Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Sicilian hospitality :D

I'm feeling very lucky to be able to travel around the world racing my mountain bike, but I'm feeling especially lucky to have experienced the Etna Marathon, Sicily, last weekend. The Mongibello MTB team were excellent hosts and they went out of their way to make me feel welcome. This was the first race that I have ever travelled to alone without Dave or support form my Team; however the Mongibello team stepped in and adopted me during my visit and I can't thank them enough! 

The night I arrived in Sicily I was amazed to see a glowing lava fountain spewing out of Mount Etna!!! As I lay in bed at the base of the volcano I could hear the rumbling, which did make me wonder whether racing around an active volcano was a good idea!!! The next day all flights in and out of Catania were cancelled because of the thick layer of volcanic ash that covered the runway! Perhaps I'd be staying in Sicily longer than I thought! 

The next day I rode some of the course with Tomoka (Mongibello Chix) and two fellow Brits, Greg Parker and Andy Leach, who were also staying at the Ghebel Hotel in Milo. It's becoming increasingly popular for race organisers to provide different course lengths for riders to choose from during the race and the Etna Marathon follows this principle by offering three course options: a 23km (700 metres of vertical ascent), a 49km (1500 metres), and the full 70km (2200 metres). We rode the 23km course but we had so much fun on the final singletrack descents that we headed back up for a second go :D The long forest single trails were steep, twisty, very loose and never failed to make me whoop! 

Etna was still smoking!
The race started at 10am on Saturday, which meant that I had a long sleep and plenty of time to eat my oats and banana for breakfast ;) It was a hot day so I added Elete Water to my Torq carb drinks - I always use this electrolyte add-in during hot races. I had a really good start and rode with the lead group of men along a gradual road climb, but once the course headed steeply upwards into the forest the group split and I rode with a couple of guys. It pretty much stayed this way for the rest of the race; however I couldn't get to grips with the deep volcanic sand/gravel fireroad corners that were littered with pinecones. I cursed myself out aloud, but this didn't help ;) 

Sweet forest singletrails 
As the course took us higher and higher and closer to the snow that still covers the summit, I took time to take in the views down to the coast below. This is one of the reasons that I love marathon racing: I get to visit amazing places like this and to see stunning views; in marathon races you cover long distances on one lap courses, and you really feel like you have been on a adventure on your bike :) After 3 hours and 33 minutes I crossed the finish line in first place :) Congrats to Greg Parker for finishing 2nd in his age category. 

The next day I rode the 70km marathon course again, while most people were lining the streets getting ready to watch the Giro d'Italia. The course was really quiet and as I climbed up the forest trails I heard something rustling in the trees, I expected to see a dear but I was shocked to see what looked like a big cat! I stopped in amazement and the cat froze staring at me for a short while before running away. I've since found out that the wild cats of Etna are endangered and that it is extremely rare to see them. My luck that day continued because just as I finished the marathon course the Giro passed through Milo :) The next day I couldn’t resist going for a quick spin around the 70km route again before heading off back home to the UK.  

Mark Cavendish in the Giro d'Italia

A huge thank you to Mongibello MTB team for organising such a great event and for welcoming me to Sicily :)

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