With the Giro d’Italia and Tour of California approaching the mountains, a moment to look at the subject of climbing.
There are names that stand out. Zoncolan. Angliru. Perhaps after the summer the Grand Colombier could join the club after the Tour de France climbs it for the first time. These are all steep climbs that are considered so hard that they are used sparingly in the big races, appearing only once every few years.
Of course there are other climbs that appear from time to time too. For example Mont Ventoux in France or the unpaved Colle delle Finestre in Italy but the climbs I’m talking about are famed for their pitch, with double-digit gradients. A ramp to the heavens, a “spaceship for the poor man” as Italian journalist Gianni Brera once wrote.
The names of these are used in whispered tones, as if some are fearful of upsetting the mountain gods. Certainly there is plenty for the riders to get angry about with relentless gradients, often well into double-digit percentages meaning these climbs are the place where three weeks of racing can be decided. They can be so steep cars are not used, instead race officials and mechanics hop onto motorbikes.
But if they are steep they are not hard. Their vertiginous gradients can be tamed by low gearing. Indeed the steepest of climbs can be the most predictable. Here’s a look at why the steepest climbs are not always the best.
Let’s use the Zoncolan as the example. Monte Zoncolan in the Friuli region of Italy has a reputation as one of Europe’s hardest paved climbs. From Ovaro the road is 10km long and rises at 12% with some sections hovering around 20%. First included in the 2003 Giro d’Italia it so infamous that it is the benchmark for all comparisons. “Is it as hard as the Zoncolan?” some will ask when a new climb is added to the Giro. Can a new climb be labelled “the new Zoncolan”.
We talk of climbing but this is not the technical ascension of a cliff face where each foothold must be assured, where falling rocks and crashing ice endanger lives. As tough as the climbs might be, they are merely roads. Gearing solves everything.
Shimano’s entry level mountain bike groupset has a triple chainset where the inner chainring has 22 teeth and a cassette for the rear wheel with 32 teeth. Equipped with I’d suggest any club cyclist can winch their way up the Zoncolan. It will take time, it won’t be easy if it’s hot, but the whole point of low gearing is to turn the legs in rotary frenzy and winch your way to the top.
For elite racers the test of such a climb becomes very reductive. Aerodynamic advantage drops because of the slow speed so it is every rider for themselves, being on a wheel offers little help. Above all the performance on the climb boils down to the rider’s power-to-weight ratio. The power a rider produces is divided by their weight and the ratio is the greatest determinant of climbing speed. A fearsome mountain is reduced to these two numbers, a simple case of arithmetic and who, pound for pound, is the strongest.
You can measure a rider’s power output in a lab with on an indoor bike and if you take their bodyweight and the weight of their bike and clothing then you should be able to get the precise power/weight ratio. Put all of the Giro’s riders through this lab test and you could rank their ratios. The result on a very steep slope should be the same. In other words, the most fearsome climb is a replica of sterile laboratory.
But luckily it’s not a lab and humans are prone to error. On the steepest climb, riders rarely need to attack as the strongest will just find the others fade away, unless someone tries to follow another rider and goes into the red, in which case they’ll blow. It’s here that the steep climb can open up big gaps because if a rider gets into trouble there is no moment to recover, they might force themselves to hold a wheel but this risk can backfire if they crack. To avoid this a rider needs only to look at their power meter display on their handlebars and ride to the numbers, using gearing to keep the legs turning like a metronome to a pre-set rhythm.
Of course there is more than riding like a robot. Riders must take the right line through a corner, they must respond to attacks and they must choose their gearing correctly. Over the long term they have to manage the pressures of three weeks of racing. Shorter term they need to get the approach to the climb right.
But these technical factors become more important a longer Alpine pass with variations on gradients and where the slope is reduced. On a more traditional pass, an “easier” climb, there can be more variables to control. No longer a mere test of power to weight, a rider must pick the right wheel, they must change gear at the right time and there are other factors like crosswinds, tactics and for the highest passes, cold temperatures and the need to keep eating during a long ascension.
The hardest climbs are a tough challenge. The Zoncolan can take an age to winch up but it is still a road designed for traffic rather than the vertical face of a mountain. With the wrong gearing it can be impossible but with the right equipment a cyclist is not reduced to “pedalling squares”.
Sometimes less is more. The greater the gradient, the bigger the headlines and the bolder the previews yet these steep ramps can strip away variable factors meaning a more predictable race. The climb is reduced to a test of power-to-weight ratios. This is still a fine competition as it reveals the best climber but it is a simpler test than we might imagine and one we could replicate in a lab or gym. The steepest climbs can be better explained by scientists in lab coats than winged angels or mountain gods.
These steep climbs can be so reductive that we lose tactics, attacks and the chance for a suffering rider to cling on. But thankfully we keep the woodland, the rough roads and the scenery. The riders pass by so slowly that spectators can see the pain.