Stage 4, on Tuesday, promised to be a statement day for the Giro. 190 ((118 mi) km long, it would begin on the coast in Cefalu, climb for 32 km (20 mi.) up the ominously named “Dead Woman’s Door”, traverse rolling interior hills (our “Sicilian Alps” from Day 3) then end atop Mt. Etna. We rose early, loaded our bikes and gear and made the 2.5 hour drive to the town of Nicolosi at the base of Etna.
Logistics were tricky as roads would close to traffic a few hours before the peloton arrived. We would need to pedal up Etna early in the afternoon to be sure we were in place before the closures. Reliable info was hard to come by—what time would Road A close? Would Road B be open longer? Would Nicolosi be a traffic jam? Would the peloton be driven by a tailwind and arrive early? Officials, hotel managers and cycling websites had varying numbers.
We got to our hotel in Nicolosi before 11 AM, just in time to meet our friends Ken and Linda Rosskopf (Joey’s parents). They had flown to Sicily from Sardinia, where they watched the first three stages. We laughed and chatted for a few minutes, then they headed by car for the top of Etna. We unloaded our bags and were ready to roll by noon.
Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe at 11,000 ft. high and growing. Lucky for us, the road summit is at 6,000 feet. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy climb–4,000 ft. in 11 mi., featuring a constant dose of double-digit ramps interspersed with a 6-8% recovery slopes.
The ramps, of course, dominate the experience.The view is mostly of ash fields, which seems appropriate given the blue-collar coal-miner effort it takes to get to the top. It was as hard a 1-1/2 hours as I’ve had on a bike in a number of years, but it was also festive with arches erected over the road to mark 2 km increments and lots of other bike riders puffing and sweating.
We got to the top by 2 PM, in time to have lunch with Ken and Linda, take the gondola up the mountain closer to the cauldron and later position ourselves 1.4 km below the finish to cheer Joey and his teammates. The top was mobbed with cycling fans and vehicles–all the fans missing from Cefalu apparently congregated atop Etna, a much more remote and difficult place to get to.
Joey and his Giro mates stormed the mountain just before 4 PM, reaching the top before 5, to the excitement of the fans. Jan Polanc, a little-known Slovenian rider, won the stage out of a breakaway, chased hard to the end by a group of elite riders. Sicilians were disappointed that favorite son, Vicente Nibali, “The Shark of Messina,” did not win the stage, and we were satisfied with the results as Tejay Van Garderen, BMC’s team leader, finished in the elite rider group. Joey had done his work for Tejay earlier in the stage and finished 74th out of 192 racers, a very satisfactory result. Soon after the finish, the party was over and hundreds of vehicles clogged the road down the mountain. We congratulated Joey briefly before he had to get in a BMC team car to depart, then we descended on our bikes–the fastest way to get back down the mountain. For us, it was nothing but “quality!”, as we like to say, and another epic day. (25 mi., 4,000 ft)