Mille Sicilia

My season finished with LEL and I’ve mostly been mucking around since then, with no training or structure to speak of. I decided in early October to formalise that time off and take a proper rest, winding down to just commutes and occasional fun rides out with friends. It was about a week into this break that my friend Harry Everested Etna and started talking about his desire to ride a lap of Sicily in just 48 hours.

I immediately got a tingle of excitement and decided to get in touch to offer advice and see if Harry was keen on having an experienced riding partner on board – I knew he’d never ridden such a distance before and while he was certainly fit enough, surely a bit of company would make the whole endeavour a bit easier.

Luckily Harry was keen… but unfortunately the dates wouldn’t work. I stuck to my plan to stay off the bike and sent occasional emails with kit suggestions and thoughts on tactics, simply enjoying the opportunity to be on the periphery of such a cool challenge.

Then, a fortnight before Harry was due to start, my diary opened up. Things moved quickly and suddenly I’d booked flights, started packing kit and even managed to squeeze in a couple of longer training rides despite the various hurricanes and storms battering the UK.

We had a very simple plan: two riders, 1000km, 48 hours. This was Harry’s party and I was there to cheer lead, help with pacing and generally keep him on track for 48 hours. With my time off the bike, I knew I’d get round, but I thought it unlikely I’d be in any condition to really smash it and my only real goal was to add Sicily to the growing list of islands I’ve circumnavigated. My idea of a holiday… really.

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A vague plan

We set off shortly after 8am from the castle in Catania after a fairly late and boozy night enjoying the local delicacies. I quickly learned that Sicilian cities are complicated one way mazes and we slowly wound our way through the streets toward the main roads along the coast. This first section was to be flat and pass the more industrial part of the coast – refineries that Harry wanted to clear early so we could enjoy the best scenery when we were tired and most needed the inspiration.

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obligatory selfie at the start, full of piss and vinegar

This first section was fast, thanks to a generous tailwind and gave an easy introduction to riding in Sicily. The rules seemed pretty simple:

  1. ride the hard shoulder (taking the lane results in much beeping, but no real danger)
  2. don’t take your eyes off the road for more than 5 seconds – there are potholes and broken tarmac everywhere that will break your bike and body if you hit them at speed
  3. Sicilian drivers won’t try to close pass you, but they won’t give you any room either
  4. expect drivers to be on the phone, drunk or otherwise distracted
  5. watch oncoming traffic closely as drivers will overtake without warning, using the full width of your lane

As we neared Siracusa, the sun was getting fierce and I was finding the heat difficult to cope with. The Sicilians were walking around in winter jackets, but having come fresh from freezing conditions in the UK, my body was struggling to adjust to the sudden onslaught of 20+ degrees. I made Harry stop regularly so I could top up bottles and chuck down cokes – he settled for Espressos and must have gotten through at least 15 by the time we finished.

Once past the refineries and heading toward the North West corner of the island, the scenery started kicking in. First vegetation, as we passed through the Tomato farms in Pachino, then the Prickly Pears and finally stunning sea views as we headed toward Gela.

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Killer views on the coastal bike path

With it being the off season,  many shops were shut and the roads were deserted. We were seemingly the only people mad enough to want to spend the day by the sea. We even had to contend with sand dunes on the road – it really did feel like cycling through a ghost town. At least until we stopped for lunch and found a small bar knocking out some banging euro tunes while some local kids smoked and mucked about on bikes. We smashed through some pizette and prepared to cycle off into the evening.

I hadn’t added into my calculations quite how early the sun would be setting and it slowly dawned on me that we’d be seeing much of the island in darkness. The sky was turning red by 6 o clock and it was pitch black by the time we passed Agrigento, with the temple lit spectacularly on the hill.

Riding in absolute darkness makes me dozy and I was worried that such a long night would be problematic for me. I also wasn’t sure how Harry would fare – he was holding the pace brilliantly throughout the day but we were quickly equalling his longest ever ride and entering uncharted territory.

We slowed right down and took the first night quite easy. It got very cold and the route had us diverging from the bigger roads in places, so we struggled more than we should have and came to an agreement that we’d stop following the course when it left the main roads and just follow signs to the cities and towns en-route. I was getting pretty sleepy by now and the only respite came from brightly lit tunnels and the streetlights in the towns (which were few and far between). I even resorted to two minutes sat in a petrol station forecourt staring at the overhead lights to recharge my batteries.

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Recharging the batteries in the brightly lit tunnels

Fortunately, from Marsala onward the entire road was lit and any thoughts of forcing Harry to take an early nap were dispelled. Things were looking good – we’d made great time, had a few hours in hand and no disasters or set backs to speak of.

Entering Trapani, we spotted lights high above the town, realised the route headed in that direction and decided to get our heads down for a while before facing the long climb. I led Harry on a merry dance through the streets looking for a ‘comfortable’ sleeping option as this would be his first audax hotel experience, but came up short, failing to find any benches, grass or covered areas. I was getting close to suggesting some less luxurious options when Harry spotted a quiet spot behind a petrol station and we set up camp.

After the briefest of naps (I didn’t set an alarm, but think I got about 10 minutes of good quality sleep), we set back out into the pre-dawn. The road rose sharply, following a ridge line around the base of a hilltop town and I found myself gapping Harry. I started worrying that he’d pushed too hard early on and might be in for a long struggle to get round. I hit the climbs at tempo, then span out my legs while Harry caught back up.

There were several more big climbs as we headed toward San Vito Lo Capo and at the top of one, I heard a yelp from Harry and had to turn back to find him turning into a bar in desperate need of caffeine and a snack.

