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Ghisallo, the magical mountain

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On the square in front of the Santuario della Madonna in Ghisallo stand statues of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. You could probably have guessed - almost all historical sites linked to cycling in Italy have something commemorating Coppi, Bartali and their achievements. These two famous cyclists are commemorated at the peak of Ghisallo for more than their collective eight Giro di Lombadria victories between 1936 and 1954; this square pays tribute to Coppi and Bartali because they were the last torchbearers who carried the bronze torch blessed by Pope Pius VII from Castel Gandolgo to the chapel. In 1949 the Pope had decreed that the Blessed Virgin Mary of Ghisallo would be the Heavenly Patron Saint of Italian Cyclists, and these two champions were the last to carry the eternal flame of Ghisallo.

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This dedication made the small village a place where cyclists of all levels of experience visit as a pilgrimage. In the intervening decades countless bicycles have passed through the city gates, along with shirts and trophies - so many, in fact, that the town had to build a museum. The “Museo del Ciclismo - Madonna del Ghisallo” cycling museum opened its doors in 2006, and boasts the world’s largest collection of cycling memorabilia, including Renaissance drawings of wooden proto-bicycles, the bike Coppi rode when he set his record in 1942, and over 50 pink shirts donated by winners of the Giro di Lombardia. The last stone laid when the museum was built was engraved with the motto Omnia Vincit Amor, “love conquers all”, at the suggestion of Pope Benedict XVI, in recognition of love’s ability to conquer even the high peaks of the mountains around the town.

PZeroVeloThe Ghisallo ascent was a real attention-grabber during the first Giro di Lombardia after the Great War. For the first 14 editions of the Giro, the cycling season was usually rounded off on a flat stretch, but in 1919 this ascent was bought in. It quickly became a symbol of the route. At 10.6 km long with an average incline of 5.5%, on paper it doesn’t seem like such a harsh beginning or end point. The ascent begins just outside Bellagio, becoming steeper at after the Onno junction, where a 4 km stretch with an average incline of 9% - reaching 11% in some places - begins. The road is full of hairpin bends and has many other features which make the gradient even more tricky, as is often the case in mountains, and runs through a forest. The only place where riders have any respite is in Guello, where 3 km of fairly flat road take them to Civenna, and then the final wall of 1.5 km with an incline varying between 7 and 11%. They know the climb is almost over when they see the church tower. A breathtaking view of Lake Como awaits riders on the other side of the church - Percy Shelly once said this was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen - which is the real prize the cyclists enjoy while relaxing after the ride.

For competitors doing the Giro di Lombardia, though, things don’t stop there. Their route is longer, taking them back towards Milan or Monza, or more often towards Lecco, Bergamo and Como. Lombardy was created as a sort of last hurdle to really test champion riders at the end of the season. Just as the Milan-San Remo route kicks off the cycling season, the Giro di Lombardia rounds it off, and can be the cherry on the cake for cyclists who’ve had a good season, or a last-ditch attempt at salvaging a bad one. 

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The Giro was the first big win for Giovanni Gerbi - known as the Red Devil (in 1905 during the first edition), and it was also the first male competition in which a woman officially took part (Alfonsina Strada, in 1917 and 1918). In 1919, Ghisallo took part for the first time, as did Costante Girardengo. At the peak of Santuario the first winner had a fifteen-minute advantage and was so relaxed that he stopped at Erba to change his clothes and have a quick snack at the side of the road. After taking a break, his pace slowed considerably - whatever he had eaten disagreed with him. Though the other competitors chipped away at his advantage, Girardengo stopped in a field to relieve himself before setting off again and arriving at the Trotter in Milan eight minutes ahead of Belloni and the other six remaining competitors, winning the first Giro di Lombardia and marking the end of his best-ever season.

Over ten years later in 1931, Alfredo Binda took part in this race and turned it into one of his shining achievements. Setting off a mere 96 kilometres from the finish line, he won with an 18-minute advantage over the silver medallist Michele Mara (by the time Mara arrived in Milan, Binda had already picked up his prize and taken a shower). When he was asked how he pulled off such a stunning victory on a cold, rainy day, Binda answered: “Everything I had in my pockets dissolved in the rain, and the only thing I was able to eat were raw eggs. I had 34 of them during the race.”

Following World War Two, the Giro di Lombardia became one of the most popular places to see Fausto Coppi perform. “He had a simple tactic,” explains Giuseppe “Pinella” De Grando, the bicycle mechanic who created the Airone. “Fausto would keep up with the other competitors until they reached the start of the ascent to Ghisallo and then would break away. He’d head towards Santuario with a consistent lead, which he doubled on the descent towards Erba. We’d meet him there and cheer him on”. This technique is how Coppi won four competitions in a row between 1946 and 1949. 1949 was his best year - he won the Milan-San Remo race, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France before turning his attention to Ghisallo, which had recently become almost revered in cycling circles, which he also won with a lead of three minutes over Kübler.

Sport has developed since them, and roads have been resurfaced too, making the Ghisallo climb less challenging. Because of this, Vincenzo Torriani decided to include the Muro di Sormano in the Giro. This is a 2 km ramp with an average gradient of 15%, peaking at 25%, which at the time was little more than a mule track. After the controversies of 1962, when fans pushed Ercole Baldini along, allowing him to beat the record for the ascent, the Muro di Sormano was removed from the Giro.

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Over the years, the Giro has brought glory to cycling champions. Eddy Merckx always thought of the competition as the most difficult one in the international calendar, and won twice in 1971 and 1972. Bernard Hinault, too, won in 1979 following in Merckx’s footsteps: the route started over 100 km from the finish line, taking Saronni, Moser and all the other favourites by surprise. “He may never become as famous as Coppi or as strong as Merckx,” Italian daily la Stampa wrote, “but if Hinault does become a “champion of champions,” he took the first step toward that during this Giro di Lombardia”. 

The Giro di Lombardia has experienced an upgrade both in terms of technology in style in the last thirty years, largely thanks to the World Championships changing dates. Now they’re held before the Giro, which could have led to the Giro itself being overlooked. Some important companies took the Giro under their wing, though, and it has held its prime position in Lombardy. Paolo Bettini won the race in 2005 and in 2006, being the first to arrive in Ghisallo in both cases. He was the first cyclist in over twenty years who won after coming first in the ascent to Santuario. In 2006 Bettini - at the time the reigning world champion - crossed the finish line in tears, raising his hands to the sky, in the most dramatic victory the competition has ever seen: a few weeks ago his brother Sauro had died in a road accident. “I wasn’t cycling alone today,” said Bettini after his victory. “I’ll never forget this day”. 

The competition was officially rebranded “il Lombardia” in 2012. Changing its name, along with some important changes to the race (including changing the destination and including the Muro di Sormano again), along with some astounding victories - particularly Vincenzo Nibali in 2015 - has breathed new life into the Giro, bringing together showmanship with tradition, uniting modern cycling with an historical epic. As the legend under the statue of Coppi on the square in front of the Santuario della Madonna in Ghisallo reads: “Then God created the bicycle, so that man would turn it into a tool to labour and to praise throughout his life”.

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