WHERE Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, Ovaro, Italy
LENGTH 6.3 miles (10.1km)
MAXIMUM GRADIENT 22 percent
AVERAGE GRADIENT 11.7 percent
ELEVATION GAIN 3,970 feet (1,210 meters)
Also read: Why Monte Zoncolan is so hard
The road to Monte Zoncolan’s peak sprouts from a nondescript corner, just one among hundreds of narrow, paved strips that T into a regional mountain byway. It’s easy to access, though far from any city, so deep in the Italian mountains that it’s almost in Austria.
A small group rolls through the village of Ovaro, at Zoncolan’s base, chatting and spinning freely. It is a mellow road, which provides access to a small range of mountains that includes not only Zoncolan but the mighty Monte Crostis, pulled from the Giro d’Italia in 2011 at the last minute for being too dangerous.
At the corner in Ovaro, after a curving left onto Via Liariis, onto the Zoncolan, the smiles disappear. There is no mellow transition into this climb; just turn left and go up. Realization hits hard as the burden of six miles of gravity crystalizes in the mind.
The peaks and ridges around Monte Zoncolan are high but rounded, worn and softened by time, plump weather-beaten faces peaking up and out of the soft green tree line. Just miles from the merciless Dolomiti, they feel welcoming, inviting easy spins and coffee stops and easy days along their lush valleys. But the view from below belies the brutality of these slopes; there are monsters here, hidden in the trees.
Within a dozen square miles live some of the hardest climbs in cycling. The soft, verdant walls hide ancient roads, paved only recently, and built with grades rarely seen in continental Europe. They do not snake slowly up gradual valleys but switchback straight up each mountain’s flank — the shortest distance to the peak, but also the most brutal.
After cruising through Ovaro, what comes next is one of the most difficult climbs in cycling, 6.3 miles of unrelenting asphalt pointed towards the sky. Zoncolan is climbing distilled, condensed, and compressed, unpolluted and unrelenting.
Absent the above-treeline grandeur of the Stelvio, the length of the Galibier, or the history of Alpe d’Huez, the climb’s humility and difficulty attracts only the purists — masochists, really. It is not to be climbed for the views, though those aren’t bad, but for the transformation that comes from conquering something so purely difficult.
With nearly 12 vertical feet gained for every 100 forward — steeps across its midsection, long stretches at 20 percent — Monte Zoncolan sits in a three-way battle with the Angliru in Spain and Italy’s other monster, the Mortirolo, for the distinction of hardest paved climb in Europe. It is an hour of suffering even for accomplished riders, with a record in the high 40 minutes; mortals can expect to take far longer.
Tackle it from the West, from Ovaro, as the Giro has, to gain the full effect. From the east, in Sutrio, it is only slightly less difficult — but you, masochist, you won’t settle for such an inferior challenge.
GETTING TO, AND STAYING IN, OVARO
Fly into Venice Marco Polo airport. Ovaro is tiny. Albergo Ristorante Alla Pineta, about 10km south in Villa Santina, is cheap and wonderful.
FOOD AND GEAR
Again, Ovaro is tiny; don’t expect Michelin stars. Ristorante Donada in Villa Santina serves classic and delicious Italian fare.
Don’t be a hero. Shed all unnecessary weight, and run a compact crankset with at least a 27-tooth rear cog