The hardest climb of the Giro d'Italia is also the simplest. Monte Zoncolan has the steepest gradients of any ascent on the corsa rosa, but its severity rather reduces its complexity. For Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), at least, the strategy for the Kaiser is a brutally simple one: just go as hard as you can.
After stalking maglia rosa Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) up the final climb in Osimo on stage 11, Dumoulin jokingly pointed at his legs and said, "what people don't know is that I'm quite explosive sometimes."
That breathless duel between the first and second riders on general classification had the feel of a prelude to a more prolonged battle on the Zoncolan this weekend, though Dumoulin noted that the two efforts are not comparable. Compared to the deft sparring in Osimo, the Zoncolan promises to be a slugging match.
"It has nothing to do about explosiveness, it's just riding as hard as you can for about 45 minutes or something, and maybe longer," Dumoulin said in Ferrara on Friday morning.
Gilberto Simoni, twice a winner on the Zoncolan, would doubtless be nodding his head in approval. His recollection of his strategic approach to the climb was succinct. "I used to put myself on the front, and then I didn't turn around again anymore," he told Il Corriere della Sera.
Dumoulin's confession that he had not reconnoitred the Zoncolan drew murmurs of surprise during his pre-race press conference in Jerusalem, but the defending champion saw no need to change a winning formula. He did not, after all, tackle any of the 2017 Giro's major climbs beforehand, save for the Stelvio, which he had ridden during a training camp a couple of years earlier. In any case, the extreme difficulty of the Zoncolan's gradients is so well advertised that there are unlikely to be any surprises when Dumoulin sees it in person on Saturday afternoon.
"I've seen it on TV, and I've seen it in the book, and I've seen the percentages, and that's pretty much all I know," Dumoulin said. "It's always nice to really know a climb and have seen it, but it's really not necessary to do a good result."
Dumoulin sets out from San Vito al Tagliamento on Saturday just 47 seconds behind Yates on the general classification, while Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) lies third overall at 1:04, with Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) fourth at 1:18.
Yates has repeatedly highlighted the need to pad out his buffer of the Rovereto time trial on stage 16, but while the Zoncolan's harsh slopes might be better suited to the pink jersey's slight frame, Dumoulin politely rebuffed the idea that he would be seeking simply to limit his losses on Saturday.
"I hope to gain time, but with how Yates is riding now, that's going to be very difficult, of course," Dumoulin said. "He's more of a climber type than me. He's also in excellent shape, so it will be very difficult but I'm just going to go full gas and I'll see on the line how it went."
Dumoulin sprang a surprise by winning the corresponding stage of the Giro a year ago by soloing clear on the mountaintop finish at Oropa, though his most impressive displays on the climbs in the 2017 race arguably came on the Blockhaus and Stelvio, where he effectively time trialled to the finish rather than seek to match the accelerations ahead.
"I never really have a pacing plan on a climb, I just ride by feeling," Dumoulin said. "Of course, I am a big guy, and I can't follow all these little punchy attacks, so I will not do that on Zoncolan either, and then we'll see if it works out."
In years past, the Zoncolan has often appeared almost too difficult to be decisive, but while the gaps at the summit have tended to be tight, it is invariably a pivotal moment in the overarching narrative of the Giro. It is, in every sense, all about momentum.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.