Travel: Madonna del Ghisallo Church
The signature climb of the Giro di Lombardia summits at the famous Madonna del Ghisallo church, high above Lake Como in Northern Italy. This tiny ‘chiesa’ is home to the Patron Saint of Cyclists, and is a must see on any trip to the region…
Regular PEZ-Fans will know this is one of my fave spots to ride. I first saw it in 1994 when following the Giro, and have been back several times since. Every time it’s more amazing than the last, as much for the huge collection of historic cycling memorabilia on display, as for the heavenly location of the church. Located about 50km north of Milan, it’s pretty easy to get to as a day ride or if you’re staying on Lake Como (I recommend the IlPerlo Panaorama).
The church – really no bigger than a small house, is situated on a climb about 554 meters above Lake Como, (754m above sea level), and can be reached by ascending from both the north and the south. The ascent from the north is the most spectacular and steep – hitting grades of 14%, and is a perennial fixture on the Giro di Lombardia race route. In our story on the Climb to the Madonna de Ghisallo we highlighted this preferred route up. It’s about a 12km climb from the jewel-like town of Bellagio on the lake, and will make you work off any amount of pasta, risotto, meat, fish, pizza – you‘ve consumed prior to setting out. If you get the chance, do it – it’s worth it – but you’ll want a compact crankset, or a 39×28 to save your knees from exploding on the way up.
Nestled in the crux of the upside-down “y” that is Lake Como, the church is easy to find, once you’ve been lost a couple of times…
The other route up is from the south, and is more or less 25km of gradual climbing through some very pretty forests and town. There’s a bit more traffic on this side, and you’ll see tons more riders here also. But save this way for the descent – you’ll be much happier.
I told you this place was tiny – this is the view from the front door – .
My first time up the climb I made the usual wrong turn and added about 5km and 200m altitude to my ride – just familiarize yourself with a map beforehand and you should be fine. Once you’ve made the top – there’ll be no doubt you’ve arrived. You’ll pass a few other churches on the way – each time wondering “is this it?” – but you’ll know…
The walls are covered with tiny pictures of famous cyclists, some buried in the adjacent cemetery.
Italy is pretty much a great place any time of year, but September in the north is especially beautiful. The leaves in the surrounding forests are changing colors, you can pretty much count of good weather and temps in the 70-80F range, and the days start with that crispness that only comes as summer turns to autumn… perfect for riding.
You’ll see a lot of names you recognize. It’s typical in Italian churches to remember local parishioners with photos enshrined on walls and in gravesite headstones.
Inside you are speechless. Getting a feel for the church requires only that you get there and look around, but talking to the locals gives you a much better understanding of what it’s really about. There’s limited written history of the place, but there is a good story that says that about 1300 years ago, local villagers set up a small shrine in the area, where they could pray and seek refuge from the local bandits. Then in the 11th century, these local ruffians threatened a certain Count of Ghisallo while he was out hunting. He stumbled upon the Madonna at this spot and prayed for his life. The Virgin saved him, and the shrine became known as the Madonna del Ghisallo.
The walls are also covered with an awesome collection of historic jerseys that date back to early 1900’s. If you’ve never seen a wool maillot jaune with the Starsky+Hutch collar and the chest pockets – you will here.
Later they built a small church on the site, and in 1949, the Madonna del Ghisallo was appointed the Patron Saint of Cyclists by Pope Pius XII. The church has grown in importance over the years and is now a fixture on the route of many races, gran fondos, and rides.
The display of famous bikes is equally impressive – that’s Francesco Moser’s World Hour record bike on the left, and a TT bike made almost completely from wood – wheels and all – on the right.
Just behind Eddy Merckx’s World Champs bike is the Caloi that Fabio Casartelli was riding when he lost his life. It remains in the same condition it was after the crash, a chilling reminder to the dangerous side of our sport.
This huge bronze sculpture commemorates the fallen cyclist, and the other reaching for the heavens. Classic emotions most of us can relate to.
On the other side of the church are these larger than life bronze heads of Gino Bartali on the left, and Fausto Coppi.
The stunning views make you feel a lot closer to cycling heaven.
GET OVER THERE!
You know you want to and it will be worth it – get over there before it’s too late man! Riding all over the area is truly great, as I’ve said many times, and it’s a great trip to do with your riding crew, or with the better half who just wants to enjoy Italy.
Several tour groups specialize in Italian cycling trips that combine great food, good lodging, more Italian culture than you’ll find as a newbie, and of course awesome riding. Check ‘em out at: