Paxton-Ciclismo Classico Sicily Adventure Ride Report
by Rob Verfurth
Serena and I recently returned from our first cycling tour. We were really guests of my old friends, Mark and Diane Paxton. The trip was oganized as a private tour by Ciclismo Classico, a cycling tour company based in the Tuscany area that puts on various types of riding vacations, mostly in Europe. Mark and Diane have done a number of trips with Ciclismo in the past. They selected their preferred guides, Massimo & Paolo, and organized a riding trip around Sicily. They invited a bunch of their friends from the Spokane area, along with us; discount got better by having a larger group. We had a total of 13 riders and two Italian guides for the 10 day trip. Mark, Diane and I have known each other since our military days in Germany from the mid-80’s. We ran Helsinki Marathon together and did some alpine ski racing. I expected all his friends to be as active.
The trip sounded great as we read the brochure, but it was not in the priority location for me. I want to ride the mountains of France, Spain or Italy. It also seemed like too many different hotels as we moved around the island of Sicily. Lastly, I lived and worked in Sicily for the summer of 1986. I had been there; let’s go to a new place! Serena was all for the trip and liked the prospects of a few less mountaintop finishes. We decided to take the plunge and it was a great decision. We flew into Palermo, on the northwest side of Sicily. After taking a taxi to our hotel, we walked around the old sections of town. Tons of history–Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians and even the British have influenced Sicily. We met up with Mark and Diane, along with most of the group, in a piazza at a nice restaurant for dinner. It had been many years since we had seen each other and it was great to meet all their other friends. As expected, most were still racing triathlons and other riding events. A few had just completed the Coeur d’Alene Ironman this summer; the group looked ready to ride.
The next morning we loaded up and headed south towards Menfi, on the southwest coast of Sicily. We were staying on a working vineyard hotel property. The bike adjustments all were made and we went out for a short 12 mile warm-up ride. Serena and I brought over our pedals and seat, the bikes were new Bianchi Intense rides with Shimano Ultegra components, nice compact crank and 12-32 rear cassette; plenty for the planned hills we would ride. We also had Garmin devices with maps and routes for each day loaded into them. The meals were first class at each hotel, the wines were awesome. Every hotel property was 3-star and up, I wanted to stay longer in each location. Our first real ride took us from Menfi to Sambuca di Sicilia. We stopped for lunch in the Planeta Vineyards and got a tour of the operation; plenty of wine samples too. A few of us did the add on mileage above the town, despite dark clouds on the horizon. We got hit with a major deluge of driving rain and after a mile of climbing with water rushing down the roads, we decided to egress back toward our hotel. It was a fun adventure through the flooded streets.
The next day we rode back through the town to see some of the old buildings before climbing some 40 miles to the town of Ribera. The roads were uncrowded, lots of small towns perched along the hillsides and a fun day of riding. The bus picked us up after lunch in Ribera and drove us to Agrigento, known as the Valley of the Temples. The history there was incredible. We toured Greek and Roman temples before dining on a patio overlooking the temple ruins lit up at night. The next three days were 50+ mile riding days heading from Caltagirone to Ragusa to Siracusa with almost 5,000 feet of climbing each day. One of the days we stopped for lunch in Marina de Ragusa, a beach town near the southeast corner of Sicily. This is the town where I lived in 1986, it was fun to go back. We also rode by Comiso, near where I worked at an US airbase now coverted over to the local government. I was able to make a few side tour loops to add mileage and explore some mountaintop towns before reconnecting with the group again.
In Siracusa we stayed on Ortygia Island in the harbor. Again, the Greek & Roman ruins and history is rich throughout the area. The cental piazza looked like a football field sized white marble pedestrain walkway filled with restaurants, hotels, churches and goverment buildings. We barely had time to explore the full island, but did have a drink on top of our hotel with views of the entire harbor at sunset, spectacular. If you want to learn more about the Second Punic War, when Archimede’s was killed and when Syracuse surrendered to the Romans, you will have to speak to Hodges; our educated European teammate.
The following day called for a break in riding and a group hike on Mount Etna. I had hiked Etna 30 years previously, so I decided to ride to the top. My solo 22 mile adventure took me through Nicolosi before hitting Sp 92 and ride up to Etna Rifugio, the ski resort and llifts at the top. The steepest part of the climb was only about 11 miles and 5,400 feet of climbing for the day. The roads went through lava fields as I ascended. The pitch was not too bad, with lots of switchbacks to make it to the top. I notice that the Giro d’Italia 2017 has a mountain top finish on Etna. It is stage 4 and starts north of Enta in Cefalu. The 180 km stage goes through Nicolosi, as I did, but they climb a side road parallel to Sp 92 to get to Etna Rifugio. I will watch the Giro next spring. Etna was a great climb and one for anyone’s bucket list.
After the climb and the group finished their hike, we descended down the east side of Etna and drove to Taormina. This beautiful city, built on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, was a location I could spend an entire holiday. We stayed in an old monestary converted to a hotel and spent the late afternoon walking the streets exploring the town before having another great dinner . Our balcony for breakfast overlooked the harbor below, we did not want to leave. Alas, we were on our way to the Aeolian Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the northern coast of Sicily. We took at ferry over to Lipari and did a walking tour of the cathedral, along with more ancient ruins before getting back to our bikes. The short ride covered 16 miles with a healthy 2,500 feet of climbing, a loop over a mountain on the island.
Our last day of riding started early with a sunrise breakfast on the roof of our hotel before taking another small boat to Salina Island, a bit north of Lipari. We rode 10 miles up and around the island, stopping for a tour of a wine and olive oil family business. Lunch was at a beachside restuarant providng lovely views of a number of islands, including one that is an active volcano. We went swimming before heading back to Lipari and then did some final shopping ahead of our last group dinner. We all celebrated the fun times of riding and thanked our great tour guides. Totals were about 250 miles and 25,000 feet of climbing for the group, I got in about 50 extra miles and 7K more elevation. Many were talking about when we could get away for our next cycling trip.
Most of the gang had flights scheduled out of Catania the next day. We all headed back to Sicily on the ferry and then drove to the airport. Serena and I were spending the day in Catania before our flight the following afternoon so we got dropped off at our Airbnb location. I had been to Catania 30 years ago from some of the old photos I found and brought with me on the trip. It was fun to walk the town again and see some of the sights. The Duomo, fountains, Greek ruins, old forts & buildings and museums were great. We found a cycling shop and bought an Italian riding kit, had dinner and got some rest. Our flight went through Rome and back safely to San Diego. It was a memorable adventure. Below is a link to lots of pictures, enjoy a few of them.
Serena and I have already signed up for our next cycling trip, this one with Backcountry Roads. Mark and Diane Paxton are going too. It is next September and we will be on a ship on the Danube River while day riding through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Hungary. You should come!