The Zoncolan is a special climb. There are many hard ascents around the world but even some of the most famous ones have been mastered by team tactics. The Zoncolan is so steep and intense that it foils big teams and makes for very simple stage finish with each rider battling themselves and gravity. It’s also helped popularise lower gearing in the pro peloton and the wider consumer market which is a good thing.
The steeper the climb the slower it is ridden. Obvious but it matters in pro cycling because of the speeds the riders can go up, even a steeper than normal climb like Alpe d’Huez has an average speed of 20km/h for the best times and riders can reach 25-30km/h during the more level sections. At this kind of speed drafting a rival or a team mate counts for plenty and so having a mountain train to pace a leader up a climb is almost invaluable. Almost because we can put a price on it in that the lieutenants who are there in the front group for the team leader – think Wout Poels, Winner Anacona, Mikel Nieve et al – often earn well into six figure salaries, some who might get a win here or there during the rest of the year may even be on seven figures. Should Team Sky bring three of these helpers then their presence alone – excluding the actual team leader – can outdo the entire budget of a wildcard team. But on the Zoncolan drafting counts for next to nothing, there’s pacing and moral support. The steeper the slope the more level the playing field when it comes to team tactics.
Steep climbs don’t make for good TV though. The camera never shows us the gradient too well so the commentary has to explain the slope but not fall prey to hyperbole. Yes it’s steep but all the pros have low gearing and so continue to look smooth, it’s not like the old days when Merckx or Bartali be “pedalling squares” as they say in Italian. They’re not dramatic either, it’s hard to accelerate on the Zoncolan, if you are already on the limit at 7-8km/h then attacking requires huge effort just to reach 10-12km/h. So if a rider makes a searing acceleration on the Zoncolan to many watching on TV it might look like the equivalent of a walker breaking out into a light jog.
Summery! Yates and Dumoulin 34×30. Pinot 34×32. Froome 38?(Osymetric)x32. Hansen 39×32. Many others 36×32. Shimano neutral 36×30. pic.twitter.com/axsAuqhlCV
— Kei Tsuji / 辻啓 (@keitsuji) May 19, 2018
One big change today is gearing. Once upon a time a bike would come with a 52/42 chainset or perhaps one with 53/39 rings. Cyclists visiting the mountains would fit a cassette at the back with a 23 or a 24T sprocket. This seems to be mimicry, taking the cues from the pros who themselves struggled to turn these gears up the hardest of mountains. So when the Zoncolan became a fixture in the early 2000s it coincided with the advent of the compact chainset and the arrival of lower gearing for all. In 2003 sprinter Mario Cipollini apparently had a mountain bike waiting for him – a neat marketing stunt from sponsors Specialized – although he quit before he got to the climb. The compact chainset had become ubiquitous in the peloton for these special climbs and now seems even more widespread. Today team issue bikes can have 52/36 chainrings as standard and many have a 28T sprocket on the back for an ordinary day in the mountains too. In other words the pros have much lower gears today and because of the mimicry effect many ordinary people go to the mountains with 36×28 as standard and their riding is all the better for it. The Zoncolan isn’t alone here, the Giro has climbed the Mortirolo, the Vuelta has the Angliru, the Bola del Mundo and more but thanks to lower gears these roads are ridable for the pro peloton and everyone else now has ready gearing rather than having to go out and buy a triple chainset or other touring gear.
It’s worth celebrating the Zoncolan’s role, the steep gradient is enough to terrify some. Behind this simple road is a way to undo the big teams and their controlling influence on a race and the introduction of this new kind of climb has popularised lower gears in the pro peloton and the retail offerings too.