You can assess a mountain pass using many criteria. Demonstrable measurements such as altitude, length and gradient are the usual starting points, but sometimes in this realm it’s easier to rely on more instinctive parameters – the toughest mountains tend to have nicknames.
Since its introduction to the Giro d’Italia in 2003, the mighty Zoncolan has amassed a number of sobriquets. Initially, it was the "Kaiser," a nod to the region’s past on the frontier of Habsburg influence. When the Giro came for a second visit in 2007, attacking it from the more difficult side that climbs out of Ovara, the natural amphitheatre of the mountain was likened to a football stadium, and the Zoncolan became the "Vertical Maracana."
On Saturday morning, as the Giro arrived for its fifth grind up the Zoncolan, the mountain was lent an almost religious significance. For Saturday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport, the Zoncolan was "not an ascent, but a sacred mountain" and was likened in turn to Mounts Olympus, Everest and Fuji.
On the roadside at the foot of the climb, meanwhile, the banners evoked Dante. "This is the gate of Hell," one announced, and many hearts in the Giro gruppo must have abandoned all hope as the road reared up towards 20% before them.
But as it turned out, the Zoncolan was both heaven and hell on stage 20 of this Giro. Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Francesco Manuel Bongiorno (Bardiani-CSF) were the last two souls left out in front from the day’s early break when it fragmented on the climb, and were matching one another pedal stroke for pedal stroke on the Zoncolan’s stiffest gradients as they entered the final approach to the summit.
By that point, the road was only revealing itself in installments, such was the mass of humanity lining the climb, with tifosi jumping back out of the way at the last moment as the riders passed. The ill-directed enthusiasm would ultimately play a decisive role in the stage.
With three kilometres to go, as Bongiorno trailed Rogers, a spectator took it upon himself to give the Italian an unsolicited – and wholly unwanted – push. The result was calamitous. Thrown off balance, Bongiorno had to unclip and put a foot to the ground in order to stop himself from falling. As he paused in Inferno, an oblivious Rogers carried on to Paradise and claimed his second stage win of the race.
"That fan made me lose my balance and at that point it was impossible to start again," a disappointed Bongiorno said, after crossing the line in tears, some 49 seconds down in third place. "Rogers was right to carry on riding but I didn’t have the possibility of recovering.
"I’m really disappointed because today I was finally at my best. I was at the centre of the race and I could have fought it out for the win. It’s not nice to lose like that, I was at 100 per cent."
Rogers, meanwhile, was not aware of the incident until after the stage, but wondered if the errant supported had been under the influence of something more potent than enthusiasm. "I only saw what happened on RAI television after the stage," Rogers said. "It was a bit of a problem with some of the fans because they are up there on the mountain all day and drinking the local brew, and a couple of times one spectator hit my handlebars a few times and I asked him to move but he kept on."
Back in the dwindling pink jersey group, Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) had a run-in of his own with a spectator. The Dutchman responded by yanking off the tifoso’s sunglasses and throwing them away.
The maglia rosa himself was not immune to the dangers of the Zoncolan. With shades of the adulation that greeted the late Marco Pantani on Alpe d’Huez in 1997, a Colombian fan all but hugged Nairo Quintana as he rode past, but mercifully the Movistar man succeeded in keeping his balance.
As is now the tradition on the Zoncolan, members of the Alpini – Italy’s mountain warfare military corps – lined the roads nearer the summit, standing in formation to provide a human barrier between the riders and the tifosi. In future, they may be called upon for more of the climb.
Ironically, an editorial in Gazzetta dello Sport had praised the supporter who stood alongside Quintana as he changed bikes during the Monte Grappa time trial. The Sardinian, a Fabio Aru fan, neither pushed nor shouted at Quintana, but simply jokingly asked him to "go slower."
On Saturday, however, there was precious little humour to be drawn from the spectacle on the upper slopes of the Zoncolan. "The people are our strength," Bongiorno said. "But they must learn to respect us."