The banner at the bottom of Monte Zoncolan famously cites the inscription above the gates of Dante's conception of Hell in the Divine Comedy: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate. 'Abandon all hope you who enter here.'
After three or so kilometres of the ascent, where the road ratchets up to a gradient of 22 per cent, another line from the Inferno might be even more appropriate: E fu tal' ora ch'io avrei voluto ir per altra strada. 'It was then that I wished I had gone by another road.'
Unlike Dante, Michael Woods (EF-Drapac) had already reconnoitred the infernal road ahead of him. He knew precisely the horrors that awaited him on stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia, and still, he pressed on. With a little over 6.5 kilometres of the Zoncolan remaining, Woods climbed from the saddle and looked to grind his way clear of the pink jersey group.
A plume of blue smoke from a tifoso's flare filled the road shortly after his attack, but when the cloud cleared and Woods looked over his shoulder, Simon Yates, Chris Froome et al were more or less where he had left them, just a few steep yards behind him. Shortly afterwards, Sky's Wout Poels took up the reins of the pursuit, and Woods' hopes were extinguished almost as soon as they had been ignited. That banner at the base hadn't been entirely wrong.
"I've been sick, I have a really bad cough, but I figured I might as well give it a dig," Woods said of his attack. "Then I died a thousand deaths for the next 6 kilometres."
Woods wasn't the only one. 166 riders hauled themselves up the 10.9 kilometres of the mighty Zoncolan on Saturday afternoon, from stage winner Chris Froome to last man home, Sam Bennett. Nobody, it seems, made it up the fearsome mountainside without enduring hardships that will be forever inscribed in their memories.
For some, the mountain doled out an especially brutal verdict. Italian champion Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) has struggled since the Giro set out from Israel, and he had spoken optimistically about the Zoncolan marking a turning point in his race. Instead, it was simply another ordeal.
Aru fumbled ineffectively at the coattails of the pink jersey group for as long as he could before he was distanced irretrievably when Poels began his forcing. He reached the summit some 2:23 down in 17th and now lies 13th overall, 5:33 back.
After changing in a tent near the summit, Aru's progress to his team bus was arrested by a television crew, but he was in little mood to linger and talk. "I'm not feeling good and I don't know why," Aru said before pedalling off. A little further on, a voice called out from the roadside: "Don't worry Fabio, we still love you," and Aru paused briefly to greet a group of supporters who had travelled from his native Sardinia. A moment of respite, even in a very personal Hell.
Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) has also struggled, not least since he inexplicably conceded 25 minutes on the road to Gualdo Tadino last Tuesday, and he was dropped even before the Zoncolan on Saturday. He still mustered a smile as he wrapped against the cold after reaching the summit another 25 minutes in arrears on the leaders. "I feel tired, but everybody is tired," Chaves said.
Less than a week ago, the Colombian was in second place overall. The fall from grace since his victory on Mount Etna on stage 6 has been brutal. Asked if his morale had taken a blow over the past week, Chaves was succinct. "What do you think? Of course it has."
Sam Bennett was the last man to the top, 33:49 behind Froome, and despite the leaden raindrops falling from the charcoal skies, the Irishman's first request on reaching the Bora-Hansgrohe soigneur past the finish was not for a jacket. "No, I just want some food," Bennett grinned. A bag of Haribo was produced and its contents emptied into his hands. With an eye to sprint stages next week, Bennett – twice a winner on this Giro already – had looked to ride within himself as best he could, though it is nigh on impossible at 22 per cent.
"I think you can try to save your legs a bit on the Zoncolan but I got radioed by the car that I needed to move a bit to make sure I made the time limit," Bennett said. "So I had to go a bit harder in the end."
On the Giro's last visit to the Zoncolan in 2014, Francesco Manuel Bongiorno's hopes of victory were thwarted by an overenthusiastic fan's attempt to push him up the climb. The Italian was forced to put a foot on the ground and watched Michael Rogers edge away from him. That incident saw a pledged increase in the policing of the estimated 100,000 fans who made their way to this corner of Friuli this time around, though some of their number still risked having a negative influence on the race.
There was the usual cornucopia of costumes on the roadside, from a man dressed as Santa Claus to a man wearing his underpants. The most dangerous incident took place 4.5 kilometres from the summit, when an individual dressed as a dinosaur – and with seemingly long extinct mental faculties – ran alongside the leading group and came especially close to Chris Froome, who was forced to turn and push the offender away.
"I saw Santa Claus earlier, I thought I was hallucinating at one point. The dinosaur got a little bit close, so I just had to move him out of the way a little bit," Froome said in his post-stage press conference, before diplomatically praising the turn-out on the roadside. "The atmosphere has been incredible, I have to say grazie mille to all the tifosi, they make the race what it is."
Froome was pursued tenaciously by Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) in the final kilometre of the Zoncolan, where the road emerges from a tunnel into a natural amphitheatre, which is lined by members of the Alpini – Italy's mountain warfare military corps – who provided a human barrier between the riders and the tifosi.
The image of their duel will linger long in the memory, but it remains to be seen just how long Froome's win remains in the record books. His positive test for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España means that he risks a ban and the loss of his results on this Giro. For now, Froome is 5th overall on the Giro, back in the fight for the podium in Rome, and effusive in his praise for the Zoncolan.
"It is a really, really special feeling winning on top of this climb, such an amazing feeling. It's such a monumental climb for the Giro d'Italia, such a monumental climb for the race in general," he said.
Yates, the man who stalked him all the way to the finish and leads him by 3:10 was altogether more understated in his assessment of the climb variously likened to Mounts Olympus, Fuji and Everest. "I was happy with my ride. I'm a little tired now, but it's all good," Yates said. "It was the same as any other day."
Even so, some days on the Giro are surely more equal than others.
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