Roads to Ride: Mount Etna

Monday, 8 May 2017

Monte Etna

The finish of the Giro d’Italia’s fourth stage this year, Mount Etna or simply “the mountain” to locals in Sicily is an active volcano with several roads to the top. What’s it like to ride?

The Route: there are several ways up Etna but this will look at the climb north from Nicolosi via the Via Catania and the Salto del Cane (“Dog’s Leap”), the Giro route in 2017. It is 18km and averages 6.6% but this includes a short downhill and flat section one third of the way so the typical gradient is 7%. The graphic above shows 12% but that’s on the inside of one of the rare hairpin bends. Nicolosi is in the Province of Catania on the island of Sicily in Italian.

The Feeling: all rides have to start but few involve such a wait. Etna stands at 3,350m above sea level and is one of the largest mountains in Europe by prominence but the classic stratovolcano cone can be covered by clouds for days on end. You can ride in the mist but holding out for a clear day is much more rewarding.

If even if you can’t see the peak the volcano is all around with the start town of Nicolosi making a living off the passing tourist trade and some of its buildings are built from the dark basalt rock. Nicolosi is on the slope and don’t need a GPS to get out of town, just head uphill, although there are plenty of signs to help. But for the Salto del Cane road take the road to the north. The gradient bites from the start. You pass vineyards at first and the vegetation is small and stunted, as if it’s only just regrown since an eruption but more likely because the rocky surface doesn’t have much soil or space for roots. The road is rough in places but apparently it’s been resurfaced in places for the Giro.

It’s quickly apparent that it’s just you, the road and the volcano. There are almost no buildings along the way. It’s like a computer game where you have to have to select the “lite” graphics option because your computer doesn’t have the processing power. Only for the brain this is frustrating, there are none of the charms you take for granted when climbing in the Alps or Apennines, no white water gushing in a gorge below, not even a small fountain to fill a bottle from. No pastures, chalets or other features and it makes you think that for all the pleasure of nature human influence can sometimes enhance the charm, this is more like riding across Mothern Nature’s construction site or an old mining zone. It’s a bit bleak at times but also means you escape a lot of the litter that’s roadside in Sicily.

The higher you climb the smaller the vegetation, both because the lava flows look more recent and also because the wind gets up to strip away anything trying to exist. If you can pick your day then a still, clear day is perfect but not easy as Sicily can be a windy place. All the time the road is regular, the gradient can change in places, 7% here, 8% there but the changes are obvious rather than abrupt, this is a long climb where you sit back and winch your way up with few gear changes. There are some steeper moments but they’re brief.

The Rifugio Sapienza is a bit of a disappointment, it’s your “summit” for the ride but in reality the road just levels out and looks like a giant car park and souvenir superstore. It’s a small ski resort looking exposed without snow with large car park and ski lifts dangling redundantly in the wind. You’re at 1900m above sea level and the peak of Etna stands at 3350m meaning it’s about the same vertical gain as you’ve done from Nicolosi to get to the very top if you fancied walking, going on a mountain bike or taking the cable car but the best thing is the view below.

From here you can descend via other routes. A tip: don’t crash. It sounds obvious but the exposed volcanic rock is harsh with an abrasive touch that will shred skin, clothing and possibly ruin your bike on contact. Head east to descend towards Zafferana and steam can be seen rising from cracks in the rocks right next to the road, a reminder that the tarmac strip you’re on is temporary.

The Verdict: 18km and 7% or more for most of the way makes this equivalent to the Galibier from Valloire. It’s easier because the altitude is kinder but mentally hard because the road just goes on with little to aim for. This is a hard climb that’s to be ridden because it’s there, visit Sicily and it’s on the skyline tempting you to tackle it. The island is a good place to visit with your bike and Etna is an obvious destination for a day or two. Climb it and you can spend the other days gazing at it. Sometimes a mountain offers great views from the top but here Etna is best viewed as you enjoy the roads below and can gaze up at the peak.

Linguaglossa

Other routes: you can reach the Rifugio Sapienza from Nicolosi by taking the SP92 to the north-west of the town too, it’s a bigger road and more even in gradient which is good if you want a steady climb but this attracts the tourists driving up by car and by bus. You can also climb from Zafferana too, an even gradient as well and it joins the Salto de Cane route near the top.

There are more roads around the volcano. The ascent from Fornazzo to the north-east lets you climb the flanks of Etna before descending to Linguaglossa, a scenic town paved with black flagstones made from the volcano.

The Giro History: the race has visited Etna three times, twice to the Rifugio Sapienza and once to Piano Bottaro lower down. The last time was in 2011 when Alberto Contador won the stage but was later disqualified leaving José Rujano as the recorded winner.

