The moonscape of the Mount Etna cycling climb.
The Mighty Mount Etna: The third hardest bike climb in Italy (just behind the incomparable Scanuppia), is located in the east coast of Sicily, between the cities Messina and Catania. We start the route at the horse monument.
Starting at the horse monument makes sense because the true ascent begins there, but this is not without its hazards -- the drivers in this part of the world (or the tourists in this part of the world?) drive insanely! Proceed with caution.
From the monument, you will go up a one way highway/main road for a few kilometers, then you merge with a one way lane pointing uphill. The best way to do this is to start at sunrise or just before, otherwise do not ride this part. At sunrise it was alright, with very light traffic.
We started this climb at dawn on 7 July 2018.
The road stays very busy as it is a main route in and out of town. There are many roundabouts in the first 10 miles, most have signs directing you toward Etna. There is no shoulder at any point and at one spot you must drive up a one lane onramp.
Onramp only advisable (well, not really advisable, but manageable) in early morning.
By kilometer 16 the traffic has thinned and the main Mount Etna Strava Segment of climbing begins. For cyclists not interested in doing the most difficult ‘fiets’ climbs but merely enjoying the climb, this is a smart place to start (27.2 km/2,156 m/7.8% from here; 15.6 km/734 m/4.7% to the alternate/safe/calmer start).
Near the alternate start at km 15.
Km 16.5 -- stay left on SP 92.
Once you climb past the trees you’ll start to see evidence of volcanic activity. The trees disappear and the view opens up, just as the road gets steeper and Etna looms before us in all its majestic glory.
View with 24 km to go.
A Bit About the Volcano: Mount Etna, whose name is derived from the Greek meaning “I burn,” is an active supervolcano, and outside the Caucasus, is the highest active volcano in all of Europe. This is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and exists in an almost-constant state of activity. Most eruptions occur at the summit, where there are five craters, but eruptions on this volcano can also happen in one of the 300 vents on the flanks, ranging in size from small holes, to craters that are hundreds of meters across. Though they can be large and highly explosive, eruptions at the summit of Mount Etna rarely affect the inhabited areas below, but flank eruptions have been known to occur at lower altitudes, well into inhabited areas. The most recent summit eruption at Mount Etna occured in December 2018, while the the flank eruptions have been on pause since 2009. More information on Mount Etna’s volcanic activity can be found here.
The big sweeping switchbacks take you to the restaurants/visitor center/parking lot. That’s where the paved road ends. Many tourist park there and hike, bus, tram, or quad to the summit.
Alternate/easier way to the finish!
It is very busy at the Rifugio, even in the early morning when I arrived. Mount Etna is a HUGE tourist attraction in Sicily. Most people I talked to had planned a whole day to visit.
8.5 km at 11.4% to the finish from the Rifugio Giovanni Sapienza.
Once on the unpaved portion, the road immediately becomes devilishly steep. I was struggling to stay upright from the very start of the gravel. Mountain bikes are strongly recommended although I believe we can still safely call this a road/cross climb.
It’s no picnic for the last 8.5 km!
This cycling climb is manageable for the very strong and technically accomplished riders, but very, very difficult. In some corners I lost traction and had to walk to a more mellow pitch to get started again. I don’t think many people ride up on cross bikes. I saw approximately 12 other riders, all on mountain bikes. The Mount Etna cycling climb is one like Mauna Kea where it is best to swap out to an MTB at the end of the pavement. Even so, I did ride a cross bike with 40mm tires the entire bike climb.
The smarter way.
The less smart way . . .
The end of the road -- not the end of the path, though -- is at a parking lot (on the map called CraterBarbagallo). That is the summit for our purposes.
The mapped finish . . . but . . .
. . . you can hike from here . . . or . . .
. . . Keep on truckin!
To continue from there you have to go through a chain fence and the road becomes more of a trail. The loose gravel becomes tennis ball sized volcanic rock and is highly hazardous for any bike, especially a cross bike. In the final kilometers you really feel like you are on a volcano (which, of course, you are!). The path starts to disappear and you only follow faint footprints to the end of the road. The end comes abruptly, the road just stops at a bunch of volcanic rock. I think there may have been some sort of landslide because on the map it looks like the road should continue from there. The locals I was with also said there had been a landslide there in the past. The dirt descent is very treacherous on a cross bike; it is very difficult to stay upright in the corners.
In the words of Bob Dylan, “you don’t need a stop sign to know where the road ends.”
The “coolest” place I’ve ever had a snowball fight!
i miei tre amici italiani.
Warning: No drones in Italian National Parks -- almost learned the hard way!
Steepest kilometer starts at km 36.8 (13.9%).
The Giro d’Italia has featured a finish at Cefalù to Rifugio Sapienza several times, most recently (as of July 7, 2018) May 10, 2018 Stage 6 (won by Esteban Chaves).