Last summer I came across Sicily Cycling Club through my friend Marcello who rents Cinelli bikes to guests on their camps. Run by two friends, Tommaso and Thomas, they approached me early this year to help with their cycling camp they had planned for the Giro d’Italia. After returning to Sicily last year for first time since 2012, the 101st edition of Giro would be returning again this year for three stages, a great excuse to run a cycling camp and invite people from around the world to explore this amazing region.
The guys had planned a cool itinerary that would take in the start of stage 4 in Catania, before the peloton headed West to Caltagirone, as well as heading up Etna before the race to witness the summit finish for Stage 6. Alongside the Giro there would be plenty of time to explore the roads around Etna, enjoy the scenery and of course try the local wine, especially nerello mascalese, the famous grape of the Etna region. The guys had also recruited Gunhild Berntsen as a guide, a super talented triathlete from Norway who resides in Sicily.
Day 1: Milo
The first day we assembled at the Sheraton Hotel in Catania around midday, allowing for everyone’s arrivals at various points during the morning. After a rider briefing, there was a quick aperitivo, but without the vino, and guests made final adjustments to their bikes. My clubmate Artur joined the trip with his stunning new Canyon aeroad disc, plus I was also pleasantly surprised to see Phil from another local (rival) club Paceline RT.
Around 4pm we rolled out on the highway, the Orientale Sicula that runs alongside the eastern coast of Sicily from Siracusa to Messina. We stopped at Aci Castello to admire the Norman castle, as well as the nearby Cyclopean Isles, giving Tommaso the opportunity to explain the legend that the islands were created by the cyclops Polyphemus throwing rocks after Ulysses, as told in Homer’s Odyssey. A book that took me around a year to read last year, a proper odyssey!
Back to the cycling and we continued along the coast until we reached Santa Venerina, my home from home, then headed up towards Milo for the twisting climb on the foothills of Etna through woodland and vineyards before emerging in the main square of the picturesque village. We drank in the view and took some photos before heading back down to sea level via a fairly technical descent. At the bottom we were missing a few from the party, who had evidently missed a turn. I was relieved later to hear everyone had made it back to the hotel following the Garmin route.
Day 2: Centuripe
On the second day of the camp the Giro d’Italia came to town. It was a 198 km rolling stage from Catania to Caltagirone, designed for a puncheur and duly won by Tim Wellens of Lotto.
Last year I rode out to Centuripe with my friend Salvo the vegan cyclist. It’s a town with centuries of history, but made famous in WWII as the scene of a battle between the advancing allied forces and German forces in occupied Sicily. I realised I’d never got my head round the pronunciation, but this trip allowed me to focus my efforts – Chen-too-repay.
We rolled out from Etna Hotel around 10am to watch the stage start of the Giro in Catania. It was pretty hectic with team buses tucked away up a road off the main square, so we headed along the ranks until we stopped at Mitchelton-Scott figuring they’d be the most friendly and open to fan boy selfies. I gave Simon Yates a pat on the back and wished him well as he rolled off towards the start, little knowing that I was imparting some kind of magic volcano climbing powers on his slender frame.
After hassling the pro riders, we headed back to the main square (Piazza Duomo) to watch the stage start. Lots of locals who presumably have no clue about cycling were taking up all the space by the barriers, but I managed to see the tops of a few helmets as the race departed the city. Back with the rest of the crew I was giving everyone the run down on the day ahead, just as there was a loud bang. Everyone looked at my bike, with the front tyre now rapidly deflating. The day before I had removed the old rim tape that had bunched up and was slicing through my inner tubes and replaced it, for want of a better option, with electrical tape. I found out that this offered little protection as my inner tubes swelled in the Sicilian sun. Tommaso being the gent that he is rushed off to his sister’s house and borrowed the wheel off his road bike, so that I could quickly fit that and carry on with the ride.
With bikes all in order we rolled out from Catania heading south west on the road towards Gela, I summoned the fast group forwarded and we chipped off at a steady pace turning onto the country road that would take us to Centuripe. I was happy to see that we would be climbing up to the town in the opposite way that I took it last summer. It was a very hot day and the 8km climb felt LONG. I was in fact worried that I might be getting heat stroke, not a good look if you collapse on the road you are leading. At the town we reached the main square and headed to a bar for lunch, where the friendly owner was happy to practise his English with our cycling foreign legion.
Heading down the hill there was a bit of confusion as to which road we were following down, which resulted in a few laps of the town to the amusement of the locals surveying our movements. It was a pretty fun descent down, then we hit the flat valley roads and baked in the sun for the remainder of the ride, back via Santa Maria di Licodia.
Day 3: Monte Kalfa
This is a fairly new favourite of mine, a climb I only discovered last summer when exploring beyond Etna into the Nebrodi mountain range beyond the Alcantara Valley. The Parco dei Nebrodi is a stunning place and proves there’s a lot more to the east of Sicily than just Etna if you want decent climbs.
We departed from our new base in Giarre and headed along the coast looping up towards Calatabiano, which is overlooked by an impressive Norman castle on the hillside. From here we headed into the Alcantara Vallery, which is my favourite set of roads in the area. From the valley we climbed up to the small town of Graniti, where we regrouped at the top of the climb and stopped for a coffee. I’ve climbed Monte Kalfa before, but not from Graniti and heard that there would be some steep climbing ahead and gravel roads thrown in for good measure.
Leaving town we hit the steep ramp, which average around 10% for about 1 km before levelling out to a less offensive gradient. I could see markers on the road showing the number of kilometres remaining, so I cheerfully kept the group updated announcing “not far to go!” Turns out that these markers were counting down to the turn off where the climb proper starts. We then winded our way up a gravel track which twisted and turned until Monte Kalfa came into view.
I told the others to push onto the summit of Kalfa as I waited for a couple of stragglers. I could hear the sound of hooves in the distance and then they emerged around the corner being paced by a cow and her young calf on the road. We rode on up the climb and emerged at the sanctuary at the top, which has a wonderful view over the surrounding hills.
We descended down the other side from Kalfa, down to a village called Roccofiorita where we stopped for lunch – panino and coke. Washed down with an espresso we carried on down the mountain back to the coast road. We had debated doing the climb to Castelmola, but with the Etna stage coming tomorrow we called it a day and rolled back to the hotel in Giarre.
Day 4: Etna Stage
The big day had arrived. Riding up Mount Etna ahead of the peloton and then watching the first summit finish of the Giro d’Italia. We assembled in our group and headed north climbing up towards Fornazzo via Nunziata, basically throwing in a bonus climb. Back down to Zafferana and we passed another group on a cycling camp, who were getting their team issue BMC bikes loaded onto the trailer and driving to the foot of the climb, LOSERS!
We carried on through the villages until we arrived at Nicolosi and then stopped for a bite to eat, I opted for a cornetto and coffee, but stuffed a pizzetta into my pocket for later on. We carried on around the side of Etna, making our way to the foot of the climb where it joins from Ragalna. I was a bit disappointed that we hadn’t started the climb from the village but we had only missed a kilometre or so…. there’d be plenty more to come!
Christian, the little climber from Luxembourg set off up the climb at a blistering pace, not to be seen again until the top. I did this climb last year during the Monsieur 4000, it was the third ascent of Etna on an extremely hot day in August. Since then they had laid fresh tarmac, but the steep ramps still pack a punch and it’s proper out-of-the-saddle, bike-rocking stuff. After leaving the rest of the group behind I pressed on solo, enjoying some cheers from some of the tifosi already out on the course. The climb settles down after the initially steep section into something more manageable, as I passed some of the other riders on the tour who had taken a more direct route to Etna. With the finish in sight the last part of the course was closed off so we couldn’t ride to the top. Bit of shame, but I’ve experienced the same at every grand tour summit finish I’ve tried to ride up.
After negotiating the crowds around the finish we regrouped at the team bus and started putting on extra layers, it was very cold up top on Etna. I then caught up with Maria who had driven up Etna with her mum to watch the finish and spent the afternoon eating, drinking and having a laugh with the Italian fans. The excitement started ramping up as the helicopters circled overhead and not before long two Mitchelton riders appeared up the climb, Chaves and Yates appeared side by side two take first and second place on the stage. An epic win for Chaves, which also put Simon Yates into the maglia rosa. The podium ceremony was a little quiet, so I broke the silence with a bit of “YATESY! YATESY!” and got a few odd looks, especially from my wife.
We regrouped with the rest of the tour and pedalled up to Rifugio Sapienza, then descended down amongst the team cars. They cars were in a mad rush to get down the mountain then drive onto Messina for the ferry to the mainland. I nearly got twatted by a Bahrain Merida team car on the way down, which presumably had a couple of riders in the back. Down at the foot of the Etna we enjoyed the warmth again and headed back to the hotel for a well earned beer.
Day 5: Savoca
After the excitement of Etna the previous day, we had a nice touristy day on the itinerary, although this would be no easy day with about 110km to cover and over 2,000 metres of climbing. Savoca is a pretty village just north of Taormina, famous for its scenes in the Godfather when Michael Corleone is hiding out in Sicily.
It was another lovely sunny day and we headed north along the coast road, bringing back good memories from my rides to Messina last summer. About 15 km after Taormina we took the turn off, following the brown signs (which signify a heritage place) to Savoca. It’s quite a punchy climb and we battled with a tourist bus on the way up. At the top you are rewarded with great views from the piazza, including the church that featured in the Godfather. We knocked back some refreshments and I inducted some of my group to granita, before continuing on for the rest of the climb – another 8 km to the summit.
We then enjoyed the long descent back down to Letojanni, to hit the coast road back to Taormina. I had promised I would take the group up to Castelmola, so we duely threw in this climb on the way back. Soon splitting up and taking it our own pace. Rafa in our group had been after some pistachio cream all week, so he grabbed a couple of jars from the bar at the top, extra weight for the descent back down. At the foot of the climb we had a final 20 km smash back along the coast to the hotel, which of course got pretty fast on the way home. A fun end to a great day on the bike.
Day 6: Double Etna
Hailed as the Queen Stage, on the last day of the camp we set out to climb Mount Etna twice in one day. First up Etna Nord from Linguaglossa and then onto Etna Sud from Nicolsi. Having done Etna eight times in one sitting last summer as an Everesting, I wasn’t too worried about the ride and reassured my bunch that “The first ascent is fine, the second starts to hurt, but it’s the third time up to worry about.” When I left the house it was a nice sunny morning, and the cloud that had been hanging over the volcano all week seemed to have disappeared. Our “fast group” had expanded a little to accommodate a few extra who had decided to do the big one today, including Gunhild who had been guiding the “smart group” for the rest of the week. The other guests would do one ascent and then back down for a wine tasting – possibly the more fun day!
The first ascent was pretty relaxed with the group taking a steady pace, except for Christian and Phil who shot off up the road. I had warned the group that when they reached the plateau to take the road to the right that takes you up to Piano Provenzana. Here the climb gets really tough, with steep ramps of 10% for 2 km. After puffing our way to the top we reach the ski station, which was largely covered by the lava flow of 2002. Up top it had clouded over and i was regretting not bringing a jacket, it was a cold descent!
Back down into Zafferana and the temperature jumped up 10 degrees. We made our way through the villages until we reached Nicolosi and stopped to top up our water at the fountain. I gave the group the option of the standard way, used by the Giro in 2011 or Salto del Cane, the route from 2017 Giro. We opted for the standard approach and began the ascent, less enthusiastically than the last time. It was a long old slog to the top and was getting pretty breezy, which made it a bit of a grind. It was a relief to reach the summit at Rifugio Sapienza, arriving at the top one by one to be greeted by Salam with the support car, from who I managed to blag a spare jacket.
It was a cold-ass ride back down, but it was nice and warm once we got back down to near sea level and then a final roll back along the coast road to the hotel. A great end to an amazing week of riding.
Although I’m used to guiding club runs back home, guiding a group on a cycling camp was a new experience… and I loved every moment. We had a very well disciplined group of riders who rode well and didn’t complain, even when I invariably missed a turn or falsely promised “just 1 km more to the top!” It was great to meet people from around the world with a shared passion for cycling and Italy. I definitely made some good friends who I hope to ride with again one day soon. Look out for more cycling camps with Sicily Cycling Club, maybe some gravel rides around Etna in autumn 2018.
Check out sicilycyclingclub.com for more.