Mountains inspire awe in pro cycling, and fabled climbs like the Col du Galibier and Passo dello Stelvio are as much a part of cycling’s historical fabric as the racers themselves. As pro cycling has evolved from one generation to the next, the climbs have also changed. The 21st century ushered in a new kind of racing: explosive, unpredictable, and more intense. No longer content with grinding climbs and predictable racing, race organizers looked to spice up bike racing as a way to keep TV audiences interested.
Enter Monte Zoncolan, the toughest of pro cycling’s new collection of “hyper-climbs.” These super-steep and punishing mountains are now common in grand tour racing. It all started 20 years ago as race organizers sought longer and steeper climbs to test the new crop of racers and racing technology. The advent of lighter carbon-fiber bikes and climbing-specific gearing helped steer cycling toward new, seemingly inaccessible heights.
The Vuelta a España led the charge, delivering the Alto de L’Angliru in 1999. The barren climb rises like a shark fin above the green valleys of Spain’s Asturias and averages 10.5 percent across 12 kilometers. With ramps above 20 percent, the soaring climb immediately created a buzz, and began crowning Vuelta champions as soon as it was introduced.
Not to be outdone, the Giro d’Italia unveiled its own hyper-climb in 2003: Monte Zoncolan. About the same length as the Angliru, the Zoncolan is considered an even harder climb. “We have the Angliru in Spain, but the Zoncolan is harder,” said retired pro Igor Antón, who won there in 2011. “It’s one of the most difficult climbs because it’s so steep and never a moment of rest.”
The climb jabs upward like a fist in the Carnic Alps on the eastern edge of the Dolomites. What makes the Zoncolan stand out is unforgiving steepness. While Angliru stair-steps to the summit, the Zoncolan simply goes straight up for 1,210 vertical meters (4,000 feet). With its average grade a tad stiffer at 11.5 percent, the climb leaves the valley floor and punches through a series of tunnels toward a natural amphitheater at the top.
“It’s constant and steep, maybe one of the most difficult climbs in Europe, and maybe the world,” Antón said. “There’s no rest, and that’s what makes the climb so difficult.”
The spirited Italian tifosi line every foot of the roadside, cheering and sometimes pushing riders up the road. And once riders reach the summit, they are greeted by a sight that is virtually unmatched in pro cycling.
The peaks form a natural bowl that, on race day, becomes a roaring arena bellowing with the energy and volume of a pro soccer stadium. It’s been used six times in the Giro d’Italia and twice in the women’s Giro Rosa. Today, the Zoncolan stands above a new generation of hyper-climbs that will continue to mark this century, and perhaps someday rival the legendary status of such climbs as the Stelvio or L’Alpe d’Huez.