The Name: it’s Etna to most but simply the muntagna to locals and sometimes called Mongibello on older maps, seemingly a combine of mountain and jebel, the Arabic for mountain. Rifugio Sapienza translates as “Knowledge Refuge”, conjuring up images of a science workstation on the volcano but it’s named after Giovannino Sapienza, a rock climber who died in the war.

Volcano: it’s an active volcano. Think of it as a safety valve that regularly lets off pressure with small explosions and lava flows. Pay attention to any warnings and local advice but normally the roads are open and the Rifugio Sapienza is accessible all year.

Travel and access: Sicily’s main city of Palermo is on the other side of the island but road and rail links can get to to the east, if not there is Catania airport and the nearby city of Messina has rail and ferry links to the mainland including a rail link by ferry where the train rolls onto a boat to cross the straits. Taormina is a tourist destination, a place to stay if you travel with family or friends who don’t want to ride and it also offers good riding on the eastern flanks of Etna.

More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads

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gabriele May 8, 2017 at 2:00 pm

The volcano is even known with a simpler name: “Iddu”, which is actually a pronoun – you might translate it as “It”, if you like the Stephen King horror flavour, or “He/Him” if you prefer to think about Mercedes Pinto’s novel and Buñuel’s movie (in order to stick to the Sicilian jealousy’s stereotype).

Truth is that the most scenic route is probably the SP92: more bends, more sights of what you’re leaving below in a clear day, a touch of better cared human presence, especially on the slower slopes (more stone walls instead of simple steel guard-rails) and, way more important, “newer”, more recent, lava fields, with less of an impression of “nature’s work-in-progress” (“should I put some bushes or just rocks?”) and more of “nature’s cruel but creative artwork”. Have a look with Google Maps satellite view: the darker the land looks, the more beautiful will it be to pass through.
The downsides are the very large road (it sorts of has three lanes at a certain point, if I remember it correctly) and more presence of motorised vechicles.

I also like quite much the north-eastern option, which also makes more sense as a continuous climb from the seaside or so, reaching Fornazzo through Giarre and S. Alfio (some of the village there are worth a visit in themselves). You reach another little ski station at 1800 mts altitude but you can start little over sea level, if you want. Perhaps it’s less spectacular than the SP92 but I prefer it over the Salto del Cane option because of the alternance of pinewoods and lava field (one relatively new, with black volcanic sand getting in the road itself) along its higher slopes.

Speaking of riding “around” the massif, I prefer the less densely-populated areas, that is the north-western half (if it was a clock, between 7 and 1): not only Linguaglossa is worth a visit, Castiglione and Randazzo are really beautiful, then Maletto for the strawberries and obviously Bronte (for “pistacchio” lovers), Biancavilla, Centuripe, Agira…
Incredible gastronomy all over Sicily and speaking of wines a renaissance of nerello mascalese grapes for the Etna Rosso DOC, if you’re getting tired of Nero D’Avola.

Motormouth May 8, 2017 at 3:52 pm

You are a never ending fount of information, Gabriele. Always a pleasure to read your comments.

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Glad someone likes the north-east side too, I found it enjoyable as well with the pines and the traffic is lighter, some tourists and motorbikes but not as many as to the Rifugio Sapienza. The Giro’s route is not the best but it’s one way to show the mountain and hopefully people come back for more.

Richard S May 8, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Sounds like my worst nightmare of a climb! Long climbs that go on forever at a modest gradient just grind me down. Throw in the lack of vegetation to shield you from the fairly likely wind and it sounds horrendous! I’d probably prefer Zoncolan or Mortirolo.

Tricky Dicky May 8, 2017 at 5:11 pm

I doubt it to be honest – this climb is a doozy compared to the other two. Zoncolan is ridiculous, it is almost a circus act. Motirolo slightly less so but just really uneven with such unexpected steep spots (but very few few views) that you never get a rhythm. I’ll defer to those who are truly in the know, like Gabriele, for an in depth analysis but it’s probably my least favourite climb in Italy.

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Each to their own I suppose, as long as you have the right gearing the Zoncolan and Mortirolo can be done by many active riders. Etna is hard for the exposed aspect.

Ben E May 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm

Fab writing but Should “…giro route in 2016” say 2017?

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 5:14 pm

It should and it does now, thanks for pointing this out.

Stephen D May 8, 2017 at 3:30 pm

There’s a great hlvan in the large car park of the Rifugio selling Etna honey. Highly recommended.

Ben E May 8, 2017 at 3:32 pm

A tour guide in Iceland explained to me that volcanic rock cannot support plant life. It rests on top of any soil, instead of the soil resting on the rock. Plants can’t root in or get nutrition from the rock. The only flora that can bloom on it is moss, but is very slow growing, so will only form on old volcanic floes that have not been covered by a later eruption. It would take many years, or soil to be blown/moved onto the rock, for sufficient moss to have formed to support other flora.

