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Big Ride Mount Etna: Cyclist vs the volcano

In-depth
10 May 2018
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Words Stu Bowers  Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

‘Have you seen the news?’ asks Chris excitedly on the other end of the phone. It’s Monday morning and I’m still a bit fuzzy. ‘No, why?’ I reply. ‘Etna’s erupted!’ he exclaims.

I flick hurriedly to the BBC News web page and sure enough, there are pictures of Mount Etna spewing molten lava and sparks high into the Sicilian night sky.

It is only a week since Chris, a Madison-Genesis team rider, and I packed up our bikes and flew home after riding a long loop around Europe’s tallest and most active volcano.

‘I can’t believe it,’ I respond, a bit shocked. ‘That would have made one hell of a story…’

As I hang up the phone, my thoughts turn from feeling cheated out of witnessing one of nature’s most incredible spectacles to the reality that maybe we’d had a lucky escape.

I don’t mean from being chased down the hillside by tides of flowing hot lava nipping at our rear tyres (that only happens in movies apparently), but from the ensuing air traffic delays that would have more than likely kept us grounded in Sicily for weeks.

Big daddy

I’ve never ridden up an active volcano before, and inevitably the whole experience is underpinned by the idea that the earth beneath us might begin to shake at any moment.

Mount Etna, with a height of 3,350m, dominates the Sicilian horizon and it will be in sight for practically our entire route today.

As far as the record books are concerned, Etna’s last ‘major’ eruption was back in 1992, but there has been a succession of smaller eruptions since, including one only six months ago.

Sipping a double espresso before we set off, Gino, a tall, well-built Sicilian and our guide for today, makes a comment that sticks in my head.

‘It’s not like a tsunami,’ he says as he listens to our chatter about the possibility of an eruption. Gino’s point is that there’s no immediate danger posed by lava flows.

Unlike in Hollywood where lava spills uncontrollably down the hillside, obliterating everything in its path, the reality is more like the movement of a giant slug. ‘You could easily walk much faster than the lava,’ he says.

Still, Chris and I still feel pretty excited to be on Etna’s slopes as we try not to go too far into our reserves on this first ascent of the day, a 17km climb up the Strada Provinciale 92 road – better known as Etna Sud.

We’re also relishing the prospect of the views and challenges (probably in equal measure) that we’ll encounter around this 142km loop.

There are only two ways to reach the summit of Etna by road – the one we’re on now, in the south, and one on its north side.

The plan is to take on both ascents today, conveniently spaced at opposing ends of the ride. This southern ramp is relentless, with an average gradient of around 7.5%, and already we’re feeling the burn in our legs, even before we’ve got halfway up to where the road peaks at around 2,000m.

Between our conversations about lava flows, Chris is berating me for having commandeered a rather lavishly-specced Cannondale Synapse for the ride.

I’ve got the distinct weight advantage on the ups over his, albeit very beautiful, stainless steel Genesis Volare.

The climb up Etna’s southern face today is extremely quiet, with only an occasional passing tour bus to interrupt the tranquility.

Temperatures are hotting up already and both Chris and I have relegated arm warmers and gilets to our rear pockets.

The trouble with the buses, aside from momentarily engulfing us in a cloud of fumes from their labouring diesel engines, is we can see them snaking their way up the climb ahead of us.

In the distance I catch glimpses of their reflective windows in the sunshine, like tiny flashlights spelling out Morse code for, ‘You’ve still got a long way to go.’

The only other company Chris and I have on this climb, strangely, are ladybirds. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve flicked one off my arm or bars, and this is not some kind of weird insect-Lynx-effect that only I am having – Chris is doing the same.

The further we climb the more there are, and eventually I think better of knocking them off and instead amuse myself by seeing how many I can collect and give a free ride to the summit.

Having completed the last of the road’s long, traversing zigzags, we finally crest the top of Etna Sud.

Losing the shelter of the hillside there’s an instantly noticeable chilly breeze, so we pull over momentarily to slip gilets back on, which also provides the perfect opportunity to fully appreciate the smoking crater for the first time.

It’s at this moment we notice something quite odd, so much so it distracts us from the spectacle we’d been so keenly awaiting.

The road is littered with dead ladybirds – squashed, maimed and mangled. It’s a full-scale ladybird massacre.

Despite the landscape being devoid of flora or fauna, the little flying beetles are here in their droves (or should I say ‘loveliness’ – the collective noun for ladybirds) and there seem to be almost as many dead as alive.

