Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Climbing the Zoncolan

The first guest article is provided by Tobias Panek (owner of Granfondo Cycling Tours, and written by Mike Elmer. In Mike's words:

Alternate Title: The New “Hardest Climb Ever”

I have done a lot of the biggest climbs in the US, France and Italy: Mt. Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet, Forclaz, Col d’Izoard, Stelvio, Gavia, Fedai, San Pellegrino, Pordoi, Mortirolo, and Mt. Evans. They are all good climbs, but with proper gearing (34” chain ring, 27” cog), I can get up all of them without bogging down nor extending myself, if I don’t want to. However, they all take a backseat to the new, “hardest climb ever,”: Mt. Zoncolon.

The ‘Z’ is located in the western Dolomite Mountains in Italy, and the Giro d’Italia raced it this year (ed note: 1997). When I watched the stage on TV, I was stunned at how slowly the professionals were climbing. It was then, I knew I had to try it. So, my friend Tobias and I headed to the ‘Z’ during the last week in July. Tobias is a Cat 2 racer and a stronger climber than I am. We were both in for a shock!

The mountain is easy to find. Heading toward the town of Ovaro, you can’t miss the billboards placed by the Giro. We planned to start with a warm-up climb of about 25km, then join the route of the Giro stage about 35km from the finish. The “warm up” had a rather steep climb to the town of Tualis, which proved more than a little warm up. It was about 4km of 10-15% gradient, which was a good climb, and we kept the gears rolling fairly easily.

After the little warm up, we headed to Ovaro and turned up the ‘Z.’ The climb started at 9%, and I thought to myself, “This isn’t hard.” About 1.5km into the ride, the road actually levels to flat! Tobias and I were trying to figure out if this was part of the climb when we rode around a bend, and our jaws dropped: we were literally staring at a wall!

There was a sign at the base that said, “KM 0.” The Giro d’Italia placed distance signs along the climb, complete with a picture and text about a different Giro grand champion. Immediately, the climb began at a 15% gradient, and we instantly dropped in the 34x27 gear. Our pedal revolutions dropped dramatically. Several minutes ticked by while we were grinding away, when we see the next sign. I was thinking, “Cool, one kilometer down.” NO! The sign said, “KM 0.5.” Oh My GAWD! It took us nearly five minutes to climb 500 meters up the hill. This was going to be BAD.

We continued grinding in our pedals, when we finally saw the, “KM 1,” sign. I thought, “This is going to be a long day!” We continued at what was literally 30 rpms with no let-up in sight, and I was already drenched in sweat. (Did I mention it was 90 degrees?) But wait, we see the next sign. Slowly, we approach it, and the sign says, “KM 1.3.” Awe CRAP! We rode only 300 freakin’ meters?! At this point, I think my brain shut off. We kept grinding up, rather wobbly, from one sign to the next, which fortunately included several switch backs that eased to probably 10 or 11% gradient. That was like Heaven! Some of the switch backs actually eased to around 8%, which literally felt like flat spots.

Then, came the steepest pitch at 22%! We were out of the saddle, grinding at our 30 rpm, just plain suffering. ‘Z’ doesn’t offer any breaks by leveling off after the steep parts; it just goes back to 15%. There is no respite! I made the mistake of asking Tobias how fast we were riding. The answer tore through me like a knife in my heart: 3 miles per hour! I have NEVER climbed this slowly. This climb was going to take over TWO HOURS for 6.5 crummy miles.

I had not done so intentionally, but I realized I was tacking up the climb. I have not tacked a climb in seventeen years! I also noticed that Tobias was tacking also; however, he later said he wasn’t tacking, but simply wobbling. The next apparent realization was how badly the bottom of my feet hurt from pushing down on the pedals. I knew there would be some serious foot cramps tonight!

Most of the climb is in the trees and bushes, so there isn’t anything to look at for distraction. Not that you could really look for fear of falling over. However, as we were getting higher, the trees parted to reveal absolutely stunning views of the valley. My heart lifted a little. “I think I can get up this thing without stopping.”

After what seemed like an eternity, the road finally eased a little. The gears started to turn over smoothly. “What was going on?” We should have studied the profile more closely (I didn’t realize how crucial that would be), because the middle 6.6kms average 15% gradient, but then ‘Z’ actually lessens to 9 and 10%, before the final kilometer. And, the views were absolutely breathtaking! Around a bend, we came upon a tunnel that was wide enough for only a Smartcar to navigate. The tunnel was a blessing, as it was nice and cool.

We kept riding, and I thought that the top had to be coming soon, because there wasn’t much mountain left above us! As we slowly rounded one more bend, the road crested. It was the TOP! One last excruciating 100 meters, and we were on top of the world! Utterly soaked from sweat, and with sore knees, we made it! It took one hour and twenty minutes to ride 10.5km. Our hard work rewarded us with 360 degrees of stunning scenery. It is definitely one of the most spectacular views of all those big climbs I’ve conquered.

‘Z’ is, bar none, the hardest climb I have ever accomplished. And, it is certainly, the slowest I have ever ridden on a bike while trying to go so hard!

Thanks Mike (above) and Tobias! Stories for the Italian Cycling Journal welcome; contact


  1. Nice read. I have been on 22% gradients but limited to 2 miles. Thats nothing compared to Zoncolan.

    If you get a chance, don't miss out on climbing the Angliru. If there is a tougher climb than Zoncolan, this must be it.

  2. That's a pretty fair assessment of the Zoncolan - it was positively the hardest thing I have done, ever; on or off the bike!!

    There are a few other climbs in this league - the Mortirolo is similar, but as it's a little longer, it has just a tad less pitch, making it, IMO a bit easier. I don't know the Angliru, but it's reported to be a stinker too. However the hardest rated climb is the Edelwiess near Bolzano, and sadly I missed that one - anyone out there do that?

    You didn't mention the descent.. What was that green slime in the tunnels that sprayed all over us on the way down? And how about the wheels getting so hot from braking that we positively had to stop to let them cool, lest the tires melted off the rims.

    We had intended to go down the other side and make a little loop of it, but the traffic in August was so slow that it took 5 hours to get there from Corvara where we were staying, and another 4 hours to get back. But the thrill of having accomplished that ridiculous climb was worth all that driving!! Glad you enjoyed it too. Just think; Pantani did it with 39/25 gearing.. and at twice our speed!

  3. Love the article. What a brute of a climb. My climbing is just around here in the North Shore mountains not as crazy steep. 34X27 is a good friend indeed!

  4. Oh the memory of that never ending gradient. Like you, I just remember thinking that each panel was going to herald another kilometre when often it was just 500 metres and sometimes less. The gradients spray-painted on the road only served to dishearten you further. The "Welcome to Hell" sign after the initial foreplay, didn't help either.

    I did it this summer (July 2011) with a 34 29 Campy set up in a "shameful" 1 hour 50 minutes from Ovaro but now I'm familiar with it, could probably shave some serious time off that.

    A local pro whom I met at the start just seemed to fly up but overall the unfamiliarity and unrelenting gradient does for you before the gradient eases up 7/8ths of the way up. I loved the cool wetness of the 3 "gallerias" towards the top and the welcome given to anyone who makes it at the top by the Italians.

    Descending, I punctured around the Miguel Indurain poster!