I’m sure *ahem* that someone, somewhere, will have been fervently checking this page desperate for new entries, crying themselves to sleep wondering when I would get something up. Hmm. Anyway, having had my first week off the bike in a month or so, I thought it would be a nice idea to pop over to Italy and enjoy some cycling history. Well, I say that, but it was also about gathering lots of juicy primary sources and information for my dissertation, but still, work in what you love and all that.
So my flying visit to Milan and Lake Como came off the back of yet another dissertation based trip to Normandy, and was based around three key sites: The Duomo in Milan, the Madonna del Ghisallo and its accompanying cycling museum. I’ll talk about the Museum tomorrow, so today it’s ‘just’ the Ghisallo.
The Madonna del Ghisallo is a church on a hill of the same name in the crotch, as such of the inverted Y of Lake Como, on Lombardia, Italy. Legends differ on the exact details, but the church originated through the actions of an 11th Century count, Ghisallo, was traveling the road when he was attacked, as you are, by bandits. The Count cried out for help from the Virgin Mary, who in turn appeared by the side of the road (or in a pre-existing shrine built as a sanctuary for local travelers, depending on the version) and the bandits were so terrified they fled. Naturally, the Count was desperate to raise awareness of this miracle and so raised the money to build a small church on the site. The Church was named Madonna del Ghisallo after the vision, and the Madonna became the patroness for local travelers on the route.
However, the bicycle made its impact in Italy, and with recreational cyclists touring the route, the idea of the Madonna protecting local travellers gradually transformed into Her protecting travelling cyclists looking for protection from crashes and injury.
This was finally confirmed in 1949 by Pope Pious XII, who claimed he was convinced by a local priest as well as the riders on that years Giro d’Italia to make the Madonna the ‘patron saint of cycling.’ Pious then created a torch relay featuring esteemed names such as Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi to carry ‘the eternal flame of the Ghisallo’ to the church from Rome (although it now appears to be electric, unless I missed something [likely])
The Church houses an inscription ‘ And God created the Bicycle, so that man could use it as a means for work and to help him negotiate life’s complicated journey’, as well as jersey’s and memorabilia donated by professional cyclists as an offering to secure the Madonna’s protection. Indeed, it became so absolutely packed with such items that it had to open an overflow museum to store and display other specimens.
The Climb to the church is most regularly seen in the Tour of Lombardy, where it now mostly ceremonial rather than the launch pad for victory Fausto Coppi used it as. The climb itself is deceptively hard – whilst the official gradient is ‘only’ 5.2%, this is mainly because of a short downhill section in the middle of the course that belays the fearsome nature of the road either side of it: the opening set of hairpins are around 9-10% with sections of 16%, and this is repeated towards the end of the 552m of ascent made after the flat section.
If you want to visit, their are in effect three roads: one from Bellagio, one from Asso and one from near Lecco. I thoroughly recommend the Asso one for ease: it’s a wider, more gentle road for driving, unlike the rode to Bellagio, which is ridiculous, narrowing on corners etc. Of course, if you’re going by bike, then you simply have to go by the way from Bellagio, as this is the ‘proper climb.’
The Ghisallo is a ‘Living monument to the memory, the popularity, the beauty and physical effort of bike riding in Italy.’ Riders get married there (somehow, given the tight squeeze) and the ‘Symbolises the sports continuing hold over the popular imagination and intimate relationship with landscape and history.’ It’s a beautiful place when the weather is fine, so give it a go.