La Madonna del Ghisallo The Patroness Saint of Cycling Italia spaccata in due
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La Madonna del Ghisallo
Legend has it that in medieval times, a local count was being attacked by bandits when he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and running towards this vision saved him. After this the Madonna del Ghisallo became the patroness of travellers. Then, in 1949 a local priest managed to persuade Pope Pius XII to admit her as the patroness of cyclists. Since then, the small chapel has become a shrine to cycling legends, both living and deceased, and provides a memorial to those who have fallen in our sport.
The Patroness Saint of Cycling
POPE PIUS XII
There are many places in the world that boast to be the spiritual home of cycling: the twenty-one hairpins of Alpe dâ€™Huez, the Arenberg Forest, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen among them. Nothing though, really can claim the spiritual tag like the small chapel that sits at the top of Madonna del Ghisallo.
La Madonna del Ghisallo
Being an almost permanent fixture on the percorso of the Giro di Lombardia, as well as featuring regularly in the course of the Giro d’Italia, has kept the chapel in the forefront of the cycling world over the years and a collection of cycling memorabilia that would be the envy of any museum has accumulated inside. The walls of the tiny chapel are almost covered in pennants of cycling clubs from all over the world, jerseys from champions of the recent and distant past, and most prominently, a selection of bikes that have made history.
Probably the most famous artifact in the collection is the crumpled bike of 1992 Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli. The one that he was riding when he crashed on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet during the 1995 Tour de France. Casartelli was from nearby Como, and his death is still mourned greatly, the bent forks of his bike tell the story of his tragic end. On prominent display to one side of the room is a picture of Marco Pantani. There are none of his bikes or jerseys on display, simply this framed photo of him taking a stage victory on the way to victory in the 1998 Giro d’Italia.
The Patroness Saint of Cycling
As with most things in Italian cycling, by far the most homage is paid to Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. A number of bikes belonging to them are displayed, in un-restored state, in a central glass cabinet, as well as jerseys worn by both riders. There are also busts and a number of pictures of the two men whose exploits on the road divided Italy.
An entire wall of the chapel is covered in small mounted pictures: the faces of, mostly unknown riders, who have died before their time. Most of these obviously date from many years ago, but some are quite recent. In the centre of the chapel, an internal flame (which is actually an electric light) burns for all of us on two wheels. Whatever your religious persuasion, or lack of it, itâ€™s impossible to not feel a great sense of awe when surrounded by all of this history and reverence to the champions of our sport.
Whatever your religious persuasion, or lack of it, itâ€™s impossible to not feel a great sense of awe.
THE RIVALRY THAT SPLIT ITALY IN TWO
Angelo Fausto Coppi was the dominant international cyclist of the years each side of the Second World War. His successes earned him the title Il Campionissimo, the champion of champions. He was an all-round racing cyclist: he excelled in both climbing and time trialling, and was also a great sprinter. He won the Giro d’Italia five times, the Tour de France twice, and the World Championship in 1953. Other notable results include winning the Giro di Lombardia five times, the Milan – San Remo three times, as well as wins at Paris–Roubaix and La Flèche Wallonne and setting the hour record in 1942.
“Bartali belongs to those who believe in tradition... He is a metaphysical man protected by the saints. Coppi has nobody in heaven to take care of him. His manager, his masseur, have no wings. He is alone, alone on a bicycle... Bartali prays while he is pedaling: the rational Cartesian and skeptical Coppi is filled with doubts, believes only in his body, his motor.” Curzio Malaparte Italian Journalist 1898 – 1957
Gino Bartali was born in Florence, Italy, 18 July 1914. He was a champion road cyclist and the most renowned Italian cyclist before the Second World War, having won the Giro dâ€™Italia three times and the Tour de France twice, in 1938 and 1948. His second and last Tour de France victory in 1948 gave him the largest gap between victories in the race.
He was a famous elite athlete, but he also had this other side to him. He was a chain smoker while he cycled. He was happy to drink chianti with friends at night and then get up in the morning and race. He was this cycling hero, yet nobody in Italy really knew the full story of what had gone on during the war for him. There was this full other side to his identity that people didnâ€™t know.
The most famous rivalry was perhaps between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, arguably the greatest feud in cycling history. Gino Bartali was the undisputed champion of Italian cycling until Fausto came along. Italy took sides between the religious, rural Gino and the self-professed atheist from Italian north, Fausto. Even the Vatican took sides: Pope Pius XII naturally supported religious Gino Bartali and refused to bless one race because Coppi was riding in it. Their personal rivalry was more acidic. In an era when performance-enhancing drugs were not yet forbidden. Doping infuriated his older rival, who would often keep spies, ransack Coppiâ€™s room or picked up Coppiâ€™s bottles to figure out what special drug Coppi was using.
What does it take to become a great champion?
“RIDE YOUR BIKE,
RIDE YOUR BIKE,
RIDE YOUR BIKE!”
— Fausto Coppi
“Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”
— Gino Bartali
â€œIn Italy the rivalry of Coppi and Bartali is a religion, your heart is either with one or the other.â€?
Italia – spaccata in due Italy – split in two