Gino tells us the ladybirds are in mid-migration and form a vital part of the crop cycle in the lower fields, where Sicilian agriculture, he explains, relies on them to feed on the smaller bugs that could endanger crops.

He assures us the scene before us is perfectly normal and the ladybird population is in no long-term danger.

Also in abundance at the summit are people. The buses that had passed us earlier on the climb have now deposited their loads of camera-pointing tourists, most of whom are too busy getting the perfect angle on their shots to realise that they are standing in the middle of the road and blocking our path. Time to move on.

What goes down

We head towards the start of the descent, which we can see snaking off down the barren, mostly jet-black lava flows that form the majority of the landscape at this height.

Having done nothing but climb since we left the hotel this morning, this first foray into high-speed descending and the thrill of leaning through the apexes of sweeping bends delivers a welcome shot of adrenaline.

The road surface is in great condition, maybe because in these parts resurfacing is a regular fact of life.

On one hairpin bend we pass a house almost completely buried in solidified lava. Only its roof is visible above the jagged black landscape. Home insurance can’t be cheap around here.

All too soon the downhill runs out and we take a right turn onto minor roads again. We begin making our way back uphill, this time on a narrow climb, continuing our arc around Etna.

The gradient varies dramatically, rolling for the most part but with occasional steep ramps that have us swinging out of the saddle. We descend again, through tunnels formed by the abundance of chestnut trees.

There are people with rakes harvesting the chestnuts, which we assume is another local industry, but Gino later tells us is actually simply for their own consumption, not to sell.

Roasted chestnuts are clearly a local delicacy. The road is littered with the spiky carcasses so we keep our speed in check and stay vigilant to avoid punctures.

We pass through the outskirts of Adrano, the first major town of the route so far. I’m so focused on my Garmin to keep us on track through its narrow streets I practically fail to notice the town come and go.

That means we also sail straight past several opportunities for our first coffee stop of the day.

Chris and I decide we should really keep pressing on anyway, so look forward instead to the promise of coffee and some lunch in Bronte, the next big town, which Gino informs us has a wealth of excellent traditional eateries.

After a short spell on the main arterial road (Strada Statale 284) that connects Adrano and Bronte around Etna’s western side, just before the village of Sacro Cuore, we turn to face the mountain and begin to climb once more.

The road is steep but we press on, encouraged by the prospect of the caffeine and sustenance that await us.

Suddenly, after puffing for what feels like an age up steep slopes, we find ourselves staring at a big set of locked wooden gates, barring the route for vehicles into the Etna National Park.

I look at Chris. His face says it all. Having expended a lot of energy to get up here we are reluctant to retrace our steps. We’ve earned the right to continue and we know that the alternative route is a fairly mundane main road.

What’s more, having done my research I’m certain there should be something quite special a few kilometres beyond these gates.

It’s one of the bits of this loop I’ve really been looking forward to – a crazy cobbled road I’d spotted during my time perusing Google Street View.

The cobbles are not like the ‘babies heads’ of Flanders, but feature larger slabs of black volcanic rock, laid out in two parallel strips like the flaming tyre tracks left behind by the time-travelling DeLorean in Back To The Future.

It promises to be a unique feature of the ride, and I’ll be disappointed to miss out on it if we have to turn back.

Then we spot something alongside the large wooden gates preventing vehicular access to the park. It’s a gate in the wall for pedestrians – which is wide open. It’s too tempting an offer to pass up. 

I leave the others for a moment to venture in to see what the road looks like beyond, thinking maybe at least Chris and I can continue on our way, temporarily abandoning Gino and photographer Juan, who will have no choice but to backtrack in the car, hopefully finding their way around to the other side to rendezvous with us where we exit the park on the cobbled descent.

What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

I report back to the others, the road appears fine. We decide to go for it. If it’s open to pedestrians, we figure it will be OK for bikes, too. 

On the wild side

A few minutes into our foray, Chris decides to tell me the area is apparently known for roaming wild boar, something he’d read on the internet while researching the area.

I’m not certain I’m grateful to him for sharing his gem of wisdom as I feel somewhat more vulnerable knowing we’re halfway up a volcano, a good distance from civilisation and armed only with a plastic tyre lever.

In my flagging state I don’t think I could win a fight with a squirrel, let alone a wild boar. I gulp down a precautionary energy gel just in case.

