It has become a tradition for me to celebrate my birthday by climbing the scenic Stelvio Pass, in the Italian Alps. It is something that I look forward to, plan, and train for each summer, and I love it! I genuinely look forward to the drive, to being in Italy, to being in the Alps, and then to pitting myself against this crazy mountain pass.
Part of planning for the climb is monitoring the weather conditions on various sections of the Pass. We have been really lucky each time we have ridden the Pass, and have been blessed with sunny weather. Although, for the last 2 years, we did have to deal with some intense heat.
Varying weather conditions on the Pass call for different types of gear and clothing, so it is super important to know in advance, what the conditions will be.
For our ride this year, Alvis started monitoring the weather websites about 10 days prior to our ride. And the news was a little bleak. At first, it appeared to be full on snowing at the summit. Yikes! Upon further investigation, we learned that the actual summit of the Stelvio is at a higher elevation than the summit of our ride. Ok – cool. We started monitoring the conditions at the summit of our ride and it was miserable. Heavy rains and thundershowers at the summit, heavy rains along the mid-section, and rain at the bottom. Eeekk! Mountain weather is notorious for changing rapidly, so three days out, we were checking the conditions almost hourly.
While Alvis was glued to the Stelvio weather site, I was starting to research an alternative mountain to climb.
After posting our on-going dilemma on facebook, a friend recommended that we give Monte Zoncolan a try. Hmmmmm…..
I Googled it, Google Mapped it, and Google Map Directioned it….and thought – Perfect! Monte Zoncolan is located a short 2.5 hour drive away, in my fave country of Italy, is only a 10.2 km climb, the weather conditions look good on our chosen day, and I found a reasonably priced hotel near the base of the ride. After one more check of the rainy Stelvio situation, we pivoted fast and made all of the appropriate arrangements to change our plans. And I was happy. While I was already missing my annual Stelvio climb, I was thrilled about the alternative.
Along with the recommendation to try Monte Zoncolan, my friend sent me this video, of a professional cyclist’s analysis of this climb. After changing all of our plans, I sat down to watch this:
Yikes! The words that the dude was using to describe his climb seemed severe! Relentless, a slow execution, ridiculous…….what! As I studied the video, I though to myself, well, how bad can it be? It is only 10.2 km or so….and didn’t think too much about it.
The day of our climb dawned warm and somewhat overcast. After a discussion with some other cyclists over breakfast, the consensus seemed to be that it was going to be a rain free day. Yay!
And with that, off we went! Below is a photo of Alvis exiting our hotel.
I find Italy to be infinitely charming, so as we wound our way to Ovaro, I kept stopping to take photos – like this:
After a pleasant few kilometers, we entered the village of Ovaro…
…and found our way to the starting point.
I was not sure if this was the exact starting point of the ride, but this cool sculpture felt like it.
As did this.
And so we did this.
The pitch felt like it had increased a tad, but it was still easy going and I was preoccupied with my beautiful surroundings like this:
In the village of Liariis, I ran into Alvis, who said, Enough with the photos. Let’s get going! Okey dokey, I said…
…but stopped to photograph this….
What’s with the signs???? My Italian lessons paid off, as I was able to understand their meaning…
…and it all became clear after I rounded a curve and came upon this. This photo does not do the incline any justice at all. The average pitch of Zoncolan is 11.8%, and that is what this is.
After a nod to Mr. Bottecchia, and a shout of good luck to Alvis, I though – Here I go!
Despite having ridden several kilometers already, I thought that maybe I had already warmed up. That turned out to be incorrect.
After a glance at Mr. Binda, I focussed back on trying to find a comfortable rhythm that would endure the whole climb.
A quick look back may give a nice visual of the pitch…
The grade was definitely challenging. To take my mind off of it, I started comparing the Stelvio climb to this one. One notable difference so far was the lack of traffic. It would remain to be seen if the traffic would increase later in the morning, but until now, the traffic on this Pass consisted of other cyclists, and various lumber hauling trucks as there seemed to be a lot of clear cutting going on.
The traffic on the Stelvio Pass can be epic, what with motorcycle groups zooming past you at top speed, Porsche and Ferrari groups zooming past you at top speed, double wide RV’s trying to navigate the hairpin turns, and massive tour buses zooming past you at top speed.
I have witnessed several accidents on the Stelvio, usually involving motorcyclists, and twice the tour buses.
Whatever traffic there was on Zoncolan, was polite traffic. The trucks (and some cars) would actually give way to us cyclists. Nice!
