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Giro Stage 4: Heavenly Hellscape Awaits

The racing excitement gets warm on a mountain known for getting very, very hot

Anadolu Agency - Getty

Stage 4: Cefalù -- Mount Etna, 181km



Giro stage 4 map


Giro stage 4 profile

What’s the Stage About?

Let’s jump right into it today.

WillJ expertly previewed the mountain stages and pointed out how the Portella Femmina Morta is fairly consistent in gradient, if not a straight shot up the road. It follows a long promenade along the Tirreno coastline, and tops out exactly halfway through the stage. Fairly strong winds are expected, as Cefalù can expect gusts from the south, up to 41kph, though inland, near the wonderfully named Bronte, for example, it’ll be half that and more like a steady 10kph. Still, that’s a headwind for part of the day.

Portella Femmina Morta

Etna is last, so obviously it’ll be far more decisive, but tailwind or no it’s also a good deal harder:

Etna Profile

In fact, the Giro has chosen the supposedly hardest approach to Rifugio Sapienza, the highest point on the mountain where people can safely expect to hang out without threat of lava or poison gas, at least not before a few warning signals go off. How much harder? Hm, not sure there. Some of the usual sources of info seem to be down at the moment, and what I can find shows that each of the three approaches is relatively twisty and inconsistent in grade, gains a similar amount of altitude, and finishes in the same spot, so the differences may only be by degree. I sussed out a map of the eastern approach, which looks like the longest (and therefore least steep) but that’s a bear too, just with a longer preamble. I’ve heard commentary that choosing the approach to the west of the one they used in 2011, last time the Giro climbed Etna, made it harder. But still, I question how much. Presumably the road surfaces are good; when I was there 15 years ago it was perfect tarmac.

In all, this is a Sicilian classic.

AmyBC’s Wine of the Day

Girolamo Russo 2015 rosato: Pink Giro wine!

This is the north face of Europe’s largest active volcano, Mount Etna, in the north-eastern corner of Sicily. The Russos have 26 hectares of land in and around Passopisciaro, with 15 hectares of vineyards surrounded by olive and hazelnut groves. The vineyards are high up, between 650 and 780 metres above sea level, inland from the beautiful town of Taormina. Many of the free-standing bush vines are over 80 years old, surviving in harmony with Etna’s black, mineral-rich volcanic soil. This is one of those "Wow, it went quickly bottles." Very pale, with strong notes of cherry and pomegranate balanced by the zing of acid.

etna finish

Did You Know!

That Mount Etna is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, sitting firmly on the list of ten Decade Volcanoes that need to be studied most carefully due to potential for both activity and destruction? [Oh, hello Mount Rainier.] It is in a constant state of semi-activity, with gas and lava on the move, and has had four major flank eruptions as well as another four summit eruptions in the new millennium. The one that’s only 17 years old.

There are some 300 vents on the mountain, from the summit calderas to little holes in the ground, but also large cones down the side, beautifully geometric protrusions like the one shown above (which is at Rifugia Sapienza, far below the peak). As a stratovolcano it is both explosive and effusive, meaning it can blow sky high as it sometimes does, or just seep gas and lava, as it does most days. Etna is more than twice the size of Vesuvius, Italy’s other entry on the list of very naughty volcanoes.

There are two classes of volcanoes, shield and strato, and while shield volcanoes (e.g. the Hawaiian ones) are low-slung and made up of lava, stratovolcanoes include large amounts of steam formed by water mixing with the hot center, that itself comes from sitting on subduction faults, where the ocean crust dips under a continental plate. The gas buildup is what will fuck your shit up big time. It’s what forms volcanoes that are steep and majestic, and people around here said how Mount St. Helens always looked like an ice cream cone back before 1981. But forming that perfect scoop of rock and ice was energy potential ten times that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, so when it blew, it was catastrophic.

Etna vents itself a lot, so logically it might not be due for a catastrophic explosion of that sort for a while. But its cousin Vesuvius blows hotter, from the legendary eruption in 79 that buried Pompeii to more recent events as late as 1944, when it went up in the middle of fighting in WWII. Anyway, Etna is less volatile on that scale, but is in a constant state of agitation and can turn into a minor problem at any moment.

Generally the problem is lava. Unlike, say, Mount Nyiragongo (which had a horrible gas event in 2002 where 147 people were asphyxiated by an invisible cloud of CO2), the eruptions of Etna involve lava flows and getting the hell away from them. [At Rifugio Sapienza there are signs warning of explosive gas, a photo of which signs makes for a fine bathroom decoration.] Flank eruptions are the worst, since the summit is far from any inhabited area but the flank vents can be relatively close by. In 1669 the lava from a flank eruption reached Catania, the regional hub city, destroying 10 villages in its path. The village of Mascali was destroyed in 1928. In 1971 the Etna cable car was taken out. In 1992 the town of Zafferana had to blow up a network of lava tubes that were conveying a very heavy, fast-moving flow to the sea and threatening to destroy the town in the process. It worked; the flow moved over to an artificial channel, and the town only got slightly singed.

Etna is named from the Latin Aetna, referring to a nymph supposedly trapped underneath it, but there are several other versions of the story, each more confusing than the last. The mountain has several other local names which amount to “beautiful mountain,” being Montebello (Italian), Mongibello (sort of Italian), and Mungibeddu (Sicilian). Obviously names given by people whose villages weren’t fried by lava too recently.

Pick to Win

My news feed is full of stories about how local boy Vincenzo Nibali is gonna bring the heat tomorrow (insert cheezy volcano metaphor) and how numerous other favorites are planning to do the same. Obviously nobody is saying exactly what their plans are, and everyone is cautiously expressing readiness in case things do get hot. If you’re trying to get clicks, then you write headlines like “Giro Set To Explode on Fiery Etna Slopes!”

[There are three Sicilians in the race, Nibali, Paolo Tiralongo and Giovanni Visconti.]

Personally I think Etna is more likely to explode than the race itself, and that all the favorites are planning to keep an eye on each other rather than take the bull by the horns themselves. Nibali is a cagey veteran, and if he’s sitting on huge form then he might think to go hard on day four for something as frivolous as the chance to wear pink into his hometown of Messina on Wednesday. I say frivolous because he goes to Messina a lot, and I’m guessing it’s far more fun to bring home the maglia rosa after the race is completely over than to hold it for a few hours in the middle of a race, and then hand it over to someone else because you wasted your energy on Mount Etna, 15 days before the big stages.

The stage will produce some time gaps though, and will almost certainly benefit the riders we are most interested in discussing, namely Nairo Quintana, Steven Kruijswijk, Thibault Pinot, Adam Yates, Bauke Mollema, Tejay van Garderen, and so on. My bet is that the last three KM will see some deeper digging among i bigs and produce a winner that makes us think the day wasn’t completely wasted. Time gaps won’t be much, but the prospect of time bonuses alone will get riders interested in burning a match or two. As with most MTFs, you have to like the most explosive climbers, and this year that is Nairo Quintana until proven otherwise. So there you go.