Day-tripping Il Lombardia: Can we get to Bergamo and back in 24 hours?

From dingy UK transport hubs to the Roman majesty of Lombardy, and back again – GCN writers embark on a fast-track, budget-friendly adventure to taste the electrifying atmosphere of cycling's final Monument

Clock10:11, Wednesday 11th October 2023
Composite image of shots from our writer on his adventure to Il Lombardia


Shots from our writer on his adventure to Il Lombardia

Il Lombardia is said to be one of the most demanding yet beautiful races on the cycling calendar. Whether it culminates in Como or Bergamo, the scene is typically a sight to behold as riders push themselves to their limits against a backdrop of autumnal trees and ancient towns. But could we push ourselves to our limits, against a backdrop of bus station foyers and airport pubs?

As the crow flies, Il Lombardia is the furthest Monument away from the UK. The likes of Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen are within touching distance of the English Channel and a day trip by car is certainly possible. But to Lombardy, in northern Italy, surely it would be too much to tackle in one day? Casting any sense and reason aside, we decided to put it to the test.

The mission objective was to get to Il Lombardia and back in the space of 24 hours whilst soaking up not just the race, but also the food and the culture that Lombardy has to offer.

Joining me on this trip would be George Poole, GCN’s race writer and, more importantly, the equivalent of a 'road captain' when it comes to weekend trips to the Monuments, at least compared to myself, a 'neo pro' at visiting races in the flesh.

A conversation with George had actually planted the idea into my head originally. He explained how he’d seen a Facebook post in the build-up to the 2021 edition of Il Lombardia explaining how cheap it is to visit the Race of the Falling Leaves in just a weekend. So, when I heard that Bergamo would host the finish for this year’s edition, that conversation sprung back into my mind.

“Why don’t we do it?” I messaged him.

The response was brief but clear: "Let's go."

Broken sleep and airport breakfasts

With coach and flight tickets totalling just £65 in our pockets, it was time to set off.

I found George outside Bristol bus station just before 9pm on Friday night. Packing light is a must for this kind of trip and he had got this down to a tee, with just a bum bag and a flag in honour of The Cycling Podcast’s late Richard Moore.

Our destination, before we could even think about Bergamo, was London Stansted airport, and before that London Victoria coach station. For a trip based predominantly on an ancient walled city of picture-postcard houses and elegant Roman architecture, an overnight tour of some of the UK’s not-so-glamorous transport hubs felt rather off-brand.

After a limited amount of sleep and a spontaneous and alternative tour of London’s landmarks by our coach driver - “Elton John bought his first dress there, don’t you know?” - we arrived in London Victoria as Friday night became Saturday morning. A drink at a nearby pub was short-lived as the last orders bell rang moments after our first sips. Back to the pits of London’s main bus station we trudged.

Another coach, this time to Stansted, brought more broken sleep but without the charismatic driver. Feeling slightly delirious as we trundled through security and the clock passed 3am, a cooked breakfast seemed to be the only answer - even if, to our disappointment, the seating with a runway view was cordoned off.

George's dad and uncle joined us at the airport. The travelling party was complete, Italy awaited.

By 8:30am, we touched down in Bergamo, Lombardy’s fourth largest city and one steeped in history, from its funicular railway to its ancient fortress.

Conveniently, Bergamo’s airport is just a 15-minute bus ride from the modern centre of the city, where we found race organisers busy setting up advertising hoardings along the finish straight.

Bergamo is red, white and blue

It was no secret that this edition of Il Lombardia, the 118th to run, wouldn’t be a normal run-of-the-mill year for the final Monument of the season. For traditionalists, at least, the Race of the Falling Leaves brings down the curtain on the road season, but this year it would also be the final curtain call for one of the peloton's most popular riders: Thibaut Pinot.

The softly spoken 33-year-old from the Vosges region of France had created such a legacy over his career - thanks to his mortal and vulnerable approach to bike racing - that hundreds of fans had made the pilgrimage to say one final merci et au revoir.

With this in mind, the atmosphere around Bergamo was already slowly bubbling up by 10am. We spent the next two hours mingling with fans as they wandered through the narrow streets of Bergamo’s old town - waking up locals with their drums, chanting and the occasional firecracker.

The Città Alta, surrounded by Venetian walls from the 16th century, is characterised by its narrow cobblestone alleyways, humming piazzas and a plethora of cafes to have as many cappuccinos as you deem necessary - all before 11am, of course. As lunchtime came around, the Piazza Vecchia, once a political hub in Bergamo’s long history, proved to be the perfect place for us to have lunch.

