Etna, the hottest destination

Sapienza Etna

Italian pro team Liquigas have had a semi-permanent base on the slopes of Mount Etna this year. Etna is an active volcano in Sicily, the large island at the southern tip of the Italian peninsula. It’s black slopes often contrast with a snowy peak and at times, the infernal glow of lava.

Liquigas’s mountain HQ is the Rifugio Giovanni Sapienza, a mountain lodge also the choice of the Astana team. A pumice stone’s throw away lies the Hotel Corsaro, as used by two more teams, Lampre and Katusha.

Lampre Etna
Petacchi and Scarponi going nowhere at 1900m

The volcanic slopes mean no brutal moments, it’s a smooth climb uphill with sections at a steady 7% but what the ascent lacks in gradient, it makes up with length being 19km from Nicolosi, with some climbing needed to get to this last town before you enter the Etna national park. With warm Sicilian sunshine and reasonable gradients it sounds like the ideal place. But it’s not without its dangers.

Hot destination
Recently the team’s Polish rider Sylwester Szmyd told how a new eruption caused concern. “Etna decided to give us a little excitement over the weekend… there were explosions and the roads were covered in ash. The lava isn’t visible from the hotel, but yesterday morning hotel staff and the police went up to investigate and one of them, unfortunately, came back with melted shoes“.

This is common, the volcano dominates the landscape and the local life too. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, a veritable cauldron. Eruptions are constant although big lava flows aren’t every day. But whole villages have been lost in recent times and it’s normal for locals to sweep and wash the abrasive black dust away many times a year.

Nibali Etna
Nibali prepares for the Giro

Altitude training?
Why stay on the slopes of an active volcano? Well Sicily has warm weather and the base is at 1,910 metres above sea level and it seems riders want benefits of training at altitude. High but probably not enough to get any significant benefits from altitude training.

To recap, the partial pressure of air reduces the higher you go, meaning the body is deprived of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. In response the body produces more red blood cells, thus improving the oxygen carrying capacity. When back at sea level the athlete gets a performance improvement.

Only the jury is out. Some say it works, some say it doesn’t. Many pros are certainly heading for high altitude. But reports suggest it might depend on genetics, that some riders respond whilst others don’t. Other research suggests there are costs and benefits, that for the blood boosting effect the blood chemistry changes for the worse, for example the pH. But a common idea is that you need to be high above sea level, preferably above 2,500m. So being at 1,910m probably isn’t enough, it might help at the margin but not substantially.

But I suspect none of this will be news to the teams. They will be testing riders to measure their responses. Perhaps riders are using altitude tents, secretly popular in the peloton, to further extend rarified air?

Giro d’Italia
The Giro has a stage with two climbs of Etna, first tackling the slopes on the north-eastern side via Sant’Alfio before descending back to the coast and then taking the road from the south to climb to the Rifugio Sapienza. These are long and regular climbs which should suit the more powerful rider who can push a big gear over the pure mountain specialists.


Liquigas, Katusha, Astana and Lampre are all using Etna for altitude training camps. It must be crowded at times. There’s not much up there except for the Sapienza lodge, the Hotel Corsaro and a car park for a cable car that lets visitors get higher up.

Only you wonder why because at 1900m it’s just not high enough to gain any of the hypoxic benefits from altitude. It’s remote so teams are not bothered by outsiders knocking on their door.

For the riders it must be boring, they can hardly go for a stroll, sit in a café and watch the world go by. For all the colour and glamour in pro cycling, a stint at altitude must rank as the most boring part of the job. Still, many will know every bend in the road for the Etna stage of the Giro.

11 thoughts on “Etna, the hottest destination”

  1. We tried to fly into Catania a few years back while Etna was fuming – instead ended up flying into a military airport just-far-enough out of the ashes and taking a bus back to the Catania airport. Italians aren’t stupid, they DON’T want to do “altitude” work outside of Italy and Passo Stelvio is still covered with snow during this period. There is NO increase in hematocrit from periods of sleeping at 6000 ft? I find that hard to believe, especially as we saw most of the Mapei squad doing this same thing many years ago atop the Stelvio. Certainly doesn’t hurt that the Giro stages will be held on the Etna roads either. With some luck, yours truly and the wife will be living near Siracusa in Sicilia for awhile starting in the fall…and then near Vesuvio/Napoli in the winter of 2013. Having grown up in Southern California with its earthquakes, volcanos will be just another fact of life for us.

  2. GreaseMonster: tans? Yes Sicily is warm but I’ve been and the top of Etna is often covered by clouds, the nearby sea brings a lot of humidity.

    gilbert: yes, true it is banned, I remember that now. I remember Robbie McEwen got into trouble.

    Larry T: nice, Sicily is a chaotic place. Be sure to profit from the local fruit and produce. Plus it’s the only place where ice cream is served in a brioche for breakfast. As for the lab tests, my view is that sports science is a long way behind practice by the teams and other sports, the sample size of 23 athletes quoted in the test is still too small and you need double blind controls (hard!)

  3. 1910 metres being probably not enough depends on how you see it. That altitude might not do alot to boost the blood, but it will certainly have a huge effect on hard efforts, and the effect altidude has on people may vary alot.

    A big ski star now seriously considers moving to Davos at 1500 meters since the olympics in Sochi also will be at roughly 1500. He feels that people living at altitude (e.g Davos) has an advantage over him when competing in altitude, and he feels the need to acclimitize and be used to the height also. This is outside the altitude training he always have done to get the assumed positive blood effects.

    So even though 1910 meters might not be enough for the blood, being used to that still considerable height might help when doing intensive efforts on mountains passes over 2000 meters in the Giro or Tour.

  4. Sicily a chaotic place? Compared to what? We’ve been down there a few times and found it maybe more “Italian” than places further north but everything seems to work for what we needed. Our northern Italian friends always warn us about what they view as “Africa” which seems to be anything south of where they live, whether it’s Bergamo or Rome but for us it’s like Rick Steve’s says, “Italy intensifies as you go south” or something like that. We’ve been pretty much everywhere in Italy over the years with the exception of not much travel in Friuli-Venezia-Guilia so far. In the summer, ice cream for breakfast sounds pretty good..covers two of the breakfast food groups, milk/cream and sugar. A caffe and the brioche nicely covers the others! As to altitude training camps, what is the typical altitude simulated by the tents or rooms used outside of Italy?

  5. A footnote, supplied by the Gazetta Dello Sport last November:
    “Siamo sicuri che, tra febbraio e aprile, quell’ albergo di Tenerife in cima al vulcano Teide resterà con tante stanze vuote. Troppo controllato. In silenzio, i corridori e i loro preparatori hanno già trovato un’ alternativa, e si chiama Sicilia, Etna. Ma ora è a rischio anche quella.”
    “We are confident that, between February and April, the ‘hotel in Tenerife in the top of the Teide volcano, will be left with many empty rooms. Too controlled. In silence, the riders and their preparations have already found an ‘alternative, and is called Sicily, Etna. But now even that is at risk”
    (at the end of

  6. “Also on Thursday, Lampre-ISD officials confirmed that NAS officers searched the team’s hotel on the slopes of Mount Etna where Michele Scarponi is currently training ahead of the 2011 Giro d’Italia. Team officials said in a communique that the squad is cooperating with officials, who took with them packets of common anti-inflammatories, powdered milk and Enervit bars.”

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