Part of our recent European vacation included time on Lake Como in Italy. So as a cycling enthusiast, I was obligated to find a way to do the Madonna del Ghisallo climb. What’s the Madonna?
The Madonna del Ghisallo is a hill close to Lake Como in Italy (just outside of Bellagio). It is named after a legendary Marian apparition.
According to the legend, the Medieval count Ghisallo was being attacked by bandits when he saw an image of the Virgin Mary at a shrine. He ran to it and was saved from the robbers. The apparition became known as the Madonna del Ghisallo, and she became a patroness of local travelers. The Madonna del Ghisallo (the hill climb) was later made part of the Giro di Lombardia (Tour of Italy) bicycle race and is also a staple of the Tour of Lombary race (one of the major one-day classics in professional cycling).
In 1949 a local priest, Father Ermelindo Vigano, proposed that Madonna del Ghisallo (the apparition) be declared the patroness of cyclists. This was confirmed by Pope Pius XII.
The shrine now contains the equivalent of a small cycling museum with bikes, jerseys, etc. from past champions of the sport. There is also an eternal flame in memory for fallen cyclists.
I found a bike shop in Bellagio that rents mountain bikes. The bike I got was in horrible condition (cranky chain, squeeky brakes). Not my Kuoda Kredo, but it had two wheels. My wife wished me luck and I told her I’d be back at 2 p.m. to meet her for lunch.
The climb is 10.6 km (6.6 miles) and climbs 1,800 ft (average gradient of 5.2%). However, the first two miles are the toughest with an extended stretch of road that winds up at 14%. After 4 miles of climbing it levels out for a period and even goes downhill through the quaint, Italian village of Civenna. The last mile before the shrine kicks back up to 10% with some knarly switchbacks. The average gradient of 5.2% is deceiving because of the downhill stretch – the actual “climbing” is much more difficult.
I stopped at the top to take some pictures and look around the shrine. The collection of cycling “artifacts” is truly impressive.
As a born-and-raised Catholic it was also interesting to see a place where my passion (cycling) and religion were so intertwined.
After walking around, taking pics and checking out the cycling museum next to the shrine, I filled up my water bottle and headed down the hill towards Asso. After Asso I went through Valbrona and then on to Onno. I followed the road along the lake (with some of the most stunning views I have ever witnessed while on a bike) back to Bellagio. This made for a ~25 mile loop and I still had some time before meeting the wife for lunch . . . so I did it again. The second time up the climb was much easier since I knew what to expect. I paced myself on the first two miles and then picked up the tempo.
I met Jess at a little cafe in Bellagio for lunch. After an epic Italian-ride, I figured there was only one post-ride meal that would do . . . a cappucino and a prosciutto panini.
This was a truly amazing ride and up there with my all-time favorites. However, next time I need to bring my Kuota – a mountain bike just won’t do.