Wednesday 20 October 2010

A cycling shrine

Santuario Madonna Del Ghisallo

After enduring a soaking as we raced around after the Tour of Lombardy on Saturday, we could take things a bit easier on Sunday. We enjoyed a stroll around the food market in Melegnano in the morning followed by a leisurely lunch with friends, including one who has just come back from Afghanistan, but that's another story!

Since we had plenty of time to get to Bergamo for our flight we decided to head back to Lake Como and try to visit Madonna Del Ghisallo. It's not often I'd go out of my way to see a church, but this is no ordinary church.

The Sanctuary of Madonna Del Ghisallo, located near the village of Magreglio, has been venerated as the site of a Marian apparition since medieval times. But more recently, in the 1940's, the local priest proposed that, since the hill up to it is one of the key points in the Tour of Lombardy, it would be appropriate for the Madonna Del Ghisallo to be declared the patron saint of cyclists. He managed to have this confirmed by Pope Pius XII ensuring that this little chapel would become a site of pilgrimage for cyclists the world over.

We drove up from the beautiful, if touristy, Bellagio, covering the route taken by the race the day before. I had always thought that this was a relatively small climb but I was wrong! Over 10km of switchbacks the road rises more than 550m. The average gradient of 5.2% belies the difficulty since it includes a downhill section. In fact, there are some ramps of well over 10%. To put it in perspective, this photo looking down on Bellagio was taken only about half way up.

Bellagio and Lake Como

On reaching the top the popularity of the Madonna Del Ghisallo as a destination for fans becomes clear. Near the church is a large car park flanked by not one, but two, cafés. The area around it is immaculately groomed and maintained.

Immediately in front of the church portico two busts stand side by side, representing those great rivals of mid 20th century Italian cycling, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

Bartali and Coppi welcome visitors.

But it's only when you walk inside the tiny chapel that the full extent of it's sacred place in the European, and especially Italian, cycling world hits you. It is literally crammed with memorabilia that any collector would give away their first born for. What gives this collection it's real significance are the facts that it hasn't been gathered out of vanity nor has any money changed hands to assemble it. It's not really a "collection" at all, but rather it's a mix of devotional offerings made in memory of the greats or in thanksgiving for achievements the rider felt were guided by something higher than training and diet (but not illegal!).

Bikes, pennants, jerseys and plaques line the walls

There are bikes, jerseys, pennants and plaques commemorating cyclists of all ages, from legends of the sport to unheralded amateurs, some of whom are buried in the cemetery across the road.

Of course, a lot of the items belonged to Italian riders but not all. There are Tour Yellow Jerseys (including those of Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault), multiple Rainbow Jerseys (including Evans, Bugno, Cippolini, Saronni, Binda, Ballan and Cantele) and multiple Giro Pink Jerseys (Pantani, Motta, Moser).

One wall of jerseys won by Hinault, Indurain, Saronni, Bugno, Binda,
Ballan, Cantele, Canins and many, many more.

Bikes on display include those of Coppi, Motta, Moser, Gimondi and Merckx.

Gimondi and Moser's bikes.
Coppis bike and Tour Maillot Jaune
Motta's bike

Perhaps most poignant of all the items on display are the memorials to young riders cut off in their prime. South African, Ryan Cox is commemorated by a framed Barloworld jersey but it is the battered bike from which Olympic Champion Fabio Casertelli fell during the Tour De France that stops you in your tracks. That tragic event on the Porte D'Aspet in the Pyrenees hit Italian cycling hard. That his bike is given pride of place, next to those of Merckx and Coppi, shows the depth of feeling it still engenders.

Fabio Casertelli's damaged bikes reminds us all of the dangers of the sport.

Over the years so many artefacts have been donated to the church that it became impossible to display them all in it's tiny chapel. So, in 2006, a full blown cycling museum was opened next door. Walking from the church to the museum you pass a small garden area overlooking the stunning Lake Como below. The garden contains a plaque dedicated to the memory of Vincenzo Torriani, long time director of the Giro D'Italia and a magnificent sculpture encapsulating the two sides of this fantastic sport. It depicts two riders, one with an arm raised in triumph while the other picks himself off the ground in disappointment.

Agony and ecstasy

We arrived at the museum just as it was closing to visitors but a bit of "but we came all the way from Ireland" shameless pleading got us in, and for nothing as well! And boy, was it worth the journey!

For all of the poignancy of the church, the museum is something else entirely. The building has a low profile, sweeping design which blends into the hillside but is surprisingly cavernous inside. One end is a full curtain of glass which I'm sure reveals a magnificent view over Lake Como, if the clouds aren't down on top of it like they were on Sunday.

