Mountain Biking in Sicily, Italy

Sicily has it all; fine food, fine trails, fine food, history, volcanoes, beautiful coastlines and fine food. If you’re lucky there may even be a little mud, rain and snow thrown in, as Huw Kingston found out! 

As we rode toward the refuge, Bruce exclaimed, “Geez, check the size of those prints in the snow—they look like bear prints.” The last word had only just tumbled out when Bruce was sent tumbling by this huge mass that bounded out from behind the stone building. Bruno, a huge St Bernard dog, bigger than most bears, looked apologetic before bounding toward the next bike. Where the hell were we, Switzerland?

No this was Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean; it’s the football that sits off the toe of soccer crazed Italy. The place the Lonely Planet Guide starts by describing as “a sun kissed island in the Mediterranean”. We were five days into our 600km traverse of the island and were wondering whether the guidebook was a work of fiction. To date we’d experienced biting winds, horizontal rain and now, high in the Madonie National Park, snowfalls. But we’d also been overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Sicilians, drunk their fine wines and been stuffed (and I mean stuffed) full of the most gorgeous of food.

“Sicily is part of Italy, but it is not Italy,” I’d been told by Nadia, a good friend in Australia who was originally from Sicily. “It is poor and dysfunctional. It is beautiful and filthy. Sicily will surprise you on many levels.”

The weather proved to be one the surprises. We were there in late March and much of Europe was experiencing its worst spring weather in ages. Sicily, only a spit from North Africa, was obviously not immune. Marco, my ‘man in Italy’ had pieced together a fabulous route. Heading east from the lighthouse at Capo San Vito we aimed to finish at the fashionable coastal resort town of Taormina, beneath Mount Etna; Europe’s highest volcano. The route included everything from coastal singletrack to traverses of the high mountains.

Snow and mud high in the Nebrodi.

We left the lighthouse, fuelled by the excitement of riding somewhere new. The six of us were glad to be on the bikes after long journeys by plane and/or ferry. Sicily soon threw rock at us in the form of technical trails perched above the Mediterranean waters, clinging to the slopes of Monte Cofano. The sun was out but a strong wind buffeted us as we climbed away from the sea and onto some enjoyable forest trails, arriving late afternoon to be the first guests of the season at an Agriturismo surrounded by vines not yet showing the first green of summer.

Only a couple of kilometres from the start of our riding the next morning we arrived at Segesta, a magnificently preserved Greek amphitheatre and temple complex cut into the hillside. We marvelled for some hours at the 3,000 year old structures, allowing the sun time to be replaced by soaking rain showers by the time we set off. Vicious looking dogs snarled their disapproval as we invaded villages, linking them with now muddy trails. Many of the towns and villages we went through were not pretty in the classic Italian sense. Or at least their ancient cores now hidden by half built or poorly built structures.

I’d been warned about the rubbish too and indeed, in certain places it was appalling. Roadsides strewn with household rubbish; as I understand it was dumped there in years past by mafia controlled contractors not wishing to pay the tipping fees at municipal facilities. Fortunately this rubbish problem seemed to peter out the further east we rode.

Hunger Games

No other activity brings on a raging appetite like a good day on the bike. But Sicily will defeat anyone in the hunger games. Almost without exception, whether it’s lunch or dinner, endless plates and innumerable courses will challenge even the most gluttonous of riders. Platters piled high with seafood, meat and pasta. Plates overflowing with seasonal vegetables cooked in tasty sauces. The Italian mainland seems to know little about portion control but in Sicily they take it to a whole other level.

On our third day we left Casa del Principe, our accommodation in an old castle with some rather futuristic additions bordering on the bordello! It was bitterly cold and John, layered up for the Arctic, had us in stitches with his rather unique theatrical warm up routine. Warming cappuccinos and espressos were knocked back after an hour or so of riding at the inaptly named Bar Tropical. Freezing drizzle greeted us as we rode out of a long tunnel and down to the village of Piana Del Albanesi.

Elena, piloting the luggage/support van, was pulled up outside the Mulino & Figli bakery; a bakery is always a good sign on a bike ride. Michele, Valentina and their two children welcomed us beyond the shop into the guts of the bakery. Here, by the warming ovens, endless quantities of Spfizoni (a local focaccia style bread), local cheeses, freshly baked biscuits and local wine was laid out. The more we ate, the more Michele would pull from the ovens. Mulino & Figli was an easy place to enter and a difficult place to leave!

