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Comrades and Cyclists

by Sean O’Toole / 12.09.2012

I didn’t know this: there is a patron saint of writers, Francis de Sales. “Reputation is rarely proportioned to virtue,” this sixteenth century Catholic bishop once remarked, delighting the compilers of dictionaries of quotations. I only discovered this factoid after cycling up to the apex of the Vallassina road in northern Italy, to see the small, whitewashed church reputed to be the home of the patron saint of cyclists. Well yes, cyclists have a spiritual agent up there above the Pierneef clouds too.

According to religious wisdom, patron saints exist because we mortal, fallible, eye-on-the-money humans need a sympathetic someone up there to put in a good word with Michelangelo’s big bearded guy. Myth, however, is not fact. In 1949, persuaded the enormous publicity generated by the professional rivalry between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, two Italian cycling legends, Pope Pius XII appointed the Madonna of Ghisallo the patron saint of Italian cyclists – up until then this spirit in the mountains overlooking Lake Como had been a patroness of local travellers.

The Catholic Church’s willingness to endorse cycling, once a bigger spectator sport than football in Italy, followed a turbulent period of unsettled feelings towards the bicycle. “At one point priests were banned from cycling in Italy and had to fight for their right to ride a bike,” offers John Foot, a professor of modern Italian history and author of the book Pedlare! Pedlare! This fascinating history of cycling in Italy is a must-read for anyone planning to cycle the winding switchbacks up to Ghisallo.

At the start of the twentieth century, explains Foot, the recently minted Italian republic was experiencing the same tribulations as our own unstable democracy. Cycling, which achieved huge buy-in from a previously foot-bound peasantry, was seen as a means to promote ideology, whether churchly or otherwise. In Milan, tells Foot, there was even a Karl Marx tyre – marketed as the “great red brand” and sold to “comrades and cyclists”.

The Tour of Lombardy, a one-day race that famously passes Ghisallo, traces its origins back to this early antagonism and the fight for constituents amongst the church and secularists, the anti-sporting left and fascist right. Nicknamed “the classic of the falling leaves” for the autumnal hue that sweeps across this forested and mountainous region, the race, which is held in October every year, was won by Bartali throughout much of the thirties, Coppi his better in the subsequent decade.

For purists, the journey up to the church, a modest clay-roofed building with a grey stone bell tower, is via the classic northern approach, from Bellagio, a picturesque village and summer getaway on the headland where Lake Como bisects and forms its wishbone shape. The road is mercilessly steep. Persistence and pain has its rewards: they include a scenic view and curious lesson in cycling history.

For the latter you have to venture into the tiny church, which houses countless plaques commemorating cyclists who pedalled for no other reason than a love of the physical exertion. They include Antonio Rancillio (1929-1983) and Carluccio Monti (1923-1999), two men who appeared to cycle in suits, also a much younger guy in sheer lycra standing next to his MTB at the top of a high French pass. This man who name I forgot to write down is smiling in the photo imprinted on ceramic, smiling in the weary way of cyclists who have challenged gravity, smiling even though his life is now bracketed by two dates.

But it is not the names and faces of ordinary cyclists that draw sweaty penitents in lycra (and occasionally stretchy short pants, as I wore on my ride up) to cycle up the mountain and wander into the cool interior of the church – it is the bicycles displayed high on the ledges. These bicycles, some with wooden rims and rudimentary gears, were once ridden by professional cycling’s most illustrious competitors. The turquoise bicycle, for example, was the translator of Coppi’s effort when he won the 1949 Tour de France. The red one belonged to Eddy “Cannibal” Merckx, the renowned sixties and seventies Belgian cyclist who in an interview with the New York Times last year conceded that in his day there were “products that made you a little less tired”.

Curiously, there is not a single ride belonging to Lance Armstrong, not in the church, neither in the adjacent museum. Midway between the church and tiered museum, whose holdings include a svelte red bike by manufacturer Colnago made to honour the automaker Ferrari, is another papal project. Unveiled in 1973, and blessed by Pope Paul VI, an imposing bronze sculpture captures the ordinary drama of the two-wheeled experience. One cyclist is depicted riding to victory, left hand hoisted aloft; the other lies crumpled on the ground, his collapsed ride next to him.

“And God,” reads the Italian inscription beneath this sculpture, “created the bicycle, so that man could use it as a means for work and to help him negotiate life’s complicated journey…” Amen.

*All images © Sean O’Toole.

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