I had vouched I would never do this again, it’s the night before leaving and I’m packing my bike. In the past I have bent my derailleur hanger, as I packed my bike, the night before Mallorca312. Nevertheless, this time I had no issues and the trip would be happening.
Jon and I met through the fantastic Giro Cycles community. Both of us have similar goals of what we want to get out from cycling - meaning we rarely disagree on anything about adventures however, for everything else it’s a different story.
Verona is a second home to me. Growing up, the nearby Lakes were a regular feature of family days out on the road and the backdrop for countless happy memories. At the northern end, wind funnelling through the mountains creates a windsurfers paradise and the shores in the south provide a much needed relief from the suffocating summer heat. The countless cyclists exploring the lake side roads and tackling the mountain climbs never used to catch my attention or imagination but now I’d be one of them.
Our goals were straight forward and our rules simple. Head to the Lakes and travel light. With that in mind, Jon and I started to plan a ride venturing from Verona to Lake Garda and then on to Lake Iseo and Lake Como. The route would take in rural lanes, mountain roads, lakeside vistas and ultimately end with climbing the infamous Madonna Del Ghisallo. Assisted by Strava Route builder and local knowledge the route was plotted and named – The Three Lakes.
Jon had recently become the owner of a Curve Belgie. A lustful titanium roadie capable of tackling mixed terrains at speed. My sub 6.4kg carbon Focus Cayo was far from perfect but the only road bike I had. Whether it had enough shock absorption or the rake angle being favourable for off-road sections was not up for debate as it was the only option and so I would better make do and enjoy the ride. Often, I have found the shortcomings or unexpected events are the highlights (unless of course you are tackling a world record attempt). Too much calculating and the magic formula would be lost. Our bikes were more than capable. Bikes sorted.
Obviously, it’s not an adventure without weeks (or often months) of preparation and deliberation about which gear you will need. No matter how much preparation you will undoubtedly still ask your travel companion the night before how many jerseys they are bringing. I had previously bought a Restrap saddle bag for my London to Paris trip and was a fan of their muted design and therefore invested in a complete Restrap bike carrying outfit (Saddle bag, Frame bag, handlebar bag and cockpit bag). Jon on the other hand discovered Alpkit through friends (namely Matt – TCR veteran) which was an excellent choice with its well-priced and smart design choices. The medium frame bag would later bring countless hours of nerdy discussions on whether he should have gone for the larger size or not. Gear sorted.
Route, bikes and gear sorted. We were ready to go. Thankfully the Flight out to Verona was uneventful and the bikes remained intact . My cousin, being Italian, wouldn’t have us taking taxis and insisted he pick us up. Surprisingly he arrived on time and we stuffed ourselves and two bike boxes into his short wheel base Defender… All great adventures start with an overloaded 4x4 right?
We swiftly dropped off our luggage and found a spot along the river for some pizza and a bottle (or two) of wine to re-evaluate why were we still living in London and not touring the world. Quickly establishing this would be non-conclusive, we returned home. We built up our bikes and loaded our gear so we were ready to set off in the morning. I often find slight comedy in this moment as clearly a competitive side of me emerges and I find myself checking if the other person has any advantages in their setup. No advantages seemingly gained, either side.
Woken up by the 7 am alarm I leaped out of bed. Showered and dressed (fortunately one of us brought toothpaste). Apartment locked up and we were ready to set off. This being Verona and knowing where the best pastries were, meant a little detour was necessary. A caffe and risino – a speciality from the North (dutifully contested between the Tuscans and the Veronesi) were in order. Italians will typically have one small pastry and an espresso before shooting off to work. Being tourists and knowing full well that we would be burning sugar all day, we had three. It was now 8:30 am and we had a 170km day ahead of us with 2,500 metres of climbing - we should get a move on. En route we passed Juliet’s balcony, a delirious touristic experience but nonetheless necessary for any visitor and made our way to Lake Garda.
We rode the perfectly tarmacked bike path that connects the city to the lake and met fellow cyclists from tourers to euro pros. Your average roadies in Italy are adorned with sponsored kits from their local or favourite cycling team. Just as with Football, the Italians are passionate supporters. 40km in and we reached the foot of Monte Baldo. Monte Baldo is a mountain range that divides Lake Garda and the Valpolicella wine region. It’s highest peak of around 2,200 metres would not be reached that day as we would be traversing the range in the hope of reaching the lake in a timely manner. 70 km in and we started to fully understand what a different beast it was when you are pushing 20kg bikes around.
Jon then lived up to the motto of “if you don’t bonk you didn’t go hard enough” and needed a moment of respite in an idyllic station at the top of the range.
Filled with coke, coffee, cake and a pat on the back the road was all downhill from here. As we started to descend Jon’s vivacious self returned and we started to race down the mountain - overtaking each other, always braking later and leaning lower. Grinning ear to ear we reached the lake as the sun began to emit its soft afternoon glow. We sat down and enjoyed one of our first proper meals of the day, sort of. A piadina with ham and cheese and an ice tea.
As the adrenaline wore off and calculated the distance to our next destination we wanted to stop at we realised we would be riding in the dark if we didn’t get our groove on. We booked the Airbnb then and there. At this moment in time I was feeling fresh and knew the roads well so I encouraged a spirited pace which soon evolved into a through and off for 40 kilometres down the entire lake, even getting some motor pacing assistance from a classic Vespa. After a thrilling 40km we arrived in Peschiera del Garda, a town rich in history, at dusk. It was now my turn to bonk but fortunately we had arrived. Jon just had to deal with a zombie. Safe to say that after a couple of beers and another pizza we were ready to hit the sack!