Eventually we dragged ourselves from the oven and back into the fridge. We were soon hooning down a great gravel track and onto an old railway line. The heavens opened but the grade just pushed us faster until we hopped off at an old station tastefully converted into accommodation. Soon the lobby was piled with wet gear and the lounge with drying bodies around a roaring fire, warming wines in hand. A sun kissed island indeed...

The station was near the village of Ficuzza, dominated by the huge summer hunting lodge of the Bourbon Kings of Italy. From Ficuzza we climbed up and around Rocca Busambra to some 1,100m before a wild descent on a rocky, fast trail. Bruce and Trevor, both doctors and relatively new to the sport of mountain biking, were getting more and more confident on the technical stuff. Trevor overcooked one corner and said hello to a rocky wall but fortunately, after minor leg surgery, he’s away again. At the bottom a couple of shots of caffeine at Campofelice di Fitalia set us up for good performances down some challenging farm trails to lunch. Much of Sicily is open country and the views were always excellent, with deep valleys, rolling mountains and distant villages.

Fango Brun - The Revenge of Provencano

As the sky darkened, we rode past a large semi derelict house, isolated amongst the fields. A house that for over 20 years hid Bernardo Provencano; a Sicilian mafia figure wanted for numerous murders and more. In 2006 he was finally caught at the house. As we rode past Marco whispered, sotto voce, “Bastard”.

Cadel Evans, perhaps he's pining for his MTB.

On our journey through Sicily we heard various tales of the mafia. How things were better now right through to some people harking back to the old days when ‘at least the roads were fixed, the electricity worked, there were jobs available’.

The rain started as we climbed steep farm trails. “That was a good track with no fango, yes?” exclaimed Marco as we caught up to him at the top. Less than 100 metres further on the mud, the ‘fango’ began. Thick, cloying mud that hung heavy on the bikes. Impossible to ride, impossible to push. Each bike gained 10kg or more in weight and it took nearly an hour to cover less than 500 metres. As if in some form of recompense, the mud slide spat us out onto a road right by a large fountain and pool.

With no care for components, bikes were fully baptised. The sun teased us the following morning. We so wanted to be kissed by it, embraced in its warmth. But the grey curtain came down as we came back onto the stage from a cafe at Alia; a cafe with, at 0.50 euros, perhaps the cheapest espresso in Italy. Soon it was absolutely flogging it down and we all huddled over the handlebars in our little cocoons of misery. As the rainfall turned 90 degrees from vertical to horizontal, I rode next to Bruce in an effort to protect him from the worst of the buffeting. I swear I saw small children and goats blowing across the trail in the wind.

Meanwhile up ahead, Elenahad befriended a retired colonel who had guided her to a local restaurant, not planning to be open. Here the colonel insisted the owner prepare food in readiness for our arrival and what a job Lilo did. After changing into dry clothes and with a consensus there was no point in riding further that day, we settled into a long, long lunch. In Sicily there is still the beauty of seasonality to the food. You eat what is in season, what is fresh and Lilo had prepared some of the biggest funghi (mushrooms) I’d seen.

Fango Bianco in the Madonie

Eventually we loaded bikes onto the minivan and piled in for the drive up into the clouds, into Madonie National Park, into the snow, the white mud ‘fango bianco’, to the home of Bruno the Saint Bernard dog. From our accommodation at 1,800 metres that night we watched unbelieving as chunky snowflakes floated down. Tomorrow would be fun; riding in this snow kissed island.

Indeed we pushed, slid and slipped our way down below the snowline, to hit some yahoo inducing serpentine singletrack. Down, down we went into dark forest blanketed in thick, thick fog! But then, our time had come. Far below, the Mediterranean Sea sparkled in the sunlight as we sped toward it—about time! Cefalu, a pretty coastal town was our halfway point and our turning point in the weather. A rest day fixing bikes, cleaning mud from ears and absorbing sunlight was much enjoyed.

