A sublime monster
We could use some help to try to describe the Zoncolan. So let’s look up the meaning of two seemingly opposing words in the dictionary – “monster” and “sublime”.
- Monster (Middle English: monstre) noun [Latin: monstrum «omen, portent», from monēre «to warn»]. – A creature whose appearance and features are so different from the ordinary that it causes surprise and fear.
- Sublime (from Middle English, sublimen) adj. [from Latin, sublimis (or sublimus), made up of sub «up to, below» and limen «threshold, entrance», which literally means «reaching just below the highest threshold»]. – Elevated, lofty.
Gilberto Simoni was the first one to conquer it in 2003, coming from Sutrio, where this brute of a climb only shows its hardest face in the last 3,500 metres. Everybody’s curiosity was awakened, and it would only be a matter of time before the world saw this legendary and fearful creature in its entirety.
Four years later, in 2007, when the ‘Kaiser’ was tackled coming from Ovaro, the world had its first rendezvous with a climb whose features were truly “different from the ordinary”.
And now, some figures about it. The climb gains 1,203 metres in altitude over 10.1 km at a consistent 12% average, maxing out at 22%. This, alone, would be enough to define it as one of the hardest climbs in Europe. But still, it wouldn’t paint the whole picture. To really understand what an absolute brute of a climb it is, we should focus specifically on the 2nd to the 7th kilometre. In those 5,000 metres, one might say the ‘heart of darkness’ of the Zoncolan, the gradients are always above 15%, roughly as much as the Muro di Sormano, but three times as long.
Maybe, at the end of the day, looking at how the riders are climbing up the Zoncolan is the best way to understand how monstrous the ‘Kaiser’ is. The way the peloton is spread across the road always reflects the racing strategy.
The only strategy to tackle the Zoncolan, however, is… no strategy.
On such punishing gradients, nothing works anymore. There is no slipstreaming, there is no help from the domestiques, and the instructions of team managers onboard the team cars are of no use. Up there, the riders are left to fend for themselves, as if the race all of a sudden turned into an individual uphill time trial. As if they were climbing an eight-thousander with no oxygen, and all that matters is knowing how your body reacts, and pacing is the key.
Which is what we all do – riders and ‘ordinary people’ alike – whenever we are faced with monsters in our everyday lives.
Only when we are confronted with something whose “features are so different from the ordinary”, indeed, can we actually “reach just below the highest threshold”.
As it always happens whenever the Giro d’Italia reaches the Zoncolan, the sublime monster of worldwide cycling.
The Zoncolan and the Giro d'Italia
2021: Stage 14, Cittadella – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Lorenzo FORTUNATO
2018: Stage 14, San Vito al Tagliamento – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Christopher FROOME
The peloton arrived bunched at the lower slopes of the Zoncolan, with the best riders all together.
Aru sat up at 6 km out; Dumoulin and Pinot continued climbing together, without responding to any attack.
Froome set the pace on the wheel of his teammate, Poels, at 5.7 km out, and eventually attacked at 4.3 km out. Pozzovivo, Yates and M.A. Lopez were the only ones to follow. Shortly after, Froome blasted away, leaving everyone behind.
Yates pulled away at 3.1 km out, dropping Pozzovivo and Lopez.
Pozzovivo eventually fell behind Lopez, with 2.6 km remaining.
Just before the finish, Yates tried to jump across to Froome, but the 4-time Tour champion responded, and powered to the line a handful of seconds ahead of him.
Pozzovivo settled for third place, after bringing back Lopez. Dumoulin masterfully managed to limit his loss to just 37 seconds. Pinot finished a little further back (42”).
Froome, George Bennett and Pinot rode in a 34×32 gear; Formolo in a 36×30; Chaves, Yates and Dumoulin in a 34×30.
2014: Stage 20, Maniago – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Michael ROGERS
As Rogers and Bongiorno were fighting for stage victory, a fan in a replica World Champion jersey pushed the Italian rider, causing him to unclip. With the Zoncolan’s gradients in the double digits, starting again is not easy, so Rogers rode away and went on to take the stage.
2011: Stage 14, Lienz – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Igor ANTÓN HERNANDEZ
The controversial Crostis climb was dropped from the stage. Contador, the fiercest opponent, complained about how dangerous the descent was, and the team managers joined the protest, one by one. The team cars would not be allowed to follow the race up or down the mountain for 37 kilometres, so the UCI asked for the climb to be cancelled to protect the sporting aspect of the race.
The Tualis climb, which was included as a replacement, was cancelled in turn due to fans’ protests against the cut of the Crostis.
Anton took the stage, as Contador managed to increase his overall lead. Along the Zoncolan, he pushed a 36×32 gear ratio.
Fans booed Contador at the finish, because they thought he was the one to blame for cancelling the Crostis.
2010: Stage 15, Mestre – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Ivan BASSO
Basso opened an unbridgeable gap along the Zoncolan. Evans caved in last. Arroyo finished 4 minutes back, however managing to retain the overall lead, 3 minutes ahead of Basso.
2007: Stage 17, Lienz (AUT) – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Gilberto SIMONI
This was the second ascent to Mt. Zoncolan after 2003, coming from Ovaro, where the average gradient is steepest (10 km of a consistent 11.9% average, maxing out at 22%). The winner was the same as 4 years before. Gilberto Simoni reached the finish alongside his teammate, Leonardo Piepoli, landing his last stage victory at the Giro d’Italia.
2003: Stage 12, San Donà – Monte Zoncolan
FIRST RIDER ACROSS THE SUMMIT: Gilberto SIMONI
This was the first ascent to Mt. Zoncolan, coming from Sutrio. Up to Rifugio Moro, the climb is hard but not unrideable. From there on, however, the gradient rises to over 20%, maxing out at 23% (the average gradient from the Rifugio to the summit is 13%). Simoni created a gap just when the climb started to bite the hardest. Pantani, struggling for third place, lost a little in the closing part, and finishing in fifth.