10 juin 2015

In the protection of Our Lady


There is a spirit that accompanies the cycling team, protecting racers from adversity and pulling the bravest up to the peaks. It is what draws some of the more fervent racers to head for holy places to ask for help. Hung with vests, cycles and testimonies offered up by the great names in cycling, the unusual surroundings of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-des-Cyclistes, Our Lady of the Cyclists, in Labastide d’Armagnac, is the racers’ rallying point in France.

Some champion cyclists find in religion the strength required to withstand the elements, confront the landscape ahead and face failure. In the 1940s, Gino Bartali, known as “Gino the Pious” was among the faithful who would always attend mass on the day of a race. During the 1960s, Felice Gimondi kept tied around his ankle a cord that he had dipped in the holy water. And more recently, the somewhat fanciful Mario Cipollini suddenly became devoted to the cult of Padre Pio, canonised in 2002 under the name of Saint-Pio de Pietrelcina. The link between the cycling community and religion is so strong in Italy that the peloton has regularly benefited from the papal blessing and in 2000, the start of the Italy Grand Tour was even given in the Vatican.

So it’s no surprise to find in Lombardy the best-attended holy place in the world for cyclists. The chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo stands at an altitude of 754 metres in the village of Magreglio, above Lake Como. The origin of this designation of the Madonna as patron saint of cyclists goes back to a letter written by Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and dozens of other Italian cyclists in May 1948 and sent to Pope Pius XII. Tens of thousands of enthusiasts come here every year to pray for the saint’s protection in surroundings filled with bikes and vests, to gather before busts erected in homage to Coppi, Bartali and Binda, and to admire the imposing bronze monument that honours the cycle race with these words: “ God created the bicycle so that man could make of it an instrument of effort and exaltation on the arduous road of life.

In France, Notre-Dame-des-Cyclistes takes the peloton into her care. Situated on the outskirts of a village in the Landes region, this chapel, like Madonna del Ghisallo, is not only a place of pilgrimage but also a museum dedicated to the passion of cycling. Luis Ocaña, whose wedding and funeral were both celebrated here, and Henry Anglade, who made the stained glass windows of the chapel, are both especially venerated. And Louison Bobet is another of the champions honoured in the chapel, where one of his vests takes pride of place among the many on display.

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