Falling Leaves - The Medio Fondo Giro di Lombardia

This race is where many riders finish their seasons and as the European days begin to get shorter...

Tales from the peloton, November 10, 2007

The Giro di Lombardia is one of cycling's monuments and with it's combination of stunning lake and mountain views, complemented by early autumn colours, it's also one of its most beautiful races. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins went along to experience an amateur Medio Fondo, based on the Race of the Falling Leaves, and took a colleague along for the ride.

This race is where many riders finish their seasons and as the European days begin to get shorter and the weather turns colder, it seemed like a good place to finish mine. Third in the Challenge Gazzetta series of races was the Medio Fondo Giro di Lombardia (after a Medio Fondo Milano - Sanremo and a Gran Fondo Dolomiti Stars/Giro d'Italia), run over much of the same course on the day after the ProTour race.

Joining me for the ride was locally based Cyclingnews Reporter and Production Editor Gregor Brown. Apparently they say he was fast when he used to ride crits back in the United States of America, but he'd signed himself up to be my gregario for the day anyway. I collected our race numbers and Pacchi Gara from the rather swanky lakeside Palace Hotel while Gregor was slaving away at race winner Damiano Cunego's press conference - was he collecting some race tips from the two-time winner to use tomorrow? I couldn't know…

The Giro di Lombardia had started in Varese the day before, and passed through Como before doing a circuit of Lake Como, but the Medio Fondo was "only" 113 kilometres in length, so there was no chance of us doing all that. Instead, we were to start in Como - at the finish - cut across country to Lecco, then complete yesterday's race course. This would take us north along the shores of the Lago di Lecco before tackling the climb up to the Madonna di Ghisallo, then down the other side and the two smaller hills en route to the finish by the lake in Como, where we'd started.

"Suddenly, I knew how Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) had felt the day before as I fought for momentum and tried to hold the disappearing wheels in front of me." - Ben Atkins felt the Italian World Champion's pain

Having raved about the contents of my Pacco Gara at the Gran Fondo del Prosecco last month, Gregor was a tiny bit disappointed to find that there were no bottles of wine or salamis in this one. It obviously contained a bag of pasta (they always do!) and a few useful items like chain lube, but it also had the next instalment of Challenge Gazzetta kit: a pair of armwarmers and a pair of mitts, to go with the legwarmers and socks that I got at Dolomiti Stars (and the jersey that I'd have if I'd ridden the Medio Fondo Milano - Sanremo). Anyway, the freebies from here turned out to be nice and lightweight, so there wasn't any danger of them tipping my baggage over the weight limit on the flight home.

Suitably inspired by Saturday's exciting race - culminating in a victory for Cunego over Riccardo Riccò in a two-man sprint - we arrived at the 9:30 AM start, fashionably-just-in-time, after stopping on the way for an essential cappuccino and brioche to protect us against the early morning October chill. I was beginning to worry if Gregor had actually been a bit over-inspired, as he was dressed in the all yellow of Riccò's Suanier Duval - Prodir team. I just hoped he remembered that we were supposed to be riding this thing together!

As the start was given we gradually filtered forward across the start line, the speed immediately went up. Despite the series of drags that we were to traverse on our way out of Como, the pace set at the front was pretty fierce. The bunch that began as one massive whole began to split into countless smaller parts, with people overtaking and others being dropped as some near the front failed to match the pace, and some near the back wanted to go faster. I was more or less holding my own at this point - I probably overtook almost as many as overtook me - but Gregor was doing even better as I saw his all yellow figure disappearing up the road with a faster bunch.

After a few kilometres had passed and we were well out of Como on our way towards Lecco, I looked ahead to see that Gregor was slowing down. Could it be that he'd bitten off more than he could chew and cracked under the ferocious pace already? No, he was just waiting for me…

On the winding, rolling roads to Lecco, Gregor and I shared the pace at the front of a small-ish group with a few like-minded others. The pace was pretty quick in some places, so much so that one of the passengers in the group asked Gregor if he wouldn't mind slowing down a little bit as he was having a bit of trouble keeping up. Needless to say, the answer was not a positive one!

Soon we reached Lecco and the point where the Medio Fondo actually joined the Giro di Lombardia course proper. Before actually reaching the city centre, we turned north and joined a beautiful narrow road that meanders alongside the shores of the Lago di Lecco. The views across the dark blue waters to the hills on the opposite shore were absolutely stunning, as we flew along. Despite rolling a fair bit and being pretty twisty, the pace being set was fast, set by Gregor on the front. I was quite happy at this point to sit at the back, relax, and take a few pictures - until those in front of me started leaving gaps and allowing it to split that is! There were a few occasions where I found myself having to come around two or three riders who found Gregor's pace too hot, and sprint for a few hundred metres to get myself back in the group.

