Sunday 16 October 2011

Cadel donates Maillot Jaune to cyclist's chapel

The high mountain passes of Italy are dotted with numerous chapels dedicated to Catholic saints. Some are small, rustic and almost forgotten; others are grand affairs visited and financially supported by many.

Moser's 1984 record-beating bike (public domain image)
None are as famous among cyclists as that 754m up on the Colle del Ghisallo where legend has it a travelling count was attacked by bandits in medieval times. Whilst fleeing, he passed a tiny shrine where he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary and being a good Catholic, he ran to it knowing that he would find protection. Sure enough, the bandits couldn't find him and he was saved - to show his gratitude, he vowed to build a church on the spot (45°55'25.01"N 9°16'2.78"E).

In time, Madonna del Ghisallo became the patron saint of all travellers passing through the area. Later, she became the patron of a specific type of traveller, cyclists, when the pass became a regular feature of the Giro d'Italia and especially the Giro di Lombardia; and she was officially declared such by papal decree in 1948 when a votive flame was carried all the way from Rome, for the final stretch by Italian heroes Coppi and Bertali.

Cadel in yellow, 2011
(© HTO3 CC BY-ND 2.0)
Famous cyclists - at first Italians, but soon others too - began to donate mementos of their successes to the little church. Among a collection that grew so large that much of it is now housed in a purpose-built museum next door are Grand Tour-winning bikes owned by Coppi, Bartali and Eddy Merckx and the bike upon which Francisco Moser smashed the Hour Record (distance ridden in one hour) in 1984, its curving silver lines and strange lenticular wheels still looking futuristic nearly three decades later. The most poignant is the smashed, twisted remains of the bike upon which local lad Fabio Casartelli met a premature and terrible end on the Col de Portet-Aspet during Stage 15 of the 1995 Tour de France.

While this year's Tour winner Cadel Evans is neither a religious man nor prey to the sometimes peculiar superstitions that many riders insist they must observe in order to avoid injury, death or - worst of all - bad form; he, like all cyclists, is keen to observe the traditions and customs of the sport, honouring the memory of those who came before him and those who have fallen. So, in the area as part of il Lombardia on Saturday the 15th of October, he took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage and added one of the yellow jerseys he won in this year's Tour to his rainbow jersey from 2009. During a service conducted by local priest Father Farina, the jersey was blessed and then left before a holy mural of the saint, ready to be placed within a protective frame and added to the vast collection of cycling relics within the building.

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