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Classic climb: Madonna del Ghisallo

Joe Robinson
6 Oct 2021

The jewel in the crown of Il Lombardia, the climb of Madonna del Ghisallo is the holiest place to visit on two wheels

Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Duffill

Every great climb comes with a story to tell, and the Madonna del Ghisallo’s is a real page-turner. Legend has it that a medieval count by the name of Ghisallo was on a pilgrimage when he was attacked by a band of savage bandits.

Fleeing for his life, he reached the peaceful hilltop hamlet of Magreglio, where he found a small sanctuary to the Virgin Mary. With nowhere else to go, he hid behind the sanctuary and prayed for a miracle. Sure enough it was granted – the bandits somehow failed to find him and departed empty-handed.

Ghisallo credited the Virgin Mary with having protected his life, and a short time later he returned to the spot and built the first chapel on the peak with the name La Madonna del Ghisallo – the Virgin Mary of Ghisallo.

For centuries to come she became the patroness and protector of local travellers. That was until the mid-20th century.

With the creation of Il Lombardia, in which the Ghisallo has featured on all but one edition, in 1905, the climb became an increasingly popular spot for professional and amateur cyclists alike, with the sanctuary at the top a natural pausing point.

Such was its popularity that in 1949 the priest of the parish, Father Ermelindo Vigano, declared the Madonna del Ghisallo the patron saint of cyclists.

 

The only issue was that to have the sainthood confirmed, Father Vigano needed the blessing of the man at the top: Pope Pius XII. And what’s the best way to get the papal nod? Send Italy’s two darlings of cycling, of course.

Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali – both of whom cited the Ghisallo among their favourite climbs – were duly dispatched to Rome along with the official canonisation paperwork for the Pope to sign.

Thankfully this method worked a charm as Coppi and Bartali returned from the Vatican with confirmation and a torch that still burns in the chapel to this day.

From 1949 onwards the Madonna del Ghisallo has been recognised as the official patron saint of cycling and the climb bearing her name the holiest place in the world for those on two wheels.

 

The climb of Madonna del Ghisallo starts in Bellagio, a small, highly Instagrammable town perched on the edge of Lake Como, and the Ghisallo climb is the only route out of the town if you ignore the two busy coastal roads.

But before going anywhere, be sure to pop your head into the petrol station at the very start of the climb. Owned by a former baker named Marco, there is usually free homemade pizza on the bar as well as freshly ground espresso – the ideal foundation for the road ahead.

Three-part drama

Leaving Marco’s, you immediately encounter a roundabout and then, after taking the SP41 exit towards Magreglio, hit double-digit gradients straight away.

The best way to view the Ghisallo is as a climb of three acts. Act one is steep and long; act two downhill; act three steep and short.

Within 500m you’ll be greeted with a road sign for 14% gradients. Settle in and try to get into a rhythm – this is as bad as it gets and is over soon enough.

The majority of the first 4km of the ascent straddles the 10% mark but thanks to a constantly turning road and plenty of panoramic viewpoints over the lake, there is reason enough to stop and take stock if needs must.

If possible, tackle the climb before lunchtime too, in order to make use of the gentle tivano, a northerly wind blown off the shores of the lake that offers a tailwind in the climb’s early stages.

Managing your efforts to the 5km mark sees you reach Civenna. Here the road flattens before pointing downwards, allowing you to freewheel, pick up some speed and encourage the legs to recover for the final 2km of the ascent. It’s also the perfect spot to attack if you’ve got the energy.

Like a spring, the next section of road is coiled across the rising terrain into a series of sinuous switchbacks that encourage you to open your heart, lungs and legs for one final roll of the dice to reach the summit.

As you arrive at the top section of the climb, you can imagine the crowds and cacophony that greet the pros on the day of Il Lombardia each year – well, every year except 1960.

After local protests over tradespeople setting up markets outside the church on race day, organisers decided to take the 1960 race up a longer parallel road instead, the so-called ‘Super-Ghisallo’, to protect the sanctity of the church.

However, fans so lamented the absence of the Ghisallo that it returned the following year – and it has been the undoubted highlight of every edition of the race since.

As the Il Lombardia field approaches each year, the bells of the chapel toll in celebration. Your own arrival may be met with silence, but once you round onto the Via Gino Bartali and lay eyes upon the chapel it will feel as if a higher power has taken charge of your legs and you will float across the final 8% straight to the finish.

Holy place

As a climb the Ghisallo is both tough and beautiful, but the real draw for coming here is the church.

Since becoming the patron saint of cyclists, the chapel to the Madonna del Ghisallo has become a shrine for those who don Lycra, and contains an amazing collection of jerseys and bikes from some of cycling’s most celebrated sons and daughters.

 

Alfonsina Strada, Eddy Merckx, Cadel Evans and the late Fabio Casartelli all have bicycles hanging from the ceiling, while the wall is adorned with jerseys and images of riders who have lost their life while on the bike. It’s a humbling sight.

In fact, so much history has been donated that in the late 1990s the great three-time Giro d’Italia winner Fiorenzo Magni raised money to open the Museo del Ciclismo next door, an Aladdin’s cave for cyclists and the perfect place to while away an afternoon.

Usually from the summit, the Il Lombardia peloton begins its death march towards the fearsome Muro di Sormano during the Race of the Falling Leaves, but for you something more enjoyable awaits, perhaps? A cold beer, a gelato, breathtaking views of LaHke Como and an incomparable slice of cycling history.

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