Iconic Places: Passo del Ghisallo

You don't have to wait until the "Race of the Falling Leaves" to enjoy the Passo del Ghisallo

Photo: Watson

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Where: Overlooking Lake Como in Italy’s Lake District north of Milan
Length: 8.58km
Average gradient: 6.2 percent
Maximum gradient: 14 percent
Elevation gain: 1,755 feet (532m)

While neither the longest nor the steepest of the Italian climbs, the Passo del Ghisallo has gained a fervent following of devotees who consider it the spiritual home of Italian cycling. A fixture in the Giro di Lombardia, what it lacks in brutal steepness or length it makes up for in pure Italian style. Overlooking Lake Como in Italy’s beautiful Lake District north of Milan, the top of the climb features stunning views of Bellagio, as well as a shrine celebrating cycling history. The climb is typically the decisive moment of the Giro di Lombardia.

History: The term “iconic” takes on a whole new meaning atop Ghisallo, because the hilltop shrine at Madonna del Ghisallo is literally packed full of them. According to legend, a medieval count fended off robbers here after seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. Local inhabitants later built a shrine at the top of the hill during the 17th century; it became the “patroness” of cyclists around the world thanks to the efforts of a local priest in the 1940s. A chapel and a small cycling museum beside the church feature memorabilia from the likes of Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi, as well as an eternal flame devoted to riders who have died during races. We’re talking cycling’s holy ground.

Region: Located in Lombardia in northern Italy, the Ghisallo is at the top of a shark fin wedge that divides Lago di Como into two fingers. The region is laced with
narrow roads, mountainous terrain, lakeside villas (so good that George Clooney bought two), and quaint Italian villages. Nearby, Bellagio is overflowing with perfect post-ride gelato stands.

Travel: The closest major international airport is Milan’s Linate, 70km to the south (Malpensa is 85km to the southwest). The traditional route featured in the Giro di Lombardia begins in Bellagio along the glittering shores of Lake Como. Take the SP41 on the Via Valassina, which immediately begins to gain elevation. After some switchbacks, the climb veers right at the village of Guello, before looping upward to the shrine.

Ride: The Ghisallo has been the signature climb of the Giro di Lombardia every year since 1919. The start and finish have changed quite a bit over the decades, so the Ghisallo doesn’t necessarily crown the winner. The climb is variable in its pitch: the steepest ramps come after sweeping switchbacks right out of Bellagio at the base of the climb, hitting a maximum of 14 percent in the first kilometer. It clips along at a steady nine percent for four kilometers to a flat shoulder at Guello. It runs big-ring flat, even with a small descent, for just over two kilometers before hitting the final switchbacks up to the summit and its inspiring views. The racers at Lombardia have no time to stop, but it’s worth it to poke around the chapel and museum. After all, there aren’t too many cycling shrines blessed by the Pope.

Lodging: Hotel Il Perlo Panorama, just above Bellagio, bills itself as a “biker’s hotel,” boasting free bike storage, a washing area, tools, GPS-plotted maps, and downloads. Free washing facilities, lake-view balconies, and an ample garden make it an ideal choice. Double rooms start at $110.

Food: If you want to rub shoulders with the jet set at Bellagio without breaking your budget, head to Il Fontana Bellagio. The small, family-owned restaurant features northern Italian dishes, such as fagioli and homemade pastas, with outdoor seating. Save room for dessert and take in some fresh gelato at Gelateria del Borgo.

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