Last June I rode from Geneva to Milan with Ride25: four unforgettable and beautiful days of cycling through some of Europe’s finest scenery. The ride began in the lakeside city of Geneva and ended outside the Italian Gothic splendour of Milan cathedral – one of the grandest buildings I’ve ever seen.
The start was rocky, entirely because of my own failure to prepare properly. I arrived in Geneva with a useless wad of Euros (they use Francs apparently, who knew?), and my bike was rendered useless because I forgot the bit that attaches the handlebar to the stem! Smudge, Ride25’s chief mechanic, gave me a spare when I arrived which had the combined benefit of saving me forking out for a replacement, and meaning I’d have handlebars for the ride after all. Always handy!
A stroll around Geneva fuelled my anticipation, and various sights alluded to common themes on the ride: fountains to stop and cool off in, cafés and ice cream shops to get snacks from, blazing sunshine that would accompany us the whole way.
Our group, 12 cyclists from various walks of life, met in a public square at the agreed time. We were given our customised cycling jerseys and bike name tags (perfect for negating awkward introductions), then we exchanged introductions and traditional banter about chammy cream. The crew officially introduced themselves, then we hit the road:
Smudge: chief mechanic, bike fitter by trade
John: ex-triathlete, owner of a spinning dungeon
Emma: cycling enthusiast with a penchant for hilly sportives
Christina: professional celeb entertainer with a taste for innuendo
The morning's ride skirted Lake Geneva and took us briefly out of Switzerland into France. There were mountains on the horizon all morning, keeping the next day's rowdy elevation profile at the front of our minds (the first snowcapped peak later in the day served as another reminder).
The ride's camaraderie began early on with discussions on whether 'car forward' or 'car down' was the correct yell for an approaching vehicle (and vice versa 'car back' or 'car behind'). Jazz hands were also chosen as the symbol for hazard, rather than the usual index finger point I’m used to.
Around 30 miles in we had the first coffee stop: the orange Ride25 van and flags clearly marked the ever-popular snack stop where there were bananas, sweets, energising powers and espressos - everyone’s favourite cycling snacks.
The remainder of the day was lovely. Clear skies and warm sunshine and a long, gently inclined valley up to Sierre. We hit the final corner at about 6pm, the hotel was visible for the last half a mile or so. A strong motivator after a long day: nothing like the prospect of a beer, a shower and a three-course meal!
Another rocky start, again entirely my fault. I’d set my alarm for 7pm and was woken up by a phone call telling me all the other riders were dressed and ready to go. Christina bought me some food as I frantically got dressed, then I ate it way too fast and gave myself indigestion for the first few miles. A good reminder to double-check alarms, for sure.
We continued up the valley toward the Alps, facing gradually meatier elevations as the day progressed. Nothing like a good warm up for the impending Nufenen Pass! Lunch was in a café in a beautiful Swiss village with log buildings, pine trees and mountain views (incidentally the mountain we were about to cycle over, which was a strange feeling). A mixture of dread and anticipation permeated the group: some were raring to go, others (myself included) were a bit more hesitant. In reality, though the climb wasn’t that bad. 3600 feet in 8 miles (average gradient around 11.5%) is fine if you pace yourself properly, and the majestic views in every direction definitely improved morale. As did occasional stops to wash your face in icy and refreshing streams.
On the final corner - after 90 minutes of climbing - an older cyclist in a Swiss flag jersey appeared, saying “doing vell, uh!” as he cruised past at twice my speed. I wonder if he waits there, just out of sight, so he can sprint past all the tourists and leave a lingering image of Swiss excellence in their heads as they reach the peak. At the top, we stopped at the café just past the heavily decorated sign indicating the summit for a beer and to let the others catch up. When we’d regrouped we took hundreds of commemorative photos, then rolled 10 miles downhill to the hotel.
Our first-day cycling in Italy, and one that began with a 30 mile downhill section - what a treat! In this section, I hit my top speed of the trip - just shy of 45mph. Exhilarating stuff, barely having to touch your brakes for such a long time.
A pasta lunch followed by optional dips in the lake set the tone nicely for the Italian leg of the ride, although our energy lulled for the first time after this lunch as the distances and temperature drained people slightly. Nothing a gelato break a few miles later couldn't fix, though!
We were advised to keep passports handy in case of enthusiastic border guards, but we didn't have any issues. Presumably, sweaty cyclists aren't an appealing prospect for a pat-down!
On arrival in Como there was time for a quick beer at the hotel before dinner, although one round cleared the entire hotel's reserves! After a buffet dinner, though, this beer shortage was effectively remedied by dessert (i.e. several carafes of limoncello) Waking up on a snow-capped mountain and going to bed next to a balmy lake was a real treat.
The final day. The morning was spent skirting Lake Como, mingling with hundreds of other cyclists going in both directions and wondering which of the houses on the other side of the lake belonged to George Clooney.
We'd all been looking forward to seeing the Madonna del Ghisallo, the famous hill with a shrine at the top commemorating the patroness of cyclists. The shrine-cum-museum at the top is filled (literally) to the rafters with cycling memorabilia and iconic bikes, including those of Tour de France winners, Giro d’Italia winners, and Fabio Casartelli, who was killed while competing in the Tour.
A lakeside buffet lunch awaited us at the bottom of the hill, the perfect thing to raise everyone's spirits ahead of the final climb, just opposite the restaurant ("which b*stard put that there?", someone fittingly asked).
The final stretch into Milan was largely flat and followed a canal towpath which was filled (again, literally) with cyclists in both directions. This slowed the pace somewhat, aggravating certain riders' already chafed nether regions. Arrival in Milan was celebrated for more than one reason: the chance for a nice, non-invasive sit down as well as the usual elation at arriving to the sights, sounds and flavours of a new city.
All in all, a fantastic ride. Cycling in Europe is always a pleasure but doing so with a four-star hotel and a three-course meal waiting for you each evening is a completely different affair. Building friendships in such a short space of time is a nice touch, too.