The story behind 'Average Man vs Zoncolan' - Eurosport's visit to the Giro's steepest climb
Eurosport sent reporter Tom Bennett to take on the mighty Zoncolan - one of the steepest climbs in Europe. How would this distinctly average man fare against the brutal gradient of the Giro d'Italia's toughest challenge?
‘Zoncolan is brutal; good luck!’
I had lost count of the number of times that word was used to describe Zoncolan. But now, as my lungs were close to burning, my legs were seizing up and my head was screaming at me to stop, the word didn’t quite seem strong enough.
Three months ago it had seemed like such a great idea. “It would be amazing to see what an average man looked like climbing Zoncolan,” I said, unthinkingly, in an editorial meeting. And it was then agreed, inevitably (and a bit upsettingly), that I fitted the role of ‘average man’ perfectly.
Monte Zoncolan’s fearsome reputation made it the standout climb of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here,’ reads a roadside sign two kilometres in, and while that seems melodramatic, the phenomenally steep ramp that rises up into the forest just around the corner is a first indication that this is no normal climb.
Chris Froome may have mastered the mountain in 2018, but he has first-hand experience of what Zoncolan can do to a rider. Back in 2010, in his first Giro appearance, the climb broke Froome, with the Brit losing over twenty minutes on a day that the four-time Tour de France Champion described as ‘brutal’.
Brutal. There’s that word again.
11 kilometres at a gradient of 11.9%. Brutal.
A relentless four kilometre section at 15.4%. Brutal.
Numerous 20+% ramps. Brutal.
One leg-breaking 23% hairpin (or 25% depending who you ask). Even more Brutal.
Zoncolan is a different beast.
The climb starts in the town of Ovaro, with a sharp left turn taking the road under the famous Zoncolan archway.
While the run from Ovaro to Liariis isn’t the eye-catching element of the climb, it is still steeper than any of Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, Stevio and the Tourmalet, with an average gradient of 9.1%. But the climb’s barely even started.
A short flat section in the village of Liariis offers the chance for an all-too-brief breather, but then, as the tarmac disappears up under the cover of trees, the real challenge starts.
Simon Yates, who finished an impressive second in the 2018 Giro stage behind Froome, told reporters before the day that:
" Everybody is telling me it is going to be one of the most difficult climbs of my career."
And, although his performance was strong, Yates’ reaction at the finish line – collapsing to the floor and requiring immediate medical attention from his team – showed just how demanding the climb can be.
It’s the four kilometre section just after Liariis that makes Zoncolan such a grinding test. No modern engineers would ever consider building a road with an average 15.4% gradient; and as amateurs slog their way up the slopes, the accompanying whine of engines offers some solace – even 4x4s struggle on this.
A former pro told Eurosport that he believed four watts of power was required for every kilo a rider weighs to even make it up Zoncolan, and that stat – paired with the memory of one too many pies consumed over the winter – is foremost in my thoughts as the pain of the first 20% hairpin surges through my legs.
Somehow I carry on, but I'm pushing myself to the very limit... with the summit still over six kilometres away.
I struggle on, slowly, painfully slowly, and I'm very much aware of the camera trained on my strained face every time the production car pulls to a stop.
But I want to get to the top.
There is too much riding on this.
Lots and lots of people are going to watch my attempt.
I can't fail.
But conquering Zoncolan takes more than a medium level of fitness. With a BMI of 23 and an exercise capacity that puts me in the top half of UK males in my age group, I offer as close to an average of the population as Eurosport can produce.
But average is not enough for a climb like this.
And Zoncolan breaks me with six kilometres remaining.
I have already taken longer than Chris Froome and the summit is still only a speck in the distance, and – as I catch a lift up the climb – my respect for the pros only strengthens. Even making it to the top of a mountain like this would be a feather in any cyclist’s cap. Racing to the top in 40 minutes is almost unfathomable.
Thankfully, despite my failure, I am still afforded the chance to ride up through the famous tunnels near the top and take on the closing hairpins as they fill with fans ahead of the stage.
But the result of this contest is clear.
When an average man takes on Zoncolan there is only ever going to be one winner.
-- Tom Bennett