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On May 22 this year, the Giro d’Italia riders take on the feared, savage ascent of Monte Zoncolan for the seventh time since 2003—though this 2021 version tackles the “easier” eastern approach. But whichever side, the Zoncolan has rightly earned its place as one of the most famous climbs in all of cycling. But almost 10 years ago to the day—May 21, 2011—there was an unwritten chapter in the history of the Zoncolan when another, arguably just as difficult climb, was due to dilute its dominance right next door: Monte Crostis.
This came at the height of then-Giro-boss Angelo Zomegnan’s “harder, bigger, longer, steeper” strategy, a strategy that would ultimately see him shunted from the top spot at the Giro promoter, RCS, and replaced with the people’s champ, Michele Acquarone, in 2012.
The final week of the 2011 Giro was perhaps the longest and hardest in the modern era. And the Crostis-Zoncolan combo, with nearly 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet!) of climbing packed into the final 50 kilometers of racing, would serve merely as an apéritif before the following day’s 230 kilometers and 6,500 meters (21,325 feet!) of climbing in the Dolomites. Oh, and I forgot to mention the mountaintop finish on the Grossglockner in Austria the day before the Crostis-Zoncolan challenge. There was also an avalanche of mountain stages following that dastardly trio! It was a certain type of brutality that stands out even now, a decade later.
On that outrageous 210-kilometer Zoncolan stage, the riders would begin their day in Lienz, Austria, cross the border into Italy early on, then take in two Cat. 3 climbs, a Cat. 2 and what would have been the greatest one-two punch in grand tour history in terms of outright difficulty: the Crostis first, followed by the tougher side of the Zoncolan.
It never happened though.
There was uproar from many teams over the upper section of the Crostis—the Panoramica delle Vette—which was dirt and characterized by a tiny road with huge drops. The exposure along the upper portion of the Panoramica is real, but the organization and local volunteers all but eliminated the danger points with alpine ski netting and 300 protective mats—apparently more than was used in the rest of the Giro (which is extremely alarming looking back). Sections of the road were paved and the parts that weren’t were rolled with compressors and if you’ve ever seen the exquisitely smooth, packed dirt of the Finestre on Giro race day, the Crostis dirt was better paved than most of the Giro when it hits those extra-special “paved” roads in the far south. I love and cherish the Strade Bianche for their character and fun, but I do find it comical when talk of “technical and dangerous” dirt come up in these races.
The real Crostis conflict came from the teams’ perceived lack of support they would be able to provide riders on the upper reaches of the climb and descent. Team cars would not be allowed to follow the riders for well over an hour (37 kilometers), but the organizers nodded and countered with the idea of team motos—as you see now on the Zoncolan: a moto driver and team mechanic, plus spare bike on said mechanic’s back. This idea did not fly with the teams and with the specter (rightly so) of Wouter Weylandt’s death less than two weeks before in that same Giro, the UCI race jury members were in no mood to entertain Zomegnan’s flight of fancy. They struck down his dream at 9 p.m. the night before the stage was set to roll.
The official UCI communiqué read: “Although the Organizer has put in place all the necessary measures to ensure the riders’ safety, following the complaints of the Team Managers because of the impossibility to ensure an optimal sport management at the end of the stage (as the team cars cannot operate normally by following the race course for 37,2 km) and after an analysis of the proposal done by the Organizer to solve this problem, the Panel of Commissaires does not judge this proposal sufficient.”
What followed was an all-time outbreak of the Italians’ timehonored tradition of polemica. Zomegnan was purple with rage: “It is a serious and unjustified decision. We worked for nothing.” There was uproar from the region, uproar from RCS…and seemingly quiet satisfaction from Team Saxo Bank and its race leader, Alberto Contador (who would go on to win that Giro in dominant fashion, only to be DQ’d retroactively when the clenbuterol doping ruling from the 2009 Tour was finally issued). What a funny joke that all was. The only good thing that came out of that? Well, Michele Scarponi, RIP, will forever be remembered as a Giro d’Italia winner.
