Wednesday Journal cycling columnist Jack Crowe recently traversed the Italian Alps. Crowe endured steep grades, a racing heart-rate, pouring rain, and treacherous cliffs on his way up Monte Zoncolan. This is the final part of a two-part series. If you missed Part 1, you can read it at

To visualize the road on Monte Zoncolan, imagine that you are driving up a steep ramp in a parking garage downtown Chicago. Now imagine that these ramps continue straight up for six miles.

Climbing a seven percent grade in Colorado, a cyclist can hunker down, and find a comfortable pace of 6 or 7 mph and keep going for hours. The 14-percent grade on Zoncolan? My bike went so slow that it was hard to keep it upright. I was riding full out and going no faster than someone walking on level ground.

My bike odometer dropped to 4 mph, then 3.8, and then 3.6. My heart-rate monitor spiked into the red zone, which for me is over 170 beats per minute. I gasped for air and the muscles in my thighs felt like they were tearing.

I started using the technique known to weak climbers everywhere when riding a difficult climb. I started zigzagging back and forth across the road to cut the pitch of the ascent.

With my heart and head pounding and my lungs heaving, I stopped the bike to let my heart-rate return from the stratosphere to something closer to 120 beats per minute.

I got back on my bike after a short stop. One challenge in riding a steep road is figuring out how to start pedaling the bike uphill once you have come to a dead stop. On Zoncolan, I found that only by pointing the bike slightly downhill-going the wrong direction-could I get up enough speed to start pedaling uphill again.

I would zigzag, pedal and watch my heart rate monitor return to the red zone. Then I would stop and rest before continuing. After three or four episodes of this, I looked up to see a road sign. It read “22 percent” and contained a drawing of a steeply pitched road.

How do you ride up a 22-percent grade when you have been unable to ride up a 14-percent grade? I tried standing on the pedals when the muscles in my thighs felt like exploding. I tried thinking of the top, willing myself there. I tried not thinking.

I tried reading the messages fans had painted on the road encouraging their favorite Giro cyclists. “Va Cunego. Va Simone.” No one encouraged me.

Once I read a well-timed reminder on a particularly steep patch of road: “respira”-“breath.” There were pronouncements on the current state of professional cycling: “piu vino, meno drugga”-“more wine, less drugs.”

But the top of this mountain was still a long way off. I pedaled and stopped, let my heart rate fall to a reasonable rate and then continued.

This was not cycling. This was not climbing. How stupid was I to think that I could ride a bike up this mountain?

Weather factors in

Every 1,000 meters, on the side of the road, there were large signs noting the elevation in meters along with photos of the Giro’s cycling legends and descriptions of their feats. When I passed cycling great Eddie Merckx, it started to rain. No, it started to pour.

In the Alps, the rain can come up quickly over the mountain, and in no time I was soaked to the skin. But at least the water cooled my overheated body. The road became a rushing stream going the opposite direction.

I thought seriously of turning back down the mountain, but descending would have been suicide with three inches of water on the road. At least until the rain stopped, I had to keep climbing.

Pedal, zigzag, stand, pedal, stop, let the heart drop. Pedal, zigzag, stand … By the time the rain started to slow, I noticed that I had finished the Gatorade in my bottle. This meant that dehydration was now in my future and my thinking was becoming fuzzy.

As I climbed higher, the forest on either side of the road was replaced by steep cliffs on one side. There were no railings, and I tried not to look down, unsure that I could control the bike if I veered too close to the edge.

The ride was taking a long time-too long. I even started to walk in my cumbersome cycling shoes during my rest breaks. Do you know how humiliating it is for a cyclist to be seen walking a bike uphill? I should have brought along those hiking boots that Ettore recommended.

Higher up, I passed signposts with photos of Italy’s most legendary cyclists. Passing photos of these legends meant that I had to be nearing the top.

King of the hill

Finally, I road above the tree line, and just when I thought I could go no further, I approached three dark mountain tunnels, damp and cold. The pitch of the road, for the first time, started to moderate. My chest stopped heaving. I could breathe the cold wet air of the tunnels. I could pedal 6
or 7 mph.

I must be close.

Out of the tunnels, an unscrupulous cow had left piles of slick wet cow pads for me to dodge in the middle of the road, no easy feat for my addled mind.

Then I rode up several sharp steep switchbacks, and I was there.

When I reached the top of Zoncolan, I was beyond my limit. My face was crusted with salt from the sweat. For a second I flushed with emotion. I sat down. I did not care about the unobstructed view of the high Alps or the cycling statue placed at the top by the Giro d’Italia. I was not joyous or triumphant. I was, however, on top of Zoncolan.

I asked a man in a car who had driven to the top if he had any water. He had none. I took a few pictures of the mountain top and collected myself for the descent.

But how do you descend down a road this steep?

Burning rubber, literally

In descending a mountain, a cyclist cannot ride the brakes. To do so can cause the metal wheels of the bike to heat up and the rubber tubes to blowout. But there was no way to reduce my speed enough to avoid going off this mountain road and down a ravine without riding the brakes.

After my first attempt at descending, I stopped the bike to check my wheel rims. They were red hot, and I had to let them cool for several minutes. I remounted and began to descend again down the steep switchbacks. A few hundred feet later, I stopped again and the rims were too hot to touch.

I started walking downhill. Every five minutes I would remount the bike and descend for a bit before stopping again to let the tires cool.

As I was walking, I passed two men hunting for mushrooms. I asked for water. One man brought me to a nearby waterfall where I could refill my water bottle. I drank down a bottle of cold mountain water.

When I was half way down the mountain, a car appeared climbing up the road. It was Ettore, a sight for sore eyes. He pulled over in front of a sign with a photograph of Charly Gaul, who had won the Giro in the ’50s by attacking his rivals during a snow storm in the Alps.

Ettore had been worried that it was taking me too long and he had come up the mountain for a look. He put a rock behind his rear wheel to keep the car from rolling backwards.

He made me put on a dry shirt and jacket. Then he brought out a cold bottle of Proseco-Italian champagne-from a cooler. I drank greedily. We toasted to Zoncolan. He asked me how it was, and I told him “impossibile, totalmente impossibile.”

After cheese and panini, we drove down Zoncolan back to Ovaro and from there returned by car to his house.

I had never felt so physically spent as I did on Zoncolan, and I feel embarrassed to say that I could not climb straight up the mountain without stopping. But, curiously, I also have never felt such a sense of exhilaration as I did drinking that Proseco next to the picture of Charly Gaul.

Perhaps next year, I will try Zoncolan again.

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