Cast in Stone…

Statues are coming down all over the United States. Some are being toppled in anger, and some are being removed in fear.

This is not a political blog, so I’m not going to say what I think of this. Perhaps I am cheering as statues of Robert E Lee or Andrew Jackson are roped up and pulled to the ground. Or perhaps I am weeping and gnashing my teeth as tributes to Columbus or Jefferson Davis or Frederick Douglass are defaced or destroyed. I admit that the last of these confuses me, but just like the raid on the house of ill repute, the good are rounded up with the bad.

You will have to speculate how I feel about the statues here, but there are three special ones in Italy that I hope the protesters/mob/politicians leave untouched. They stand outside of the Chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo.

The story of the Madonna del Ghisallo is too long to recount here. But in 1949 the Madonna was officially certified as the patron saint of cyclists by Pope Pius XII. The chapel at the top of the climb from Lake Como has become the both the spiritual center of cycling and a treasure trove of cycling history and artifacts. There is also an adjacent cycling museum which is a must see. Allow plenty of time; I stayed so long that the pizza oven was shut down and I had to settle for a panini for lunch.

Outside of the chapel, there are three statues. The first shows two cyclists, one raising his arm in victory, the other crashed on the pavement struggling to get up. There is a prayer to the Madonna inscribed on the base of the statue asking for her to protect all riders from the dangers of the road.

The Samson Got To Travel, Until the Tarmac Took Over

Outside the entrance to the Chapel, there are busts of the two great Italian cycling champions, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. Bartali’s story is amazing. He was a great champion before World War II. When the conflict came he spent the war years as a courier for an underground organization that tried to shelter Jews and get them papers to allow them to travel to safe locations. Because he was Bartali and a great cycling champion he could pedal the roads without interference. The story is chronicled in the excellent book Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon. It really is quite a story of a great racing career split in two with heroic actions during the war.

Easy Targets, but So Far They Are Untouched

After the war, the much younger Fausto Coppi began his racing career, and for several seasons they were great rivals. It is hard to understand how important they were as cycling heroes in the aftermath of the war. Italy was a broken nation. Their rivalry was a welcome distraction from the difficulties of life. The two were quite different. Bartali was very religious and moral; his nickname was ‘Gino the Pious’. Coppi had a scandalous public affair with a married woman which shocked the Catholic country.

Fausto vs. Gino: Kind of like Bird vs. Magic in the 1980’s NBA

The Chapel of the Madonna Ghisallo is a very special place that every cyclist who comes to Northern Italy should see. The history, and the spirituality, and the amazing feeling of being in a country where the bicycle is revered will give a cyclist goose bumps. I certainly had them.

When I visited in 2011, I started the tradition of the prayer candles for Stoker and me. At this chapel the candles are electric, because so many cyclists light them that the soot would damage the historic jerseys and bikes that hang from the walls. There are also laminated prayer cards you can purchase. I carry mine with me all the time.

As far as I know, the three statues are safe for now. No one in Italy seems inclined to take offence at these two champions, and the two stone cyclists in victory and agony are pretty much apolitical. But if the statues offend someone and have to come down, my eyes will get a little teary. Just like they did when I lit my first two prayer candles ever in the Chapel, one for me and one for the absent Stoker back in California. I would never have believed that this would start a tradition that we have followed over 100 times on 5 trips to France together. The Spiritual Home of Cycling? I vote yes.

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