It was not Chris Froome, but Sam Bennett, who seemed to enjoy the most feared climb in the Giro d'Italia, the Monte Zoncolan.
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Froome won the stage, but behind, the Irish sprinter of team Bora-Hansgrohe, winner of two stages, interacted with the fans and rode wheelies at their request.
“I’d done about 10 or 20 of them by the time I got to the top!” Bennett told VeloNews.
“Any time the crowds got going, I’d respond. We kind of fuelled off each other. They enjoyed it, I enjoyed. I just kind of kept doing them.”
Froome, the four-time Tour de France champion, zipped up the climb after dropping rivals including Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
He fought over the 10.1-kilometer climb – constantly rising at 11.9% and peaking at 22% – and was forced to maneuver around Santa Claus and dinosaurs.
“I saw Santa Claus! I thought I was hallucinating at one point!” Froome said.
“The fans were great. That dinosaur got a little bit close just have to move him out of the way a little bit! The tifosi, they make the race what it is.”
Froome celebrated his win at a lung-busting 1730 meters. He closed the stage in 5 hours and 25 minutes. Mullen, the last of 166 cyclists finishing in ones and twos, arrived 33 minutes later.
“I didn’t really notice how hard it was because I was having fun with the crowds,” Bennett continued. “I just went up at my own pace. I had loads of time left to get inside the time limit. I didn’t notice how long it was taking to do each kilometer. At one stage it was like 10 minutes per kilometer! I thought, maybe I need to speed up a little bit!”
Usually in long mountain stages, a group of riders, or what is called a gruppetto in cycling, forms and ride together. They are mostly sprinters and bigger time trial types. Some of them will calculate the time limit for the stage and they will ride just fast enough to finish inside the time. Any faster would be wasting energy that they could need for the coming flat days.
Bennett won the sprint stage in Praia a Mare and again in Imola. He worked out the time with his sports director and he decided he would save energy and savor the special climb.
“We had so much time, I thought, ‘Why would I ride at an uncomfortable pace?’ I could lose 50 minutes and we were only 15 minutes behind at the bottom, so I had well over an hour to get up it,” he explained. “I wasn’t going to kill myself. I was going to save my legs.”
Organizer RCS Sport introduced the climb in 2003 and saw it become an instant hit due to its severity. Many amateur riders vacation in the zone to ride Monte Zoncolan, along with other famous passes of the Dolomites.
Bennett laughed at the idea of coming back for a holiday and said, “Why would I do that for fun!?”
He continued in the Tour de France after crashing and fracturing finger in 2016. He finished that Tour last, over five hours behind race winner Froome.
Bennett came in strong to the 2017 Giro d’Italia, but fell sick beforehand and managed four podiums without a win. This year, however, he battled against Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and prevailed.
It has been a successful grand tour, but one that has taken its toll on not just Bennett, but the Giro caravan overall, from riders, to staff, to journalists. The race became the first grand tour to start outside of Europe when it began over two weeks ago in Jerusalem. It flew to Sicily and took a ferry to the mainland. Several long stages were followed by long drives to the next day’s start.
“I just think the length of the stages with the length of the transfers is too much. There are a lot of guys getting sick, and they are top pros. It shows it’s just too much for the body.
“The Giro with the profile is the hardest grand tour of them all. With those transfers, the flights, the ferry, it’s just too much on the body. You can have one or the other, but you can’t have them both the whole time. It’s just too much, but I’m enjoying it.”