Giro d’Italia: Monte Zoncolan to bring steep serve of suffering to pink jersey players

With gradients up to 27 percent, the Zoncolan summit finish on Saturday is sure to bring spectacle – but not necessarily race-defining action.

Photo: Getty Images

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The Passo Stelvio and Passo Giau have historic tales and picture-perfect curves. But the Monte Zoncolan has the horror stories and unrelenting ramps.

The Zoncolan returns to the Giro d’Italia for the sixth time Saturday, and though race-defining time gaps are not a given, suffering will be available in spades. Race organizers RCS Sport is so certain that the infamous summit will bring a spectacle that it has had to restrict entry to just 1,000 fans – with tickets selling out in minutes.

“The Zoncolan is brutal and relentless,” BikeExchange sport director Matt White told VeloNews when the race last used the climb in 2018. “It’s so popular because people love seeing the pain that the riders are going through.”

Also read: Zoncolan stage a must-watch at the Giro d’Italia

Egan Bernal and the bunch will be climbing the Zoncolan’s “easier” road from Sutrio for stage 14’s summit finish this weekend, but the prospect of the 14.1-kilometer, 8.5 percent ascent is still stern enough to be causing some sweaty palms in the peloton. Pitching up to 27 percent toward the summit, the smallest cracks in form could become chasms of time in the space of a hairpin.

Barring incident or disaster during stage 14’s introductory preamble, Bernal will roll toward the bottom of the mighty Monte with a 45-second buffer on GC. The Colombian sensation has ruled supreme when the race has tilted uphill in the past week, forging his advantage over nearest rival Aleksandr Vlasov with blazing attacks on the climb to Campo Felice and in the final wall of Wednesday’s strade bianche showdown.

Also read: Who can unseat Bernal in final phase of the race?

There’s no guaranteeing how Bernal’s bad back will hold out through the high-torque grind of the Zoncolan, but with a swathe of staffers monitoring the injury 24/7, it’s hard to see any other rider in the pink jersey Saturday night.

The Zoncolan could reshape the close-stacked pack of podium chasers, however.

As of Friday morning, seven riders are all elbowing for space in a 1:45 window of time behind Bernal. If Simon Yates is going to throw an all-or-nothing push for the podium, the steepest ramps of the Zoncolan are the place he’s most likely to pull it off. If Remco Evenepoel’s going to blow again — as he did in Montalcino — the 14km strip of suffering on tap Saturday could be where it happens.



Look to the final stretch of the climb for the most drama this weekend. Although the first 10km of the climb averages a relatively benign eight percent grade, the final 3km of the Zoncolan is where the smallest gears and strongest legs will be needed.

Set on a narrow, straight road, the final slog to the summit often tilts over 20 percent, and rears up to 27 percent at its steepest.

That’s so harsh that many in the peloton are reported to be packing 37×33 gearing for the stage.

Go check your mountain bike; you might see a similar ratio there.

What sort of gaps could we expect?

Steep climbs don’t always make for equally vertiginous time gaps among the dialed in modern peloton.

Even at the turn of the decade when multi-minute stage victories were the norm rather than the anomaly, Gilberto Simoni won by just 34 seconds when the Giro raced the Zoncolan from Sutrio in 2003.

Fast forward to 2018 and Chris Froome beat Simon Yates by just six seconds on the “harder” Ovaro ascent. Last year, at the Vuelta a España, Hugh Carthy bettered Giro rival Aleksandr Vlasov by only 16 seconds on the 13.2km, 9.4 percent Angliru. On pitches so hard, there’s no attacking, only surviving, and the best climbers seem to find a shared speed.

The gears will be small, and the gains and losses could be equally so. But for anyone creaking at the seams already, the Zoncolan could be a race-ender.

However the Zoncolan stage plays out Saturday, slow-motion bike racing on the world’s steepest slopes always provides a spectacle. Book your spot on the sofa now.

Stage 14 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia
Photo: RCS Sport

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