For a change of pace, I won't be focusing on the best cyclists in history in this article. This post has been percolating in my brain for a long time. I knew I had to write a piece about the Madonna del Ghisallo Medallion one day. Why? I’m a junkie for all things Italian – a passionate cycling Italophile. The Medallion is one of my most prized possessions; it is clamped around the stem of my only road bike, a steel Torelli Nitro Express (equipped with a full Campagnolo groupo, of course). Although I’m not a particularly religious person, I felt compelled to share the details of this beloved treasure, and why I think it should be a part of every cyclist’s life.
Before I get to the Medallion, a little background information is needed to fully appreciate the significance of this wonderful little slice of Italian cycling culture. I’d encourage you to bookmark this article, since there are going to be a ton of links that you might want to access again – consider this your guide to all things related to the Madonna del Ghisallo. I should mention that I haven’t been to any of the places of which are featured in this article. It goes without saying that a trip to this mecca of cycling culture is high on my bucket list.
Giro di Lombardia and the Ghisallo
The Giro di Lombardia, or Il Lombardia as it's now known, is one of the five Monuments of the professional cycling season. As most fans of the sport already know, it is one of the most prestigious single-day races in the sport and is considered the most important of the Autumn Classics. The race, known as the Classica delle foglie morte (the Classic of the dead leaves) traditionally served as the closing race of the season held in in early October, a fitting final chapter to a long racing season which saw its opening pages begin with the first Monument of the season, Milan-San Remo, back in March.
Lombardia was first held 1905, only skipping the years of 1943 and 1944, which marks it as the Classic with the fewest interruptions in professional cycling history. In the early days it was a rather flat affair, but in 1919 the race added the climb up the Passo del Ghisallo (aka, the Madonna del Ghissalo), and since then it has been considered an event for climbers who also can finish with a fast kick, as the race can often feature a small finishing group – a good sprint can sometimes determine who will capture the top step of the podium. Prior to the addition of the horrendously steep Muro di Sormano (1.7 km at 17-24%) in 2012, the Ghisallo climb often provided the springboard to victory, which is the primary reason it has become such an iconic climb.
Magreglio, at the top
The 10.6 km climb starts in the town Bellagio, located to the north of the summit. After scaling the 7-10% switchbacks for the final 1.5 km of the climb, the crest of the hill finally arrives in the small town of Magreglio with a stunning view to Lake Como located 554 meters below (1,662 feet). Butting right up to the side of the road at the summit is the very small church/chapel known as the Santuario della Madonna; you can see the small belltower on the last few hundred meters of the climb. On a small square to the left of the entrance to the church stands the bronze head busts of Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Alfredo Binda. Between them they captured 12 editions of the Giro di Lombardia; Fausto claiming the race a record five times, Alfredo four, and Gino three.
On the other side of the church set back from the front doors is the huge bronze statue featuring two cyclists, one has come to grief and the other upright and reaching for the sky. Not far from that statue is the modern Museo del Ciclismo: Ghisallo Cycling Museum, built in 2006, which houses a fantastic collection of both permanent and temporary exhibitions of cycling memorabilia. There is an amazing gift shop filled with stuff you can’t find elsewhere - fortunately, they do ship, and you can order online.
Santuario della Madonna and the legend of the the Ghisallo
So, why is the Madonna so connected to this climb and area? Legend has it that back in the medieval times the Count of Ghisallo was hunting somewhere in the vicinity of the hamlet of Magreglio when he was waylaid by bandits. During his panicked escape, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared at a shrine and somehow saved him from his attackers. In return for this favor the nobleman promised to dedicate a chapel to her.
Yes, I realize the story is a bit thin on details, but there you have it – the origin story of the Madonna del Ghisallo, who thus became known as the patroness of travelers. As the story gained traction among the locals, the small shrine the Count had erected to keep his promise to the Madonna had become a somewhat famous pilgrimage site and in the early 1600s the Catholic church built the small chapel that exists today.
Sometime after the climb had been included as regular feature on the Giro di Lombardia route, recreational cyclists started adopting the Madonna del Ghisallo as their patroness, protecting them from injury and crashes. At the request of the pastor of the chapel - Don Ermilindo Vigano (there’s also a bronze bust of his head to the right of the front doors) - Pope Pius XII made it official and installed Our Lady of Ghisallo as the patroness of cyclists in 1949. An eternal flame was installed at the center of the chapel, burning in memory of the cyclists who are no longer with us. The church has since become a shrine to cycling and is packed with cycling memorabilia which has be donated over the years.
So, back to the Medallion. What is it? It’s a piece of jewelry for your bike. It’s a band of flexible metal made from a silver-plated metal alloy. It is typically wrapped around the top tube of a bike and is held in place with a thin screw and a small bolt which threads through holes at the end of the Medallion. The center of the Medallion, which is what you’ll see as you look down from the saddle, features a stamped image of the Madonna and Child, framed by a chain ring, which is in turn encircled by a bicycle chain. The piece of the metal which wraps to the left of main image reads Ricordo Santurario del Ghisallo (I remember the Ghisallo Sanctuary). The piece which wraps to the right is an image of the chapel. The center picture is small, only about the size of a quarter, maybe two-and-a-half centimeters across. Finally, just beneath the Madonna and Child are the words La Madonna Ti Protegga (Our Lady Protects Us), thus the Medallion serves as talisman, protecting us from the evils of the road.
The Medallion is made by Cerchio Ghisallo, which is located right next to the church. It is a small family run business founded in 1946 whose primary line of work has been the manufacturing of wooden bicycle rims, which is again gaining popularity due to the L’Eroica. It’s another fascinating story which deserves its own post. It used to be that you could only buy the Medallion at the Ghisallo church, but that has changed with the miracle of the internet and easy access to international shipping. Now everyone who wants one can get one.
If you are concerned that you can’t fit a Medallion around your enormous carbon fiber top tube, you can try my solution by wrapping it around the stem of your bike. If that won’t work, you could try your seatpost, and as a last resort you could use a zip tie in place of the screw and nut; you could then attach it just about anywhere you’d like. Lastly, know that the Medallion will develop a green patina over time, much like copper; it only adds to the special character and charm of this unique object.
Why not own a piece of cycling’s legend and lore by getting your own Madonna del Ghissalo Medallion? With the demise of thin tubed steel bikes, I’m guessing fewer and fewer people know of its existence. Let’s help revive a lost tradition. Remember, Our Lady Protects Us.
All race, church and statue photos copyright CorVos
Madonna del Ghissalo Medallion photos copyright Cerchio Ghisallo