My Ten Most Difficult Italian Climbs - The Hardest: Monte Zoncolan

Location: Friuli-Venezia, Giulia.
Departure: Ovaro
Length: 10.1km
Altitude: 1,730m
Height Gain: 1,203m
Average Gradient: 11.9%
Maximum Gradient: 22.0%

Located in the Carnic Alps, in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Monte Zoncolan is one of the most demanding climbs in professional cycling.

Having surprisingly been used in the Giro d'Italia on only five occasions (2003, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2014), the winner of the first two finishing stages on Zoncolan’s unpretentious summit was Italian cyclist Gilberto Simoni. The most recent was Australia’s Michael Rogers who stormed to victoryin stage 20 of the 2014 Tour.

Unknown to even some of the most fervent cyclists, Monte Zoncolon can be climbed by three roads: Ovaro, Sutrio and Priola. Rated alongside Spain’s Alto de l’Angliru, Monte Zoncolan (from Ovaro) is just about as tough as it gets. That’s not to say it’s not equally as difficult from Priola. But what seems to make the route from Ovaro far more attractive is Priola’s more-narrow and pothole-infested road. 

Surrounded on the lower section of the climb by dense woodland, it’s difficult to imagine hordes of spectators, and worse still, the Tour entourage, trying to accompany the peloton up the slender tarmac. For now anyway, the steep road from Priola is primarily the domain of the dedicated weekend-warrior, who prefers not only solitude but near-13% average gradients.

Priola in fact, was the original road up to Zoncolan’s summit, until replaced by the newer road from Sutrio, which became the first road used in theGiro d’ Italia, in 2003. The two roads meet approximately 4 kilometres from the summit, where the tarmac soars to an average gradient of 13%, with ramps as steep as an excruciating 23%.   

The 12th stage of the 2003 Giro was the last occasion Marco Pantani was seen fighting for a stage victory, when he launched an unsuccessful attack 3 kilometres from the summit.  He finished in fifth place, 42 seconds behind the eventual winner, Simoni.

Not making its first appearance in the Italian Tour until 2007, the climb from Ovaro   seems a modest 10.1 kilometres but with an average of 11.9% and with an elevation gain of more than 1,200 metres, it’s an absolute stinker. The real climb however, doesn’t really begin until you leave the tiny hamlet of Liariis, a malevolent 8.5 kilometres from the summit.

Like a charlatan, the road subtly disappears into the forest gaining 900 metres over the next 6 kilometres. Long stretches of straight road yawn towards the next switchback, incessantly hovering around 15% and reaching as high as 22% between the 6th and 7th kilometres.

Around 2 kilometres from the summit, the steepness of the climb finally eases off. Shortly, the road passes through three short tunnels - partially lit but damp and dreary - before a series of steep switchbacks tediously wind their way to the normally bare summit. 

Apart from the occasional motorcyclist or fellow cyclist, you won’t have much company on your way up the climb. There’s not the sweeping lacets winding backwards and forwards like an intestine towards the Passo  dello Stelvio’s summit, nor the feeling of riding through the ice and snow up Gavia. In Zoncolan’s case, it’s all about the stretches of straight road and the gradient that accompanies it. As far as Italian climbs are concerned, it’s hard to beat.   
Eddy Merckx, one of the many photographs of
the Giro d' Italia legends you'll pass on the way
 up the climb from Ovaro.

Monte Zoncolan’s alternative routes:

Departure: Sutrio 
Length: 13.5km
Altitude: 1,730m
Height Gain: 1,210m
Average Gradient: 9.0%
Maximum Gradient: 23.0%

Departure: Priola
Length: 8.9km
Altitude: 1,730m
Height Gain: 1,140m
Average Gradient: 13.0%
Maximum Gradient: 23.0%

Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“I still must abide by the rules of the road, of biking, of gravity. But I am mentally far away from civilization.”

                    US author and poet Diane Ackerman

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