Pedaling With the Mystic Rose: The Link Between Bicycling and the Month of Mary

There is a profound connection between Mary, the Giro d’Italia, the month of May and the Catholic Church.

Pink jersey Team UAE's Slovenian rider Tadej Pogačar (c) climbs the Mortirolo section surrounded by fans during the 15th stage of the 107th Giro d’Italia cycling race, between Manerba del Garda and Mottolino on May 19.
Pink jersey Team UAE's Slovenian rider Tadej Pogačar (c) climbs the Mortirolo section surrounded by fans during the 15th stage of the 107th Giro d’Italia cycling race, between Manerba del Garda and Mottolino on May 19. (photo: Luca Bettini / AFP via Getty Images)

The 2024 Giro d’Italia, the famous 115-year-old multi-stage bicycle race, is currently underway. This edition of the race, which consists of 21 stages, began May 4 in Royal Venaria (Venaria Reale) in Piedmont and will conclude May 26 in Rome.

How did the Giro d’Italia begin? The inaugural group of cyclists set off on May 13, 1909, from Piazzale Loreto in Milan. The Giro traditionally starts in May, known as the month of Mary, from a square with a deep connection to her. The name of Piazzale Loreto originates from a former sanctuary on the square dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto. Therefore, there has been a May-Mary-Loreto connection since the inception of this enduring bicycling tradition, which captivates a wide audience and swathes the Italian peninsula in pink.

I was watching the 10th stage, which passed through Pompei to Cusano Mutri, when crowds of bikes, bikers and cheerful spectators filled the roads and plazas. On May 14, the riders raced in front of the magnificent Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei, adorned in festive colors. Pink was particularly prominent — signaling the arrival of spring and the readiness of the bikers for a fresh ride and a new challenge. The distinctive maglia rosa (pink jersey), awarded to the rider who accumulates the most points throughout the race, also known as the leader’s jersey, was impossible to miss. Pink is also associated with Mary — she is the Mystical Rose, the Morning Star. Additionally, rose-pink symbolizes the Holy Spirit, which was always present in Mary’s life.

There is a profound connection between bicycling and the Church. Pope Francis has spoken about the spirituality of the bicycle, referencing the venerable Servant of God, Madeleine Delbrêl. He emphasizes that life and faith balance, much like bicycling, require constant motion. The key is to maintain balance, essential both for riding a bike and for life:

Only on the move, on the go, do we live in the balance of faith, which is an imbalance, but it is like that — like the bicycle. If you stop, it does not stay upright.

There are further connections between Mary, May and cycling. In 1949, Pope Pius XII declared La Madonna del Ghisallo, situated atop a steep hill near Lake Como, as the patroness of cyclists. Cycling embodies a spiritual element as it involves a deep knowledge of self and surroundings, including the month of Mary and the shrines and holy places dedicated to her.

There are many parallels and connections to be drawn between spring, May, Mary, cycling and the cycle of life.

Why is May considered a Marian month? How did this tradition start and become institutionalized?

Two providential events initiated the May-Marian tradition: the arrival of spring and Easter, seasons of generation, germination and spiritual rebirth. This period marks the start of a new cycle of life, triumphing over death with vibrant spring colors replacing the barrenness of winter. It signifies a new birth, a fresh start. The same renewal is seen spiritually as the Lenten season of fasting and penance concludes. With hearts and minds refreshed, the faithful are ready to embark on a new cycle, turning their gaze towards the Most Holy Virgin, Mother of the Savior, to seek blessings for this new beginning. The special prayer to Mary, known as the Supplica (Petition) to Our Lady of Pompeii is recited twice a year — on May 8 and the first Sunday in October — and emphasizes this spiritual renewal:

We shall not leave you until you have blessed us.

In ancient Greece and Rome, May was dedicated to pagan goddesses associated with fertility and spring. It is thought that May was named after the Greek goddess Maia, “the nursing mother,” who is linked to fertility, the land, its growth and motherhood. Combined with other European rituals marking the start of the new spring season, many cultures have come to regard May as a month dedicated to life and motherhood — indeed, Mother’s Day is celebrated in May!

