The Zoncolan

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.

Movistar team 2016 Tour de France

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.

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.

32 thoughts on “The Zoncolan”

  1. Knowing that the pros are riding 34×32 takes some of the heroism out of it, and the respect I feel for them is reduced. A 32 cassette is huge! If a friend turned up with one I think I’d make them ride a bit away from me so people didn’t know I was with them! Mind you in the days of 41×25 they were all on steroids and suffered knee injuries, so maybe it’s for the best.

  2. So, according to your post Richard S, you wouldn’t ride with a five-time grand tour winner and Zoncolan stage victor (even if it was only fleetingly before being dropped) because of his choice of gearing. Strange.

      • And I wouldn’t go with Froome even if he had an 11-23 custom-made cassette. Would be awful to have to look at that riding in real life.

      • I don’t understand why you’d care what gearing someone else was riding. Would you ride with junior riders or tell them their gearing embarrasses you? Sounds like you need to get over your own insecurities, in my opinion. Just ride your bike.

  3. As someone who rides mountain bikes more often than road bikes I have always been baffled by gear choice of some road riders. If 90 rpm is optimal when riding on the flat, it is optimal just as well when going up 20% grades (seated at least) . Do the math and unless you are a top pro you need a ratio below 1. Simple way to do the math: take 6.5 W/kg, divide that by your own w/kg number and multiply that by Yates’ largest cog and that is what you need. MTB cassettes go up to 50 now, so don’t worry 🙂

    • The problem with running 10/42 cassettes on a road bike in an amateur race finishing on a climb like this is that it they have enormous gaps between each cog. At the very least, it’s pretty disconcerting for roadies used to relatively narrow gaps, at worst it can leave you either mashing or spinning out sitting in the bunch on flatter parts of the stage.

      Alternatively, you can run something like 46/30 chainrings on the front- which is fine except you run out of gears on pedalling descents (which can detach you from the bunch before you ever get to the final climb).

      It’ll take 2×13 or 2×14 drivetrains before we have really satisfactory gear ratios for amateurs racing on these kinds of climbs IMO.

    • Besides the obvious physiological difference between persons… while climbing, optimal RPM depends on your wattage. The higher your watts, the higher optimal RPM. At 400W, 90+ is the best, but at, say, 250W, you’d better sit at some 70 RPM.
      People using the pro’s gears on the same gradient as the pros didn’t make much sense, but spinning their frequency doesn’t, either.

  4. The Zoncolan certainly attracts attention, and rightly so. In its favour is the fact that the scenery is fantastic and provides a wonderful setting for man on man Vs gradient battle. On the other hand the gradient is so steep, for so long that it is almost impossible to make large time gains.

    All that said, today served up a classic battle. It will be interesting to see the energy cost to the principles of their sustained efforts in the next two days.

    • I thought it was good to watch. I think people who say it is not as interesting as other summit finishes are making the wrong comparison.

      Instead of thinking of it as a ‘normal’ mountain stage where drafting and tactics can play a big role, perhaps it’s better to think of it more as a mountain time trial, but one where all the GC riders start together. So it’s more a test of W/kg and pacing, like an uphill TT, but one where you can compare the riders in real time.

    • It’s absolutely not true that it’s *impossible* to make large time gains. They’re the same gains you typically made on a serious uphill finish. 2/5 Zoncolan had huge time gains (as big as the most selective final climbs we had in recent times), 2/5 had average time gains (including this year’s edition), 1/5 had little time gains – but the race was already decided. I posted a more detailed analysis elsewhere on this blog (perhaps on the stage preview).

  5. As Froome “twiddled” away from the pack with a mammoth cadence driven effort I couldn’t help but think of Wacky Races. Or when Yates looked around saw Dumoulin losing contact so went a bit harder, squeezing out another 20m advantage… that must be one hell of a gradient.

