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Peloton X

Sicily’s Great Mother

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Then far off Etna appears from the waves / and we hear the loud roar of the sea / and the distant tremor of the rocks / and the broken murmurs of the shore / the shallows boil, and sand mixes with the flood. / Then my father, Anchises, says, “This must be Charybdis / these are the cliffs / these are the horrendous rocks Helenus foretold.” —from Virgil’s “The Aeneid: Book III”

Words/Images: Paolo Ciaberta

Those who live near Mount Etna, which rises almost 11,000 feet from the eastern shore of Sicily, affectionately call it ’a Muntagna. Their great mother is a towering, arrogant mountain that through the millennia has shaped its surroundings with repeated eruptions, showers of dust and streams of magma. The steaming silhouette began its underwater volcanic activity a half-million years ago to become the highest active volcano in Europe and, since 2013, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Climbing this looming peak by bike is a special experience via two possible routes, both of which were climbed in a 2011 Giro d’Italia stage won by Alberto Contador. From Zafferana, it’s about 18 kilometers with an average 7.2 percent grade to reach the Rifugio Sapienza. It’s a long, but not difficult climb for an in-shape cyclist. The first part passes between trees before opening out onto a dark lunar landscape. The gray stripe of asphalt remains the only viable way through this sea of lava. The other climb, from Fornazzo, is easier, covering 13 kilometers at a 7-percent grade.

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With every meter climbed on ’a Muntagna you’re pedaling through centuries of evolution, occupations and wars chronicled by poets and travelers who found beauty and inspiration on the slopes of this living creature. A relaxed pace allows you to fully appreciate breathtaking panoramas of sea and coastal plain, occasionally interrupted by the intense green of oak, chestnut, beech and birch. You may have to contend on the road with lava sand, slippery pine needles or cumbersome tourist buses—little different from any other high mountain route. The continuously smoldering summit makes you feel that this place is alive and vibrant, where fire and ice coexist and the sun plays with the fumes of the crater, creating a deeply unique landscape. The entire scene, wrapped in a surreal silence, feels like the end of the world—or the beginning. (From issue 51).