TAKING ON THE FEARED ZONCOLAN WITH RYDER HESJEDAL
Join me as I climb one of the toughest ascents in pro cycling with 2012 Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal.
I had planned to tackle this epic climb one day myself, but after running into Ryder at the Castelli HQ, after he got back from the Giro d’Italia start in Israel, we decided to ride this monster climb together – it would be the second time for Ryder and the first time for me.
Epic is the only word to describe the ride up Monte Zoncolan. “The climb is so hard that every rider is locked in a personal fight against gravity rather than their rivals,” says Ryder. It takes such an effort to accelerate that the wise idea is to measure your effort rather than make a show on the steep pitches. It’s a relentless ramp where even the best climbers ascend at 7 or 8 kilometers an hour. It’s for sure the toughest climb I’ve ever ridden, and it has raised my admiration for the pros who race up the Zoncolan, Mortirolo and Colle delle Finestre.
When climbing into the village of Liariis, where the road flattens out, I ask Ryder how fast this climb will be raced by the GC contenders during the Giro. He looks at me with a smile on his face and responds, “around 45 minutes; this is what I remember when racing it in 2014.” He also mentions, “This flat part through the village is the only place you can take a drink because later just taking a sip will affect breathing and balance.” Welcome to “La Porta dell’Inferno,” I think to myself while we hit the first double-digit gradient and I settle into my 34×28.
“I hate that climb. Rode it during the 2014 Giro d’Italia,
and only time in a race my Garmin has auto-stopped.” – David Millar.
However, while ascending with Ryder, I got a text message notification on my Wahoo device from David Millar: “I hate that climb. Rode it during the 2014 Giro d’Italia, and only time in a race my Garmin has auto-stopped.” Hmm – that’s not going to help me with 3 kilometers to the top.
I’ve ridden some amazing mountains in Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain, but I’ve never come anything close to the likes of the Zoncolan. It’s hard but not painful, a grinding slow-mo effort out of the saddle. It just keeps going and pushing you. Apart from the insanely challenging gradient, what’s even worse is that most of the climb is in a wooded forest, so forget about seeing any postcard-worthy scenic views. Every kilometer is marked by signposts of iconic riders, though, which made my ride feel just a little more enjoyable.
Once you make it into the final 1.5 kilometers and come out of the trees, you see the beautiful views behind the mountain peaks and the Ovaro valley down below, and it all kinda makes sense again. For most cyclists, I think the Zoncolan is a climb that you check off your bucket list: “done it.” Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the famous mountain climbs – the harder, the better. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back on the Zoncolan again soon, but this time with an smaller gearing, like 34×32.
The weather in the mountains can be very unpredictable. We started out with 24 degrees Celsius at the bottom of the climb in Ovaro and were met with heavy showers and hail coming out of the last tunnel – luckily with less than a kilometer to the top.
Remember to always bring an ultra-packable and waterproof jacket, like the Idro, that you can easily stuff into your jersey pocket for these emergency situations or for the descent. There’s no reason not to have it with you – it weighs only 123 grams, packs smaller than your favorite wind vest and offers fantastic breathability.
GEARS AND POWER
The extreme gradients on the Zoncolan will see the pro riders using 50×34 compact or 52/36 semi-compact cranksets and special gears, with 11-28, 11-30 or 11-32 sprockets on the back. Struggling riders will see their cadence drop to 45 rpm or lower, as it’s hard to maintain a consistent rhythm to stay in the race.
Power prediction: 360-450 W: 5.5 to 6 W/kg for the climb. Short power attacks at 500 W or more.
In 2003, a few bikes were spotted with a triple-crankset.
IS THE ZONCOLAN REALLY THAT STEEP?
Team cars are not allowed up; team mechanics bring up spare bikes and wheels on the backs of motorbikes. The climb is not too steep nor are the tunnels at the top too narrow for team cars – it’s just that motorbikes take up less space on the small road with a crowd of people along it.
When a steep climb appears in a stage race, it is often compared to the Zoncolan. The Zoncolan is hard, but it has its rivals: the Mortirolo or the nearby Monte Crostis, which was raced by the Giro d’Italia last in 2011.
