A Cyclist's Pilgrimage
It's fitting that the chapel dedicated to cycling is found in Italy, considered the cradle of the sport. In fact, many cyclists feel that the only proper way to make the journey to the chapel is by bicycle, as a sort of pilgrimage. While the chapel has a spacious parking lot for cars, the bicycle racks outside the church are often more crowded.
My own pilgrimage started from the basement frame shop of Antonio Mondonico in the northeast Milanese suburb of Concorezzo. Mondonico, a greying 60-something man with a genial smile and the large gnarled hands of a man used to manual labor, is a master bicycle framebuilder. A third-generation craftsman, he still handbuilds with Mauro, his son and apprentice, the 600 or so frames that emerge from his shop every year. Mondonico is one of the last true artisans in the business. His shop is both a work area with a framebuilding jig and rows of tubing stock on hand and a private shrine to cycling. Autographed posters from Italian greats like Francesco Moser adorn the walls, along with yellowing newspaper clippings about wins by racers riding Mondonico bicycles.
It was a distinct honor that my guide to the chapel of the sport's protector is one of the country's last true frame maestros. With 23-year old Mauro on a bike and Antonio driving the sag van (which you don't need to do the ride, but it sure was nice), we departed the Mondonico house and turned north out of town.
It takes a bit to get out of town and into the farmland plains around Milan. While traffic was plentiful it was also a pleasant surprise compared to city traffic in America. Imagine the berth that Denver-area commuters would give to the Super Bowl champion Broncos football team out for a training run on local roads. That's the kind of respect cyclists receive here in northern Italy. Around Milan, cycling sees frequent headlines in the local newspapers, and one of the most revered sporting dailies in the world, the famous pink-paged Gazzetta dello Sport, sponsors the country's national tour, the Giro d'Italia. No one honked, engines were not revved in annoyance, and drivers waited patiently to make a safe pass rather than buzz by us at close range.
Once we hit the countryside it got even better. The rural areas are dotted with small villages and farmhouses, many of which have stood since long before the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Riding along the narrow road toward the city of Lecco, we rolled through the gorgeous hills usually traced in the other direction on the annual fall classic the Tour of Lombardy. This 93-year-old event, also called the Race of the Falling Leaves, is the traditional end to the road racing season. The route traditionally goes past the chapel of the Madonna. However, rather than stop, the racers usually pay their respects by gearing up into the big ring and attacking down the road to the finish in Bergamo.
The portion of the route along the shores of the Lago di Lecco is the most rewarding and beautiful. The road is a narrow two-lane affair that sees low to moderate traffic. Even better, it's a perfect ribbon of new tarmac that winds along the hillsides and through the small coastal villages. The blue lake waters beckon, and on the far shore the hills rise sharply from the water's edge. We rode past inns, small villas and the occasional boat dock stocked with colorful sailboats. It's a fast stretch of road and riding hard I envisioned myself at the head of the Lombardy, riding to fame and fortune like a campionissimo out of history.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication