Re dell’Etna

Last summer I discovered a local challenge “Il Re/Regina dell’Etna” to climb the six roads of Etna in one ride – basically like the Cingles du Ventoux on speed. My friend Alfio did it last summer and I’d joined him for part of the final ascent to Citelli. Only a bit of it, because I had to be back for dinner or something. Ever since I did the Everesting in 2017 I’d been thinking to myself, what would be a fun challenge on Etna? And therefore this seemed like the logical thing to do.

You can choose climbs in any order and after plotting my route it was netting out at 200km and 7,400m climbing. They recently added a 7th climb from Biancavilla, which I was thinking of throwing into the mix if I was making good time.

Etna has been particularly active this year and has been dumping a lot of volcanic sand onto the surrounding areas, spectacular to watch but a pain for everyone in the villages to clean up each time. As it hasn’t been cleaned off the roads of Etna, it would make it a tough ride on several of the climbs and prudence would be needed on descents as I had been told that quite a few cyclists had stacked it on the sand.

Fornazzo – Citelli

I set the alarm early for 3.30am with the aim of getting away early at 4am. Did lots of last minute faffing and eventually set off at 4.30am – always seems to take me an hour to leave the house. Was still dark at this point and I had my Exposure Race to light up the road, but it was still pretty creepy when I started climbing the lower slopes of Etna into pitch black with all the dogs of the neighbourhood howling into the night. I could hear a pack of wild dogs taking interest as I approached Milo, but after a short chase they seemed to lose interest

I started the climb proper at 5.15am with the dawn light starting to shine through. It was a beautiful climb up to Rifugio Cinelli with the sun coming up over the coast. Was cursing not leaving a bit earlier so I could watch the sunrise at 5.50am from Citelli, as there’s a great panoramic view over the coastline. Got a snap of the marker stone at the Rifugio, each climb is dedicated to a cyclist – this one is a double bill of Coppi and Bartali.

After the Rifugio I headed across the top of Etna, which was covered in sand and basically like riding on gravel. The car tracks on the road meant picking a line through the gravel, but in some places there was no clean tarmac. Pretty sketchy in places but thankfully the road was pretty decent once I’d got off the top. I headed down to Linguaglossa, a pretty cold descent at 7am and Alfio greeted me at the sign before he started work for the day.

Linguaglossa – Piano Provenzana

After refilling the bottles I did a u-turn and headed back up the way I had just descended. Temperature was perfect for climbing at this time, but I knew there would be some hot climbs ahead. Legs were feeling good and I put on the Cycling Podcast to pass the time, catching up with their daily Tour de France coverage. Eventually I made it back up the bivio, where the really steep part of the climb starts and lasts 3 kilometres until the ski station at Piano Provenzana. This is where the Giro stage on Etna finished in 2020, with Jonathan Caicedo of EF Education taking the win. I wasn’t quite as fast and laboured up the climb out of the saddle, trying to avoid any patches of sand and skidding out. At the top I took a quick photo and as I was already tracking about 45 minutes behind my slightly over-optimistic schedule I decided I’d stop for coffee at the bottom of descent in Milo

As I was coming down the mountain I could hear a strange clicking noise, which by the bottom of the climb was getting louder and louder. I stopped to see what was going on and spotted that the rubber was coming away on the Vittoria Corsa tyres – the rubber is glued onto the tan walls – and there was a nasty bulge that looked ready to explode. A quick Google showed the nearest bike shop being my local back in Santa Venerina and I had to descend tentatively off the mountain to the shop. There they fitted some new Bontrager tyres, which just about fitted my 10 year old frame and I set off back up the hill to Zafferana to start the climb at 10.30am – now nearly 2 hours behind schedule.

Zafferana – Sapienza

I stopped at the main square to refill the bottles, realising I had got quite dehydrated over the last hour whilst being preoccupied with getting new tyres. Stopped at a bar on the corner of the piazza to grab a coffee and cornetto (croissant in Italy). This rocket fuel always helps and with the new tyres I felt ready to smash through the next climb. I arrived at the marker stone to see this one is dedicated to VIncenzo Nibali. I hoped I would also be climbing like the Shark.

With the sun now fully up and the temperature rising, I knew this climb would be a slog. The lower slopes are mega steep, then when I hit the main climb it was full of sand and I felt like I was crawling up. This is one of the most popular routes for tourist buses, and they were passing every couple of minutes, kicking up dust in my face as they passed.

I’d been chatting to my wife on whatsapp during the tyre issues and had sent my location on whatsapp as she was out foraging on Etna with my Suocero (father-in-law) and son. I rounded one of the bends to see them up ahead, cheering from the roadside. A nice moment that raised my spirits on this tough climb. They refilled my bottles and I continued on, passing a couple of young Italian guys with fully loaded bikes, one of whom had ridden all the way from Como.

The last 5km of the climb were particularly savage, with a really rough road surface that felt like cobbles and thick sand making it very slow going. After what seemed an eternity I made it to the summit at 12.45pm in the sweltering heat and headed to the marker stone before looping back to head to one of the tourist bars for much-needed pizza and coke. Not a great slice of pizza, but tasted amazing in the moment. Next up Salto del Cane… one of the toughest climbs of Etna!

Pedara (Salto di Cane) – Sapienza

After a pretty sketchy descent down the sandy road, I arrived at Pedara to meet my friend Salvo who would join me for the next climb. Nice to have some company and a cool moment as we met for the second time four years ago doing this climb together for the Everesting. We had a coffee before we started, I elected for a double espresso as I was feeling pretty ruined and the caffeine hit felt good. Salvo stuffed some more gels into my pockets (I must have been carrying nearly a kilo of food by this point!) and off we went.

Salto del Cane is a pretty tough climb with several steep ramps throughout. I was glad of the company, but at some point with about 5km to go I was really having to grind it out and found myself unable to talk, mentally suffering as the fatigue from the last three climbs set in.
We reached Rifugio Sapienza around 3.30pm and took the obligatory photo and then headed back down Ragalna where Alfio and Dani were waiting to join us.

Ragalna – Piano Vetore

Took the descent down to Ragalna and it was a relief to finally ride on clean roads, free of sand. The descent felt looong so I knew we had a long climb ahead. That said it’s a climb I’ve done many times and probably my favourite climb on Etna Sud. It’s amazing to ride at sunset, as you get a great panoramic view before you hit Piano Vetore.

There’s some recent Giro history on this climb from 2018 when Chaves won the stage with Simon Yates just behind, taking the Maglia Rosa. It was good to catch up with the other two guys, and our little band of climbers set off. It’s a pretty nice climb around the side of the volcano, before you turn off to the right and gradient ramps up.

With the sun going down the temperature had cooled quite a bit, and we set a good tempo up the climb and through the forest before reaching Piano Vetore. This climb doesn’t go all the way to Rifugio Sapienza, so when we joined the road that heads to the top we immediately descended back down the mountain ready for the final ascent.

Nicolosi – Sapienza

We set off for the final climb at 5pm, giving just under two hours before sunset. My best time on this climb is 1h 17mins, and Alfio was confident we’d do it in 1h 45min. Contador won here back in 2011 and if you check out the Strava segment there are some seriously quick times from both pro and local riders. It’s not a super tough climb, but it’s long and quite samey so it feels pretty endless

Legs felt ok at the start, but when we got to the 10km to go sign on the climb I was seriously feeling the 7,000 metres climbing in the legs. I hit another gel and the guys were giving encouragement, although I could see they were nice and fresh and holding back to help pace me up.

As the sun began to set we hit the final slopes and we wound it up for what you could just about call a sprint for the finish. Salvo who had peeled off earlier had driven back up and greeted us with a tray of babà, a sweet Neapolitan delicacy soaked in rum. He tried to convince me to do the 7th climb from Biancavilla, offering to follow me up with his car. But at 8pm and knackered legs I decided to call it a day with 215km and 7,800 metres of elevation.

We broke down the bikes and somehow squeezed them all into Alfio’s car for the drive back down the mountain.

Summary

Proper tough ride, but an amazing experience shared with friends. Shout out to Alfio for the route advice and Dani who is just 16 and flew up the two climbs we did together. He’s only been cycling two years and is planning to do the full challenge in September.

After completing the challenge I submitted my Strava activity on parcociclisticoetna.com and they sent the certificate of completion for a cost of €7.50 which goes back into the maintenance of the signage.

A brutal but epic day out, recommended for anyone looking for a climbing challenge.

Ride on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/5670058818

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