Etna, fire and flames on the volcano
No, it is not Mars, it is the bald summit of Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano. Arriving at the 1900-metre altitude of the Rifugio Sapienza, one has the impression of being on a different planet: the total absence of vegetation, however, is not due to the altitude or the lack of oxygen, as is the case on some peaks above 2000 metres, but to the fact that fire and lava are bubbling underground. If you decide to cycle up one of the many slopes available, please be careful, as at the summit winds often blow so hard that it becomes impossible to stay in the saddle. “Etna is our Mont Ventoux” said the then director of the Giro d’Italia Angelo Zomegnan in 2011. And indeed, the juxtaposition seems to make sense.
The “mumbling” Etna overlooks eastern Sicily, between the Nebrodi mountains and the Catania plain, and is the highest Italian peak south of the Alps. Each side of the volcano has its own distinctive traits: on the eastern and southern side, up to 1,000 metres above sea level, the land is cultivated, and the area is heavily urbanised, while it is wild and barren on the western side. Less urbanised, but with a gentler appearance, is the northern slope, with mostly wooded area above the village of Linguaglossa, while the eastern side is dominated by the slightly menacing appearance of the Valle del Bove and its thick forests. Approaching the peak of the volcano, however, all the vegetation quickly fades away.
The Giro included Mount Etna in its route for the first time in 1967 with the victory of “crazy heart” Franco Bitossi, and then in 1989 with the success of Acacio Da Silva. Unfortunately, the lack of entertainment due to the heavy wind, which discouraged the riders from attacking, prompted the organisers to shelve it for a while. Since 2011, however, Etna has returned to semi-stable status, having been tackled six times in eleven years, though not always from the same sides or with the same arrivals, starting from Nicolosi, the most iconic side, as in 1967, 2011 and 2017, or from Paternò, as in 1989, 2018 and 2022, and arriving at Rifugio Sapienza or, only once, in 2018, at the Astrophysical Observatory. In 2020, however, when Jonathan Caicedo won, he climbed the volcano starting from Linguaglossa and arriving at Piano Provenzana.
For geographical reasons, the Etna stage has always been included in the first part of the Giro – in the ninth stage at latest – often representing the first face-off between the GC contenders. The climb is long, whether you approach from Nicolosi or Biancavilla it measures around 19 km with a constant gradient of around 6.3%, while from Paternò the ascent is extended to 26 km. The Piano Provenzana side, on the other hand, is slightly harder, as it is 18.2 km at 6.8%. The main pitfall is always the wind, which, if blowing against the riders, nips the spectacle in the bud, forcing the athletes to remain sheltered on the wheel of their closest teammate or rival.
In 2018, an entertaining stage came out of it, with the parade-style finish of Esteban Chaves, a member of the day’s breakaway, and teammate Simon Yates who, despite having enough legs to win the stage, left the victory to the Colombian, who had bravely attacked from afar. Paradoxically, however, the most famous climb of Etna is the only one no longer in the annals – even though still very much in our memory – namely that of 2011, when Alberto Contador (whose victory in that Giro would be revoked due to a doping affair the year before) became the “Pistolero”. The Madrilenian attacked in his own style, standing on the pedals in his distinctive harmonious but powerful cadence, dropping the home idol Vincenzo Nibali first, followed by the late Michele Scarponi, and then the Venezuelan José Rujano: at the finish line he exulted for the first time with the gesture that would later become a trademark, the pistol shot. That day Contador fell in love with Mount Etna and turned it into one of his amusement parks, the place where he would retreat before major appointments to find peace of mind and reload his gun.
Listen to the episode of In Cima dedicated to the Etna: