Giro d'Italia

Monte Zoncolan Preview: The Giro’s race-breaker, or maybe not

Will the legendary ramps up Monte Zoncolan, the hardest climb in Europe, decide the 2018 Giro d’Italia?

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NERVESA DELLA BATTAGLIA  Italy (VN) — Will the hardest climb in Europe decide the 2018 Giro d’Italia?

That’s the question as the peloton braces for the legendary ramps up Monte Zoncolan, hailed by many as the steepest and most unforgiving climb in European cycling.

After nearly two weeks of grueling racing, this year’s Zoncolan could push the Giro’s tug-of-war between Simon Yates and Tom Dumoulin permanently in one direction.

The pair is divided by just 47 seconds. A strong ride by Yates could snap Dumoulin. An equally impressive climb by the defending Giro champion could tilt the momentum in his favor ahead of Tuesday’s key time trial.

“Until now, Yates has been climbing better than me,” Dumoulin said. “On Osimo [Wednesday], I was feeling much better. I will give it my all. We’ll see how it shakes out.”

The Zoncolan summit represents both opportunity and challenge for the pink jersey contenders.

For climbers like race leader Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) or Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), it’s their best chance to open a large swath of real estate. For defending champion Dumoulin or the struggling Chris Froome (Sky), Zoncolan is a wall that must be breached before reaching the promised land of Tuesday’s time trial.

“If I have the legs to do something, I will try,” Yates said. “I do need the time, but from what I have seen on TV, actually there are never big gaps on the Zoncolan. But like I say, if I have the legs, I’ll try.”

The Zoncolan climb certainly has the respect of the peloton. Many say only Spain’s fearsome Angliru can compare.

Yet on these climbs that are so long and so steep, sometimes the differences are neutralized among the top riders.

As Yates suggested, the climb has not proven race-maker. More often, it’s been race-killer for riders who do not have the legs to hold pace.

“If you have a bad day, it can be crucial because it is so steady. If you ride a half-kilometer slower on the entire climb, it is a disaster,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “There is no point to hide. This is just hard all the way. You can compare it to Angliru, but even that climb has some easier parts. This climb is different – if you are not on it, booof!”

Its statistics are startling enough. From the base at Ovaro at 525m to its summit at 1,730m, the climb averages 11.9 percent, with some ramps between 20 and 22 percent.

Climbs such as the Angliru are steeper in sections, but what makes the Zoncolan so hard is how steep it is for how long. There is no letting up. Roughly from 2km to 8km, the grade doesn’t dip below 11 percent. There’s a slight breather for about one kilometer — still between 6.7 and 7.5 percent — before kicking through the tunnels and the final ramp to the summit.

“It’s brutal and relentless,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown. “It’s so popular because people love seeing the pain that the riders are going through.”

Near the summit, riders zip through a series of small tunnels and then punch into a natural amphitheater where thousands of cheering tifosi await. Italy’s famed “alpine” line the final kilometer to keep fans from pushing the riders up the climb.

Riders will be using gearing as easy as 34×32. The top climbers can polish it off in about 40 minutes, which is a very long effort for even the elite pros in the peloton. The gruppetto will take more than an hour, but even at “let’s-make-the-time-cut” speed it’s gruesome.

“When I think of the Zoncolan, the word legend comes to mind,” said UAE-Emirates rider Fabio Aru, now 10that 3:10 back. “It will be an important test for all the GC riders. There is no place to hide on a climb that steep.”

Despite the hype, Zoncolan has rarely delivered the race-altering dynamics that one might expect.

In five arrivals, only once — in 2010 when Ivan Basso won — did the race truly make the type of big gains to change the direction of the race. And that was because Basso was trying to recover lost ground to David Arroyo, who lost 3:50 to Basso that day, who had, in turn, gained nearly 13 minutes in a breakaway on the wild stage to L’Aquila that saw Richie Porte take the leader’s jersey.

Gilberto Simoni won twice. The first came in its debut in 2003 up the “easy” side when he steamrolled his way to the pink jersey. In 2007, he won again up the harder, steeper version the peloton will face Saturday.

Igor Anton won in 2011, with Alberto Contador finishing second at 13 seconds ahead of Vincenzo Nibali and 38 seconds ahead of runner-up and eventual winner Michele Scarponi (Contador was later disqualified as part of his clenbuterol case).

Michael Rogers won the Zoncolan’s last appearance in 2014 out of a breakaway. Eventual winner Nairo Quintana finished first among the GC contenders, with him and compatriot and runner-up Rigoberto Urán finishing together.

Sometimes the hype can fail to deliver the goods. Chris Froome (Sky), 12that 3:20 back, is hoping for a strong ride to revive his pink jersey ambitions.

“Everyone is looking at Dumoulin at the moment,” Froome said. “Tom is the virtual leader with the time trial to come. A lot of people will want to get time on him still. Simon will be hoping to do just that.”

Zoncolan is so hard, and the Giro will be entering its third week, Sunday’s somewhat overlooked five-climb stage from Tolmezzo to Sappada could prove more decisive.

“Everybody is talking only about tomorrow but the next day is also extremely difficult,” Yates said. “Maybe it’s not more important but if some riders go too deep tomorrow then they really could pay the next day. So it’s interesting. We’ll see.”