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Breakfast with a view

The Espresso seemed to do the trick and suddenly he was glued to my wheel and pushing me hard up the climbs. I was still worried he was pushing too hard and at risk of blowing up, so gently suggested that the 48 hours was probably ambitious and it might be best to just settle for getting round (knowing full well we had good time in hand and that Harry was smart enough to figure this out for himself too).

Luckily, Harry just got stronger and stronger as the morning continued. My knee was giving me bother (something has been a bit ‘off’ since LEL and longer rides have been causing some bother) and soon Harry was riding me off his wheel and looking back over his shoulder, impatiently waiting for me to work my way back up to him.

By Palermo we were ready for a proper break and after a hectic tussle with the traffic on our way in, dived into the first bar we could find. It was a bit early in the day for me to eat properly and I couldn’t quite match Harry’s two portions, but the lasagna was amazing and the stop left me feeling revitalised and ready to conquer the rest of the island… only the bar didn’t take cards… and we didn’t have enough cash… and the nearby cash machine they pointed us to was out of service. I got on the bike and went in search of another… and then another… until finally, six machines later, I was finally able to get some money. Between the traffic both coming into and leaving Palermo and the desperate search for a working ATM, we lost a lot of time and our morale took a bit of a hit.

Fortunately, the scenery after Palermo is astounding and the road rolls gently over hills and hugs the coast line, giving incredible views. Harry continued to ride strong and I continued to follow behind, nursing my knee. By virtue of being about half my size, Harry accelerates a lot faster and having to match his changes in pace was tearing my knee apart. It felt like every time I got on his wheel, he’d see my shadow and attack… I’m certain he wasn’t, but it was hard to shake the feeling and I could feel myself getting grouchy.

Eventually I suggested that Harry push on ahead and that I’d catch him further down the road, probably in the night. What actually ended up happening was that I was able to settle into a more steady pace and held Harry in view, without over-stressing my knee. He was struggling to use his aerobars, whereas I was happy to tuck into mine and make up time on the descents for less effort.

At some point, I passed Harry and pushed on into the night, expecting him to come cruising past. Only it was getting later and later and there was just no sign of him. Evidently he’d had a couple of stops and the pace I was setting was just high enough to keep him at distance for a while. When he did eventually make the catch, it was pitch black and we agreed to regroup – safety in numbers and all that.

We made a good fist of it, working together to stay awake and keep moving, but my knee was just getting too sore. After one painful twinge too many, I threw my bike down and lent on a wall, stretching my leg and trying to relieve the pain. A few minutes later and Harry pulled up for me to give him the bad news ‘I’m going to get the train at Messina, you better push on alone – my knee’s just too sore’. It took some persuading, but he finally set off into the night alone and I sulkily followed from a distance, barely pedalling and feeling like a bit of a failure.

Approaching the North East corner of the island, I started getting dozy again and found a covered porch to have a quick nap in. I’d been chased by a dog a few minutes before and the adrenaline rush had caused a bit of a crash, leaving me gently weaving across the rode and struggling to keep my eyes open. I propped myself up against the wall, closed my eyes and snatched about 5-10 minutes. It was one of those transformative sleeps that fixes everything and I suddenly found my knee behaving and my power meter reading in triple figures again.

I set off for Messina at full bore and watched the mileage gently tick down to under 100km. Escaping Messina was a pain with the early morning traffic and lights that stayed red for hours, but shortly after the route became spectacular and I started having fun again. Bombing down the coast, enjoying gentle climbs and sweeping descents.

The mileage flew down and before I knew it I was approaching Catania. I could have sworn Harry told me the final run in was mostly downhill, but he’d also told me about a cobbled climb, so when I hit that climb I assumed the ride was done (with about 20km to go)… only to quickly find another cobbled climb… and then another climb (at least no cobbles this time) and several more after that.

The final run into Catania felt like it took an age – traffic was heavy and the route felt quite circuitous. The final push to find the meeting place with Harry took far too long, but I finally spotted him, almost exactly 48 hours from when we’d left. He’d arrived about 10 minutes beforehand, seemingly having stopped a couple of times between Messina and Catania, whereas I’d ridden non stop.

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Knackered. Elated.

Mission complete. An incredible ride from Harry and something I was truly proud to be a part of. I also have to thank Harry, his wife and their friends for looking after me during my time in Sicily – amazing hosts and great ambassadors for a lovely country that I’ll definitely revisit.

I also need to thank 110+RPM (an LBS in Catania) for fixing my rear wheel when I was forced to use a broken spare after my main exploded two days before I flew out. They spent at least an hour using hammers, drifts, heat guns, superglue and god knows what else getting a rear wheel that would barely turn to function well enough to lap the island without incident – total legends.

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Finally, I should also thank Bounce Balls, for kindly sending us a couple of boxes to fuel our adventure. I’m normally a big fan of picking up food enroute and enjoying whatever the locals have to offer, but the balls worked extremely well. They pack small and are light, so an obscene number fitted in my frame bag and they kept me going several times when I was feeling a bit light headed with no shops around – they’ll definitely be a regular feature in my framebag from now on!

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Cacao Mint FTW!

You can view the ride here and here.

Now go read Harry’s account of the #Sicily1000!

2 thoughts on “Mille Sicilia

  1. Great read Chris. It almost makes me want to persuade my other half that I should do something daft on a bike next year. Hope my back wheel doesn’t explode 🤤, though I don’t run mine tubeless.

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    1. Ah yes, I felt bad after it exploded knowing I’d recommended it to you. From what I can tell, I’ve probably been very unlucky with an imperfection in the rim. I’ll let you know what CRC say though. Thank you very much for the Movember donation too – incredibly generous! Hopefully there’ll be pictures of me looking suitably ridiculous in a week or two for you to enjoy!

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