Back on the bikes, we sped along the coast roadie style, strangely bereft of arm and leg warmers and other earlier paraphernalia. Soon we were climbing back into the mountains, with clear views back west to snow covered Madonie. After lunch at the hilltop village of Tusa we threaded our way on some great trails to the valley floor before an insanely sustained 800 metre climb on broken asphalt to our agriturismo near Mistretta. Welcoming cold beers was followed later by another insanely sustained dinner.

The next two days would see us ride the excellent trails high in the Nebrodi National Park. Sections of mud kept us on our toes or at one point, in Trevor’s case, his face. But for the most part we were enjoying classic mountain biking as we made our way along the spine of the range with views north to the sea. But it was the looming mass ahead that drew us on. Mount Etna at 3,350 metres; a smoking white cone atop a black lava base. Some absolutely rip roaring descents in the Nebrodi had us hooting with joy (how easily we forgot the climbs to get them!) and on occasions riding out of the comfort zone. Bruce and Trevor had well earned their stripes as off roads scholars! Eventually we dropped 1,000 metres down the infant Alcantra River to Randazzo before a brief climb to our accommodation at a vineyard on the lowest slopes of Etna.

Fango Nero – Mount Etna

On the last couple days of our tour we set to pretty much going to circumnavigate Mount Etna. It was nothing short of unique. First we climbed steeply up the northern side to 1,400 metres to join a series of tracks across the lava along the west face. Some trails narrowed to bizarre singletracks twisting across the black lava fields.

We climbed enjoyably and steadily in hot sun to over 1,900 metres. By now we were crossing occasional snow fields dropping from the summit slopes. Snow, lava, blue sky, dead grey trees, living green trees all came together in a cacophony of contrasting colours. It was magical. As if in training for the following day, descents on recent lava deposits gave opportunities to drift the wheels wide on corners—it was a very special day on the mountain bike.

With broad grins we arrived at Sapienza (1,800 metres), a collection of hotels and gift shops and the base station for a gondola taking tourists in summer and skiers in winter up to 2,500 metres; still far, far below Etna’s summit cone. Our ‘team bus’ was there at our hotel along with those from the Saxobank Tinkoff and BMC road cycling teams getting in some altitude training for the following months Giro d’Italia. Fellow Aussie and former MTB champion Cadel Evans was there, no doubt wishing he could be having as much fun as us playing in the lava.

The following morning we took our bikes up the gondola and, once at the top station, climbed another 200 metres in elevation. It was desolate country and entirely devoid of vegetation; black lava striped with snow. We spent a couple of hours taking it all in, despite the cold at altitude. Looking down we could see the east coast of Sicily and Taormina, our final destination. Looking down, a long way down…

Riding on the west face of Etna.

I’ve skied many mountains and slopes around the world. I’ve ridden bikes at a few ski resorts down purpose built trails. But today was the first time I’ve linked turns on a mountain bike down ash covered ski runs. Drifting this way and that, I tried to keep up with Marco (impossible) and Phil (just), crossing each other’s lava lines, braking, sliding, laughing like idiots, covered in black dust! Back at Sapienza base station it was tempting to go again but pizza was waiting and perhaps it was best to remember that one run, to not sully it with repeats.

After lunch we mixed it up with the roadies, descending 1,300 metres to Zafferana. That night we stayed in the most magical of places; a guest house in an ancient building with a stylish restaurant that once again fed us beyond need.

Having been sun kissed for days now, Sicily summarised our journey for the final day. We woke to drizzle and fog. Gaetano, a local rider, took us on some of his favourite trails through the lava, before we popped out onto a road for a serious drenching. Soaked, lunch was taken at a cafe in Lingualossa, proudly proclaiming their Guinness World Record for an Arancino—a 20kg version of this Sicilian rice ball delicacy! We re-joined the Alcantra River, whose headwaters we’d ridden days earlier, and pedalled singletrack beneath the cliff clinging village of Moto Camastra, the setting for the Godfather movies.

A final torrential downpour had us riding for cover. Then we were amongst cars and bars; we were next to the Mediterranean with an unusually large surf pounding the sea wall. The clouds dissipated and the sun shone. All was as it should be in Sicily.

Sun kissed climbing with the mountains and the snow covered Madonie NP behind.

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