I'd been keeping this pretty much to myself: given everything that's gone on and the uncertainty over how the Maratona would go - and not to mention the vagaries of weather in the mountains - I didn't want to put any pressure on myself to do this. Don't get me wrong, I _wanted_ to give it a go, but I didn't want to feel that I _had_ to. The goal, very simply, was to try and get up to the top without putting my foot down. There was no thought of a time, no thought of any competition other than between man and mountain.
After a day's rest from the Maratona, and a check of the weather forecast, it seemed that today would be a good day. There was rain forecast, but it was in the afternoon and, if we started from the hotel reasonably early, we should be able to drive the 120km, or so, across to Ovaro and then ride up and down the mountain before things turned.
We started a mite late, and the satnav took us a different, and slightly longer, route to the one suggested by Google Maps, but we arrived around 11am, which still gave me plenty of time. After several checks by Lesley that I did actually want to do this and some of my usual faffing around to get ready, there was nothing for it other than to get on the road.
Whilst I was away, Lesley had a wander around Ovaro, not that there's masses to see, and sampled some items of cuisine, including an ice cream that was like a Magnum, but not a Magnum.
Off I trundled towards the, well signposted, beginning of the climb. Except that it's not the beginning of the climb. Most of the stuff you see on the Interwebs suggests that the Zoncolan is about 10.5km long with an average gradient of 11.2%. Thing is, this includes a section up from Ovaro to a small village called Liariis: the actual Zoncolan climb itself (with the pictures of famous riders and distance markers) begins at the end of the village of Liariis and is 8km long with an average gradient of 13%.
So let's start again. Off I trundled from Ovaro up towards Liariis, which is a nice warm-up for the main event. It starts in pretty normal Italian fashion with gradients between 7 and 12% although, atypically, the road surface is pretty decent. 'This is going to be OK', I thought, looking down and seeing a 12% incline whilst not really feeling any difficulty in pedalling. I'd review this statement later.
You get to Liariis and turn right (it's well signposted - including on the road itself, so even Alex couldn't miss it) down a narrow little street, past the Italian version of 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here' that's painted on the wall of one of the houses and out the other side of the village where you're greeted by a slope.
And it's OK. 12-13%, but you can roll your way up it without too much trouble. You continue a couple of hundred metres later past a water trough and you continue to think that it's OK: and it still is. You do some more climbing and you start to feel like you're getting into it. The gradient now reads something like 14%, but you're fresh. And all of 500m in.
Then, a couple of corners later, the mountain changes the rules. 14% becomes 17-19%. For 1km. With no respite. There are stretches of 'consistent' 18% in this and, on one part, no corners to break it up so all you can see in front of you is this road that's still going up much more rapidly than you ever thought it could.
Some slog later and you think you've broken the back of it. Nope. You see the next famous rider sign, which reads 1.3km. You do some more slog up the same wall and see the next famous rider sign. Great: 2km done. No chance. The next sign after 1.3km is at ... 1.5km. And it's taken you some time to get there.
Then the reality of what you're doing starts to dawn. This is felt to be one of the hardest few climbs in Europe for a good reason (the Angliru is the second one to come to mind, but there will be others). This incline isn't going to relent - there are 6km with an average gradient of 15.9%. Deal with it. The thing that went through my mind was that climbing was like wrestling with a gorilla: the match only ends when the gorilla stops. Or something like that. You don't get to choose with the Zoncolan: it hands out long, unrelenting, sections of uphill and you either get your head down, or you accept that it has beaten you.
And, between kms 2 and 3, I did wonder whether I'd bitten off more than I could chew on this one. Then it dawned on me: I was riding at a pace that I felt I could do ... and it wasn't getting any worse. So I just kept turning the pedals, occasionally wondering how Chris Froome could turn 100rpm on the same gearing as me (34-32) whilst I was struggling to manage 40.
And then, like a thunderbolt, a hairpin appeared. Respite. For 5 yards. Damn that felt good. I even smiled to the bloke who was sitting next to his bike on the Armco watching me ride by. Then normal service was resumed: 18%. Oh, no, 19%.
The next hairpin helped a bit more and, this time, joy of joys, the next ramp was only 15%. Hurrah! I've broken the back of it now! There's a photo of a famous rider: 2.5km done. Cock.
