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Cycling's best climbs: Zoncolan

23 Jan 2020

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill

It’s not often that you associate smells with climbs, but a particular aroma has lodged itself in my memory bank under the letter Z. Alongside all the sights and painful feelings you might be reasonably expected to link inextricably with the Zoncolan is a sweet, slightly sickly but curiously not unpleasant stink.

The smell is more prevalent towards the bottom of the climb; it comes in waves, lingering for a few laboured pedal strokes at a time as you pass through the miasma.

You can tell when it’s coming, too, as it is preceded by the sight of a motor vehicle moving very cautiously, creeping around the corners, its driver combatting the severity of the descent by leaning constantly on their brake pedal. And thus the stench of hot pads and discs wafts over you as they drive down the hideously steep incline that you’re trying to pedal up. 

First climb of the Zoncolan

The Zoncolan was introduced to the wider cycling world as an Italian riposte in the tit-for-tat gradient war between the Giro and Vuelta, the two tours battling for the title of most talked about race after the one round France.

After Italy had struck, perhaps unwittingly, with the Mortirolo in 1990, the Vuelta countered with the Angliru in 2000 before the Giro pitched the Zoncolan into its parcours in 2003.

Except it wasn’t the full Super Record route up the Zoncolan that saw Gilberto Simoni take a stage win in 2003, merely the easier (although still with a brutal final 3km) road on the eastern side from Sutrio. It wasn’t until four years after that when the western side from Ovaro was scaled, with Simoni again winning on its 1,730m high summit.

Measured from the turning off the SR355 onto the SP123 all the way to the top, the figures for the climb are daunting: 10.1km at an average gradient of 11.9%.

However, as is so often the case, even these numbers don’t reveal the full agony, because there is a long 6km stretch right in the middle portion of the climb that averages a horrific 15%, spiking up to 22%. It’s a bit like the hardest 500m stretch of the fearsome Mur de Huy (the finishing climb of La Flèche Wallone), but repeated 12 times in succession.

Best not to think too much about what lies ahead as you pedal out of the small town of Ovaro, which lies in the far northeast of Italy. In fact the start is quite friendly as the first thing that greets you is a big wooden rainbow-shaped arch that declares ‘Zoncolan’ as if you’re entering a theme park.

Then there is a chance to offer up a final prayer for good legs as you pass between the parish Church (dedicated to the Holy Trinity) and its campanile on the other side of the road.

After that it’s a bit of a leg stretch up to the village of Liariis, where you turn right in the main square. It’s a pretty collection of houses, some very Italian in design and plenty of others more Austrian/Swiss in architecture, reflecting your proximity to the border.

Sitting on benches outside doors will most likely be a few elderly residents who, although giving the appearance of dozing, will no doubt be critiquing your style and assessing your worthiness as a scalatore.

The hardest part

The road flattens briefly as it squeezes between more houses, but then the buildings dwindle and the trees appear. Now you’re into those six savage kilometres. There are hairpins, but the type where the gradient seems to kick up viciously rather than flatten out kindly as you switch direction.

The trees were cut back from the immediate sides of the road some years ago to allow helicopters to film from above during races, but the dense woodland either side of you still seems oppressive and the thick air on a hot day can be stultifying.

This sense of being hemmed in is also accentuated by the walls that line the hairpins, trapping you on the tarmac.

There is one all-too-short stretch a little before halfway up where the gradient relaxes to just 8%, but it’s more of a mental than a physical hiatus, just long enough for you to think, ‘This is nice,’ but too short to sluice any lactic acid from your muscles.

And it won’t just be quads and hamstrings crying, ‘Enough!’ because the Zoncolan is so steep that you feel like you’re fighting the incline with your whole body. Triceps soon begin to burn and shoulders start to wilt as your upper body is called upon to help haul the bike up the strenuous slope. Even your ears are likely to pop as the air thins.

It has sometimes been said that the Zoncolan is actually too steep for real racing, the argument being that there can be no tactics on something this relentlessly steep, no bluffing, nowhere to hide.

Chris Froome’s victory atop Zoncolan on Stage 14 of the 2018 Giro is often overlooked thanks to his exploits on the Colle delle Finestre six days later, but his battle with Simon Yates was a vivid example of just how sheer the climb is.

The Sky rider’s attack, when it came, had the usual high-cadence hallmarks but seemed to be taking place in slow motion, with the hunched figure inching rather than sprinting away.

When Yates chased after him they both seemed to be battling through treacle, with Yates unable to bridge what looked like a tiny gap because of the incline. When a climb makes the pros look slow, you know it’s truly tough. 

Approaching the Zoncolan's summit

When you pass the turn for the Agriturismo Malga Pozof you will have reached the end of possibly the worst 6km in professional cycling. And you will probably be inclined to unwittingly quote Hugh Grant in Notting Hill (terrifying, I know, but that’s what this climb does to you) with the words, ‘Now what in the world could make that ordeal worthwhile?’. Well, what makes it worth grinding up the middle 6km is the last 2km stretch to the top.

The final 2,000m begins with a lovely easing of the gradient to something in single figures. Then the curtain of trees is drawn back and you’re presented with a glorious view to your right that reveals just how high you’ve climbed.

Next up on the list of rewards is a pair of tunnels that are like a dip in a pool after sunbathing for too long, each providing a few blissfully cooling metres of shade.

After these delights the final four hairpins, steep though they are, seem much less daunting. Imagine surviving 12 rounds with Tyson Fury and then being asked to step into the ring for one round against Manny Pacquiao. Sure, the final stretch is still hard, but the end is in sight and it’s a perfect amphitheatre for a finish.

Emerging from the relative silence of the second tunnel into the cauldron of noise created by the expectant tifosi waiting on the final switchbacks during an edition of the Giro must be akin to what gladiators felt stepping into the Colosseum.

Then it’s all over. And once you’ve caught your breath you can enjoy one of the best views from any climb anywhere, with a near-360° outlook over the peaks of the Carnic Alps.

Despite its brutal nature for the bulk of the climb (have I mentioned how tough it is?), the Zoncolan is so stunning at the top that, unlike the Mortirolo, it sticks in the memory for more than just the painful pedal strokes needed to conquer it. Sticks in the nostrils too, of course.

The stats

Summit height: 1,730m
Altitude gain: 1,200m
Length: 10.1km
Average gradient: 11.9%
Maximum gradient: 22%
Current best Strava time (9.9km)
KoM: Thibaut Pinot (Fra), pro, 40:39
QoM: Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned), pro, 48:01