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Monte Zoncolan: Cycling’s hardest climb

Chris Case / Updated
Riding up Monte Zoncolan is a sufferfest. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

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Some people proclaim the infamous Passo di Mortirolo to be the hardest climb in Italy, if not the world. Others bestow that honor to Monte Zoncolan. Take your pick. Both climbs will leave you gasping.

I, for one, believe the Zoncolan to be the hardest.

The Zoncolan stands in the eastern Dolomites, the wilder and more remote part of the famous northern Italian range. This climb is the region’s capstone. Though there are three ways to the top, and two have been used in the Giro, only one offers the simple brutality that Giro organizers have sought out time and again since 2003.

The road from Ovaro to the summit is 10 kilometers and climbs at an average gradient of 11.5 percent. The last eight kilometers average over 15 percent, with multiple sustained pitches at 18 percent. It has a maximum gradient of 22 percent. Yet these numbers barely do justice to the Zoncolan’s sheer difficulty.

Twice a winner on its slopes, Gilberto Simoni perfectly described the Zoncolan’s torture: “It’s like a slow execution; the easiest part of the Zoncolan is harder than the most difficult at the Tour.”

While other climbs eventually relent, Zoncolan only steepens. Switchbacks often offer rest, yet every turn on the Zoncolan brings turmoil. The ascent is unceasing, unrelenting — vicious even. Is the pain more rewarding? Perhaps. Ask the winner on the day and he might have something positive to say. The other riders will be crushed.

The roadside is dotted with signs memorializing cycling’s legends, from Moser to Saronni, Hinault to Indurain. If you ever climb Zoncolan, turn it into a game and try to guess who will be next (assuming your brain is not hypoxic). Should you expire upon Zoncolan’s slopes, no sign will be erected in your memory.

The majority of the climb remains within tree cover. Near the top, the road, no wider than a small car, passes through three short, damp tunnels. Out the other side the road snakes it’s way through alpine meadows and into a natural amphitheater that lends itself to exceptional viewing, especially if you like to see men suffer.

While climbs in the French Alps often pass through picturesque tranquility or legendary locales, the Zoncolan really only offers one thing: savagery. Cycling is reduced to something akin to the slow, methodical march of a mountaineer near the summit of Everest.

Unfortunately, the climb’s devilish pitch often snuffs out aggressive racing. The steep gradients make accelerations impossible; a wise rider measures his effort instead of attacking. En route to his 2014 Giro victory, Nairo Quintana marked his rivals on the Zoncolan instead of surging ahead.

Thus, the racing often amounts to the torment of each rider, locked in his own battle with slow death. The suffering that only climbs like the Zoncolan can bring is why cycling is the world’s toughest sport.

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