For Bay Area cyclists and those traveling to Oakland/Berkeley East Bay: St. Augustine Catholic Church, 400 Alcatraz Avenue, Oakland, CA 94609 will be having a Blessing of the Cyclists, Wednesday, October 13th, as part of weekday morning Mass, at 8:30 AM. If you are wondering why this is event is happening in the middle of morning commute, in the middle of the work week: October 13 is the annual feast day for Madonna del Ghisallo, who is the Catholic Church’s official patron of bicycle riders of all types (professional road cyclists, commuters, bike messengers, amateur track racers, road enthusiats, recumbents… any way you “velo” Our Lady of Ghisallo protects you). Please know that this event also open to Catholics, non-Catholics, and those of you of little or no faith tradition; again All Are Welcome!
The Myth/Legend/Reality of Our Lady of Ghisallo and Her Relation to Cycling
As most bike riders know, Cycling (personal use and watching professional cyclists) and the Roman Catholic Church are a big deal in Italy. In the hill above Lake Cuomo (Lombardi District of Central Italy) an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a wealthy man (Count Ghisallo) who was about to be robbed by highway men in late Middle Ages. The vision of the Blessed Virgin scared off the highwaymen, and in gratitude the count started praying to her for protection and told the story to anyone who would listen. He instituted a roadside shrine with flowers and candles. The Virgin Mary under this title was originally prayed to for the protection of local travelers. The count’s story started to gain traction and belief among the locals, so he eventually scraped the makeshift shrine and funded construction of a small chapel. Through the years the legend grew and once the chapel was built, a official clergy were assigned to maintain the chapel, and the patronage of Our Lady of Ghisallo evolved from humble foot travelers, to humble self propelled recreational bicyclists. Recreational cyclists passed the idea of the protection from robbers to bike racers looking for safety from crashes and injury; and they must have established documented cases of it working (official “miracles” ascribed to praying for protection from the Madonna del Ghisallo) because in 1949 this humble legend became an official, certified patroness of the Roman Catholic Church. Added to the official calendar by Pope Pius XII. At the same time that the legend was growing, the chapel at the top of Ghisallo climb became the finish line annually for the one day classic Giro d’ Lombardi race, and is a regular feature (once every two or three years) stage route of the Giro d’Italia.
The chapel started to gather a collection of cycling memorabilia (imagine the first Hard Rock Cafe in London). Bike frames, whole bikes, jerseys, festoon the walls of the chapel. Over the years great champion riders such as Felice Gimondi, Gianni Motta, Francesco Moser, Gino Bartali, Eddy Merckx, Alfredo Binda, Guiseppe Saronni, Mario Cipollini, Gilberto Simoni, and Stefano Garzelli have contributed race-worn gear to the chapel. As a matter of fact, it came to be a fact that you could not be considered a serious champion or potential champion until you had donated a jersey or bike to be displayed in the chapel. The memorbilia overran the space, and in a way cheapened the spiritual intent of the chapel; so in 2000 construction was started 200 yards from the chapel on a Museum of Cycling (imagine the American Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown) with the official blessing of Pope John Paul II. When the museum was near completion, Pope JP 2’s successor Pope Benedict XVI was on hand to place and bless the corner stone May 31 2006. One of the great talismen among professional and amateur bike racers, plus weekend warrior bike enthusiats all over the world is the Madonna del Ghisallo bike tube medallion (click here to view this incredibly cool medal on a race bike. Note that the design of the medal incorporates a crankring, and the Madonna and Child are framed by a bike chain. To repeat, this is on of the coolest religious medals in all of the Catholic Church). Even Pope Benedict was the recipient of a custom wood bike with Madonna del Ghisallo badge afixed (click here for reiteration of story of Our Lady of Ghisallo apparition, chapel, the cycling museum, and to view pictures of presentation to Pope Benedict).
How The Madonna del Ghisallo Entered My Life
Fifteen months ago, I was involved in an accident on my bike that resulted in me being hospitalized for three days, and on bed rest for seven weeks. What happened was that the as I was “dropping the hammer” out of the saddle, trying to get to my son’s school in time to pick him up, and take him to his afterschool choir rehearsal. Anyway, the housing for my left peddle failed and I crashed on the frame and then the ground while going approximately 18 MPH. This resulted in a fractured pelvis. While I was in the hospital, in the days of my bedrest recovery, and during my first few days returning to commuting to YMCA and daily mass on my bike it was *suggested* to me by several members of my spin class and my parish that I should make sure I wear my helmet everytime I go for a ride, and get myself and the my bike “blessed.”
It was while I was home recovering from my fractured pelvis, that I became a true bike enthusiast. I watched the Tour de France every day (the live feed, the immediate rebroadcast, and the primetime rebroadcast… I was stuck to the couch!!) and started to hero-worship the members of the Peloton. Plus I started to really yearn to return to Spin class. And I really missed the sensation of movement, sights/sounds of Oakland from a bike saddle, and the transcendence of self-propelled transportation.
The helmet injunction was relatively easy, I just had to be “present” to the risks every time I swung my leg over the frame and rolled out of our garage (cars, buses, other cyclists, mechanical failures). Getting the blessing has turned out to be a little more problematic. The pastor and visiting priest at my parish said they would do the blessing, but I would have to first research who the patron(ess) of bicycle riders and where it fell on the formal liturgical calendar. They probably felt is was a teaching moment to the relatively new Catholic (I am a convert… since April 2007) that I am. My first inclination was to do as the people of NYC and LA do, and just fold this Blessing of the Bikes into annual May “Ride Your Bike To Work” Month. So I was puzzled why I had to do the extra step; but now I am eternally grateful that Fr. Mark and Fr. Gonzague suggested that I find the official church patron. My internet search eventually lead me to Madonna del Ghisallo and the same-named chapel in the Cumo Lake District of Lombardi Italy. There are other patrons of bicycles, but it was my advanced searches that lead me to Our Lady of Ghisallo as the *primary* protector of bicyclists, and her feast day of October 13th. And a way to share my enthusiasm and joy for the bike and my faith with the cycling community in general, and my VR friends in particular.
I have not experienced the protection of Madonnna del Ghisallo, but I have faith. And I also note how many religious and non-religious riders in all over the world (but especially in Europe) make sure they have the blessed medallion on their bike or wear a pendat “just in case.” I also want to make reference that the past two years have been bad for average bicylists. Car vs. bike accidents, fatalities, and serial hit-and-run tragedies are on the rise. I have been knocked down by cars twice this year, and had two screaming matches with motorists telling them to “share the road.” In addition, Oakland is seeing a return of “highwaymen” and bike-jacking robberies with serious gun/knife threats and assaults. I hope to see a lot of my fellow cyclists at the blessing; whether you are hoping for a good ride in a charity century, Grand Fondo, or looking for physical safety it couldn’t hurt.