Church of Madonna del Ghisallo a shrine to cyclists
Chapels sits atop famous climb from Lake Como
Giro d'Italia runs from May 5 to May 28
If you’re an art lover you’ve probably paid your dues at places like the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim in New York, or Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum.
However, if you’re a cycling fan you’ve got your work cut out to reach a shrine that commemorates the sport’s history and pays tribute to its fallen riders.
Rather than religious icons, every inch of wall space of the tiny church of Madonna del Ghisallo above Lake Como is covered in two-wheel memorabilia from the biggest races and the greatest riders.
The church is festooned with pre-and post-war cycles, and bikes from legends such as five-time Giro d’Italia champions Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx, plus other former winners Gianni Motta and Francesco Moser, as well as myriad pictures, club pennants and cycling jerseys.
“It looks a bit like an old bike shop,” says UK-based Italian Livio Nannetti, who leads cycle tours for the sporting brand Rapha.
“The walls are covered, there are bikes everywhere where normally you get saints and statues.”
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The ancient tale recounts that the medieval Count of Ghisallo was saved from bandits by the sight of the Virgin Mary, to whom he offered prayers for his safety in a roadside shrine.
The Madonna del Ghisallo became known as the patroness of travelers. Later, cyclists adopted the Madonna, and in 1949, Pope Pious XII gave her the title of Patron Saint of Cycling.
And in the center of the tiny chapel an eternal flame burns in memory of all those cyclists of yesteryear.
Perhaps the most poignant exhibit is the mangled frame of the bike Como local Fabio Casartelli was riding when he crashed and died on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet during the 1995 Tour de France.
Understandably it’s an exhibit Nannetti preferred not to linger over.
“It’s sad. But as a racer I’ve learned not to stop and think too much about that because otherwise you will stop,” he says.
“You know that can happen but you always hope it’s not going to be you.”
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The chapel sits at the 754-meter high summit of the Passo del Ghisallo, a 10-kilometer climb from the lakeside village of Bellagio.
It is a famous climb used every year in the Tour of Lombardy and sometimes in the Giro d’Italia itself.
“It’s one of those must-do things if you’re a cyclist,” adds Nannetti, who describes the thrill of “suffering” through the climb and then enjoying the “peace” and “cool” of the church.
“What I liked most was the feeling I got walking into this chapel,” he adds. “It was peaceful, quiet, no noise and there was the smiley face of the caretaker.
“Also, you can walk in with cycling gear, which you don’t normally do in church. Inside you think about all the people riding those bikes, big names from Coppi to the latest champions.
“On top of that you see some very beautiful bikes. You can see how things have changed. They still have two wheels and a frame and a chain but things have changed quite a lot in materials and weight and shapes and sizes.”
The collection became so big a bespoke modern museum – the Museo del Ciclismo – was built next door in 2006 to house yet more artefacts including an impressive collection of Giro d’Italia winners’ pink jerseys, with three-time Giro champion Fiorenzo Magni as the driving force.
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Bikes shrines in France and Spain
Italy doesn’t have a monopoly on bike shrines.
The chapel of Notre-Dame des Cyclistes in Labastide-d’Armagnac in south-west France is another sanctum of cycling.
It was given the seal of approval by Pope John XXIII in 1959 and houses a collection of bikes and jerseys from greats such as Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Tom Simpson and Merckx.
The Tour de France has passed the chapel four times – in 1984, 1989, 1995 and 2000.
Spain has its equivalent, too – the Nuestra Señora de Dorleta in the town of Leintz Gatzaga in the Basque Country.
2017 Giro d’Italia
The Ghisallo climb is not a feature of this year’s 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia, which started in Alghero, Sardinia on May 5.
With three stages in Sardinia before two in Sicily – including a finish near the top of Mt Etna – the race then heads to the Italian mainland, before finishing with a time trial on May 28 in Milan, which hosted the start and finish of the first ever Giro in 1909.
The route includes six mountain top finishes and three major mountain stages including a grueling 227 kilometer slog from Rovetta to Bormio over the Passo del Mortirolo, Passo dello Stelvio and Umbrail Pass.
The defending champion is Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, who has switched to the newly formed Bahrain-Merida team from Astana for whom he won his second Giro d’Italia three years after his first last year.
The Giro d’Italia has seen 69 Italian victories from 41 different riders in its previous 99 editions.
But Colombia’s Nairo Quintana, riding for Movistar, will be looking to add a second victory to his 2014 triumph.
Three-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, a two-time winner and twice Giro champion, are absentees as they prepare for cycling’s blue riband in France in July.
This year’s Giro will be tinged with sadness after the death of Michele Scarponi, 37, who was set to lead Astana in the race.
Scarponi was a former winner, awarded victory in the 2011 Giro d’Italia after Contador’s results were wiped following positive tests for drugs during 2010 Tour de France.