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.