It was also here that our colleagues from GCN en Francais, GCN auf Deutsch and GCN Italia would join the party. Shopping bags brimmed with bottles of a well-known Italian beer were a welcome sight. The suggestion of some pre-race pizza was even more well-received.

After washing what can only be assumed was a standard Lombard lunch down with an espresso, La Boccola was calling.

Despite there still being more than two hours until the race would reach its final climb, locals had already begun claiming their spots along the narrow street that seemed to continuously pitch up in elevation the further and further up you ventured.

As the riders would find in the race itself, there are few places to hide on La Boccola.

A bone-rattling section of cobblestones at the foot of the climb would serve as an aperitivo before they’d be greeted by a wall of noise as they turned onto the road itself - made even more deafening by the presence of Thibaut Pinot’s band of supporters encamped on the bend.

Pressed hard against the fortress wall to its left and separated from the steep hillside below by a small stonewall to the right, it is a picture-perfect setting for one final test after over 230km of racing.

Living la dolce vita

Keen to escape the melée of emotional French fans, twitchy Italian police officers and picnicking locals for just a moment, we found refuge halfway up La Boccola. A steep staircase cut through the fortress wall and led up to the garden of a community centre owned by the neighbouring church.

Red wine, cold beer and a selection of panini were the order of the day. The view from the garden was arguably its best selling point, though. Stepping back from the furore and anticipation building on the climb, we witnessed the backdrop of the Parco dei Colli di Bergamo and, more poignantly, the first signs of falling leaves.

With Tadej Pogačar launching what would ultimately be his race-winning attack on the Passo di Ganda, we took it as our cue to find a spot along the climb. Whilst many fans swarmed to the ‘Curva Pinot’, we placed ourselves at the crest of the climb.

It created an extra level of tension as the riders stormed under a stone arch from bygone days, with just the noise of passionate Italian locals, the taca-taca of helicopters and the blaring sirens of police motorbikes to tell us when they’d be coming into view. The grimaces on even some of the best climbers in the peloton told me all I needed to know about how severe the climb, and the 230km prior to it, had been.

As the broom wagon and a varied array of riders, clearly not tackling the final Monument of the year, began to pass us, we set off back towards the city centre below. A detour via the Porta San Giacomo, another marbled entrance to the Città Alta, was well worth it. The finishing straight below us, which looked like a hive of activity swarming with teary-eyed Thibaut Pinot fans and autograph hunters alike, gave way to the sprawling countryside in the distance.

A stop off at Bergamo’s go-to bike shop and cafe, BikeFellas followed. The place was awash with memorabilia, classic bikes and most importantly, craft beer. Before long though, the airport called once more.

With energy levels waning, a delayed flight was only washed down by the pleasant discovery that Italian McDonald's sold bottles of beer - another perk to Bergamo, I suppose. Eventually boarding at just after 11pm, my eyes reopened as we came into land in Bristol, just 27 hours after we’d left.

You can visit Lombardy in a day, but should you?

So, can you go and watch Il Lombardia in the space of 24 hours? Whilst we didn't quite make the time cut, I'd argue yes. Without the need for a coach journey from Bristol to London for the outbound flight, we'd have been back home in the UK on the same day that we left.

Perhaps the real question, though, is whether you should make the trip to Lombardy for just one day? That answer lies in the type of traveller and fan you are.

If you’re willing to overcome sleep deprivation on a diet of espresso, pizza and Italian beer, for that sheer buzz of the race imminently approaching, then it’s a no-brainer. A word of warning, though: have a lie in the day before, bring an eye mask for that early morning flight, and comfortable shoes will be a godsend on Bergamo's steep cobbled streets. Oh, and avoid airport parking at all costs!

However, if you prefer a more refined trip to the last Monument of the year, this approach might not be the one for you. Spending the nights travelling and the day touristing is tough, especially when in Bergamo - a city essentially built on a hillside.

What's more, a weekend trip would allow for Bergamo's historic attractions to be taken in for all their worth - something we were unable to do on our whistle-stop tour.

Needless to say, though, tackling Il Lombardia as a one-day, 27-hour adventure almost resembles the essence of the race itself - a demanding and tiring pilgrimage to one of cycling’s most iconic destinations, fraught with testing gradients and breathtaking scenery throughout.

The struggle is just what makes it even more sweet.

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