Monte Zoncolan is often compared with Alto de l’Angliru in northern Spain, first included in 1999 in the Vuelta a España, with the steepest (but short) pitch featuring a 23.6 percent gradient, and it is part of a kilometer stretch that averages “only” 17.2 percent. The grueling, leg-shattering 10.1-kilometer ascent from Ovaro to the top of Monte Zoncolan, however, has a kilometer at nearly 20 percent.
The super-steep Zoncolan, at the northeastern edge of Italy, has been raced five times in Giro history, all since 2003, and the last four of them on the demanding side of Ovaro. The climb is known as one of the toughest in cycling and has therefore achieved mythical status.
Gilberto Simoni, two-time winner (2003 and 2007) summed the climb up perfectly: “It’s like a slow execution; the easiest part of the Zoncolan is harder than the most difficult at the Tour.”
Simoni took the race into his hands in 2003 as the main protagonist on the climb up the Zoncolan from Sutrio in an epic stage 12. With 100,000 tifosi along the road waiting for the spectacle of the riders racing up the terrible ramps of Monte Zoncolan, Simoni took charge of the stage and consolidated his hold on themaglia rosa and his second Giro d’Italia victory.
In 2007, during stage 17, the Zoncolan was featured for a second time, using the more demanding road from Ovaro. The stage was again won by Simoni (riding for the Castelli-equipped Team Saunier-Duval), followed by his teammate Leonardo Piepoli.
The climb featured once again in the 15th stage of the 2010 Giro d’Italia, where Ivan Basso won after dropping Cadel Evans. That would eventually prove to be the decisive stage of that year’s Giro.
The following year, 2011, the climb featured in the Giro d’Italia again, during stage 14, which was won by Igor Antón, followed by Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.
The last time Monte Zoncolan was featured was in the 2014 Giro, during the 20th stage, which was won by Michael Rogers. The Australian joined a 20-rider break 12 kilometers into the 167-kilometer stage. With 6 kilometers remaining on the steep Zoncolan, Franco Pelizotti forced the pace to split the breakaway group to pieces.
He was joined by Rogers and Manuel Bongiorno shortly thereafter. At this point, they had a 6-and-a-half-minute advantage on the peloton, so a stage victory was up for grabs. Rogers rode in solo 38 seconds ahead of Pellizotti and 49 seconds ahead of Bongiorno to win a stage finishing on the summit of one of the hardest climbs in cycling.
MONTE ZONCOLAN STATS
Length: 10.1 km
Summit: 1,750 m
Elevation gain: 1,210 m
Average gradient: 11.9%
Max gradient: 22%
4 kilometers with an average gradient of 15.4% (starting around kilometer 3.8)
Ridden on: May 8, 2018.
In 2007, Gilberto Simoni covered the climb in 39 minutes and 5 seconds.
KOM time: 46:35
KOM speed: 12.6 km/h
Total number of athletes: 2,650
2018 GIRO D’ITALIA, STAGE 14 PREVIEW
The 14th stage of the Giro d’Italia is arguably the toughest this year. The route takes in four categorized climbs with double-digit gradients before the steep monster finale up Monte Zoncolan.
The route climbs up Monte di Ragogna, with gradients consistently over 10 percent for the first 2.5 kilometers and ramps topping out at 16 percent. The steepest stretches on the Avaglio get close to 15 percent. Passo Duron starts out at 18 percent; the climb is short, at 4.4 kilometers, but steep. The route drops down into Sutrio and takes in the Sella Valcalda, the easiest climb of the day, before the horrifying closing climb up the Zoncolan begins.
Monte Zoncolan is regarded as the hardest climb in Europe: a steep, winding climb with a nearly 12 percent average gradient and pitches that hit 22 percent over 10.1 kilometers. The climb features 4 grueling kilometers with an average gradient of 15.4 percent.
There are three short tunnels along the route in the last kilometer, leading to the final 500 meters with an average 11 percent gradient and pitches reaching 16 percent by the hairpin located 250 meters before the finish.
Thank you for reading, and ride safe.
Photo | TDWsport, Edoardo Civiero