Since it was introduced to the Giro d'Italia fifteen years ago, Monte Zoncolan has inspired the loftiest of nicknames. Even before a pedal had been turned in anger on its slopes, it was branded as the 'Kaiser.' Once scores of tifosi began cramming into the natural amphitheatre near the summit, it was labelled as the 'Vertical Maracana.'
On the Giro's last visit in 2014, La Gazzetta dello Sport declared the Zoncolan to be a sacred mountain and placed it in an imaginary Pantheon alongside Mounts Everest, Fuji and Olympus. The banner at the bottom of the ascent, on the other hand, draws from Dante's Inferno: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." Heaven and hell, all in one.
On Saturday, Monte Zoncolan, the very summit of hyperbole, will be scaled by Simon Yates, the very personification of understatement. Speaking on Friday evening in Nevresa della Battaglia, the maglia rosa was sober in his analysis of the challenge facing him on stage 14 of the Giro.
"Everybody is telling me tomorrow is going to be one of the most difficult climbs of my career," Yates smiled at one point during a press conference where the pressing topic of discussion seemed to be the Zoncolan and its severity.
"Of course, it's going to be difficult, but I actually thought the climbs we've already done were difficult. I don't know the climb, I've never reconn'ed it or ridden it. I've just seen it on TV, but I hope to have good legs and I will try something."
Yates has pedalled with remarkable agility in the mountains to this point, and he seems to possess a sharper acceleration on the climbs than anybody else on this Giro. It remains to be seen if that trend continues as the race reaches its third weekend, but the Mitchelton-Scott rider appeared nonplussed by the specific threat posed by the mighty Zoncolan.
The 10.1km ascent has an average gradient of 11.9% and pitches of 22%, but while Yates accepted that it poses a slightly different test to what has come before on this Giro, he was reluctant to be overly deferential to the climb before he had even ridden up it.
"I feel like we've already done some high mountains," Yates said. "We've had a few battles already. Of course, the Zoncolan is a different beast, but the difference, we'll see tomorrow at the finish.
"Any climb is going to be difficult tomorrow. We're a very long way into the Giro, it's been a very hard race up to now, and except for today [stage 13 – ed.], we have raced every day. Everybody is tired, so whether it's the Zoncolan or a different climb tomorrow, it will be very difficult."
Since seizing the maglia rosa atop Mount Etna on stage 6, Yates has repeatedly stressed the need to augment his advantage over the rouleurs ahead of next Tuesday's time trial to Rovereto. The Briton has padded his buffer in the days since by helping himself to two stage wins, at Gran Sasso d'Italia and Osimo, and he reaches the demanding weekend doubleheader in Friuli with a lead of 47 seconds over Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and 1:04 over Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).
The margins are still tight on this Giro, as Yates and Dumoulin's joust in Osimo demonstrated in midweek, and that tendency may very well continue on Saturday afternoon. Despite its fearsome litany of sobriquets, the Zoncolan has rarely produced decisive time gaps among the contenders for final overall victory. The very steepness of the climb serves almost as a limitation: on slopes in excess of 20%, strongmen and struggling riders alike can only to grind their way up the mountain, and gaps develop slowly.
"If I have the legs to do something, I will try, because as I said from the beginning, I do need the time," Yates said. "But from what I have seen on TV, actually there are never big gaps on the Zoncolan. But like I say, if I have the legs, I'll try."
Yates finished safely in the main peloton on stage 13 of the Giro to Nevresa della Battaglia – "the easiest day we've had so far," he admitted – though his teammate Esteban Chaves was dropped in the finale and came home alone and dead last, 15:24 down on winner Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).
The maglia rosa's own day was so uneventful that almost the entirety of his post-stage press conference was devoted to dissecting the Zoncolan, but he warned that Sunday's rather less heralded but no less demanding stage to Sappada might ultimately prove more decisive.
"Everybody is talking only about tomorrow, but the next day is also extremely difficult," Yates said. "Maybe it's not more important [than the Zoncolan – ed.] but if some riders go too deep tomorrow then they really could pay the next day. It's interesting. We'll see."