Snow-capped mountains loom perilously all around, fog descends on the tops of towering pine trees, the road weaves up in steep, winding ramps. No gear is small enough, no bike is light enough, no energy gel gives enough sustenance. The tifosi line the sides of the road, surrounded by plumes of blue smoke, relishing in the spectacle and roaring on the suffering competitors. This is the Monte Zoncolan, the hardest climb of the Giro d’Italia.
“Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate” reads a crudely constructed banner at the bottom of the mountain, citing the inscription above the gates of Dante’s conception of Hell in the Divine Comedy. Translated, it reads: abandon all hope ye who enter here.
It’s a fitting quote, for the Zoncolan can truly make or break riders. On a good day, a lightweight climber will relish the unrelenting gradients, using 27% ramps to devilishly dance away from their rivals. But, if good legs don’t make an appearance, buckets of time can be lost on this long climb. Sitting in the wheels is not an option, the pace will be set by the strongest rider, and once gaps open up, they can grow quickly.
The Giro last raced up this fearsome mountainside in 2018, when a resurgent Chris Froome took victory. Helped by Wout Poels, Froome attacked the Zoncolan, being well suited to the climb’s precipitous inclines. Froome’s attempt at victory seemed all but certain – only mildly threatened by a brief inflatable dinosaur chase within a few kilometres of the summit. “I thought I was hallucinating,” Froome explained after the stage.
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Froome is a rider who, in his heyday, would have found the slopes of Zoncolan to be closer to heaven than hell, and he’s not the only person to have taken a special liking to this Italian montagna. Gilberto Simoni is one of the only men in history to have taken victory twice on the Zoncolan, in both 2003 and 2007. “It’s like a slow execution,” he explained. “The easiest part of the Zoncolan is harder than the most difficult at the Tour.”
Simoni described the climb as spiritual, “I reached the final tunnel with my heart in my mouth,” he said. “The dark is terribly dark, and then the light is violent, but you're welcomed by an immense cheer from the crowd.”
It would be easy to look back romantically on the riders who relished the mythical Zoncolan, but the harsh reality is that it only brings heartbreak to the majority of the peloton. Back in 2018, whilst Froome spun to the summit in his trademark, high-cadence style, GC hopefuls like Mike Woods, Fabio Aru and Esteban Chaves watched their chances at the maglia rosa slip agonisingly out of reach.
Memorably, Woods tried to distance his rivals with 6.5km to go, until his attempts were mercilessly smothered by Team Sky’s Poels. “I figured I might as well give it a dig," Woods said after the stage, "then I died a thousand deaths.” The banner at the foot of the climb was only too apt: any hope Woods might have had was well and truly quashed.
When Annemiek van Vleuten soloed to victory as the women’s peloton took on the Zoncolan in the Giro Rosa in 2018, she put almost three minutes into Amanda Spratt, highlighting how quickly gaps can develop on such challenging parcours. Van Vleuten explained that the climb was so steep she struggled to put weight through her front wheel as it threatened to lift off the asphalt beneath her.
If it can put climbers in such difficulty, spare a thought for those in the grupetto, thinking only of making the time-cut. As they drag their sprinter physiques through the final kilometres of this savage mountain, they will no doubt go through a psychological journey as well as a physical one, questioning their career choice, debating if those final sprint opportunities are really worth this dogged suffering.
In 2018, Sam Bennett was the last man across the line on the Zoncolan stage, finishing over 33 minutes down. Once he reached the summit, the Irishman rejected any offerings of extra clothing from his soigneurs despite the lashing rain. Looking only for food, he inhaled a pack of Haribos with a sense of tunnel vision and speed that frankly dwarfed his two sprint wins earlier that race.
It’s not surprising that fast men like Bennett dread the infernal slopes of the Zoncolan: the climb is as long as it is steep, lasting for 14.1km at an average of 8.1%. The gradient might not sound too intimidating, but don’t be fooled. The average is skewed by a false flat in the approach and a similar section after the 10th kilometre. After that, the climb will ramp up to an average of 13% for the final four kilometres, with leg-burning ramps of 25%. It’s eye-wateringly steep, especially with 180km of racing already completed.
But the Zoncolan is as revered as it is feared. Riders must travel through purgatory to reach the elusive summit, but if you can clinch victory, your name is firmly written in cycling’s history books. Who will conquer the mighty Zoncolan in this year’s Giro? Only time will tell, but we can be sure that we will see a wicked battle between the GC contenders.
Cover image: Tim De Waele/ Getty Images