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Going to the Italian Lakes to hopefully drown memories

I have to make my peace with the Italian Lakes. I had a holiday here half a lifetime ago and it was an absolute disaster. We were staying at the bottom of Lake Maggiore for a fortnight of riding bikes and having fun and not much of either happened. It rained at some point pretty much every day, and when it wasn’t raining it was sticky and humid with low cloud. Add those conditions to being by a lake and the resident mosquitoes had a high old time and chewed us to pieces, after the first night there we stopped counting the bites I had on my body when we got to 100.

I have brief snapshots of that holiday, a remarkable chocolate ice-cream by the lake on a rare hot and sunny afternoon, walking into a bike shop and seeing a display rack of Colnago Master Piu frames, falling instantly in love and going through an incredibly complicated process to get hold of one before we went home, and rinsing the girlfriend of the time’s credit card in the process. Taking my bike apart every evening trying to quieten a creaking bottom-bracket only for it to start creaking again fifteen minutes into the next ride.

Waking up on our last day there to a bright blue perfect Summer cloudless sky and finally seeing the majesty of the mountains that had remained hidden to us for the entire stay pretty much stuck the knife in the holiday and gave it a good twist whilst holding our gaze. It was a spectacular view out of the windscreen as we drove home. The rest I have either blanked from my memory or would require a long series of sessions on a couch to tease out and work through. And that’s not even touching the underlying relationship issues, which are all sorted now anyway thanks. So it is with a mixture of fear and an open heart that I return to the Italian Lakes to do the inaugural Granfondo Tre Valli Varesine. That’s the Gran Fondo Three Valleys Varesine in clunky English.

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The first of the ‘better than last time’ news is that the base for the weekend of Varese is only about 50kms north of Milan so easily less than half an hour in the car from Milan airport, a pleasant change from the usual 1 ½ -2hr transfer that usually happens when you’re tripping abroad and heading for cycling friendly country. Varese sits on the small lake of the same name and is stuck between the better known lakes of Maggiore and Como and underneath Lake Lugano. Sat in the Lombardy foothills head not very far north towards Switzerland or west towards France and things get Alpine pretty quickly, so it promises to be sufficiently lumpy and actually quite hilly the farther out you progress. This looks entirely promising, excellent news. Varese is also the home of the Australian Institute of Sport, which looks after all sorts of antipodean athletes, including cyclists, and the Orica-BikeExchange team has a long history with the town, basing its service-course there. If you needed any more persuading that it might be good place to come with a bike.

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The day before the Gran Fondo there’s the chance to take part in a short organised ride with some ex-pros, and the opportunity to loosen the legs and get to know the others who are on this trip with me. Constantly losing a morning long battle with group faff we eventually catch up with the ride just outside Brinzio and cruise along back into Varese with a suitably random bunch of cyclists where we play the “not seen that jersey in a while” and “he really needs new shorts” games that help pass the time in a european peloton, that finely honed stylish “Looking Euro” dream doesn’t exist on the Continent. If there were any Pros in this gaggle we totally failed to see them, and we roll into town to satisfy our hungers elsewhere. Metre long pizza and really very good ice-creams, limoncello at lunchtime and the pretty way home to burn that off, not without stopping off in Andrea the guides home for more coffee. I’m liking the Italian Lakes better already, keep it up.

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We’re awake at early o’clock for the Sunday’s event and ride into town for the start of the Gran Fondo. Varese is situated on seven hills and as we’re based by the lake simple geography dictates that it’s a leg-stretch up to the event arena based at the Velodrome. There’s enough latin hanging around before we’re rushed into the Velodrome to be penned in with over 1,500 other sportivists where there’s a certain gladiatorial air, a waft of testosterone and more lycra crimes. A few minutes before the official off we’re let loose and funnel out into the road for the few hundred metres frantic cleated shuffle to the shadow of the start banner when even now gaining an extra place seems to be an imperative. I remove my brake lever from a keen Italian arse.

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The Granfondo Tre Valli Varesine has two route choices, the Medio at 103km with 1,500 metres of climbing and the Lungo with numbers of 156km and 2,500 metres. The percorso heads north east out of Varese towards the western finger of Lake Lugano where it follows the shore for a bit before heading south and then west up to Lake Maggiore. There it skims the right hand edge of the water before heading east again towards Lake Lugano and finally turning right back down to Varese. It’s a mashed up figure of eight course and the longer route simply does the top loop again to make up the distance, which doesn’t seem ideal really. Anyway, I’m down to so the percorso lungo, at smidge under 100 miles it should be a worthwhile day in the saddle.

