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In October of 2019, I rode my first e-mountain bike in the Lake Como area of Italy. Based in Milan for the two days, I spent one day exploring the unique city and chose to spend the second day cycling around Lake Como. Having studied abroad in Italy in college, I had always wanted to go to the Lake Como area. I had heard how beautiful the lake was and heard that George Clooney had a house there, so it must really be nice. I had to see it for myself (and maybe run into Mr. Clooney at a café). I thought about staying overnight there but after discovering that the direct train from Milan only took 33 minutes, that sounded like the easiest option. I took an early morning train from Milano Centrale station to Como San Giovanni station. I had a half an hour before I had to meet my guide at a local bike shop, so I explored the town a bit as shopkeepers opened up for the day. This was a wonderful time to walk around, as many of the tourists hadn’t emerged for their day of sightseeing yet.
I met my guide, Max, at 10 AM at the Run and Bike Shop, which was located within walking distance from the train station (a 10-15 minute walk). I got set up with my rental e-mountain bike from Orbea. I inspected the heavy bike, as I had never ridden an e-MTB before. Before the trip, I had waffled between riding a regular mountain bike or an e-bike because I still wanted a decent challenge. The distance and elevation of the ride helped me make my decision to go with the e-bike. At first, I felt like it was a bit of a cop-out, but no more than 10 minutes into the ride, I was sure I made the right decision.
I decided on the Dorsale del Triangolo Lariano route after doing a bunch of online research. I wanted a pretty long ride that was equally scenic and the right amount of challenge. I was sold on the ride that was billed as “one of the most panoramic itineraries in Lake Como” in the website description. At first, it was somewhat difficult to gauge how challenging the ride would be based on the physical level of 4/5 and the technical level of 4/5. That seemed hard but is that for a person who doesn’t really bike much or for someone who cycles more regularly? I was a little nervous if I could handle it and I surely didn’t want to hold back a group (if there was one) or be stressed about finishing before sun down. At some point after my trip, the rating on the website was updated to add “VERY HARD” as the ride type. On a regular mountain bike, I would absolutely agree with this rating. There was a ton of climbing, often some extremely steep sections. On an e-mountain bike, this trip was much more do-able (and enjoyable) for a solid intermediate rider.
The ride started with a flat, 5-minute cycle through town, along the waterfront, to the base of a funicular that takes you up the mountain. I didn’t turn on the e-assist for this. We got our tickets and waited in line for the funicular. It was a gorgeous Saturday so it was pretty crowded with other tourists and we had to stand our bikes upright to fit in. Maneuvering a heavy e-bike in a small space can be a challenge in itself. My guide was on a super light, carbon bike so we traded bikes for the funicular ascent. From there, it was a 10-15 minute climb up a steep switchback road. I was immediately glad that I was on the e-bike, as that climb alone would have spent a lot of my energy (and taken a lot longer than 15 minutes). After that, we got to a peak and had some gorgeous views atop these rolling grass hills. A great way to start the ride.
I found out my guide was a professional mountain bike racer, which explains his insane level of fitness and the fact that I needed the e-bike to even keep up with him. There was one section that had a challenging rocky single track downhill, which I had to walk a portion of. The rocks were quite large and scattered haphazardly in the tight dirt single track path. I felt like a pinball trying to navigate through it. After that, we entered a wooded portion which was like the single track I am familiar with in Vermont. Eventually, after some thrilling descents and a lot more climbing, we got to the top of the Mount San Primo ridge (1,682 meters), where we had panoramic views of the Lecco, Northern, and Como branch of the lake.
It was indeed breathtaking and there were a number of hikers sharing the view with us. I was glad I was on a bike and not hiking, as it felt like it took us forever to get there. The idea of hiking down seemed exhausting. Biking down, however, was the true highlight of the ride. The heavy e-bike felt like I was riding a downhill bike on the descent. It was big and stable and surprisingly easy to get off the ground on the water bars and little rock features. I had a smile from ear to ear on this descent. We stopped to greet the horses and donkeys we encountered on the path. We stopped for a snack in a little café towards the bottom. I had a piece of cake and a salad (yes, I had the cake first). We had more riding to do, but mostly downhill at this point. We were already almost 5 hours in. The rest of the ride was down a steep “road” that was essentially two strips of cement the width of a car tire. The last stretch was a paved car road that went along the lake, passing some lovely villas. Maybe this is where I would see Mr. Clooney sunning himself on his patio? In total, we climbed 1,682 meters (5,518 feet), total distance was 58.5 km (36.4 miles), during our 5 hours and 34 minute ride at an average pace of 10.5 km/hour (6.5 miles/hour).
If I didn’t have the e-mountain bike, I honestly don’t know if I would have been able to complete the ride. I’m a decent rider who’s been cycling for a number of years, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the amount of steep climbing that this route offered. Sure, I had done plenty of climbing in Vermont all season before this trip, but riding in a mountainous region in Italy was nothing like cycling in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Takeaway: I was 100% glad I chose the e-mountain bike as it allowed me to really enjoy the ride, the scenery, stop and take pictures, keep up with the guide, and have a great time. Without the e-bike, I would have been absolutely dying and not having as much fun on my “vacation.” I followed the guide’s recommended battery level suggestions, only having the amount of assist turned up to the lowest amount, so I could ensure I would have enough battery for the full length of the ride. I had to go into the second mode for a few of the ridiculously steep climbs, though. At the very end of the ride, when we were coming back on the paved car road, my battery finally died. The once lively bike now felt like I was riding a lead elephant. It was very heavy to pedal without the e-assist. Luckily, we didn’t have much further to go and it was all paved with a lot of downhill, so I made it back into town without too much issue. When my battery died, I felt like a superhero who had their powers stripped away. There is some controversy about e-bikes, whether they are “pure” mountain biking, harmful to the trails, or should even be allowed at all. My feeling is that whatever gets you out there should be welcome. I had a blast on the e-bike and would consider it again for the same type of ride. I’m still going to ride my regular mountain bike at home, but for a ride like this where my main purpose is to get outside, see some gorgeous scenery, climb to the top of the highest mountain on Lake Como, explore lots of terrain, all by bike, then the e-bike is the right choice for me. You are free to choose what is right for you.
Have you ridden an e-mountain bike or biked the mountains of Italy? If so, we’d love to hear your story! You can learn more about this tour at Como Bike Tours.