Cat & Fiddle May 8, 2017 at 3:52 pm

I think it’s the SP92 which has a sweeping corner, the inside of which has a house decimated by a lava flow. I found that pretty interesting. At the top of the pass, the craters are easily accessible and worth a look.

DaveS May 8, 2017 at 4:38 pm

Pro cycling is a funny old sport. It’s it only me that thinks it’s a bit suspect putting several hundred slow moving cyclists and support crew plus a few thousand spectators on an active volcano? I have climbed it myself, when the escape roads were not clogged with a pro cycle race and the air was tough to breathe. TUEs for everyone?

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 5:30 pm

It’s fine, presumably if it’s erupting and there’s a plume of smoke/dust going up then you don’t want to be down wind of this but otherwise the air is very fresh. It’s active but not dramatic, or at least very rarely.

Neuron1 May 9, 2017 at 3:23 am

Dave S, funny comment but you are thinking rationally and that just won’t do. This is professional cycling, if they had any common sense they wouldn’t ride in torrential rain, snow, climb and descend mountains on what are essentially goat tracks and certainly not at the incredible speeds they do. All this while eating, drinking and performing other bodily functions while on the fly. Gawd what an amazing sport and spectacle.

DaveS May 9, 2017 at 10:01 am

LOL, sorry my bad. As a cyclist I totally recognise what you say 😊

Jim Smith May 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Good report, as usual. I was in Sicily a couple of years ago for riding with friends. Because of our age, most couldn’t ride Etna so we took the van to the refugio, then the cable car, and then another big off road bus to the top. Great views on the day we were there.

I’d highly recommend Sicily for riding. There isn’t a lot of traffic and there are lots of interesting smaller towns. Palermo and Catania, the two big cities, have some interesting places but lots of traffic too. We stayed near Cefalu, where the 2017 Giro stage starts, for a couple of days and found interesting sights and good food.

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 5:32 pm

The riding is good but it can be windy, it is a long way south but rarely a training camp destination – some Italian teams use the Sapienza hotel for altitude training – but very nice in September and October, as Europe begins to cool it’s still warm there.

A different J Evans May 8, 2017 at 7:43 pm

Nice write up and I just want to say that I’m a massive fan of this series, which I know doesn’t attract the same number of comments as others. I’m still grateful for the Passo delle Erbe in the Dolomites, for example.

I concur with the other readers who recommend Sicily – I’ve cycled Etna (from Linguaglossa, a challenge) but also in the Southeast and Southwest 0f the island. As soon as you get a few km inland, up a hill, the roads quieten and the views of the Med expand, with descents in the Spring or Autumn sunshine amongst the best cycling experiences I’ve had.

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 8:18 pm

Thanks, there might not be many comments but they’re a popular read and because they’re not dealing with a short term topic in the news, like a stage preview, people read and return to them.

Corrado May 8, 2017 at 11:21 pm

Got to agree with A different J Evans here: the Roads to ride pieces are, and have always been, a joy to read. Simply excellent work as always, INRNG.

joliver3 May 9, 2017 at 3:28 am

Agree, there are plenty of sites to get racing news and analysis (although few as in-depth as this one), but the Roads to Ride is a unique feature. I’ll probably never get to ride many (any?) of them, but they’re fun to think about for the bucket list!

“A tip: don’t crash.” Thanks! 😉

Eskerrik Asko May 9, 2017 at 7:26 am

I must add myself to the already long list of those who appreciate this series of blog entries. I have an incurable downhill phobia that is worse than Thibaut Pinot’s ever was and I won’t ever ride the big climbs described, but I have a good dozen riding buddies to whom I have given the advice of checking the entries before their trip and every single one has thanked me after his return.

PS I have sat in the co-driver’s seat in a rallye car going 160 km/h on a bumpy and twisty gravel road with fir trees and rocks and boulders jumping at me all the time, but I was not uncomfortably scared. Go figure.

Othersteve May 8, 2017 at 9:25 pm

Always learn something, thanks Inrng and Gabriel.

Leaving for 2 weeks in Italy ( Florence) Thursday. Gabriel you have given me
a new Sicilian wine varietal to try.

gabriele May 8, 2017 at 11:24 pm

Cycling hints…
Don’t lose the Giro’s Bartali stage! 🙂
On a different day, you could also go and taste ex pro Paolo Fornaciari’s award-winning ice creams, his shop is called “Ultimo Km” and can be found in the outskirts of Montecatini Terme, on the road to Lucca (Lucca really deserves a visit). More victories as a gelataio than as a cyclist (excellent gregario).
I guess that for both you’d need to rent a car – or a bike.

