By Giacomo Pellizzari, translated by Gillian Shaw (original article)
Below the volcano.
They call her Mungibeddu. And she always does things big. She wasn’t messing around even with this year’s eruption. The road that goes up to the Sapienza di Nicolosi mountain hut has never been the same. It has to be sorted out every time Mungibeddu has some fun with volcanic rock and rivers of molten lava. Her summit craters are vast and immense, true. But the most dangerous at least for the road, are the fissures, that open up like rifts going right down into the valley. Someone was hurt this year while they were out on a trip and playing – a little too much – with fire.
At the top of Etna, there used to be a tower. It was called the Philosopher’s Tower and was dedicated to Empedocles, the Greek philosopher, who fell into the volcano because of his excessive thirst for knowledge. Never get too close to these cankered, festering flows.
Angelo Zomegnan once said that “Etna is our Mt Ventoux”, when he raced the Giro d’Italia for the first time. And can you blame him. It’s the same altitude as the bald giant of Provence, made famous by the Tour de France. But above all, it has the same overwhelming wind (gusts very often over 100kph on Etna, even if you get off and push the bike up, you will be blown away like leaves in the wind). And then there’s the same spectral landscape. Red vermilion craters here, lunar white expanses there. But it makes no difference. You don’t mess around on Etna. Ask an expert like Alberto Contador, “El Pistolero”. He feels quite at home on Mungibeddu, like Mt Teide, where he first used go to train. Alberto has always loved Etna. When I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple of years ago, I asked him which was his favourite climb in Italy. “Etna”, he replied dryly, with a glint in his eye.
Well now you all know – tomorrow the Sicilian volcano will be climbed in the 100th Giro d’Italia. It will be a stage to remember, I’m sure. Suffice it to say that if you want to win the ultimate victory, you can’t afford to be left behind. And having climbing legs after only 4 days is not for wimps.
Etna is coming soon, the Giro and Sicily are completely hyper.
So, let’s settle down on the sofa and get some popcorn ready.
While you’re waiting, here’s an anecdote, from the “Etna” chapter in my latest book, “Storia e geografia del Giro d’Italia” (tr. History and geography of the Giro d’Italia).
Etna was always destined to be a mountain for storytelling, whichever way you look at it. An inhospitable peak, a breeding ground for monstrous creatures. The Greeks and Romans feared it, just as modern-day people do – but more so. They don’t admit to it, but when Etna erupts they quite literally wet themselves. Ask the people who live in Nicolosi, Linguaglossa and Bronte. Not to mention the people in Catania, devastated by the terrible eruption in 1669, when ‘Mungibeddu’ or ’Mongibello’ (the local name for Etna) spewed out a river of lava that destroyed half of the city. The most powerful eruption ever. But, returning to the present day, the most spectacular straddled 2002 and 2003 – the so-called “perfect eruption”. Just to see in the New Year, Hephaestus and Polyphemus arranged a lava flow, with all the trimmings. And it carried on right to the end of January, like two drinkers refusing to go home before dawn. And what can we say about 2007? Fontanarossa airport was closed and flights were disrupted for days. When she wants to, Etna knows how to put on a show.
If you ask the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador which climb he prefers most, straight away he’ll tell you – Etna. That huge, restless and rumbling mountain that dominates eastern Sicily, lying between the Nebrodi mountains – the Sicilian Apennine foothills – and the plains of Catania. It’s his favourite. Number one, not just in Italy but in all of Europe. Better even than Galibier, Tourmalet and the other sacred Grande Boucle summits – all very dear to him. It’s incredible!
Alberto – nicknamed ‘El Pistolero’ for his celebration pose of firing pistols – has been coming here to train for some time. Since he won his first Giro d’Italia stage in 2011. It was love at first sight, and he has always managed to persuade his teams – they often change – to go there for winter training camps. They happen between January and March, in preparation for the Northern Classics or the Giro. The squad makes its base at the golf club in Linguaglossa, a small village on Etna’s northern slopes. Early in the morning the riders leave to cycle along the road known as “Mareneve” – who knows, it could be named after the place it takes you to, or perhaps because of the changing landscapes that define it. A steep, winding strip of asphalt that takes you up to an altitude of 1,630 metres. From the sea to the mountains in one push of the pedal.
From there at Mareneve, you can leave the summit and descend towards the South and get to Zafferana Etnea and then, if you like, go on to Acireale and the sea – and that’s never a bad thing!
Once refreshed, maybe after a pistachio nut ice-cream, if you have the will and the legs for it – which ‘El Pistolero’ always does – you can go back up Etna by the Southern route. This climb is the one most often used by the Giro d’Italia. If you want to pedal, there’s enough on Etna to send you crazy. You could manage to never cycle the same climb twice.
On the winter training camps, Alberto rides with his team mates, all driven by the same obsession for this idiosyncratic mountain. The last time he was here, there was no other than Peter Sagan and Ivan Basso, just to name two of them. The Gascon Slovak – road World Champion – who fascinates teenagers and the two-time Champion of the Giro from Varese who recently retired from competitive cycling.
Alberto made them work like dogs, up and down the volcano, on roads only he knew. “Alberto, can we stop? It’s nearly dark…”, they pleaded. “You’re joking, right? This is the best time to enjoy the panorama at Rifugio Sapienza!”
So, they carried on pedalling to the last climb, the last breath. How beautiful those winter days are, how lovely the sweat and toil (…)
Continue reading “Etna” in “Storia e geografia del Giro d’Italia” (tr. History and geography of the Giro d’Italia) (Utet 2017)