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Taormina – A Taste of Sicily and Things to Come

We recently had the good fortune to travel to breathtaking Taormina, Sicily, and we’ve returned with more than your typical snowglobe or lousy t-shirt, we’ve got a noggin full of good info and experiences busting at the seams. We traveled to view, learn and ride mountain bike products soon to be released by the industry’s elite manufacturers. Below we share bits of gossip and our experiences.

1. New Standards:

The mountain bike industry loves standards -- that’s why we’re constantly adopting them. Coming soon to a bike under you: the Fox 15×100 thru axle and FSA’s BB30. It’s not just the comprehension of geography, language and culture, nor the delicious cuisine that makes traveling so titillating -- it’s the knowledge you gain. We nabbed the January issue of UK mountain bike magazine, MBR (Mountain Bike Rider), at the airport newsstand in Rome, only to learn that Fox is developing a 15×100 thru axle standard for their 32 series forks. Word is that they’ll be 15% stiffer torsionally than current Fox 32 series forks without adding any precious grams. No word yet on the hubs that complete the 15×100 system, but we speculate Fox has recruited a partner(s) to help in that department.

While it’s not happening in 2008, it looks like it will happen in 2009, and without a doubt, sooner or later the BB30 standard as it’s known, will be most everywhere.

The BB30 is an open-source (to use software terminology) standard where you essentially press bearings directly into an oversized BB shell. It eliminates the need for external (or internal) BB cups. And, the BB30 actually has performance upsides: You get a substantially lighter and stiffer BB. You reduce Q factor. And with the larger diameter bearings, the load is distributed even further, minimizing stress. In theory prices should be reasonable since road bikes and mountain bikes will share the same BB design (no more 68 vs 70 vs 73).

The most publicized example of unconventional BB bearings in 2008 mountain bikes was with the new Pivot Cycles design on the Mach 4 and Mach 5. However, theirs is not an example of BB30. Rather, what Pivot did was move the cups from outside the BB shell to inside the shell. While there was a bit of weight savings and additional stiffness to be had there was no consequential reduction in Q-factor. With BB30 you essentially rid the bike of BB cups and accomplish all three. That’s the key. And it’s the future. Ben Delaney of velonews.com wrote a great summary here and you ought to check it out.

Fox has had a stranglehold on the suspension market for years. They own rear shock OE spec, and their forks are highly sought after. It’s a nice spot to be in. However, being at the top, means everyone is always gunnin’ for you, and Magura has been playing with some heavy artillery. We’ve already been impressed by the Magura 2008 Durin fork, and 2009 looks to be even more promising. We rode the entire range of 2009 Magura forks -- XC to All Mountain -- and trust us, there’s plenty to talk about. Unfortunately, we can’t at this point. We can say that their proprietary Dual Arch Design has allowed them to maintain incredible torsional stiffness, yet deliver an extremely lightweight fork. We put them to the test on a 40K descent down Mt. Etna at the center of the island, and they delivered the smoothest of rides through the fields of lava rock.

2. Smart Standards

They call it a Smart Car for a reason. The Smart Car is, well, both really smart and really effin small. While we didn’t rent a Smart Car, we quickly understood why it got its name. We instead rented a Mitsubishi Colt from Easy Car upon landing in Catania – it’s a small fry among “Biggie” fries alongside American whips, but it was one of the better sized vehicles we saw. Amazingly, we squeezed three of us, baggage and a bike box on our return trip to the airport. Out of the rental car gate we were apprenhensive, as it seemed the road rules were a bit different here. People aren’t afraid to use their horns, catch a draft, or hammer the gas to come around you. Only they can read the road signs. Pair that with the local fashion -- puffy jackets with gold trim, oversized pop star sunglasses, and gold Nike kicks -- and there was an element of NASCAR in the air. Once we settled into our groove, the drive up Highway A18 to Taormina was quite easy, save the instances in which the narrow two-lane highway was used liberally as if it were three.

