Chris Froome (Team Sky) faces an uphill battle as steep as the slopes of the Zoncolan if he is to turn his Giro d'Italia around. As one of the toughest climbs in Europe loomed large on the horizon, Froome appeared relaxed and ready for the major showdown, perhaps knowing he has lots to gain and very little else to lose in this year's corsa rosa. If he has a bad day on Saturday and loses more time, his hopes of even a podium place will be virtually null; if he has a good day, he could perhaps even win the stage, pull back some time and salvage his pride.
"I'd obviously like to have a good day," Froome said at the Team Sky bus after the stage 13 sprint finish in Nervesa della Battaglia, opting not to warm down on the rollers after using the final kilometres to 'spin down' his legs.
"I'm obviously hoping for better than I have so far in the race on the climbs. I've been feeling better and better as the race goes on. There's less impact from the injuries I had before the race, so we'll see. It's a very decisive stage.
"Let's see what happens. It's going to be a big GC battle; that goes without saying. But it'll be interesting to see which teams make the pace and which are going to do what. It also depends on the weather we have. I won't lie, I'd prefer it sunny than raining but I think 90 per cent of the peloton would agree.
"For me, it's about seeing how the legs are in the finale and take it from there."
Knowing the Zoncolan is important
Froome last raced the Zoncolan eight years ago, in his first season with Team Sky, when he still had yet to begin his metamorphosis into a Grand Tour winner. He finished 22 minutes down on stage winner Ivan Basso, who went onto win that year's Giro d'Italia.
He returned to carry out a detailed reconnaissance of the Zoncolan and the two other climbs in the 180km stage before the Tour of the Alps in late April. Then, Froome suggested that it seemed easier than in 2010 but has also admitted it is not one of his favourite climbs due to needing to fight gravity and the double-digit gradient.
Froome is expected to use a gear ratio of 34x32 to fight the 11.9 per cent average gradient and to survive on the 20 per cent hairpin bends. He talked at length with Team Sky senior mechanic Gary Blem after the finish in Nervesa della Battaglia, keen that his bike was ready for the Zoncolan. Froome will apparently use a Shimano Ultegra cassette on his Pinarello Dogma F10 X-Light bike to have a 32-tooth cog. It will add around 100g to the weight of his bike, but that is better than struggling to turn a 30-tooth cog.
"It's a brutal final up the Zoncolan," Froome said simply when about the stage 14 ascent.
"The Angliru in the Vuelta sticks out as a similar kind of climb, but [Zoncolan] is more consistently steep, whereas the Angliru feels steeper, but it's in ramps. They're different kinds of efforts I guess. But I'm up for it; I'm motivated.
"It's always good to have in your mind what's coming up and to know what you're up against. It's really good to have that, mentally. I'll be able to picture different parts of the climb, knowing when to push on and when not to. That'll be really important. Also knowing the stage before the climb is important because it is a tough little stage tomorrow.”
Froome will focus on his own performance on the Zoncolan and discover if he is back to his very best or if his crash before the opening time trial in Jerusalem is still hindering his performance and limiting his power output. There will be nowhere to hide on the 10.1km of the Zoncolan.
"When you feel pain it takes it out of you. If you're not at your absolute best in this sport, it shows and has so far in this race," Froome said, avoiding putting a number on the watts he is perhaps lacking.
Every missing watt, each rider's watt/kg output and every bit of their best VAM (velocità ascensionale media - average ascent speed) will play an impact on the climb to the finish atop the Zoncolan. There is little room for tactics when the climb begins, and the riders pass the 'Benvenuto in inferno –Welcome to hell' sign. Despite an expected 100,000 fans packing the climb, it is every rider against themselves, against their own limits.
Of course, the final time gaps measured at the finish will have a significant impact on the overall classification.
"We'll definitely expect to see big gaps one way or another," Froome suggested.
"It'll be interesting to see what the other GC guys want to do. Everyone is looking at Tom (Dumoulin) at the moment. He's the virtual leader with the time trial to come. So I think a lot of people still want to get time on him. I imagine that Simon (Yates) will want to do just that," Froome suggested, joking about his own track record in the mountains and the time trials.
"I've been known to do a good time trial from time to time… I've been known to climb from time to time," he said with a laugh, a smile and a sense of hope that the Zoncolan could mark the turn around in his race and give his final week of the Giro d'Italia a real sense of purpose.