The Zoncolan is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike, and I’ve raced in pro pelotons, I’ve ridden the Alps, Mt. Mongollon which is 10 km at 10% and peeled myself off pavement after crashing to complete races (granted adrenalin helped a lot with those post-crash efforts). Nothing compares to the effort of getting up the Zoncolan.
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This beast of a mountain is one of the epic climbs I’ve had on my list for a long time. Featured in the Giro d’Italia, it is one of my favourite stages, watching the pro riders suffer up this climb, attacking each other, or more often then not, the winners simply riding away from their rivals as they succumb to the torture handed out by the Zoncolan.
Darin and I did a lot of research about gearing before we even crossed the pond to best prepare for this ride. We both had compacts on the front and I had a 29 cassette and Darin had a 30, I stayed seated on the climb, Darin stood most of the way. It’s our different riding styles that dictated gear choice and technique to get up the hill, scratch that, mountain, scratch that, epic climb, scratch that, Bitch of Misery, yup, that fits.
We were limited on time, so we started 10 km out from the base of the Zoncolan for a too short of a warm up and then started the ascent. The first 1.5 km were pure hell. My lungs were screaming in mercy, scratching to get out of my body, suffering in ways they have not suffered in years, resisting in every way they could short of exploding. I made it to the second switchback and stopped, gasping for air. I’m not proud of this, but sometimes you find yourself standing in the middle of the road with no recollection of how you got there; and by you I mean me.
After the 2 km mark I started to get in to more of a rhythm, but Darin and I both agreed, what makes this mountain so hard is that you can not find a rhythm, you can never get comfortable. That said, there were a few sections where I thought “this feels easier” and looked down at my computer to see that I as on a 12% incline. You know you’re on a tough mother of a climb when 12% feels "easy". It was so steep that my hands and arms hurt more then any other muscle in my body from pulling on the bars.
At the 5 km mark I realized that I didn’t remember which side of the Zoncolan we were riding, were we doing the short side or the long side? How much farther did I have to ride to the top? Is this ever going to end? Will I make it up before dark? What if I just turned around now? I knew the last questions was not an option, for starters I was the one who wanted to tackle this climb. Second, it was on my bucket list and if I didn’t climb to the top then I would have to attempt it again (that did not sound like a good option at the moment), and third, Darin would be freezing his buns off at the top waiting for me. I also knew that although we were well ahead of the sunset, it would be dark at the top with all the fog that was hugging the mountain.
It was at this moment that I remembered the sign at the bottom saying that Zoncolan was 1750 meters in elevation, so I could use my elevation to track progress, brilliant! I only had 200 meters left to climb, no problem! 50 meters later I realized that I was thinking in feet, 200 meters is about 600 feet; crap, that’s way more to go, but then the terrain leveled out, it felt flat and fast and I actually changed gears, yippee! The Garmin read 7%.
I knew I was getting close to the top when I heard cows, they started cheering me on with their moos; this isn’t so bad I thought. Then I hit the first tunnel, it had no lights, the fog was so thick you couldn’t see a car length in front of you, and it was eerily silent. If I was in a movie this would be the part where the audience would be thinking “don’t do it” but the lead character goes through anyway and is met with a mask wearing, chain saw carrying, lunatic who chases them through the haunted forest. Good thing that didn’t happen to me, it wouldn’t have been a very long chase as I couldn’t ride any faster then I was already rolling.
There were 3 more tunnels before the summit, fortunately the others had lights; it made for a less scary ride, and then I was at the top, met by a shack, a sign, and a piece of art. After riding in France a few years ago I really expected there to be a café, all the big climbs in France had cafes at the top. Part of me was glad for the simplicity of what awaited me at the top, it made it feel even more epic and part of a small group of riders who event attempt this climb. We saw 3 cars, apparently drivers are scared off by the Zoncolan as well.
In hind sight, the fact that the locals at the bottom kept saying how brave I was to attempt this mountain, who’s eyes widened in surprise when I said we were riding up, should have been a sign I took more seriously about the grave situation I would find myself in. But I made it to the top and then got to come down.
For those who know me, you know how much I LOVE descending, I love the thrill of speed, the feeling of whipping through corners. But with my hands sore and cramped from the ride up, the cold seeping in, the fog so dense that now I could barely see my front wheel, it was a cautious descent. Add to that the steepness and how quickly you gained speed when your hands were off the brakes, the tight roads and switchbacks, and that I haven’t done a technical descent in a long time I was much more cautious then normal. With about 3 km to the bottom a car pulled out in front of me and I used him to help pace me and judge the lines around the corners. Turns out the driver and I both ended up going in to the café at the bottom where he seemed very impressed with my speed (Darin was a few bike lengths behind).
This post isn't meant to scare anyone off from doing this ride, it is a small taste of the hardest terrain to be found, but there are lots of other riding options in the area; something for everyone. That said, accomplishing something you didn't think you could is pretty rewarding!
If I'd had the help of the great Italian riders who have wrestled this beast and won it might have been a different story ... probably not. I did try and tap in to their memories and there were signs the whole way up of previous winners on the Zoncolan with their pictures and the years they won. On our drive to the mountain we also came across this great mural commemorating Italian greats in the sport. I couldn't resist "riding" with them.