The morning after the sun was shining and we were well rested but also humbled by the first big day of 170 km and 2,500 metres of climbing. A bit of maintenance (i.e. Jon cleaning and lubing his chain!) and optimisations to our bikes and we were ready to set off to our next destination – Lake Iseo.
Our legs turning pedals with noticeably less eagerness coupled with our free schedule meant we opted for a flatter route which would allow us to enjoy time on the lakes more. This trip was not about suffering but about learning the craft of travelling by bike and enjoying what Italy has to offer. A little under half way we to Lake Iseo we coincidentally passed by the Museum of Mille Miglia – one of Italy’s most iconic automobile races. A quick stroll through was an enjoyable experience but probably less so for the visitors who had to put up with cleats tapping away. Minds reset, and we had the final leg to Lake Iseo.
Upon our arrival, we spotted the ferry that should be taking us to Monte Isola, a car-free island in the middle of Lake Iseo. We frantically raced to the ticket office to get on in time. Our luck with timing meant we would be arriving on the island with time to explore and find a spot to stay that night.
The boat docked and we enjoyed a well earned beer and then set off in search of our B&B on the other side of the island. Along the way, I had a notable encounter with a wasp, which descended into an all out boxing match with shouting and waving arms, attracting some concerned attention of the locals and thoroughly embarrassing Jon. Needless to say that I won, however Jon has been left with a comical story that he just won’t let go of.
After this saga we resumed our trip to the B&B which presented its own set of problems. The isolated B&B had no roads, just a set of “casual" 40-degree inclines and stairs to traverse with our loaded bikes. As we stumbled down dogs barked for our attention and families watched on in amusement from their gardens as we struggled to handle our heavy bikes down these steps. Probably not the first, or last time, they’ve been entertained by touring cyclists. On arriving, wanting to quickly forget the idea of having to climb this path again upon our departure, we swiftly offloaded our gear and went for a swim. That evening from the comfort of our hotel the lakes’ microclimate quickly took a turn for the worst and entertained us with a stunning lightning display and gale-force wind
The morning after a storm always has its significance and apprehension. As I opened the wooden window it was as if serenity was all this lake had ever experienced. The motionless water, clear blue skies and lush landscape all in perfect harmony. Today, we would be leaving this beautiful island to continue to our third and final destination – Lake Como
Washed and ready to go we contemplated the cliff we had to climb to get up to the main road. To our greatest surprise, and total relief, we were told a ferry would be docking next to our B&B within the next 30 minutes.Winner. As with most schedules in Italy the ferry was running late, which left us enough time to shoot the required daily Bike Against A Wall (BAAW) photos and for me to explain in earnest, to anyone who would listen, how “Handlebar bags are for ‘soft goods’ only” – interpret this as you wish but know that the struggles of trying to fit a bag under a slammed stem cannot be underestimated.
En route to Lake Como we passed Bergamo. A city characterized by its steep hill that divides it into the Alta and Bassa Citta (High and low city). Here a local cyclist told us the best way to the top and offered to come with us but ‘unfortunately had to go home for lunch’. We soon discovered this was most likely an exit strategy to avoid doing the climb! The punchy 15 minute incline offered stunning views of the city and a chance to enjoy some Italian delicacies at one of Bergamo’s favourite bars.
Cooled and fuelled by the coffee and ice cream we left the Alta Citta and resumed our final leg to Lake Como. The ride would have been non-eventful had it not been for a challenging tunnel. A pitch black, run-off free busy tunnel with trucks shooting by and seemingly with no end. We had no option unless we wanted to detour and add an extra 40 km to our route. Lights set on high flashing mode and we agreed to ride through it as quickly as possible. Our spirited pace and the courteous cars and trucks meant it was a short lived fear. We made it through to Lecco and were greeted with our first glimpse of Lake Como.
We took a quiet road hugging the lake and were then joined by a local cyclist. The adrenaline clearly still in our systems we started to hit the gas. A 30 minute threshold interval pursued through the winding and perfectly smooth roads eventually reaching Bellagio.
Bellagio was a stark contrast from the predominantly rural landscapes and serene lake towns we had been exploring. Seas of people descended and mounted the ferries, lavish cars posed outside red carpet entrances to grand hotels. As the sun was soon to begin its fall into the horizon we quickly, and fortunately, found a charming B&B nestled in a cobbled street off the main tourist highways and swiftly dropped our bags off. Mounting our now seemingly featherweight bikes was like jumping in a supercar – eager to accelerate, turn and dance. We headed towards the Madonna del Ghisallo climb.
The sky was calm and the sun was setting as we danced up the climb and reached the infamous church. Here we enjoyed an impromptu impersonation of the famous statue of the celebratory and falling cyclist.The descent was exhilarating, even almost bagging the quickest time on Strava. Maybe we should all be training with touring gear? I digress.
That evening we returned and realised the trip was coming to an end, but it had delivered in so many ways that we could not have anticipated. The Three Lakes had been toured and enjoyed in all their splendour. We could now just enjoy our meal as the day after we would just be taking the train back to where it all started, Verona.
Thanks for reading.
Jon & Paolo