With a ‘Buongiorno’ to Mr. Bobet, I noted a second major difference – the views. There are spectacular views of not just the Stelvio but of surrounding mountain peaks most of the way up the Pass. Just drinking in the scenery is one way to keep your mind off the climb.
Here on Zoncolan, the road is narrow, and is lined with tall trees and a dense forest, which engendered a weird cocoon-like feeling in me.
Hey! How did they know it is my birthday???
As I mentioned, there was a lot of logging going on. Many of the logging crews would hang out along the roadside, smoking or drinking coffee, as I very slowly chugged past them. Their conversations would slow down and sometimes stop completely as I laboured to creep by. Often I would hear their words of encouragement like ‘Brava’ and ‘Vigore’, for which I was grateful.
I also heard voices in the nearby forest. As I rounded a curve, I watched as two men exited the forest along a worn footpath – and they were holding these woven baskets. As I was stopping to take a photo of the next sign with a cycling legend, they were keen to show me their find. Full baskets of mushrooms – yum!
Look at the size of that mushroom!
As the one guy took this photo, the other guy offered to make me a plate of tagliatelle ai porcini – later that day!
At this point, I was realizing how difficult this climb actually was. I was sweating profusely, and had to stop to eat an energy bar. And as this dude passed me at a pretty good clip, I knew I had to buckle down, and focus on this climb.
At this point, I was being passed frequently, by older dudes on road bikes. Maybe a bike club was on the pass, I don’t know, but they all seemed to be in their early 70’s, whippet-thin, with lean, sinewy muscles, decked out in the latest cycling outfits. And they were super nice, slowing down to chat with me, and giving me encouragement. One guy, an Aussie, asked what the heck was a Canadian like me doing here on this Hell Ride, when I could be cycling the Rockies back home. Good point, Dude! He told Alvis that I was happy and climbing well, when he passed him a few minutes later.
Amidst some honking and cursing, I turned around to witness a traffic jam on the narrow road.
At this point, I was starting to deflate a little. I was definitely tired, and I was struggling to maintain a positive mindset…
..when I rounded a curve and saw this!
I remembered the guy in the video saying that there are no views on the Zoncolan until you are nearing the top. And I was filled with hope!
I stopped here to eat another energy bar, and to let a large group of Austrian motorcyclists pass.
Now I was getting really excited! Not only were the views scenic to look at, but the pitch seemed to give a little.
And I had only 2 kms to go !
Yikes! The grade had decreased so much that I was able to switch up, out of my lowest gear, and I was cruising. What a feeling of elation!
I kept speeding up, in an effort to gobble up as many meters as possible, before the pitch increased again!
And just like that…..
…only one more kilometer to go!
Just before I entered the first tunnel, I was passed by an elderly couple on their shiny, red e-bikes.
While the tunnel may have been cold and damp, it was relatively flat, and all I kept thinking was how many less meters I have to climb.
Just entering Tunnel Three, with less than a kilometer to go, and I still could not see the actual summit of Zoncolan.
Exiting the tunnel, the grade increased , of course, back to its relentless pitch of some 12%.
I stopped to say Ciao to Mr. Simoni, because I felt like he looks!
Because, there, some 450 meters away, is the Summit.
One final difference of note between the Stelvio climb and the Zoncolan climb is the fact that there is a legit party going on on top of the Stelvio. There are T-shirt stands, there is a hotel with a restaurant, there are bratwurst stands selling delicious smelling German brats and beer, there is even music. The cyclists mill around and congratulate each other, and jostle in line to take a Summit Selfie at the official sign.
From what I could see, there were a few people standing around, among them Alvis. And they were all standing near the top of climb, watching the riders summit.
Of course, the last 100 meters or so, were steep, and I leaned forward over my handlebars to climb up to the top. As I slid past a few of the people, I heard a few quiet ‘Brava’. As I finally spotted Alvis, I grinned weakly at him, and gave him the Victory sign, to let him know that I was ok.
As I tooled around, Alvis ran up to me and said, ‘What the hell was that?’ And I said, ‘What the hell was that?’ And Alvis said, ‘Relentless’.
And that is exactly what the Zoncolan is. Relentless.
After a quick summit photo, and some nice discussions with the Austrian motorcyclists, we headed down on a super fast descent.
Less than 25 minutes later, we are back at the hotel. Happy Alvis!
Below are the values that correspond to the pitch of the climb of Monte Zoncolan:
0-4% = green
4-7% = blue
7-10% = yellow
0ver 10% = red
And here is a profile of the Stelvio climb.
I guess one final difference between the two climbs is that the Stelvio doesn’t have any red sections, while Zoncolan is nothing but red!
Feliz dia para todos!