Why the Muro di Sormano is the crown jewel of Il Lombardia
Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Dufill
We owe a lot of thanks to the late Vincenzo Torriani. An archetypically suave Italian businessman who preferred sharkskin suits and constantly had a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, Torriani was in every way the godfather of cycling in a country where sport is close to a religion. .
Single organizer of all races organized by log Gazzetta dello Sport from 1949 to 1989, he simply transformed the sport on the Italian coasts.
He took the Giro d’Italia to parts of the country he had only dreamed of reaching, for example Venice’s Piazza San Marco, while introducing climbs and crowning legends – who doesn’t worship the Passo di Gavia and the Passo dello Stelvio?
Torriani cobbled together the Milan-San Remo route, adding the now infamous Poggio in 1960 and the Cipressa in 1982, and in doing so created the route along the Ligurian coast that Italians are still crazy about today.
Yet for all of his inspired moves, it was another move made in 1960 that could be considered the boldest, if not borderline underhanded.
While on a family vacation in the Italian lakes, Torriani came across a donkey trail in the hills surrounding Lake Como. It wasn’t on the local maps and it was so steep he had a hard time even climbing it.
From the commune of Sormano, the track meandered for 1,700m to a viewing platform and, in doing so, averaged a vicious gradient of 17%. But as if that weren’t enough, this donkey trail climbed 27% and offered a nasty 200m denouement with an average of 20%.
In true Torriani form, the Muro di Sormano debuted at the next occasion, the Autumnal Monument Il Lombardia. His inclusion caused something akin to mutiny within the peloton.
‘I understand the [Madonna del] Ghisallo can no longer guarantee a selection, but frankly it’s going way too far in the opposite direction. This climb is simply bestial, impossible to climb.
These are the words of Ercole Baldini, the 1958 Giro champion who was crowned King of Sormano due to his dominance on the climb between 1960 and 1962.
The Sormano was so difficult that most either walked to its top or were pushed by fans, with Baldini later saying he was “ashamed to hold the record” for climbing the Sormano. Amid fears that runners would simply refuse to run Il Lombardia, the Sormano lasted just three editions.
To hell and back
Cycling suffers from selective amnesia, however, and by the early 2000s the malevolent nature of the Sormano had been all but forgotten. So, fans and commentators had started whispering about his return to the Race of the Falling Leaves.
The problem was that after nearly half a century of disuse, the road had fallen into disrepair.
This gave an idea to Chiara Toscani, a local architect from Milan. After resurfacing the road with pristine tarmac, Toscani and his team transformed the Sormano from bike path to art installation.
Along its surface were painted white circular rings to indicate nearby villages, climbing times from 1960s races, and quotes on Baldini and Gino Bartali’s Sormano. But in a more Machiavellian twist, the Sormano also displays your – slowly – increasing elevation.
The idea behind the setup would be for riders to take the time to stop and admire the work as they climb, but in truth the climb is never steep enough for you to stop without having to struggle to leave.
It works as a perilous subplot throughout Sormano’s ascent in general – as a rider you’ll constantly flirt with the risk of coming to a complete stop due to the snail’s pace the Sormano inflicts.
You can try to go faster, of course, or get out of the saddle, but as soon as you do that your rear wheel will spin and lose traction. Then, as soon as you sit down, you get a front row seat to watch your front wheel soar through the air. But the Sormano is not everything wrong.
This is a cycle path, remember that, so motorized traffic is prohibited and the surface is smooth. Riding it on a dry summer day is a pleasure. But in the fall, without bigger vehicles to clean it up, the leaves of the surrounding trees fall off and stick to the road and the moss can grow freely. The Wall turns into an ice rink.
Bring on the wall (again)
The antidote to Sormano’s sadistic madness is to adopt the kind of contorted position more commonly at home among the bells of Notre Dame – the bottom hovering just above the saddle, the arms and handlebars dragging the handlebars into the ground and a complete resignation to the fact that climbing the Sormano is like performing 15 minutes of non-stop single-leg squats while trying to block out the excruciating screams of lactic-soaked muscles.
But as we said, cycling has a strange penchant for amnesia, so despite all this and all common sense, the Muro di Sormano made his professional comeback in the 2012 edition of Il Lombardia, inserted in 84 km from the finish in Lecco on a suitable melancholy day.
A young neo-pro by the name of Romain Bardet led the summit, with cigar smoker Joaquim Rodríguez taking the overall victory. Rodríguez was the fastest rider on the climb that day alongside Colombian climber Sergio Henao. Their time for the ascent was 9 minutes 20 seconds, climbing at a physics-defying speed of 12.21 km/h.
Remarkably considering advances in bikes, nutrition, training and surfacing, the modern pair’s time was just four seconds faster than Baldini’s 50 years earlier, the same year he decided that the climb was too difficult to run any longer.
But that is the purpose of this ascent. The pros have never raced it and the amateurs have never ridden it, because all anyone can do is to survive the Wall of Sormano.