The picture in the race book introducing the information for today’s 15th stage from Mestre to the Monte Zoncolan, shows the mountain covered in snow.
Luckily for the riders, the crowd on the course and those watching at home, the black clouds stayed just far enough away so that the only thing covering the mountain side this afternoon was thousands of people.
This is where we ended up. Lets have a look back at how we got there.
From Canals To Climbs
Today’s stage started in Mestre, which for anyone who has ever travelled to the islands of Venice, is likley remembered as either the awful railway station just before you leave the mainland or the place your plane lands when you are heading to the romantic lagoon city.
The area around Mestre and the city itself, actually has a lot more to offer than the (now improved but still close to) worlds worst autrostrada traffic system. Coming in from the north to find the start of today’s stage, there were villas and mansions that made my hotel from last night, seem like the run down gate house.
My original hotel was overbooked so they asked if I would mind staying here.
The Mestre I know best is the area around the train station and like most european cities, that is neither pleasant nor representative of what a city has to offer.
The host of today’s depart is actually crisse – crossed with bike lanes and is a very cycle friendly place. Unfortunately for me, the organisers had only done very limited signage for the parking and a Slovenian colleague and I spend a good 20minutes exploring the back streets for a magical turn off that we hasd been directed to twice. In the end, the man with the flag took pity on us and waved us in the wrong end of the departure area and let us both make the necessary U-turns.
The locals had no trouble finding the place.
Smaller Is Better
The Monte Zoncolan might be short in comparison to some of the climbs of the Alps or Dolomites but with an average gradient of 12% and a maximum percentage of 22%, it’s no walk in the park. Add to those stats the 210km covered beforehand and three categorised climbs -the 1st cat Sella Chianzutan, the Passo Duron and the Sella Valcalda – and you have the makings of the toughest stage of the Giro d’Italia so far.
Anyone with serious designs on this trophy, will need to get through today’s stage unscathed first.
In 2007 when Gilberto Simoni won the last ascent of the Zoncolan, compact cranksets were just starting to make their presence felt in the world of professional cycling. This time around, all of the companies have compacts in their top end ranges, so riders have no need to drop down to a lower level – and sometimes heavier – group set to access technology originally devised for cyclo tourists.
Stefano Garzelli was taking no chances that bike problems would see him over geared today. The Italian’s squad also had his spare bike fitted with a Shimano Dura Ace compact crank-set with a 38tooth inside ring.
We spoke to Stage 9 winner Matt Goss, whose HTC Columbia squad are also on Dura Ace and he told us his ‘get out of jail’ gear for today would be a 34 ring at the front and 28 cog at the rear. Goss was not exactly looking forward to the stage as he has been unwell for two days and yesterday’s trip over Monte Grappa really took it out of him.
Goss said the last week of the giro would be just one of survival for him. He was looking forward to the rest day tomorrow, but not to the training ride that would need to include some efforts, to stop the legs seizing ahead of Tuesday’s time trial.
Tuesday will be a tough day on the bike for the sprinters as they have to go full gas on the climb just to stay inside the race’s time cut. Goss estimated he could back off about 10% from his maximum to get up the Kronplatz and stay inside the time limit, but admitted that it was still really going to hurt.
After signing on, the last job for the Australian sprinter was to lather on the sun cream for what would be a long, six and a half plus hours in the saddle.
SRAM’s European Pro Team liaison, Jason Phillips was also at the start and while he said all of their teams would be using compact chainsets today, Tuesday’s time trial would see some new equipment being rolled out.
When Alberto Contador last won the giro in 2008, his mechanics made some changes to his rear derailleur to accommodate the use of larger than normal rear sprockets. SRAM took this information from the Astana mechanics and have applied it for their new Apex group.
The group will sit below rival in the company’s line up, but Phillips said that all of the parts were designed to be interchangeable with the Red groupsets. By using the Apex derailleur and cassette, riders will be able to start the TT on Tuesday with 34/28 as their lowest gear. The parts Phillips has brought with him for the race are pre-production pieces, however the production sets are also now ready to roll.
White jersey holder Porte, seen here with Matt Lloyd, and Astana’s Vinokourov are both riding SRAM’s compact offering today.
The move by SRAM to a 10speed mountain bike group will also give the company even more potential for cross over between the two branches of the sport.
The fans lining the route were waiting patiently with their race-sponsor freebies, but unlike these two, there was no hanging around for me.
Rebecca and Mattia, both 5 came down from Trentino to see the start of the Giro’s 15th stage.
The climb of the Zoncolan was to be closed to traffic at 3pm today and even though the organisers had recommeded that the press use the back way up the hill, I decided that taking the diversion route today would be the best bet.
Most stages offer a suggested route that takes you from the start to the finish without having to drive the whole route, so it was the fast road (apart from the obligatory 30min traffic jam after Mestre), up past Udine and into Carnia to take the back door onto the Zoncolan.