We exited the coastal toll road only to find ourselves just a few K from historic Taormina, perched high above us overlooking the clear blue waters of the Ionian Sea. This is when the drive got really interesting – it began as a two-lane road, winding its way up the mountain, providing jaw-dropping views at each switchback. The road hangs off the mountainside, suspended by old rock and concrete structures. It narrows quickly quickly to one lane, and switches between one-way and two-way traffic without notice. At least we didn’t. There’s just too much to take in – we’ve never been so focused and distracted at once. You’re eager to take in the beauty that’s swallowing you, but you’ve got Vespas and Fiat Pandas riding your bumper and hustling around you into oncoming traffic and a distinct lack of road signs. With frequency we had to duck into alleys, or back up to make room for oncoming traffic. Finally, after asking directions for the umpteenth time, we fold the side mirrors on the car to squeeze between a couple of churches and a scooter near the town square, and find ourselves at the foot of Le Grand Hotel Timeo, our headquarters for our stay. From then on, we fully embraced the idea of the Smart Car.

3. Higher Standards

Le Grand Hotel Timeo checks us in efficiently, with a sense of great preparedness. We’re whisked through the process, but not until the front desk attendant is 100% positive she’s answered any question we might have. She calls for the bellman, who has our bags in hand in a nano-second gesturing for us to follow him. A minute later, he’s driving us on a golf cart to our villa -- we’re treated to views of historic Taormina and Castle Mola each shadowed by the ominous and gorgeous snowy Mt. Etna. It’s a beautiful text-book, blue-sky day, complimented to a T by the crystal blue Ionian Sea below. It’s as if sky and sea have fused together -- no clear definition of where it happened. Before we can even take a step off he cart, the bellman has our bags in the villa -- we’re almost surprised by the fact he didn’t unpack them for us.

The scene as a whole injected some life into our road-weary bodies -- 25 hours of traveling -- we locked the villa and departed on foot to explore the town and catch up with the group. The heart of the town is just 100 meters from the hotel, and we quickly bumped into a few of the other attendees as they headed for the group lunch, so we joined them. We stepped into a small restaurant, which as many do, has a banquet room well out of sight. Our group was tucked away in this room feasting on a spread of local delicacies -- rice balls, fresh fish, cheeses, heavenly salami, a multitude of fresh pasta dishes, crusty bread and the freshest olive oil, and of course red wine. No Italian meal is complete without plenty of red wine.

We found ourselves wondering why everyone here isn’t drastically overweight. Nothing there was low fat, calorie free. Not even close. It didn’t take long to realize that the ingredients they use are whole -- no 14 syllable chemicals here. Even the microwave pizza we were served on the plane contained all of six ingredients -- two cheeses, wheat flour, olive oil, tomatoes, and herbs. Combine that with the fact that meals are an event -- very rarely do the Sicilians eat on the run. Hmmm, maybe there’s something to this.

After riding that afternoon, and participating in product presentations, we were ready to explore again. Each day proved to be no different -- eat; learn; ride; eat; ride; learn; explore; eat; sleep -- needless to say, we got accustomed to it very quickly. The city of Taormina is beautiful -- hillside castles, stone piazzas, and churches are plentiful. We’re talking about real churches here: massive rough stone blocks, leaded stained glass, and wooden pews. The entire area just oozed history. As we walked its narrow corridors, our imagination ran wild thinking of all that had likely gone on in that very spot -- almost as if the streets were whispering to us. It made us wonder how these churches, castles and buildings were built on this mountainside, long before modern tools and vehicles were available.

The first night we walked the entire city absorbing the menu of each restaurant. We scratched our heads as it seemed each menu was half pizza. Pizza? We didn’t travel halfway across the earth to have pizza! Then it began to sink in that Sicily is the birthplace of pizza. Finally, our hunger nearly consumed us, and we stepped into the next restaurant we found. Overwhelmed by the 12 page menu printed in five languages, we settled on pizza. Yep. And it rocked. This wasn’t your average supreme meat lovers Pizza Hut pizza. No, this was the real deal. Fresh local ingredients – cheese from a local dairy farm, fresh grains, exquisite olive oil (another staple here), and some seasonings cooked in a brick oven not 4 meters from our table in plain view. The toppings didn’t overwhelm the pizza. The cheese didn’t smother it in grease and oil either. It was simplicity at it’s finest. Each was so perfectly a part of the whole, it was a culinary experience. Wow.

