Thomson Tales

Climbing Monte Zoncolan: Conquering the Heart of Hearts

If it’s true the heart of cycling lies in Italy, and the heart of Italian cycling lies in the Dolomites, then surely the heart of the Dolomites lies at the 1,750m summit of what’s widely considered to be the toughest climb in all the Grand Tours: the grueling, lung-searing, leg-shattering 9.8 km ascent from Ovaro to the summit of Monte Zoncolan.

Just one trouble with that, though. Despite what you’ve heard, Zoncolan isn’t actually part of the Dolomites.

Technically part of the Carnic Alps, Monte Zoncolan is located in Italy’s autonomous Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. The area has its own culture, its own traditions, and even its own language (called Marilenghe locally, or Friulian by the rest of the world).

But cyclists have always considered Zoncolan one of the great Dolomite summits. And since this is bicycle touring, not Geography class, so will we.


“The Easiest Part of the Zoncolan is Harder Than the Most Difficult at the Tour”

On TBT’s Trans-Dolomites Challenge you’ll tackle Monte Zoncolan on Day 2, part of a 81 km route with just under 3,500 meters of climbing.

Gilberto Simoni summed the climb up perfectly, “It’s like a slow execution,” he said. “The easiest part of the Zoncolan is harder than the most difficult at the Tour.” And this is the opinion of a rider who won it twice, earning the nickname “Signor Zoncolan.”

By climbing the Zoncolan, you and your Thomson comrades will be in good—if rarefied—company. It’s only been in the Giro five times before. Simoni won in 2003 and again in 2007 (the first time attacking from the easier Sutrio side); Ivan Basso won it in 2010, Igor Antón in 2011, and Aussie Michael Rogers in 2014.

Here are some items to comfort you during one of the longest hours of your life:

Monte Zoncolan is often spoken in the same breath with famous climbs such as Mortirolo, Angliru and Alpe d’Huez. But in terms of average gradient, it’s actually harder.

For comparison, Spain’s L’Angliru climbs 12.2km and averages 10.2%. The Mortirolo averages 10.5% over 12.4 km, the Colle dell Finestre 9.1% over 18.6km, and the Passo Gavia a more modest 7.9 per cent over 17.3km.

Zoncolan averages 11.9%  over 10.1km and touches 22%. As Peter Thomson likes to say, “Make sure you brought your climbing legs.” That Peter, always with the jokes.

Italy, Dolomites, Zoncolan
Memorial to the great Italian cyclist Fiorenzo Magni. Magni won three Giros d’Italia and took second at a fourth…with a broken collarbone, followed a few day later with a broken humerus. That guy was tough.

Italy, Dolomites, Zoncolan

But Wait, There’s More

Of course, one mountain—no matter how daunting—does not a memorable tour make. So our Trans-Dolomites Challenge serves up a heapin’ helpin of additional, if slightly less daunting, HC and Cat 1-2 climbs, as well.

For instance, after the Zoncolan (as if that weren’t enough) we go on to tackle the HC Monte Crostis on the same day: 14km of climbing at over 10% average. On the bright side, you’ll sleep like a baby that night. And every night of this tour.

Because there’s plenty more on offer. The HC Passo Giau, preceded with 2,500m of climbing by way of warm-up; a “recovery” day (only 2,750 vertical meters) showcasing  the spectacularly scenic Sella Ronda; the HC Passo Fedaia and then the mighty Passo Stelvio. And a double-HC day with the Mortirolo—the Giro’s answer to the TDF’s Alpe d’Huez—followed by the legendary Passo Gavia.

And that’s the week. Almost 700 kilometers of riding, almost 20,000 meters of climbing, and all of it—well, almost all of it—in the heart of the Dolomites.