• Country

Beware, Falling Rocks! Mountain Biking in the Shadow of the Erupting Etna Volcano

By Adam Marsal

Located in Sicily, Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Because of constant volcanic activity, the height of its 3,300-metre peak is ceaselessly changing. The famous Sicilian volcano covers an area of 1,200 m2 and has a circumference of 140 km. Old settlers from Sant Alfio, Milo and Zafferana could tell you long stories about life under Etna, where during stronger eruptions, six kilograms of volcanic fallout cover every square metre.

It’s no wonder that every woman who lives in the shadow of the volcano seems to have a broom in her hand most of the time, removing deposits of black powder in front of the house. The men, on the contrary, are in charge of the roofs. Regular eaves that drain rainwater from the roofs are useless. Here they have to have a concrete gutter the width of a large broom that enables them to sweep the dust directly onto the street. Black ash is stored in huge bags in front of the houses to be transported to the dump outside the city.

Our Sicilian friend Giuseppe Coco owns a guest house in the town of Zafferana. Besides ploughing the so-called black snow off local roads, he takes care of clients visiting from all around the world to see the volcano.

Whoever wants to approach the crater and enjoy some Etna mountain biking adventure should follow clearly defined rules and hire a guide for the trip. Only local guides can provide you with up-to-date information about every upcoming eruption.

Keeping in mind the legal and safety concerns of our bike expedition, we announce our plans to cycle the mountain in advance. We also agree to stay in contact with Giuseppe just in case he needs to reach us with information about any dangerous changes in the volcano’s condition.

While conquering craters, including Cerniera di Fuoco 2002, which is the highest, we get caught in a strong wave of eruptions caused by Mount Etna that lasts a few hours. Observing the strength and direction of the wind is crucial, as it might indicate where and how large stones projected from the volcano could land on our heads. After dark, light from the erupting Etna creates a marvellous scene. But we stay alert, ready to leave the area if necessary.

When pea-sized pieces of rocks start to drop from the sky, we realise there is no time to waste. Packing as fast as possible, we leave our positions, remembering the rule that after peas, plum and apple-sized rocks might soon follow.

After several night evacuations, we were trained to find a proven safe parking place in the forest quite far from the falling rocks. Even in the town of Zafferana, the glass of doors and windows rattles during explosions, and every living being around Etna falls dead-silent, including the birds. Several times we luckily escaped with black helmets and a black car roof too.

How does it feel to ride in the volcanic ash? It’s quite similar to freeriding in fresh powder, only the ash doesn’t melt, but turns into a grey abrasive paste, which wears out both the bike frame and components. The volcanic mud especially consumes the treads of bike tires, which must be replaced after just a few rides.

It’s particularly difficult to pedal or even push the bike uphill in the ash. While going downhill, on the other hand, the wheels tend to submerge deep into the powder, making steering extremely unpredictable. As we climb and the altitude rises, more snow appears with a thick black layer on the top. When the snow thaws, it flows through the lava rocks that filter and purify it. Thirsty as a sherpa, I refill my water bottle at every spring, to stay fresh throughout the day and take as many as three long runs on the steep black slopes.

What makes Etna mountain biking special? The ever-changing terrain of the volcano is almost perfect for unlimited freeriding. And not only that: the area is also great for long gravel rides and any other kinds of cycling. The pulse of the volcano has a direct impact on life all around, including bikers. Locals have become accustomed to this and have been living in this rhythm for thousands of years. As long as you learn to deal with the need to escape in case the volcano awakes, you will experience one of the most beautiful rides of your life. Etna is definitely worth visiting for at least a few days.