St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) is likely one of the first saints to conceive of an entire month specifically dedicated to Mary. He encouraged the young people of his Oratory to adorn images of Mary with flowers, sing her praises and perform acts of mortification in her honor. St. Philip developed a deep affection for Mary from a young age, referring to her as his mother. (Having lost his biological mother early in life, he was raised by his stepmother.) For him, Mary became his Consolation, as he wrote:

Let us think of Mary, for she is that unspeakable virgin, that glorious lady, who conceived and brought forth, without detriment to her virginity, him whom the width of the heavens cannot contain within itself.

Another milestone in institutionalizing May as the month of Mary was the establishment of the confraternity known in Italian as Comunella (Commune) by Father Angelo Domenico Guinigi in 1670. This organization, formed among the Dominican novices of Fiesole (Florence), functioned as a Court of the Most Blessed Virgin, dedicating daily prayers and acts of mortification to Mary. Starting in 1701, the novices were required to perform acts that “incorporate with mortification the mystical roses to adorn Mary,” continuing a tradition initiated by St. Philip Neri.

The Marian month of May as we celebrate it today was formalized in 1725 by Jesuit Father Annibale Dionisi, with the publication of his book entitled Month of Mary. This book provided a structured guide for a month-long continuous dedication to the Blessed Virgin, involving prayers, supplications and special offerings. The practice of prayer to Mary expanded beyond the confines of churches, becoming commonplace at home or in the workplace. This shift started the tradition of May domestic altars — sacred spaces dedicated to Mary in homes. The Jesuits were instrumental in institutionalizing May as the Month of Mary and in spreading this tradition to parishes.

The tradition of the Marian month was warmly embraced by the Magisterium. In his encyclical Mense Maio (Month of May) issued on April 29, 1965, Pope Paul VI further institutionalized the Month of Mary and the pious customs associated with it, writing:

The month of May is almost here, a month which the piety of the faithful has long dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. Our heart rejoices at the thought of the moving tribute of faith and love which will soon be paid to the Queen of Heaven in every corner of the earth. For this is the month during which Christians, in their churches and their homes, offer the Virgin Mother more fervent and loving acts of homage and veneration; and it is the month in which a greater abundance of God’s merciful gifts comes down to us from our Mother’s throne.
We are delighted and consoled by this pious custom associated with the month of May, which pays honor to the Blessed Virgin and brings such rich benefits to the Christian people. Since Mary is rightly regarded as the way by which we are led to Christ, the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise. For what other reason do we continually turn to Mary except to seek the Christ in her arms, to seek our Savior in her, through her, and with her? To him men are to turn amid the anxieties and perils of this world, urged on by duty and driven by the compelling needs of their heart, to find a haven of salvation, a transcendent fountain of life.

The Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, issued by the same pope on Feb. 2, 1974, solidified the May-Mary celebrations. This document emphasized the reform of the liturgical calendar with special attention to the cycle of Marian feasts, including:

… the Nativity of Our Lady (September 8), ‘the hope of the entire world and the dawn of salvation’; and the Visitation (May 31), in which the liturgy recalls the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary carrying her Son within her,’ and visiting Elizabeth to offer charitable assistance and to proclaim the mercy of God the Savior. Then there is the commemoration of Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15), a fitting occasion for reliving a decisive moment in the history of salvation and for venerating, together with the Son ‘lifted up on the cross, His suffering Mother.’

The intention was to make the devotion to Mary ever purer and more vigorous.

The connections between Mary, May and cycling are deeply rooted in tradition and cultural practice, reflecting a historical tapestry of spiritual and communal values. The month of May, dedicated to Mary, highlights themes of renewal, purity and celebration, which are embodied in the blooming landscapes and the revival of community activities such as cycling. The Giro d’Italia, starting in May and often featuring the color pink, in a way symbolizes this freshness and the blossoming of new life, mirroring the spiritual rejuvenation associated with Mary. This synchrony between the Marian devotions of May and the vibrant cycling culture not only enriches the spiritual landscape but also invigorates the physical and communal realms, fostering a deeper, more vigorous devotion to Mary that resonates through all aspects of life of the faithful.