Friday, May 28, 2004

Lecco, Italy

Friends: The road along Lake Como is as perilous a road as I've biked and among the most scenic too, though I hardly had a moment to divert my attention from the road and traffic to appreciate its beauty. The road is largely carved into the mountainsides that plunge to the lake's shoreline. It has no shoulder for bicyclists and at times narrows to just one lane wide with minimal warning. The road is thronged with speeding sports cars, tour buses and trucks of near 18-wheeler proportions. There are small villages and villas of all sizes wall-to-wall around the lake, as high up as the terrain will allow.

For centuries it was acclaimed the most beautiful lake in the world. Aldous Huxley offered one of the first dissenting opinions back in the '30s when he ventured to Guatemala and laid eyes on Lake Atitlan. He declared it, "The most beautiful lake in the world, even more beautiful than Lake Como." It is an opinion I cannot dispute, having biked its shores as well a couple of times. Lake Atitlan too is surrounded my mountains, though they are conical and of the erupting variety. It is much less thickly populated than Lake Como, with just a handful of small villages dotting its shore. The women of each village wear colorful, matching, intricately embroidered blouses unique to their village.

Lake Como is much narrower than Atitlan, a y-shaped sliver that one could practically skip a stone across, not unlike the fjords of Norway. I'm almost surprised that a book on cycling Italy recommends biking its road, or at least without warning of the hazardous traffic. For me it was more dangerous than Bolivia's "Most Dangerous Road in the World." If I hadn't just replaced my front brake pads after wearing them out descending the 14% grade road from the chapel of the Madonna de Ghisallo, the Patron Saint of Bicyclists overlooking the lake, Jesse might be writing this email to you rather than me. I had to slam on my brakes, as my heart rocketed into my throat, on a descent, when a truck that had just passed me, slammed on his brakes to avoid an over-sized bus that had just come around a bend blocking the road. My front wheel just nudged the bumper of the truck as I came to a screeching stop, and as I cringed hoping there wasn't a vehicle behind me not paying attention. As beautiful as the vistas of the lake have been, I'm glad the thirty miles we cycled along its shores from the city of Como to Lecco are behind us, and we can continue on to Milan, thirty miles away. But tonight we will camp at what the local tourist office advertises as a free campground just a mile out of town along the lake. That is almost too good to be true, as it would be a challenge to camp wild tonight in this highly congested area. We were lucky to have found a forest last night ten miles before Como.

With luck tonight we'll enjoy our first shower since Cannes. Yesterday, Jesse had his baptismal bathing-in-a- river experience, or near baptism, as he could only force himself to go thigh deep into the cold river, doing his bathing by splashing water on his upper body. It was a legitimate swimming area on a gravel beach with a couple of hundred sun-bathers, though no one was wading more than ankle deep into the river. I've had plenty of experience with much colder water than this, and though I wasn't overly desperate for a washing, I still took a full plunge and felt most invigorated. It was nice not to be so sticky in the tent last night.

Another highlight for the day was for the first time coming upon a restaurant/bar with a television to watch the conclusion of that day's stage of the Giro d'Italia. It wasn't the religious experience I thought it might be, joined by a throng of exuberant fans breathlessly glued to the proceedings. Shockingly, the place we stopped in at late in the afternoon didn't have the race on its television--rather some music video that none of its patrons were paying any attention to. The bartender had to go in search of the remote control to change the station. When he finally switched the station to the race, hardly anyone in the place seemed to notice. This clearly was not a den of the tifosi--cycling fanatics. But I was thrilled to be watching the Giro even though I could understand not a word of the commentary other than the names of the racers. The 35-year old Russian veteran, Pavel Tonkov, former winner of the Giro, had broken away from his two breakaway companions and held everyone off for a dramatic win. At his age, every win could be his last.

It will be hard to experience a greater highlight though than our visit to the tiny Madonna de Ghisallo chapel--a storied shrine that every devotee of the bicycle owes it to himself to visit. It may be no larger than a hut, but it is a vast reservoir of cycling lore, tangible and not. Perched upon a small clearing some 1500 feet over Lake Como, it offers spectacular views of the lake and the snow-dappled Dolomites in the distance. It is a most demanding 5.4 mile climb from the lake, with two of those miles relatively flat. The year end classic Tour of Lombardy passes by it, a race that has drawn most of the cycling legends over the years.

Centuries ago in medieval times travelers adopted the Madonna as their patron saint after a traveler sought refuge in the small chapel when he was attacked by bandits. He saw the image of a saintly woman in the chapel and gave her credit for saving him. Later, cyclists took her as their guardian saint as well. Finally, in 1949 Pope Pius XII officially consecrated the Madonna de Ghisalla. A photo of his visit is among the many photographs in the small chapel adorned with a museum's worth of bicycling mementos--bikes ridden by Coppi and Merckx and Moser, autographed yellow jerseys from the Tour de France and pink ones from the leader of the Giro, some rainbow-striped world championship jerseys and others of note. Prominently displayed on an altar behind a locked gate was a photo of the recently deceased Marco Pantani in pink with arms upraised in a Christ-like pose. Sculptures of Gino Bartoli and Fausto Coppi, the most revered of Italian cyclists, flank the entrance to the chapel. There was a steady trickle of others paying homage to this shrine, though we were the only ones who arrived by bike in the hour-and-a-half we lingered on the premises. There is a vast cycling museum under construction on the grounds that will make this an even more alluring draw. A nearby shop sells postcards and drinks and snacks.

I was surprised not to have received a single horn toot as I climbed up to the Madonna, as a couple days before, nearly every car that passed me, on a much longer and equally challenging climb, recognized my efforts with a friendly toot, the most I have ever been accorded. It was another sign of the Italians' great fanaticism and fondness for the cyclist. It could be that since that climb was less twisty than the one to Ghisallo, my appearance didn't suddenly catch them by surprise, and seeing me well ahead, watching me spin my way up with vigor, clearly having the upper hand in my battle with the mountain, they had ample time to trigger their horn. Jesse, who is still trying to find his climbing legs, was lagging far, far behind on both climbs. He reported he did not receive a single toot. He will in time be floating up these mountains himself. He's still in his infancy as a touring cyclist, but he's already well beyond the stage of dreading climbs, unlike others I've toured with. He's actually eager to test himself on the most demanding of the Tour de France climbs before this trip is done. Me too.

Later, George

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