The press centre is about three kilometres from the finish of the stage and all of those 3000m are uphill. Luckily the organisers had given us free access to the ski lift, so after dumping the car, it was up up and away to the top of the climb.
The slopes of the Zoncolan provide an incredible natural amphitheatre and more than 2hours before the riders were due to arrive, the hill was filling fast.
The view from the top looking down.
There were an incredible number of people in bike kit who had ridden either the route the riders would take or the back way I took, up onto the mountain. I couldn’t help thinking: a) how much fitter and tougher than me they all were, and b) what an absolute dog show it was going to be trying to get off this hill tonight.
I have never ridden the Zoncolan, despite living relatively close, I decided a walk down the final switchbacks was in order to get a feel for just how steep the climb is.
The Alpini – or the soldiers of the Alpine Regiment – were again out lining the course for the un-barricaded part of the final 500m. The images of them with arms linked, holding back the crowds was one that stood out for many people the last time the Giro came up into the area where these troops made their name in the freezing winters of the first World War.
Turns out this wouldn’t be the only Liquigas rider going solo into the final 1000m today.
Between 1km and 500m to go, there are three narrow tunnels that have to be negotiated. They are all dead straight and well light, but all three are also slippery and water logged and about 10degrees colder than the outside air temperature.
The entrance to the final of the three tunnels is quiet and almost completely devoid of people. It’s hard to believe that on the other side of this section of the mountain…
The riders will emerge out into their first view of this…
Up in the top right hand corner is the pink banner marking the finish.
The walk was a challnege in both directions and it was quite amazing to see just how quickly the road rises up and just how steep the slopes are. The road itself is very narrow and with the barriers on the upper parts in position, there is just enough space for four people to stand shoulder to shoulder and not be touching. You can see why the team cars don’t come up here.
Just before the final bend there is a pair of giant TV screens and just behind them, there is a barbecue in full swing. Anywhere else in the world, they would be charging the equivalent of 10euros for a sausage, what with the captive audience who have no choice to pay whatever prices they are asked to, but here, there is still some respect for the public who have come to see a bike ride and would like to eat without mortgaging their house. Some sporting events where you pay to go an watch might do well to follow the example.
Those who were riding up the hill were kicked off the course just in front of the BBQ. I guess there are worse places to stop.
Finding a spot on the barriers was a “get here this morning” job, so I headed up to the very top of the hill where I could sit and make a start on the words for today’s piece, watch some of the race on the giant TV screen and soak up some of the atmosphere. Taking a leaf out of Ed’s book, I whipped out the phone and started typing up my thoughts from the start.
The Pez made a call as the riders hit the bottom of the climb and between the noise he was contending with in the bar where he was watching, and the distance I was from the screens, between the two of us over the phone, we were able to cobble together a pretty good understanding of what was happening in the race.
One of the incredible things for me that really brought home how steep this climb was, is the fact that there was no sign of the helicopter that was bringing the overhead footage of Basso’s attack. There was a small hill directly in front of us (the one the tunnels pass through) and it wasn’t until the riders hit 2000m to go, that the helicopter popped up over the hill, but still well below where we were standing.
I thought the noise was incredible from the crowd when Basso attacked and we were all watching the giant screens, but when he emerged for the first time into view, the whole mountain side erupted with noise. Not only that, everyone jumped to their feet and straight away blocked the line of sight for the photo spots that the camera wielding group I was part of had planned out.
Evans came though next and he actually looked to be going faster than Basso through the same sections. There’s something about the world champions jersey that commands respect and the huge crowd cheered the former Maglia Rosa wearer home (past the barbecue and the guy standing on it) to where his wife was waiting for him at the finish.
Arroyo came through with Gadret and again a huge cheer went up for the leader of the race. The helicopter was circling overhead at this point bringing those great panoramic shots of over the mountain and back around, and the noise at the top was incredible.
I had decided not to wait up the top for the sprinters to arrive as there was plenty still to be done back at the press centre and then the long drive back home for a night away from the hotels. Before I made my escape, however, the white jersey popped out of the tunnel and so I stayed to take a few frames of Porte as he successfully defended his second place in the overall and maintained his lead in the white jersey competition.
Note the SaxoBank mechanic on the motorbike. The organisers provided rides for a single team helper to follow the key riders on the climb.
And that was all there was time for on the Zoncolan.
The pathway back to the finish line was crowded as about half the people on the hill were thinking about making their escape too. The riders who had crossed the finish line were given a jacket or two and then they had to ride the three kilometres back down the hill to where the team cars and buses were waiting near the press centre.
No such quick trip down for me. I returned the way I came on foot and then jumped on board the chair lift for the plummeting trip back down to where I had left the car and my computer.
In this part of the world, the Monte Zoncolan is regarded by the locals as the toughest climb in cycling. Sure there are steeper and longer climbs out there, but thanks to the crowds that filled the top of the Zoncolan today in beautiful sunshine, I figure they have earned themselves the right, for today at least, to say this is The Best.