Cycling's Hallowed Ground
Leaves are starting to turn, temperatures are dropping and coats are being dusted off from their summer slumber. It's Fall. Autumn means many things to many different people. To kids (mine at least) it means over the top Halloween decorations and incessant reruns of the movie Nightmare Before Christmas. It's a time of harvest and in some ways it represents new beginnings. The beginning of cycle-cross and of the holidays. But for the pro peloton it marks the end of another long, hard fought season. One filled with unimaginable triumphs and sorrowful defeats. Thrilling pursuits and harrowing crashes. And no single race in cycling's season symbolizes the end of a season like Il Lombardia, or the more poetically named Race of the Falling Leaves. This last weekends Il Lombardia marked the 111th running and even to this day it's everything one would want in a race. 1) Incredible Parcours- Made up of an undulating ribbon of punchy climbs that quickly add up to a whopping 4,000 meters of altitude. It guarantees to put a dent in even the freshest of legs. Furthermore it loops around the ever classy Lake Como, chalk full with beautifully varnished mahogany Riva boats, the Bentley's of the water, used to scuttle well-monied types to their private 16th century villas. And if that weren't enough the race buzzes through the incredibly picturesque village of Bellagio. Yes that's the one, the same Bellagio that gave billionaire Steve Wynn inspiration for his Las Vegas casino. 2) History- At well over a century old, Il Lombardia even predates the Giro d'Italia. It's seen world wars come and go, played host to and helped cement legendary status to the likes of Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx. 3) Icons- Perhaps whats most infamous about Il Lombardia though is its crown jewel, the Church of Madonna del Ghisallo.
The Church of Madonna del Ghisallo A petite building with barely more than one room, if it tried to hold more than 30 people it'd burst like a button on an undersized dinner jacket. It's a simple structure, not overly ornate and certainly not gaudy. But what it lacks in grandeur it most certainly makes up for in folklore and history. Legend has it the Medieval count Ghisallo was being attacked by bandits when he saw an image of the Virgin Mary. Running to the vision he was saved from the robbers and henceforth the apparition became known as the Madonna del Ghisallo. In time she became the patroness of local travellers. Then once Il Lombardia and the Giro d'Italia started running along the steep, routed hill a local priest proposed the Madonna del Ghisallo be declared as the patroness of cyclists.
To date the Church of Madonna del Ghisallo is a shrine to cycling. The equivelant of cycling's Taj Mahal, the Mecca for much of cycling's history; most certainly for Italian cycling history. It's a window into cycling's past. A place where cycling's greats come to life. Where their presence is felt. Where you can step back in time and feel their fatigue and pain. Their sweat and glory. Their elation and dejection. All the feelings and emotions that make up the beauty of cycling. In short, its a must-visit for anyone with a passion for cycling!
Did you know? During Il Lombardia's 1974 edition Eddy Merckx wanted to get his revenge on Roger De Vlaeminck. De Vlaeminck attacked early on, causing Merckx's team to work in pursuit. De Vlaeminck, no really intending to try and solo the whole race, stopped and hid behind a bush to let the peloton pass. He then rode back to the front of the peloton and jokingly asked a confused Merckx who they were chasing. De Vlaeminck subsequently went on to beat Merckx and win the race.