Naturally, we set out Saturday night to top Friday’s pleasant surprise. And that we did, perhaps having one of the finest meals of our lives at Ristorante Le Naumachie, not a couple meters from Friday night’s restaurant. Tucked away in a corridor off Corso Umberto, the main street in Taormina, the tunnel-like restaurant featured a considerably shorter menu and no pizza, a rarity in the area. No matter, that’s not what we were after away. On this night, we were after Swordfish (another delicacy for which the area is known), fresh pasta, and more good wine. Le Naumachie didn’t disappoint -- we were seated promptly, and one waiter tended to the entire restaurant without missing a detail. The restaurant filled up quickly around us, including a couple large tables. While he moved a bit quicker, he was never rattled. He guided us through the menu selections helping us pair wines and area olive oils with our delicacies -- Carpaccio topped with Avocado and Pignoli, Swordfish Rolls comprised of thin swordfish filets with fried Aubergine and Pignoli, Fresh Ravioli with local cheese and herbs, finished with Biscotti, fresh cream and strawberries. We sampled local wines and had perhaps the best wine presentation in our memory -- great eye contact, education, pairing, and corking. Certainly a meal to remember.

It’s evident that the people of Sicily, no matter what their role is, take great pride in what they do. From shop keepers to people on the street to the hotel concierge, each is eager to play host. They want you to feel comfortable in their home. They’re proud of it. As they should be.

4. The Rides

Friday’s ride wasn’t much to speak of. While it provided some gorgeous views of the coast, it was simply a 3-4 kilometer climb up the main drag of Taormina, then a descent down a country road back to the hotel. Unfortunately for us, the country road was laden with broken clay shingles, and we tore a sidewall on our rear wheel just 50 meters from the summit. By the time we returned to the hotel, daylight was waning, and we were ready to eat.

After Friday’s luckluster ride, we were chomping at the bit to hit the trail on Saturday -- both to ride the new product, and check out the local trails. Our guides were a few local pioneers from Etna Free Bike, a local mountain bike club organized since 1989, Adolfo, Pietro and Roberto. Their passion for mountain biking poured out of them when they spoke, excited both by hosting dozens of mountain bikers on their turf, and having the opportunity to QA many of the products well before they’d ever hit their local shops. They shuttled us well past the point we’d ridden to just a day prior, through mountain top pastures, past herds of cattle walking the street. We parked at the foot of a dirt road, and we were riding within minutes. We took of up a gradual double track road before veering off onto an old herding trail -- we rounded a corner which presented a panoramic view of the island’s interior: fertile valleys and rocky peaks as far as the eye could see. We rode the down the trail through crops of fruit trees and wound back up to the top of the peak, where we’d parked. The group wanted to stay on the bike, and we inquired about riding back to the hotel. We were told that there were many unmarked turns, and it would be difficult for them to provide adequate directions. But, they were willing to drive us to a point a couple of peaks over, from which we could head home.

Quickly we piled in the vehicles, and made our way up the treacherous, pitted, corkscrew roads to a windy peak. Most of us were in shorts/short sleeves and the sun had disappeared behind a peak in the distance. The wind was ripping off the ocean thousands of feet below us, and we were ready to get moving. Roberto pointed to roads in the distance, instructing us to ride to a small, Dr. Seuss-like town in the distance, Castle Mola. The town is teetering atop a peak high above Taormina, jutting out on all sides. From there, signs were posted to provide directions back to the hotel. We thanked him, crossed our fingers, and hoped for the best. We dropped down the road, pushing our gearing to its fullest.

