A Cyclist's Pilgrimage

The Chapel
  |  Gorp.com
Fabio Casartelli's bicycle from his fatal crash
Fabio Casartelli's bicycle from his fatal 1995 Tour de France crash. He hit a concrete barrier on the descent following the Col du Portet.

At the top we removed our sweaty helmets, and like boys nervously combing their hair on the doorstep of a date's house, we tried to make ourselves presentable to the Madonna.

Many chapels have statues of canonized saints in the alcoves lining the sanctuary. The famous Cathedral of Saint Michael in Brussels, Belgium, has them lining the rows of pews from the rear of the chapel all the way to the pulpit. Saint Christopher, Saint Andrew and of course, the cathedral's namesake gaze down on the faithful with their impenetrable marble visages. While St. Michael's dwarfs the tiny chapel of the Madonna in Magriglio, I had the same sense of being watched. However, instead of marble statuary, the saints of cycling are represented by their equipment. The high ceilings are home to a veritable treasure hoard of famous racer's bicycles, from Ottavio Bottechia's primitive single-geared machine to high-tech steeds from the modern era. A particularly chilling example of the latter is a mangled Eddy Merckx model with a crushed fork and crimped frame; this is the bicycle that Fabio Casartelli crashed on during the 1995 Tour de France. Casartelli later died from his injuries.

Not all of the chapel's remembrances are so macabre. The walls also offer carefully framed bike jerseys donated by champions of past Tours de France, World Championships and Giros d'Italia. The list of names is a who's who of the giants of the sport: Bottechia, Moser, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond, and the campionnissimo himself, Fausto Coppi.

Given the chapel's status as a destination for cyclotourists, there is a booming side business in memorabilia. To cyclists, the most interesting souvenir is the small metal pendant with the Madonna's image on it. Many pros wind the pendant around the stem of their racing bicycles; tradition and legend hold that the Madonna will keep you safe from harm. You can also buy the standard tourist bric-a-brac, from postcards to apparel. Tourist season is generally May to September, although in typical Italian fashion daily opening hours are sporadic. Weekends are your best shot to get souvenirs.

While a Madonna pendant may or may not help you keep rubber side down, the powerful feelings associated with a visit to the chapel are undeniable. As one person in our group said,"It sort of validates you as a cyclist." This is especially true for visitors from a country where cycling is a fringe sport, and most sports coverage adheres to the "If it's got a ball, we'll print it all" dictum. In fact, the journey to the chapel may be more powerful for Yankees than Europeans.

This is all cyclists' Hall of Fame. It is our Canton, our Cooperstown, our place. To come this far, to walk inside and look at the rows of photos, to see the smiling, innocent face of a young Fausto Coppi, and to hear the hushed, reverent tones of visitors, is to feel a part of something bigger. It's worth the trip.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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