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Luckily there’s a gentle climb away from the start which strings the usual Gran Fondo stampede out a little but then the route ducks, dives and twists through narrowing villages, streets and road architecture so it has its interesting moments. It’s not necessarily the survival of the fittest on the road but the survival of the one with the biggest coglioni. Bunny-hop over a traffic island, bunny-hop over an ejected water-bottle, find the gap between the wall and the rider that’s suddenly swooping in from the left, avoid being cut up on the roundabout. Again. Swear. Try to breathe.

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There’s about 15kms of this before we hit Lake Lugano and things calm down along the flat and actually a moment or two to enjoy the pretty. Of which there is a lot. The morning sun over our right shoulders glistening on the lake, leaving the forested hills in deep fuzzy shadow, this would be an instagram stop if I wasn’t on a tasty wheel. Like most events like this it can be both a temptation and an invitation to come back again and do the same thing when there’s no-one else on the road. The scream along the lake suddenly stops with a dogleg left and the start of the first climb of the day. With four climbs on the short route and seven on the long the profile of both routes is spiky, this is definitely foothills territory. Each of the climbs is about 6km long and all of them a steady gradient with just the odd steeper section in it, not so much taken on singly but laid out one after the other it’s definitely a test for the legs.

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None of these roads are epic or iconic, no-one’s going to come here to tick a few mountains off their bucket list, you can’t buy a t-shirt, but they are just lovely roads to ride. Can we just ride nice roads without making a fuss about it or giving them kudos? Good. The road after the feed-station that followed the sinuous river and then gently rose back up the valley, I’d do that again any day of the week. The climbs weave and switchback through the woods and it is deliriously pretty, if there wasn’t so much heaving lycra in the way. Stick the bike in a steady-climbing gear and twiddle away. It’s a fine late summer, early autumn day. Earlier I went past one of those signs outside a pharmacy that alternates between time and temperature and I’m sure it said 35 degrees. It may have been broken. But the sun is out and it’s warm enough but with the freshness of the season-changing air keeping everything at the perfect riding temperature. Short sleeves and shorts for this Englishman, which of course means full arms and leggings for some Italians.

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The descents are just as glorious and sinewy as the climbs, nothing epic or worthy of tale, just a pleasure to drop down to the next lake, even taking into account the usual group riding skills and the standard issue Grand Fondist that’s got over-excited and smacked into the barriers. There’s not so much flat on this ride but what there is seems to be into a headwind, whichever way we’re going. There is muttering. Groups quickly form on these sections, and I stick behind Rider 654 for longer than he sees fit, but he’s a big wide unit, pumping out the watts and I’m not going anywhere, sorry sweetie.

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I pay it back by doing my best domestique impression up a long long drag up a valley by taking a turn on the front of what feels like half of Italy on my wheel, and as no-one’s too keen to get to the front and I’m happy with it I drag the bunch up to the next group that’s tantalisingly always just round the next bend. It’s a lengthy schlep but I finally make it and I actually get enthusiastically thanked by someone for my efforts in ‘You don’t speak Italian, I don’t speak English’ hand gestures. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. That was nice. We turn right and head up another hill.

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The Gran Fondo route follows some of the roads that the Pros will do in the Tre Valli Varesine race on the Tuesday following. Hang around to watch this if you can. It may not be the most well known road race but it’s been going for nearly 100 years and can list Bartali, Coppi, Moser, Bugno, Chiappucci and Nibali amongst its winners, and it’s currently persuading for inclusion on the ProTour calendar, which should bump up its exposure considerably. This year the 193km race starts in Saronno to the south-east and heads south of Lake Varese before looping round into Varese itself from the north and finishing off with nine 13km laps round the town. Obviously the place to be is in the middle of town to watch the circus go round and round and because this isn’t the Tour de France and there’s a certain amount of Italian ‘liberismo‘ and a casual approach to crowd control. it’s easy to get to different parts of the course to watch the race unfold each lap, you can even ride on the course once the peloton and the race traffic have gone through, or at least that seems to be the way of things. Stop off somewhere for a bit of lunch in-between proceedings, good day out.