The road twisted and turned with nary a guardrail, or even a shoulder. Each corner was laden with gravel, and visibility was minimal with the absence of the sun. In our minds, we thought to ourselves, “don’t take your eyes off the trail.” If we had, it’d be a scene that put the Red Bull Rampage to shame. Five kilometers later, we found ourselves within the corridors of Castle Mola, squeezing between pedestrians on staircases, and hammering through the chute-like streets.

Scenes of the Red Bull downhill race through the streets of Spain raced through our minds. Finally, we follow the posted signs by the event organizers to our left, and find ourselves at the top of an ancient staircase – we’re talking random sized chisled stones in various heights and widths twisting and turning through Cactus growing on the side of the cliff, the entire way back to Taormina -- around two kilometers -- yes, the staircase. Chances are good you’ve never seen anything like it -- we know it was a first for us. We paused for a moment, wishing we had one of the event bikes equipped with the new Crank Brothers Joplin R seatpost, and dropped our saddle to allow maneuverability as we tested our trials skills. With a good crash, a couple dabs, and some cramped hands, we braked and bounced our way back to the city of Taormina. While it was one of the slower descents we’ve ever done, it certainly ranks among the most exhilarating.

Sunday was the scheduled “big ride” -- a 40K descent from Mt. Etna. A tourbus and a couple vans carried all 40 or 50 of us from our hotel to the trailhead high up the snow-capped Mt. Etna. Etna is a 3,300 meter active volcano – one of the most active in the world. Admittedly, this was slightly unsettling and exciting. As the bus wound up the climb that has been used numerous times in the Giro D’Italia, we could feel our adrenaline level rising. The concept of a 40K descent was hard to wrap our arms around -- 10 to 15K, maybe. But 40K? How is that even possible? Sure we’d been told there was a whopping 100m of total climbing, but still.

Once we got off the bus, the ride organized quickly -- we’re sure in large part due to everyone’s excitement to get cracking. The area was heavily forested with dark loamy soil at the outset. Patches of snow were scattered about as we were at the base of the snowline of Etna. The terrain changed quickly as the trail opened up -- the intense sun the area receives made for dry conditions, compounded by the dry, pourous, crumbly lava rock littered in every turn. We started out slow, and got faster in a hurry. Because of the size of the group, and the wide range of skill levels, we never blazed for more than a short section, but that was okay. The ride had a bit of a Megavalanche feel to it (minus about 10,000 people), going into unknown corners in packs, three or four abreast, only to have the bottom fall out from under you. You’ve got to hold your line regardless, or run the risk of taking out half dozen people in an instant -- and you’re forced to hope that guy next to you abides by that law as well. Apart from a couple stops to regroup and a few flat tires the result of the sharp exterior of the lava rock (thankfully not ours), we kept a solid pace for the better part of the morning.

Around noon, we descended a slicker-than-snot rock-stepped herding trail into Castiglione for another killer meal. We park all 40 of our bikes in the tiny alley outside the entrance to Ristorante Sine Tempore, whose proprietor stands atop his front step awaiting our arrival. After all, we’d commandeered all but two tables of his restaurant. He’s prepared a spread to end all spreads – salads, breads, meats, fresh pastas, fish, and of course wine. Of course, we had a few glasses. Why not? What’s more Euro than stopping in the middle of an epic ride to drink? Perhaps the sheep cheese all over our pasta -- that would probably qualify. That was a first for us, but can we have seconds please?

We left Castiglione a bit slower than we’d entered, and we thought it’d be tough to describe a better scene -- a full belly, 90 minutes of gorgeous trail behind us, a historic Italian village in front of us and 20K more trail to go. Amazing. The next 20K contained much less lava rock, and many more herding trails, and trails that connected those courtesy of our guides’ efforts some seventeen years prior. Yep, these guys define old school. They were doing it back in the day, and still are.

We’d like to thank Mike and his staff for planning and hosting the event. We’d also like to thank Crank Brothers, Fox, FSA, Fizik, Hayes Group, Hutchinson, Mavic, and Magura for including us, and for the high-quality information they provided. Another big thank you our ride guides, Adolfo, Roberto and Pietro, for their time and hospitality in showing us the local trails.