Preview: Zoncolan finale offers old twist on new Giro d'Italia classic

MONTE ZONCOLAN, ITALY - MAY 19: Arrival / Sebastien Reichenbach of Switzerland and Team Groupama-FDJ / Monte Zoncolan (1730m) / Mountains / Fans / Public / Landscape / during the 101st Tour of Italy 2018, Stage 14 a 186km stage from San Vito Al Tagliamento to Monte Zoncolan 1730m / Giro d'Italia / on May 19, 2018 in Monte Zoncolan, Italy. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Zoncolan climb features on stage 14 of 2021 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The three most eagerly anticipated kilometres in Giro d’Italia history return to the route on Saturday, as the race comes back to tackle the Sutrio side of Monte Zoncolan for the first time since the mountain made its debut in 2003.

Like the Angliru’s insertion into the Vuelta a España route in 1999, it is difficult to overstate the intrigue provoked by the fearsome Zoncolan in the spring of 2003. Compact chainsets were only in their infancy and most riders knew they would have to grind – or walk – up the 27 per cent slopes as best they could.

Gilberto Simoni surged clear on the steepest section to claim stage victory and place another hefty down payment on overall victory, but his exhaustion was evident from his breathless interview immediately after the finish. “These climbs are too hard even for me,” Simoni said. “Think about how it was for the others.”

Time can appear to slow down when the gradient hits 27 per cent. It even seemed to go backwards during those dizzying final kilometres where Marco Pantani, a forlorn figure in his previous two Giro appearances, unexpectedly found himself battling to catch Simoni in the company of his former teammate Stefano Garzelli before fading to fifth. For a moment it was yesterday.

The Giro has returned to the Zoncolan five times since – in 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2018 – and always from the more demanding Ovaro side, but the legend was already sealed by the race’s first haul up the Kaiser. One oft-repeated urban myth is that Mario Cipollini went up on a mountain bike (in fact, he didn’t go up it at all, having abandoned after his crash in San Donà di Piave the previous day). And the Zoncolan has endured as the summit of all hyperbole: in 2014, La Gazzetta dello Sport described it as a sacred mountain, akin to Mounts Everest, Fuji and Olympus.

It is certainly a liminal sort of a place on this Giro, marking the transition from the punchier fare of the opening two weeks to the arduous slog of its grand finale in the high mountains. From here to the final time trial in Milan, the Giro formally becomes an endurance race, even if, as Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) noted, those stiff final kilometres lend themselves to explosive riders.

The man in the maglia rosa has already made an impression on the race’s steepest slopes, scorching into the overall lead at Campo Felice last week, though Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) was circumspect about his approach to the Zoncolan on Friday evening: “If you’ve got the legs to go for it on that kind of climb, you will, and if you don’t have the legs, you won’t.”

Bernal carries a lead of 45 seconds over Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) into the stage, with Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) third at 1:12, while Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) fourth at 1:17 and Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) fifth at 1:22, ought to shine on gradients like those proposed by the Zoncolan. Yates, however, has been shipped time to Bernal on every punchy finale thus far. 

Speaking to RAI on Friday, Team BikeExchange manager Brent Copeland suggested that the Briton had tailored his Giro preparation with a view to shining in tests of resistance like Monday’s tappone in the Dolomites, with its 5,700 metres of total climbing.

The danger, however, is that Bernal is starting to put the race beyond the reach of his rivals. The Zoncolan offers the Colombian another opportunity.

“He’s the padrone of the race, and he’s probably the strongest in the mountains,” Caruso said. “I think he’ll take advantage of every opportunity he has to give himself a bigger advantage ahead of the time trial in Milan and not have problems.”

The most notorious descent back after a 34-year absence

The Zoncolan’s difficulty is usually such that the general classification contenders look to spare themselves for the final haul to the line. This time out, the ‘gentler’ approach to the finish – it’s all relative – as well as the weather forecast and the preceding route could make for a different kind of Zoncolan experience.

Stage 14 sets out from Cittadella, and the route out of the Veneto is a flat one. The category 4 Castello di Caneva brings the race into the Friuli region, but the terrain is still relatively gentle until the category 2 Forcella di Monte Rest (10.5km at 5.9 per cent), which comes after 147 kilometres.

The Monte Rest last featured on the Giro in 2018, but this is the first time the race has tackled it from this side since 1987, when Stephen Roche attacked his Carrera teammate and maglia rosa Roberto Visentini on the sinuous descent, claiming the overall lead at the finish in Sappada and sparking a polemica that rumbles to this day. “If the maglia rosa is in crisis, then you can go for it, but if he’s strong and you attack him by surprise, that’s not right,” Visentini said in 2017.

From the Monte Rest, the route descends towards Casanova and then winds on to Sutrio at the base of the Zoncolan. As ever with a mountain of his magnitude, the raw statistics – 14.1km at 8.5 per cent – only tell a part of the story, but they still say plenty.

The Sutrio version of the Zoncolan will, however, make for a rather different kind of race to the more familiar haul seen in recent editions of the Giro. The Ovaro ascent used from 2007 to 2018 is a long and wicked grind, where the extreme steepness almost prohibits accelerations and compels riders simply to try to maintain their momentum longer than their rivals.

This time out, the Zoncolan is a climb of three parts. The first 9km or so are very consistent, averaging a stiff but not insurmountable 8.3 per cent. The gradients relent with a little under 4km to go at Rifugio Moro, before kicking up remorselessly in the final 3km, which average some 13 per cent.

Cruelly, the steepest sections come almost within sight of a finish line that will seem to suspend itself above the riders as they battle against the Zoncolan. At 27 per cent, time can slow down, but a lot of time can be frittered away too.

In 2003, the podium contenders, cowed by the reputation of the mountain before them, did not dare to attack until the final 3km. This time out, knowing the form of the man in pink, they might have no option but to move sooner. 

“For me, the attacks can happen earlier,” said Evenepoel. “Accelerating in that last kilometre requires a lot of explosiveness and that is not my strongest point.”

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