All too soon - because this road was seriously picturesque - we began to approach the outskirts of Bellagio, the town that sits on the tip of the land that sticks out into the point where the Lakes of Lecco and Como join. We didn't head into town though, this is where the climb to the Madonna di Ghisallo begins, so we turned inland, away from the water's edge, and the gradient started immediately.

After studying the profile of the climb - and I'd driven up a couple of days before - I kind of knew what to expect. The first section - lasting about four kilometres - is pretty steep, with grades of up to 14%. It then levels out, and actually has a slight descent for a few kilometres, before steepening again for the final couple of kilometres to the top. Problem was: I may have known what to expect, but riding up was another matter entirely.

Suddenly, I knew how Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) had felt the day before as I fought for momentum and tried to hold the disappearing wheels in front of me - we passed countless bits of road graffiti proclaiming "Forza Bettini", when sadly the newly re-crowned World Champion clearly had not been - and neither was I. Gregor was long gone by now, but we'd arranged to meet again at the top. My challenge now was to try and avoid making him wait too long!

Thankfully, my rhythm didn't take too long to come, and a group of us somehow formed on the steepest of the gradients. Exchanging a kind of unspoken encouragement we got each other over what I knew to be the hardest section, a few of us then managed to work together and picked up a few more riders on the flat and slightly downhill part.

The second steeper part seemed pretty inconsequential compared to the earlier gradients, and passed quite quickly. Before long, I found myself approaching the small chapel of the Madonna. On any other day I'd have stopped to look around, but not today as I was in a "race", so I was thankful that I'd had a chance to have spend some time here the other day. Besides I had to find Gregor before he got tired of waiting…

Just over the summit there was a ristoro (a refreshment stop) and it was here that Gregor waited for me. I grabbed some fruit, some biscuits, and some of those yummy jam tarts that Italian events always have in such abundance, then together we rejoined the course and the long fast descent via Asso to Erba and the final part of the course. Once again, it was Gregor and I setting the pace. We had been passed by the end of the race vehicle a long time ago - there being to much demand on these roads to have them closed for too long - and so we had to be mindful of the occasional car on the course. This meant that we couldn't use the whole road on the descent, but also meant that every now and then we'd catch one up as it sat behind a more cautious rider.

Once we had passed through Erba, the penultimate climb up to Civiglio began. This was where I was forced to wave bye-bye to Gregor as my inferior climbing kicked in again - this time there would be no more waiting for me at the top, we'd meet again at the finish. Once again I made a mental note to really work on my climbing this winter, my roule-ing rules, and my sprint isn't bad, but this area really can let me down - especially when I keep choosing to ride such hilly races.

Thankfully the climb to Civiglio is only a few kilometres in length - and nothing like as steep as the Ghisallo had been - so it was over pretty quickly and I soon began the twisty, technical descent into Como. I'm normally pretty quick on this kind of descent, but today I was being a bit extra careful. I remembered Cadel Evans' (Predictor-Lotto) rather erratic swerving around some of the tighter hairpins and had no desire to do similar. It soon opened out though and the speed went up as we entered the backstreets of the town.

Out the other side of Como was the final climb, up to San Fermo di Battaglia. This was the point where the constant late attacks from Cunego and Riccò finally paid off as they managed to pull clear. No such attacking for me though, as my climbing legs were, by now, well and truly spent and once again I was thankful that there were only a few kilometres to the top. The views of Lago di Como from the first few ramps though, were spectacular.

Once over the top of the climb, all that remained was the fast and not-too-technical descent to the finish. A rider ahead of me seemed to be taking things a little too complacently though, and completely overcooked a corner with two kilometres to go. Luckily he managed to come to a stop before crashing into the high concrete wall - and the two kilometres remaining sign - but I decided the prudent thing to do at this stage was to overtake him and leave him behind, lest he inadvertently involve me next time.

Sadly, the fact that I was now a long way behind the rolling road closure meant that much of the flat final kilometre was filled with Como's usual Sunday lunchtime traffic. This unfortunately meant that I was forced to brake and weave between cars when I really wanted to carry my momentum from the descent.

Thankfully though, the last few hundred metres were closed off to traffic and I could once again get the power down. I did my best to muster a sprint for the line - with the lactate built up over the previous 113km making my legs scream with pain. A rider jumped out of a small bunch behind me, and I did everything I could to hold him off, but he flew past me with about 25 metres to go, doing about twice my speed.

Gregoriccò - as I was now calling him - had finished about 15 minutes before me, but was waiting just over the line, soaking up the autumn sunshine. Although he's a very experienced rider and has been based in Italy for a number for years now, this was his first fondo. I have a feeling that it won't be his last…

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