This ritual continued for a while - progress was not quick. The (very) short 7% section was nice, but the 18% that followed it wasn't. The bits that destroy your soul are the long straight bits, because you know how far you have to travel before the next 'change of scenery'. During one of these moments, I was passed by another rider. We exchanged grunts. And then I noticed that he was doing the old trick of weaving from one side of the road to the other. I gave it a try and I have to say that, whilst it didn't make the climb any easier, it _did_ take my mind off the fact that the next 100m were in the 17-19% range.
And then. And then. The sign said 3.1km completed. This was Good News: I was now ove half way up the worst part. The bad news was that the gradient hadn't relented in the slightest. Another few minutes chug confirmed this: the next sign said 3.5km completed. Balls.
Still, my mood was lifted, and not just by the fact that I had done more than half of the really nasty section. There was also the knowledge that to have an average gradient of 15.9%, that 16-19% stuff has to be balanced by something shallower further up. A lot of the very hard work was done, although I knew, but tried to forget, that there was still a lot of hard work still to do.
Up I winched. And then, yes, the gradient did begin to relent a little. More and more the longer pitches dropped down to 14-15%. It's not much, but you can feel it in your legs. The pedals turn just that bit easier and you're making just that bit more progress. The 12-13% bits were absolute bliss.
And then it got better still. 10%. 9%. 8%. What's going on here? 5.5%? 14mph? Up the Zoncolan? Er, what? I'd made it up to the 6km point and the road flattened out. Actually flattened. Until the 16% ramp around the next corner, of course. If you've seen Chris Froome's pre-Giro training video thing up the Zoncolan, this is where he stopped due to snow blocking the road.
I didn't. I carried on, straight through the three tunnels. Damn were they cold and wet. The water was dripping from the roof and the floor was soaking, and very slippery - something to remember for the descent. They're also dark and, as there were motorbikes buzzing up and down the whole time, I was just a mite nervous about what might happen in there.
The return to proper daylight was quite startling. The 7-8% 'flat' section of the tunnels gave way to one last steep section. I was buoyed on the initial ramp, because there were a couple of families walking up there with kids and it wouldn't have been cricket to stop riding at that point now, would it? Can't let the kiddies down. Fortunately, the slope was only 12%, so I tried my best to look like riding up this was a fairly normal occurrence. I'm not sure I succeeded and, worst of all, the kids were more interested in the sweets being doled out by their parents. Oh, well, I tried.
One interesting feature of the last section is the amount of cow crap on the road. It was impossible to avoid in certain areas, so as well as being steep and damp, the road surface was smelly and slippery. Even more encouragement to keep riding, although, by this time, I _knew_ that I'd make it. In fact, once I'd made it past the 6km mark, there was no way that I wasn't going to finish the last 2km.
So, a bit tired, quite sweaty and with smelly tyres, I rolled into the car park at the top of the climb and stopped to get my breath back. There were two other riders up there and we passed mutual glances of admiration to each other and then proceeded to take photos to prove what we'd done.
Then came the descent. It was quite chilly up top, so arm warmers and rain jacket were the order of the day. I did have another plan too, which I'd formulated on the way up: I was going to take photos of all of the famous rider signs. I'm not one for photos usually, but this was a bit different. It turned out that there was another good reason to do this: if I'd tried to come down in one go, my hands would have given in. The road is such that you can't let the bike run - it's too twisty and, given the gradients, you need to apply quite a lot of pressure on the levers to keep the speed in check. Even with hydraulic discs, that's a tough ask. So, by stopping pretty frequently, I'd avoid that problem _and_ have some photos. This worked really rather well, but I did make sure that I shouted 'Allez! Allez!' at the other riders who were making the ascent as I was descending. Apart from one guy who, whilst I was taking a photo of the 1.5km completed sign, was already out of breath and walking with his helmet strapped to his handlebars. He was in for a long day...
Once down from the main climb, it didn't take too long to drop back into Ovaro and meet up with Lesley, only to find that, because it's Italy, all of the cafés shut just after 1pm so lunch became an impossibility. No matter, we did find one bar that was open and had a bit of something, before heading back to Gertrude and letting her guide us back to the hotel.
So, job done. The Zoncolan box is ticked. I didn't travel up there very quickly. My time will be ridiculed by those in the know, but, hey, I'm the first Vagabond up there and I did it in a oner. Anyone else who manages the same will get a massive 'chapeau' from me, because it's not easy and warrants real respect. Monte Zoncolan simply says: come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.
My Strava data for the day is here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1678300026
What's on, who's riding
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