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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Big Ride: Sunshine and solitude on the empty island of Sardinia

Trevor Ward
1 May 2017

Get in the mood for the Giro's opening weekend by joining Cyclist on Italy's southern isle

The 2017 Giro d'Italia begins this weekend with a trio of road stages on the island of Sardinia. With Mount Etna looming large when they return to the Italian mainland on Tuesday, the brief for 2016 Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali and his fellow contenders for overall victory will mainly be to keep out of trouble.

So what challenges do the roads of Sardinia have in store for the Giro peloton? Cyclist headed for the Mediterranean to find out...

Kidnapping was once the national sport of Italy. No one was safe. For three decades from the late 1960s, more than 700 men, women, children and pensioners were taken hostage.

And the hub of the kidnap industry was a spectacular mountain range on the island of Sardinia called the Supramonte. And that’s where Cyclist is heading today.

The remote gorges and caves in this area were regularly used as hiding places for the kidnap gangs and their victims. The nearest town, Orgosolo, became known as the ‘Capital of Silence’, because no one would reveal anything to the police. 

Our guide and native Sardinian, Marcello, has warned me the residents of Orgosolo are quite sensitive about the town’s reputation. In 1992 the town made international headlines when an eight-year-old boy was freed after nearly six months in captivity.

Part of his left ear had been sliced away and sent to his parents with the ransom demand. And just over three years ago, Italy’s most notorious kidnapper – Graziano Mesina – was caught hiding in the town.

Supramonte and Orgosolo are perfectly safe now, Marcello reassures me, though it’s probably best I don’t make any jokes about the Mafia, omerta or banditos.

It’s a short, stiff climb up to the town from the Cedrino river, and I’m wondering whether my choice of fancy kit might be considered an invitation to any former hostage-takers to come out of retirement.

Fortunately, a mix-up over sizing means the high-end Pinarello bike I’d been promised never materialised, so I’m riding a cheaper German frame instead.

No self-respecting bandito would think they could get a ransom for that, surely?

Pretty in pink

It’s taken us nearly three hours to reach Orgosolo from the beach resort of Cala Gonone on Sardinia’s east coast. A chunk of that time was taken up with the 7km, 7% average gradient climb from our sea-level hotel.

Since then, a soaring ridge of pink limestone has filled the horizon, signalling the labyrinth of gorges, peaks and valleys that make up the 35,000 hectares of the Supramonte.

It looks too benign and lovely to have once been the haunt of kidnappers and killers, but the situation was once so bad that a Sardinian politician described the island as ‘a kind of Wild West’, and the national government considered sending in 4,500 troops.

‘It’s definitely safe now?’ I ask Marcello, slightly concerned that hardly a single car has passed us since we left the last town of Oliena and started the gentle, winding climb over the mountain to Orgosolo.

‘It’s fine, you’ll see, there is no kidnapping now,’ says Marcello, although I’m getting paranoid there’s a reason why he’s suddenly letting me lead the way up the heavily forested slopes when earlier he’d been doing all the pacesetting. 

When we finally arrive in the town, we are greeted by scenes of violence and conflict on a massive scale. Fortunately, they are in the form of murals painted on the walls of the town’s public buildings.

Regardless of its violent history, Orgosolo is now a tourist trap cashing in on its popularity with muralists from all over Europe.

And instead of glorifying the area’s kidnapping legacy, the artworks depict more abstract scenes, ranging from cubist-style renderings of local politicians to anti-war messages and Communist propaganda.

The only danger facing the unwary cyclist these days is the threat of being squashed by a car packed with tourists trying to negotiate the narrow streets.

We stop at a cafe decorated with a cartoon of a shifty-looking figure carrying a sheep around his shoulders. Whether he’s a farmer or a livestock rustler isn’t obvious, and we decide it’s probably best not to ask for clarification.

A group of locals has suddenly congregated in the doorway, paying particular attention to our bikes. I’m glad it’s Marcello who is riding the more expensive-looking one. 

One of the locals is a young man with a walking stick. Another is a tall, gaunt figure dressed entirely in black. 

We shuffle inside and order drinks, but the tall man would appear to object to this and is suddenly having an animated conversation with Marcello while shooting menacing looks in my direction.

I’m wondering whether I could possibly have any value on the international hostage-taking market. Surely the current Euro-Sterling exchange rate makes me worthless?

Then Marcello says, ‘This man here is called Francesco. And he would like to buy you a drink.’

Over a beer we are soon bonding with Francesco and the man with the walking stick who shares his name, Graziano, with the town’s most infamous son, Graziano Mesina, ‘King of the Kidnappers’, who spent more than 50 years in and out of prison before his latest arrest two years ago aged 71 for drug-smuggling.

(This detail isn’t actually volunteered by Graziano, but related to me by Marcello later. Graziano is keener to tell us about how he won a medal at the European Paralympian Dressage competition of 2011.) 

Francesco and Graziano are curious about what we are doing here – while mountain bikers are a common sight, road cyclists are a relative novelty – and are anxious to tell us the story behind the town’s most colourful mural depicting a confrontation between local farmers and the army.

It seems the government wanted to open a military base here, but the farmers said they needed tractors and ploughs more than tanks and helicopters.

The base was never built, and the slogan above the mural reads in Italian: ‘The farm = life. The army = ????’

Click through to page two to read the rest of our Sardinian adventure

Page 1 of 3Big Ride: Sunshine and solitude on the empty island of Sardinia

Page 1 of 3Big Ride: Sunshine and solitude on the empty island of Sardinia