While I’m considering these thoughts I almost jump out of my skin as a huge guard dog rushes to the fence of the property we are passing.

Barking and snarling angrily at us, this is no doubt the first time it has had to do its job in days, such is the remoteness up here, so the beast is probably just giving a full-blooded performance, but we’re in no mood to find out whether it can get out of the front gate we’ve just passed – or whether indeed it’s had its lunch – so we hotfoot it up the road.

Our sprinting is short-lived because, to our dismay, around the next corner the tarmac runs out and turns to gravel. Still wary of what might be chasing us, we press on regardless, a little less frantic but still at pace.

The tracks up here are passable on road bikes, but only with a fair degree of care. The higher we climb the more they become a softer ash-like texture, and it starts to feel like we’re riding on sand.

We briefly discuss whether this was indeed a dubious decision, but fuelled by my faith in the fact it can’t be far to the exit point, plus the thought of going back past the guard dog again, means we opt to keep going forwards.

It’s the right move. Soon the gate and the rendezvous point we’re aiming for comes into view. Unfortunately Gino and Juan do not. Finding this remote road is beyond the abilities of Gino’s slightly aged sat-nav.

The descent to Bronte lives up to every bit of my expectation, fully justifying our efforts to defy the locked gates to find it. It’s cobbled surface is insane.

I feel like I need to keep my eyelids half shut to prevent my eyeballs from falling out of their sockets, such is the severity of the bumpy volcanic slabs we are riding down at speed.

It’s like riding Paris-Roubaix’s Arenberg Trench, only steeper  and halfway up a massive volcano. It may be punishing but it’s also exhilarating.

Cannondale’s Synapse HI-MOD was built with the cobbled Classics in mind, so once again I’m feeling smug about my bike selection, but even its shock-absorbing abilities are struggling to cope with the pounding.

The only answer to prevent my hands and fingers from going numb from the constant battering is to slow down, which has the added bonus of allowing us to look up occasionally and take in the views of the blackened moonscape before us.

Finally we make it to Bronte and are reunited once more with our support vehicle. There is only one thing on my mind: food. Thankfully that comes from a cafe on the road out of the town that specialises in cake and ice cream.

Pistachios are grown in abundance in Sicily, so Gino is understandably keen for us to try both the cakes and the ice cream of that flavour.

Neither Chris nor I put up any resistance to his suggestion, despite having one more serious climb still to go. Just then the second round of espressos arrives to help wash it all down. 

Chasing the sun

Stomachs laden with sugar, and bodies at least partially revived, we head off for another short stretch on the Strada Statale 284 towards Randazzo, aware now the day is rapidly disappearing.

Just before we reach Randazzo we peel off right, following Etna’s curve, back onto minor roads again.

We’re racing the clock, so Chris and I are taking turns to bash out a rhythm to help us cover this next bit of ground as quickly as possible, knowing that there is still one final ascent of Etna awaiting us.

It’s a rolling, tiring road to the base of Etna Nord. Over our right shoulders, the mighty volcano looms, and far off to the left is the mountain range that fills Sicily’s northernmost tip, gradually falling into shadow.

Just before we reach Linguaglossa we turn and start the climb, keeping the pace slow so as not to over-strain already tired legs.

The early slopes of Etna Nord are wooded, hiding from view the vastness of Etna’s northwest side, but as we get further up the landscape opens out. Each bend in the road promises to reveal the top, but leads only to yet another upward stretch.

Passing several shuttered roadside cafes and houses, the climb feels ominously deserted, especially in the now-chilly evening air, as any last remaining warmth from the sun has dipped out of sight behind the peak.

There are no tourists here as we summit Etna for the second time today, so we are alone to admire the magnificent views of the distant mountains turning pink in the setting sun.

Not wishing to get cold or lose any more of the remaining light, we don extra clothes and head quickly down the mountainside.

All that stands between us and a hot shower now is the descent towards Milo on the Via Mareneve – which translates as the road to the sea.

Just like the descent off the southern side of Etna, this slope is fast and with great lines of sight through all the bends.

Very high speeds are possible, but Gino is keen for us to stay safe, as we have no lights, and opts to take a lead car position, with us behind, for this final flurry into town.

He’s right, of course. It’s way too late in the day for an incident now, so we oblige and stay in his wake.

As we leave Zafferana Etnea, our hotel is almost in sight, but there’s still the very start of the Etna Sud climb left to ascend before the day is officially done.