Cultural detour. If you actually decide to watch that Giro stage by the roadside, you could take advantage of the situation to pay a visit to Camaldoli (from Stia, which sits right between the first two GPM’s of the day, you go south and right after Pratovecchio you turn left on SP72). An important cultural centre during the Renaissance, Landino, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s professor, set a famous series of Dialogues there, inspired by the meeting among himself, Lorenzo, Alberti, Ficino… And nearly five centuries later the future “Democrazia Cristiana” forged its political and economic guidelines there in a meeting held in Summer 1943.
The monastery is surrounded by a beautiful forest and some important Vasari paintings can be seen on site.

Not precisely Florence (1) – Since you stay for so long… besides the above mentioned Lucca, Arezzo (Piero della Francesca) is worth a visit, too, and can be reached from Florence by train (or in very little time with the highway).

Not precisely Florence (2) – Another (quite ‘crazy’) suggestion: take a train at 7:30 am from Florence SM Novella station, you’ll get to Ravenna in less than 3 hours. It’s a little train with a very scenic course. You’ll have some 6-7 hours to visit Ravenna (the Bizantine mosaics), then at 5:15 pm or so the same little train will bring you back to Florence for dinner (8:30 pm or so). It’s not only about visiting Ravenna, which has got several gems, it’s about the trip itself crossing the Appenines by train. Bring a camera – and a book.

Not precisely Florence (3) – 15-20 euros will bring you to Bolonia in 30-40 minutes by train. Many trains a day. Not a scenic trip (tunnel after tunnel), but a good way to spend a whole day in another beautiful city. Less “monuments”, as such, but a *truer* place, perhaps even more spectacular, as a whole, than Florence, the pleasure is really strolling around under its portici which look like a theatre scenery. And *that* is a place where to go pantagruelian eating.

No advices about Florence itself because I couldn’t add much to what any good guide would offer 😛
(If you hadn’t noticed yet, I’m on a personal mission to break the steel axis of Venice-Florence-Rome)
Jokes apart, Florence is great, that’s pretty much obvious. But what you need to see there is precisely… what you *must* see.

No serious advices about wine, either, because I’m far from being an expert about Tuscany (an inflation problem, there, and not only in the monetary sense; however, any Morellino di Scansano will deliver) and I’m not especially fond of Sangiovese or Lambrusco (Bolonia). I like better… pretty much all the other regions. Well, Tuscany and Emilia Romagna are so good in themselves that they simply can’t win it all.
But I’m ready to bet that Larry T. will be able to tell you more about special local wines, I think he’s long been on the terrain there.

The Inner Ring May 8, 2017 at 11:37 pm

Fornaciari’s ice cream shop is great but not on the tourist trail and even if you’re local you wouldn’t travel too far for it but it’s still a nice place with a cycling link although he doesn’t trade on it much apart from the name and a small poster inside. It was touched on in this piece here http://inrng.com/2012/05/euro-foods-ice-cream/

gabriele May 8, 2017 at 11:48 pm

Great piece and great series! I guess I wasn’t a reader, yet…

I think it’s a little curious “souvenir” if you rent a car and decide to go to Lucca from Florence, you might leave the highway in Montecatini and then go on to Lucca.

Othersteve May 9, 2017 at 2:15 am

Thanks, Hope to fit some of your suggestions into the schedule.

J Evans May 9, 2017 at 3:39 am

Hiring a car from Florence airport is so cheap, if you do it online, that you’ll save a fortune on train fares – and can go anywhere: if you like empty countryside and hills, head east towards Emilia-Romagna – Parco Nazionale Foreste Casentinesi and the surroundings are fantastic.

Steve May 9, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Morellino is just the local clone of Sangiovese, though I agree it’s usually better value than Chianti. I had a cracking Ciliegiolo from the Maremma the other day, a really pleasurable find from a merchant in an English market town.
Othersteve, M & S have a surprisingly good selection of Italian wines. You’ll find more than one example of Nerello Mascalese. Obviously they’re much cheaper in Italy…

J Evans May 9, 2017 at 2:53 am

I don’t know what it’s like if you’re on a bike, but Sicilian driving beggars belief – 3 in 5 chance that the car coming round the corner will be on your side of the road. The roads on Etna were very quiet, though.

West of Etna is spectacular and not very busy – especially the Parco dei Nebrodi.

I was there end of May (and you’d never have known the Giro was on – even though Nibali won) and Taormina was heaving – plenty of quieter places to stay.

AnotherDavid May 9, 2017 at 3:16 am

I think I shall read every ‘Roads to Ride’ article in the series, then make a list ranking them as a personal bucket list.

Pax May 9, 2017 at 4:17 am

Looks like a 200km + loop from Messina.

Curious how many times the Shark from Messina has ridden this climb?

JK May 9, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Great read and perfectly timed, I’ll be in Sicily for a week next month.
I now have some route planning to do…

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