The Madonna del Ghisallo is the mythical climb that forms the heart of perhaps the least known and least celebrated of the five monuments of cycling: The Giro di Lombardia.
Set in the stunning region of Lombardy in early October, Lombardia winds around lush green climbs and stunning lakes, and is a truly spectacular race that deserves more recognition. Its autumn date has lead to it being nicknamed ‘the ride of the falling leaves’, and that romantic moniker carries across to the legendary status of the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo.
The route of Il Lombardia has varied slightly each year since its first edition in 1905. However, the one constant feature has been the Madonna del Ghisallo. It is not just this permanence that provides the climb its fame however. The chapel that lies at the top of the ascent is the point where, according to legend, the Count of Ghisallo was saved from bandits by the appearance of an image of the Virgin Mary. As a result of this, the Madonna del Ghisallo became the patron saint of travelers, and later, the patroness of cyclists. The chapel has now become a cycling shrine to rival that dedicated to Tommy Simpson at the summit of Mont Ventoux, and the small building is filled with memorials to cycling legends, including champions’ jerseys, bike frames, and club flags. The most poignant memorial is the buckled frame of Fabio Casartelli, a local rider who tragically lost his life on a descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Tour de France in 1995. Next to the chapel the Museum of Cyclism, opened in 2006, which gathers hundreds of memorabilia that the church, with its small dimensions, could not host anymore. In the Museum people can visit the largest existing collection of original Maglia Rosa: more than 50 jerseys gathered thanks to “Giro for Ghisallo” project.
The Ghisallo typically falls relatively early in Il Lombardia and so tends not to be decisive in the action. For example, the climb fell at 75km of the 250km edition in 2016 pro race and falls at 52km in the Gran Fondo. At 10.2km in length and 5.2% average gradient, it’s not going to be the toughest climb you’ve encountered either. The most challenging gradients, which get to 14%, are in the first 2.5 KM. The climb then flattens out and there are a some technical descent, before the last (normally) windy 1.6km with 8-9% gradients in order to reach the Madonna. Make sure you drink in the stunning views on the climb; with lake Como and the beautiful forests around you, it’s a true spectacle.
However you climb it, just make sure you have plenty left for the next climb Muro di Sormano which is 7km at 9.0% with a Maximum of 27%! Time to swap your cassette to 11-32?
Written with input from Jim Cotton, 2017
Jim is a passionate and experienced cyclist who has ridden with us for various Haute Routes, the Etape du Tour, and La Marmotte. He keeps a blog of his musings and experiences on the bike here: https://mountainmutton.wordpress.com