It’s only a matter of about 1.5km but as this is, frustratingly, the steepest part of the 17km climb it’s a struggle.

Sure enough, we are reduced to a grovelling pace for the last few hundred metres and by the time we eventually reach the terrace bar at the front of the hotel, Gino and Juan are already halfway through a beer.

At least they’ve ordered some for us. With a long day completed and that feeling of slightly dirty, sun-kissed skin, these beers taste sweeter than ever.

Now all that’s left, Gino suggests, is to try another of the local culinary treats – a Pizza Sicilian – essentially a calzone, but deep-fried.

It sounds like just the calorie fest we need. After all, one of the rewards of an epic day out on the bike is that any food we shovel down now is completely free from guilt. Like the beer, I’m sure that will make it taste even better. 

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The route

We started out from the Catania Hotel Airone, on Via Cassone outside Zafferana Etnea. Follow Strada Provinciale 92 (SP92) over the southern summit and descend.

Before Segreta, turn right onto the Strada Milia up and then down through Calcerana-Marina to cross the SS284.

Go straight into Adrano, turning right on Via Vittorio Emanuele, and again on Via S Paolo before joining the SS284 towards Sacro Cuore.

In roughly 500m look for a right turn onto an unnamed road over a railway line that takes you to Etna National Park. If the gates are shut, bikes can pass through the smaller gate to the side.

This part requires some artistic licence. Once the tarmac runs out and becomes a gravel/dirt road, follow your nose around the edge of the Park, following the curve of the volcano.

Exit at park gates on the other side. Descend on bumpy rock slabs to Bronte. Turn right onto Via Messina before rejoining the SS284 once again towards Randazzo.

Before Murazzorotto, turn right onto an unnamed road, following the base of the mountain towards Linguaglossa. Take the right split to begin the ascent of Etna Nord, following Via Mareneve to the summit and back down to Fornazzo.

Follow SP59ii to Milo, then take SP59i to Zafferana Etnea, before taking Via Cassone back to the start.

 

The rider’s ride

Cannondale Synapse Hi-MOD 2, SRAM Red, £4,750, cyclingsportsgroup.com

Cannondale created this new Synapse to give Peter Sagan a competitive advantage in the cobbled Spring Classics, which came to fruition with a win at E3 Harelbeke in 2014.

The Synapse has more than proved its worth as a race-ready machine in terms of appropriate stiffness and low weight, but includes a heap of extra features such as the helixed Save Plus seatstays and super-skinny carbon 25.4mm seatpost to deliver additional shock and vibration dampening.

The Etna loop was certainly a thorough test for every aspect of this bike’s persona. It felt delightfully efficient tackling the many vertiginous kilometres, twice ascending to over 2,000m from a starting point close to sea level, and took the rough descent on the volcanic rock-slab paved road in its stride, with some noticeable comfort advantages over both its predecessor and other bikes of a similar ilk I’ve tested recently.

Cannondale really has delivered class-leading plushness, apparently without sacrificing any performance. It’s hard to see when this bike wouldn’t be the right choice to ride.

 

How we got there

Travel

We flew British Airways from London Gatwick to Catania,  which is a 25-minute taxi ride to Zafferana Etnea. With a few sharing, it could be more cost effective and save the hassle of renting a car. Budget airlines also fly regularly to Catania.

Hotel

Cyclist based itself at the Catania Hotel Airone, on Via Cassone, just outside Zafferana Etnea. It’s a Wellness hotel so offers the luxury of a spa and optional massages - perfect for post-ride recovery.

There balconies and a pool from which to enjoy superb views across the southern part of the island. Rooms are spacious and the family-run hotel is bike friendly too.

If you want to base yourself elsewhere on the loop, to provide a flatter start to the day, and/or a few more ride options, try the Feudo Vagliasindi hotel in Randazzo (feudovagliasindi.it).

Food and drink

The Catania Hotel Airone has a great restaurant, serving a range of Italian dishes in ample portion sizes.

Also highly recommended is the Il Castello di Bacco restaurant on the main square in Zafferana Etnea, which serves the local dish, Pizza Sicilian – basically deep-fried Calzone. 

Thanks

A huge thank you to Aldo Vittorio Bevacqua, of Sunvil Holidays, Sicily, who helped to plan this trip, and his associate Gino, our local guide who drove our support vehicle tirelessly all day.

Thanks also to Chris, my companion for the ride, who always remained unexpectedly trusting of my off-piste navigation.