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 you don’t need a GPS to get out of town, just head uphill, plus 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 a recent 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, surrounded by 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.
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