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With no computer of any kind on my bars and a neglected map back in my hotel room I’ve no idea how far I’ve ridden, or how far there is to go, it’s not really a problem, I’m used to just keeping pedaling until someone tells me to stop and hands me a beer, but I sneak glances at other people’s handlebar screens as I pass but my eyes aren’t so good. I ask someone on a climb and I think he says something like 96 kilometres, my Italian’s not so good. The road hairpins round to the right at the Madonnina dei Ciclisti, a small shrine to cyclists decorated with plaques and a chainset that close inspection reveals is a Dura Ace one. This must be some kind of heresy.

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This long weekend is based at the Hotel Capolago, which sits at the toe of Lake Varese and it’s bicycle friendly enough to let you take your bike into your room, and the breakfast spread is very cycling friendly indeed. It was also the hotel of choice for a few of the Pro teams competing in the race on the Tuesday. The Capolago is one of the Lago Maggiore Bike Hotels, a range of cyclist hospitable hotels all set up with bike storage space and workshops, some such as the Bike Hotel Belvedere in Ranco right on the shore of Lake Maggiore offer a full range of on and off road routes with GPS units to borrow and I ponder if this might offer the opportunity for some posh touring from bike hotel to bike hotel. There are positive nods. And there are loads of off-road tracks through the hills so you could do some non-epic bike-packing stopping off at a posh hotel each night with nice food? Of course. That’s something for next year penciled in then.

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I pass though Brinzio, the village with the large cycling mural we went through yesterday before dropping into Varese, and I start to realise that I’m running out of road too early, I haven’t paid too much attention to the route, figuring that as it’s a Gran Fondo the road will be closed and well signed, maybe the split between the medium and long routes will be in Varese and we’ll just do an extra loop from there. That makes sense. Swoop jubilantly into town, pay attention to the marshals directing us through junctions and across roundabouts, give a cyclist a helpful push as he fluffs his gears on a sudden short sharp incline after a right turn, turn left and all of a sudden I’m between tapes alongside the Velodrome and being directed under the finish arch. Oh. That’s not right.

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I mill about, disappointed and angry. I’ve ridden the short route by mistake, where did I miss the turn off to the long route? It turns out that I’m not the only one to make the error, everyone agrees that the route split was poorly signed, and some of our group went the short way before realizing their error and turning back round to the longer. Even the rider that was leading the race by three minutes, (because these Gran Fondo things really are a race at the sharp end, as well as a selection of lower rung Pros Vincenzo Nibali joined the race a kilometre or so from the start and treated it like a training ride before ducking out just before the finish) misses the split and goes on to beast the shorter distance instead. It helps a little to know I’m not the only idiot, I was probably stuck behind wheels and followed the herd. Struck down by sportive mentality. Damn. I cling on to the fact that the extra loop of the longer route takes in the same roads and hills as the middle section of the shorter route so I’ve not missed any roads that were absolutely amazing or fantastic views as a payback for choosing the bigger ride. Ho-hum. This is the first edition of the Varese Gran Fondo so there are a few lessons to learn, but still. Yeah. Disappointed.

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I’m a little bit angry with things, mostly myself, so I turn round and pedal back up the course the wrong way, big ring up the hill, in an attempt to replicate the same level of tiredness I might reach if I’d done the long ride. This confuses people. Up and down to Brinzio and back again, that should do it, it’s only another 20 kms but still. Fussake. By the time I turn round the roads are pretty empty of cyclists and I guess I’m with the dregs of the ride. Best go home. I hand in my post-ride meal ticket and get a really very good plate of food as you might expect in Italy, better than anything I’ve ever had after a British event, a cup of orange tea and salty bacon roll have their place, but… It’s an empty meal though.

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Turns out only a depressingly small fraction of the Tre Valli Varesine riders opted for the longer route, whether by accident or design, I’ll have to come back with friends to remedy that. As I stand in the harsh afternoon light of the car-park turned event stall area staring at my shoes I realise that while it’s had its wonderful moments I haven’t quite made my peace with the Italian Lakes just yet. Let’s call it an uneasy truce, especially since my bike has started creaking.

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The second edition of the Granfondo Tre Valli Varesine in on 1st October 2017

Thanks to Andrea Manusia, and Giovanna De Barba and Fabio Lamera from Lago Maggiore Bike Hotels

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.