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II. Fire

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“Sicily is more beautiful than any woman,” Truman Capote

The many splendors of Sicily are known around the world and this Italian island in the heart of the Mediterranean has quite simply attracted travelers for thousands of years. Vineyards and olive orchards virtually cover the island and the sheer rustic beauty of the diverse landscape is a marvel. But if there is one aspect of the island’s diverse landscape that stands out above all else, it is surely Mount Etna. One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Etna continues to gurgle, belch, spit and erupt as it has done since the dawn of civilization.

Etna towers over the island and, in some ways, the Sicilians seemingly hold an ongoing conversation with it. Etna is constantly breathing fire from its mouth, serving a sort of warning that, while you can visit on occasion, one should never get too close or comfortable around her. Yet over the centuries Sicilians have edged up its slopes, with the many villages prospering around its lower ring. The village of Bronte for example is known around the world for its rare pistachios that sprout up from the lava fields, while the neighboring village of Malleto is known for its strawberries. Today, no less than five roads lead to within walking distance of the summit, five roads that offer a wealth of challenges to any aspiring cyclist.

“Etna is a special mountain for Sicily,” say Thomas, a local cyclist who lives in Catania, the port city at the foot of the volcano.  “It expresses the soul of the Sicilian culture. Etna stands majestic alone, bald and black. For a cyclist, it is brutal to look at this ever-smoking volcano when you approach her on your bike. There is something special about riding up an active volcano. When it is most active you can hear a deep rumble from the mountain. It’s a sound you will never forget!”

Although he no longer races, Thomas still puts in several hundred kilometers a week and uses the roads leading up to Etna to maintain fitness. And what better way to test out the versatility of the Zipp 454 NSW Disc clinchers than by tackling Etna’s eastern face?

“With an average of 7.3 percent, the gradient of Etna is not what kills you. It is the length,” says Thomas. “From where I normally ride, I have around 40 kilometers to get to the top and 30 kilometers of that is climbing. It just goes up and up!”

Adding to the complexity of the climb, he points out that the road conditions are rough and you must constantly fight to maintain your rhythm. For that, he insists, the 28mm–30mm tire width on the disc-brake version of the 454 NSW is perfect. “With the rough pavement it was just so much easier to ride with the wider tires. They have less rolling resistance and they are just plain more comfortable!”

As he climbs higher, the clouds descend into the woods speckled with lava rocks. And with the last villages now well behind, a certain stillness permeates. Exiting the forest, Thomas climbs out of the clouds and through the unfolding array of lava fields. For those unfamiliar with lava, it can take on numerous colors. Some lavas are almost green, perhaps reflecting the intermingling vegetation. Others are brown, while still others are downright black.

As the road climbs Thomas picks up the pace, eager to crest the summit again. And once at the top he even takes the bike up to one of the lower craters that offer a sublime view of the valley and sea below.

But after a brief pause, he is also eager to test out the new 454 NSW Disc on the sinuous descent. With the sun setting, it’s clear that most of the visitors have left for the day. There will be little traffic on the roads leading off the mountain. Gaining speed, Thomas gets into an aero tuck as he pushes the speeds on the long descents and bombs around the large turns, the wheel’s disc brakes giving him the confidence he can control any pace.

“Sometimes, you have to be careful using deep carbon wheels down Mount Etna,” he says, “because they can be unstable in the powerful crosswinds you always find here—especially in the opening sections where the mountain is just bare. But the Zipp 454 NSW is amazing. I had no problems controlling the Zipp wheels through the corners in the crosswinds on the descent. They were tremendously stable, and the ingenious Sawtooth design just really keeps them stable in heavy wind.”

At the bottom, Thomas is still beaming. “What a ride,” he says. “What a ride!”

Images and Words: James Startt

For more on Zipp’s new 454 Disc go to