waning energy, I made steady progress.

I hit a flat, which i knew from the altitude wasn't the true summit. This was Pian del Tivano, and here my Edge, proving the % remaining indicator isn't reliable, died. A fear knotted my stomach: what if I'd fallen just a short distance shy of the Strava segment i was striving for? I'd been here before, thinking I'd recorded data, only to discover later it was gone. Remember, I told myself, the existential joy of cycling pre-GPS. Try to recapture that... focus on the moment, on the experience, and not on the result.

But for whatever reason, whether the bonk I felt growing finally took hold, or the death of the battery broke my frigile will, but once the road started climbing again, I cracked. i pulled over to the side of the road, took a drink, tried to gather myself, then pedaled onward, at a survival pace, upward.


Fortunately the remaining climbing was modest in both grade and altitude gained. I was able to sustain my now restrained pace until I came to the observatory which marked the top. The view was impressive. I admired the view and the small observatory for a few minutes, then began the descent of the opposite side.

Here's the profile of the climb to the Plan del Tivano. Fortunately my Edge battery lasted just long enough to squeeze in the Strava segment for this portion of the extended climb. While I didn't get credit for the full climb to Colma, given my serious fade on the final portion, this was probably for the best.

And no, I didn't beat Amanda's time. At least I got the men's Strava record (out of two riders).

profile of Nesso to Pian del Tivano

A challenging climb, for sure, but nothing exceptional by Bay area standards. Still, it rates 184 on the Low-Key Hillclimbs difficulty rating scheme, where Old La Honda is by definition 100.

The descent passed quickly, and i began the long gradual climb back to the Madonna del Ghisallo. The approach is generally gradual upwards, so by the time the climb proper is reached, there's not much altitude left to be gained. The real climb to the church is the north side. It was good seeing the church again, but I was running short on daylight, so passed without pausing and began the descent.

Here I suffered a bit of a judgement lapse, perhaps associated with my low blood sugar. I went into the first switchback of the descent slightly fast, there having been no warning sign. But the turn was sharper than I'd expected, and I was obviously going way too fast. I tried to brake but couldn't avoid riding into the lane of oncoming traffic. But there weren't any cars to be seen or heard, and so I survived that potentially costly mistake.

The rest of my ride was great: the climbing was done, and I enjoyed the rest of the way to the ferry in Bellagio, then northward from Cadenabbia back to San Siro, just as the sun was leaving the sky.

This was an epic ride, with climbs made more epic by where they were than what the altitude profile shows. Sure, Nesso is tough, but the portion to the Pian del Tivano is Soda Springs tough, nothing more (actually Soda Springs scores 204, higher than this climb). Still, riding these roads is like riding in a dream. I kept wanting to pinch myself to see if I was sleeping, but not wanting to do so for fear I'd awaken. This is the sort of ride you never forget.


Spumoni said...

Dan - Thanks for the wonderful accounts from Italy and the insightful blog. I've enjoyed reading it for some time now. You may recall that we rode together a bit in the '90s at Stanford. I'm just back from a trip to Piemonte myself; my rides are up on Strava as user "Mark Slavonia". Hope to see you soon at a Low Key Hill Climb, all the best, Mark

djconnel said...

Thanks, Mark, for the nice comments! It will be good to see you again.