Contador, along with two teammates, had reconned the feared Crostis and he was not at all a fan of the possibilities this stage presented. He quipped that it was a brutal climb better suited for hikers and barbecues at the top. He and his teammates would get more than an earful the next day on the roads of Friuli, as team boss Bjarne Riis, Contador and the support riders were somehow turned into the archvillains of the day and became the focal point of the ire of the disappointed, furious tifosi.
Just a year before he would take center stage as the Giro director, Acquarone responded to the UCI’s late change: “For us, there are always the fans at the center. This shows a lack of respect towards them. We have had many messages of protest. In times of emergency, like in Livorno [where the stage was neutralized to honor Weylandt], the fans understood, but not here. We worked hard for the safety of the Crostis for a year. The teams had known since October that the team cars could not pass. There is bad faith on the part of someone here. In this story, we are the injured party.”
Of course, today, more than ever, rider safety is at the head of discussions on a nearly daily basis, and rightly so. The issue of the Crostis was more nuanced than that though and one that Lampre team manager, Roberto Damiani, addressed by saying: “We have done more dangerous descents…. The Crostis could be done in complete safety.”
In the mind of this writer, it’s hard to see this as anything but an absolute failure of expectation management (a cornerstone of my happiness in life). Apart from weather changes or horrific accidents like that of Wouter Weylandt’s, if the Crostis was deemed too dangerous, then what took so long? It should have been axed months before, or at least days—certainly not 12 hours before the start. There were fans camped out on the climb. The Italian Army’s specialist mountain infantry, the alpini (most easily recognized by their gray felt caps and black raven feather) were set up all along the climb to form the characteristic blue chain they make on the upper reaches of the Zoncolan. Then there were the hundreds of hours of work performed by locals in making that section of the race as safe as possible—then, poof, gone in an instant. The stage was set to run…and then it evaporated. It’s no wonder there was so much anger that followed.
It was an unenviable situation, and I am by no means advocating for dangerous racing conditions, but this was a disaster. Mountains by their very nature are dangerous—when is the “danger” line crossed? Descending on a wide, easy descent can be dangerous, let alone narrow, twisting, poorly paved high-mountain descents (I’m looking at you, Gavia). Where does one draw the line? I will never know, and I am happy I will never have to decide that.
It does appear that the Crostis was a bridge too far, because it didn’t make the cut in 2011 and it hasn’t appeared in the 10 years since.
There was one good thing about the 2011 Crostis debacle: it informed the wider world about this amazing climb that might be too dangerous to race on but was clearly there for the everyday rider’s enjoyment: waiting, hiding in plain sight.
Ashley and I kind of nudged our way into the world of cycling journalism by way of previewing important, beautiful grand tour stages. And the stage-preview genre fits with four of my favorite things: exploring, riding bikes, taking pictures and bike racing. Because grand tour life is so tough and, for us at least, nearly untenable, we’ve resolved to shoot the entire Tour de France (because…well…obviously) but decided that shooting approximately half of the Giro allows us a better quality of life, helps us avoid grand tour burnout (a real danger for us) and gives us a chance to do the thing that got us into this: previewing special stages.
So, we went to the Friuli region a few days before the race arrived and had a look at the Zoncolan. For at least half a dozen reasons, we drove up it. I had ridden it once, but Ashley had zero interest in waging a 30-rpm battle with the Zoncolan—and it was snowing that day. Looking back with the benefit of time and age-bolstered wisdom, I think we made an excellent decision. We looked around, gawked at the gradient, remembered that visually it is a wholly unremarkable climb (until the top) and just enjoyed the peace and quiet of the gently falling spring snow and the very near peaks as they disappeared in the rolling gray clouds, only to reappear moments later with a glint of sunlight, the sly promise of warmth, and once again followed by a whipping wind, swirling snow and gray all around.