But it's the contents that are the star. As you walk down the switchback ramp to the sunken ground floor, you pass one amazing black and white snapshot of Italy's cycling history after another. Coppi features a lot but overall the photos show the sport as an integral part of the social fabric of the country.

Once on the ground floor you can wander at will through rows of bikes of all ages and by cases of historic jerseys. As you'd expect there's a lot of pink, quite a few rainbows, some yellow plus Olympic rings, blue Italian jerseys and red, white and green national championship colours all labelled with instantly recognisable names of great champions.

Giro Winners jerseys. From right: Ivan Gotti (1999), Ivan Basso (2010)
and Denis Menchov (2009)
World Cup and World Champions Jerseys won by Paulo Bettini
Marco Pantani's 1998 Tour De France winners jersey
Matt Lloyds 2010 Giro KOM Jersey 

It's especially nice when a jersey or bike throws up a personal memory. For me seeing Guiseppi Saronni's red Worlds winning Colnago brought me right back to my first experience of the race at Goodwood in 1982. The fact it was just beside Cadel Evans Rainbow Jersey, my last time at the race, added a little more significance. The 1960 Olympic winners jersey was a reminder of my Dads involvement in that event.

Red Colnago ridden to victory by Saronni, World Champs, Goodwood, 1982 
World Champions stripes. From right: Lance Armstrong (1993), Cadel Evans (2009),
Luc Leblanc (1994)
Olympic Team Pursuit Champions Jersey won by
Marino Vigna (ITA), Rome, 1960

Every old cyclist loves to stress how bikes were harder to ride in their day, how they had no gears, or bigger tyres, or heavier frames, etc, etc... But when you see some of those bikes up close it's pretty clear they aren't kidding. I was especially amazed to see Bartali's 1948 Tour De France winning bike. I had heard about pre derailleur bikes, where changing gears involved taking out the back wheel and turning it around, but I'd never seen one before. Incidentally, the story goes that Bartali inadvertently stopped a possible civil war in Italy by winning that Tour, when opposing factions came together to celebrate his victory.

1948 Tour winning bike of Gino Bartali. Check out the two sided rear wheel.
My Dad was there to see Ercole Baldini win the 1958 Worlds on this bike.

One section of the museum is dedicated to greats of the sport throughout the years, including a feature honouring the top 48 riders of all time. Needless to say Sean Kelly is in there with the best. It's hard not to feel a sense of pride that one of our own is so obviously highly respected in such a cycling mad country as Italy. Even if he is described as "Inglese" under nationality.

Kelly takes his place among the greats.
Kelly's nook in the 48 Greatest of All Time section

Where's he from?

Of course, after reading about Kelly we went looking for the section about Stephen Roche. Amazingly there isn't one! Now he may not be one of the top 48 but surely winning the triple in 1987 must qualify him for a place on the bigger "Great Encyclopedia of Cycling"? Or have the Italians not forgiven him for beating Visentini?

Where's Roche?

Everywhere you turn, you're looking at what can only be described as the holy relics of cycling. Coppi's track bike, Merckx's bike and jersey collection, a display case of jerseys belonging to Museum Director Fiorenzi Magni, Moser's groundbreaking Hour Record bike. You name it and it's there somewhere.

Il Campionissimo's Track Bike
And the man himself.
The greatest of them all rode a very ordinary looking bike....
... but won pretty much everything there is on it.
Magni, an Italian legend and Director of the Museum
The bike that broke the Hour twice in a few days 1984, helped by some then
still legal blood doping.

My only regret of the day is we hadn't anywhere near enough time to see everything on display. We had no time to really enjoy the movies showing in the cinema, we missed the technical exhibit, the collection of track bikes, the historic newspaper covers or the special exhibit commemorating Franco Ballerini, tragically killed earlier in the year.

The Sanctuary of Madonna Del Ghisallo, and the accompanying Museum, are rightly a mecca for cycling fans. If there was to be a list of cycling related things to do before you die visiting here would have to feature at or near the top. The only way to top this visit would be to ride up the climb first. Maybe next time!

Museum website:

PS: Some of the images adorning the walls of the museum:

PPS: How to get there from Dublin:

We flew Ryanair to Bergamo (or Milan as they call it!) and then rented a car from Europcar. Madonna Del Ghisallo is approx 65km from Bergamo airport.

Alternatively you could fly to Milan Malpensa (85km away) or Milan Linate (67km).

By public transport you could catch a train to Asso from Milano Cadorno station and take a bus from there.

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