But there's more to Zoncolan than meets the eye. While the climb from Ovaro is considered the most difficult, and therefore most commonly used, the final stretch from its opposite side, Sutrio, is just about as hard as you'll find anywhere. (Perhaps with the exception of some of the passes in England's Lakes District).
But even harder is the ascent from Zoncolan's third side, Priola, which is along the original old road replaced by the newer one from Sutrio. The two routes meet approximately 4 kilometres from the summit. While I've yet to tackle it, it definitely rates as the most difficult of the three climbs, averaging a formidable 12.8% gradient. You could argue that given its steepness from all three sides, even the French Tour's spiritual mountain, Mont Ventoux, is a bit of a dwarf when compared with this sleeping giant.
|That's me, the old guy on the left.|
With an average gradient of 11.5% from Ovaro, I couldn’t wait to get back on my Bianchi and find out what this climb was all about. Like most new experiences, I was excited, yet apprehensive at the same time. Monte Zoncolan was rated the second hardest climb in Trev’s cycling magazine, ahead of renowned Italian climbs like Mortirolo, Passo Dello Stelvio and Passo di Marmolada. It was going to be no pushover.
|Nearing the summit.|
The 13.5 kilometre climb up Zoncolan from Sutrio is three kilometres longer than from Ovaro, while the average gradient is 8.9%. But the last three kilometres are sheer hell. I was travelling as slowly as 5.6 kilometres per hour and was lucky to average between six and seven along the incredibly steep and narrow road. It was 20%, even more in some places. It took me a little over eighty minutes to reach the top, but as good as it was to get there, my next sixty seconds were spent gasping for air.
But climbing Monte Zoncolan from Ovaro is even more of a test. I didn’t know it at the time but it is widely regarded as being more difficult than Spain’s Alto de l’Angliru itself. Standing on the small asphalt apron that is the summit, I simply stood savouring the view as I waited for Roz, who had begun walking up from the chalet below. All of a sudden I noticed two bike helmets bobbing up and down, just below the crest of the road. It could have been the opening scene of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. The only thing missing were the coconuts. In reality, it was two cyclists who had chanced their luck on the road up from Ovaro. Turns out the only snow they saw was on the side of the road. After exchanging a few pleasantries and anecdotes about recent climbs, we parted company, but not before thanking them for literally bobbing up at exactly the right time. (Had they not successfully tested out the toad from Ovaro, I would have been none the wiser). They took the road down to Sutrio while I continued to wait for Roz, who like me, had ‘slightly’ underestimated the last three kilometres of the climb.
|My support crew.|
Unlike the eastern side – from Sutrio – the final kilometres weren’t as tough. While still averaging around 7%, I could at least enjoy the view as the side of the mountain opened up in front of me. Three short tunnels and snow along the road’s edges were a further diversion from the continual climbing. Once at the top, I didn’t need to hang around, save for a brief conversation with the young Italian rider who kindly waited for me to appear. The shout of “Bravo” as I came over the crest for the second time, was an unexpected surprise. I thanked him for his kind gesture and we shook hands before descending in different directions. Though total strangers, there was a mutual respect for having completed a rather formidable task, though as some might say, a rather silly one too'.
p. 138 'Lycra, Lattes And The Long Way Round'