  6. The Zoncolan looks horrific, and I appreciate just how much power the pros put out to even go up at 10km/hr, but for me as a spectacle it isn’t up there with the best mountain stages. Like INRNG says the motos never capture the gradient so we’re left watching a snail’s pace of a race. The Giro is still consistently the best GT though.

    To get a little technical on the gearing side for your amateur rider a 28 tooth cassette is great not just for 39×28 on the steep stuff but also it avoids cross chaining while still finding a nice rolling gear in the big ring e.g. 53×23 or whatever. The idea of trying to go up mountains on 42×19 or whatever they did back in the day is mad.

  7. Interesting stuff, I think the Zoncolan stage finish works well as a one off stage, any more slow Mo finishes would indeed be too much.
    As for gearing (disclaimer: I am a self confessed spinner who, if climbing fast, wants to do it over 80 rpm, appreciate some will happily go fast at 60 rpm, physiology is such a diverse thing) I’m of the opinion most riders are over geared for mountains or even steeper hills so it’s good to know the pros occasionally mirror my everyday 34-32!
    Certainly I know from experience that, even with that gearing, I have to put out well over 300W to sustain a cadence above,70 rpm on the fairly common 15-20% steeper stuff round my way. If I want to efficiently get up those inclines such unusually low gearing is important for my “style” of climbing. Given I’m in reasonable shape, though slightly slower than those riding up the Zoncolan yesterday admittedly, I do think the full compact with wide range cassette should be more common place. With retail mirroring the pros, hopefully this will help.

    • I can confirm. I took a 36*28 for a week in Andorra. My FTP is 238W. I can spin above 80 cadence but you become out of breath. So to then grind it out inevitably you at around 60 rpm on the steeper sections or less. I had an 11-32 cassette that I left at home…..

      • Brings back mixed memories of a trip to the Pyrenees. Beautiful mountains yet a hire bike with merely a semi compact 36-28 and me (somehow) a bit less fit back then too – oh what a grind fest Hautacam and Luz Ardiden became 😀

    • Take into account that, as I said above, besides personal physiology, there’s commonly a correlation between the watt you’re producing in a given moment and the optimal RPM.
      At 300W, the average person will perform more efficently at 80 RPM (not higher), at 200 RPM it’s more like 65 RPM, pros climbing above 400W will feel happier over 90 RPM…

  8. My experience with Zoncolan
    Interesting discussions on gearing. We all know how ol’ Henri Desgrange tried to prevent the racers from using “tourist” multi gears, was he onto something? I mean in the way these micro ratios have changed the body composition of the racers. As Giancarlo Brocci says, the pros of the 60’s and 70’s were often viewed as sex symbols. Now they look like escapees from concentration camps at times. I don’t think these toothpick riders could turn a Merckx-like gear up these climbs – there’s just not enough muscle there. I’m not so sure this is progress.

    • It’s a different style but I don’t think spinning up the climb looks any worse than grinding, personally speaking. The most aesthetically pleasing is somewhere in the middle. It’s very subjective though.

      Whatever way you do it, if you’re at the front of a grand tour you’re putting out huge power. I laugh when I hear pundits saying Froome “twiddles” up a climb. I’d like to see them spin 36×32 up 20%! He’s still putting out 450w+.

      As an aside if gearing was still old school I’d speculate some of the Classics riders would be challenging a little more. Definitely Geraint Thomas but maybe even the likes of GVA and Sagan if he slimmed down a little. Their power would suit 42×21 up an 8% Alpine slope, I’d guess.

    • They couldn’t turn the same gear as the sex symbols of years past, but guaranteed they are going up faster and putting out more watts in those lower gears so *shrugs* i think that’s progress both technologically and athletically.

      • Well, apparently Merckx could push over 430W for a whole hour. On a modern-weighing bike and maybe after a bit of well-managed diet himself, I suspect that he could crush the current best whatever the gears. And he had rivals who sometimes could even beat him (from time… to time…).

        (ok, he was Merckx ^__^)

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