Even in that moment though, my eyes were drawn to the Crostis—just right over there. It feels like you can almost reach out and touch it, like those silly shots of people “touching” the top of the Eiffel Tower. Silly, but I still kind of love them. The proximity of the two climbs cannot be exaggerated: You can see Monte Crostis from the top of Monte Zoncolan. It’s only 7 kilometers (as the drone flies) from the top of the Zoncolan to the top of the Crostis.
The next day, we rode the Crostis.
The thing about the Crostis is that it’s a joy to ride. Sure, it’s steep as hell, it requires a major commitment to get to the top, but it’s beautiful—all the way from the deep valley, up through a couple of small villages and a forest, to where you emerge into the wide open on a tiny road that twists and wriggles its way up the shoulder of the mountain. It’s glorious. It’s the kind of climb we should dream of. It’s everything the Zoncolan is not. It’s beautiful.
Of course, it was May, so when we got to the upper mostly flat section, the Panoramica delle Vette, there was snow everywhere; and so the hiking began. Like all snowy hikes in the high mountains in late spring, it started out with some laughs, but when the end of the sea of white was not visible the laughs were followed by furrowed brows and the very real question: Is this a bad idea? I thought it was. Ashley thought that it wasn’t. I prefer Ashley’s confidence and sense of adventure in these moments to mine, so we carried on—and eventually post-holed our way through half a dozen snowfields and managed to finish the loop that the Crostis road makes.
Here’s the thing that still leaves me scratching my head though: Yes, the climbing is slightly more difficult from the west, but it makes the dirt part over the top a lot faster and certainly more dangerous. If you climb the Crostis from the east side though, it turns the dirt portion into a section that’s either flat or lightly uphill, which keeps the speed down, safety up, flat danger low and makes the entire descent paved.
Did anyone think about pitching that idea to the teams? Asking for a friend.
If anything, maybe it was a gift that the Zoncolan has been allowed to reign over Friuli as the unquestioned legendary climb. It can be Friuli’s Alpe d’Huez—and Monte Crostis can be that little balcony road climb on the opposite side of the valley from the Alpe that climbs to Villard-Notre-Dame. Climbs like Alpe d’Huez and Monte Zoncolan look better from afar; and they are certainly better appreciated while riding a far better climb.
What I’m trying to say is: If you ever get the chance (and, yes, you should ride those outrageously pretty climbs in the Dolomites, like the Sella, Pordoi, Gardena, Erbe, Giau and Valparola), but don’t be afraid to push a little farther east to Friuli and search out the unknown climbs of a region slightly apart but every bit the match of its more famous neighbor. You might leave the halls of jaw-dropping majesty, but you’ll be in the antechamber to it—and you will achieve utter peace and tranquility on these tiny, steep, wild roads tucked in tight between the borders of Austria, Slovenia and Italy.
Let’s play the stats game for a second to show how a seemingly lesser climb can somehow rival the mighty Zoncolan. First off, the west side of the Zoncolan: 12.2 percent over 9.9 kilometers with a total elevation gain of 1,204 meters (almost 4,000 feet). It’s a beast. That doesn’t quite tell the story though because there’s a 5K stretch in the middle at an average gradient of 15.4 percent (with 1K at 17.2 percent) that will make anyone question why they ride bikes. It’s also not pretty. The Zoncolan is the Zwift of steep climbs. It’s there, it’s monotonous, it has zero views until the tippy top. So, it’s a struggle for the sake of a struggle. It’s also perfect for a bike race, especially considering the giant natural amphitheater at the top that was seemingly designed to hold thousands of spectators.
Next up, Monte Crostis: 9.8 percent average for 14.5 kilometers with a total elevation gain of 1,430 meters (4,603 feet). It’s enormous. It doesn’t have anything quite as astonishing in the percentage game as the Zoncolan, with an average gradient of 11.5 percent over its steepest 5K, but it does have a full 10.4 kilometers of double-digit climbing.
Funny story. One time, I did a ride with a friend. We rode up the Zoncolan, descended to Ovaro, crossed over the valley, then climbed the Crostis. It was 38 kilometers long and 2,800 meters (more than 9,000 feet) of climbing! Perhaps, one day, the Giro riders will do it, too….