All Hope on the Zoncolan

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Approaching the ascent of Mount Zoncolan, above the town of Ovaro, a banner hangs from the timbers of a village house, reading: “The ascent of Zoncolan is a spiritual journey.” A little further up, another banner advises: “He who wants to climb Zoncolan must give up all hope.”

Indeed, bicycling the legendary climb, half-way up, you nearly do give up hope. Not only is the former Great War military road gruellingly steep, approaching grades of twenty-five percent, but it’s sadistically relentless, allowing for only modest stretches of recovery … if recovery is what you call forty yards of ten percent, before the road pitches upwards again.

As you ride you can’t look up from your burning legs, from the asphalt blurred with the painted slogans of last spring’s Giro d’Italia, from your tires swishing rhythmically as you make s-turns within the black ribbon, because the next turnante, the next switchback, leads not to any easing of grade or suffering, but only to more, more, and more of what surely must be a spiritual journey, because otherwise, what is the point of this madness?

Onwards you tremble, strain and pant curses, unable to appreciate the mountains sifting from morning clouds. A road of less intensity might induce prayer, but this path drives one to curse one’s maker. Surely, you think, the grade must relax around the next bend, but — you want to cry into your handlebars — it increases. A sinister ramp leading to what must be heaven because this is hell: a self-induced perdition of 1,230 metres of elevation over ten kilometres, to reach the pass at 1750 m.

But what do numbers mean now? Lungs bursting, delirious, eyes stinging with sweat, you’ve lost track of time and distance. You doubt where you are, if you even exist, except as a trudging soul, an elevated beast, striving upwards through the pines and mist, crossing streams that slick the road, until you approach an old man standing on the shoulder, staring at you in gruff incredulity as your noses nearly touch.

You stop, click free from your pedals before tipping over. “Come alto siamo?” you pant. “How high are we?”

“Mille, ottanta,” he says, his hard face relaxing.

Dizzy, you attempt the math: 1,080 metres, so you’ve climbed a mere five-hundred metres, not even half the ascent. Another 700 metres of anguish await.

“Sei forte,” the man says, pushing up his lips in approval. He stares at you with a peasant’s frankness. Dressed in soiled khaki work clothes held in place by a wide leather belt, he looks stout, weathered, like a man who’s been out hunting truffles since early morning.

“Forte,” you manage, “force.”

Strong, maybe.

“Vuoi una birra?” he offers.

A beer? Did you hear him right? Is this some cruel test? Of course you want a beer. Che cazzo yes, you want a beer.

“Si,” you say before you can stop yourself. He motions you to follow him. And as you lay the old Fuji in the grass and hobble along a stoney path, you wonder, is this man a saint, or a devil tempting you from your pilgrimage?

Overlooking a hillside pasture, his hut is a timbered cow stall which he’s converted into a summer retreat. Neatly arranged in the tiny single room are a wood stove, table and chair, a shelf of books, and a mini refrigerator. He opens a bottle of ginger beer and politely pours you a glass. You sip the delicious elixir, touch the plaster wall for balance. As he pours a glass for himself he tells you his name, Luca. He’s a retired mechanic, has no family, and spends half the year up here hunting deer, splitting firewood, and distracting himself on Sundays by watching the matta ciclisti, the crazy cyclists, come up the road.

Feeling the beer, the languor of the idyllic setting, you’re tempted to sit outside in the weak morning sun. But a twinge of panic sets you straight.

“Bon,” you say, finishing the glass. “Grazie.”

You shake hands and go out.

“Buon passagiato,” he waves from the door.

As you slowly begin riding again, you can’t help feeling you’ve just survived a trap of temptation, a test of true endurance, set by the spirits of the mountain. Coppi was rumored to have made a deal with the devil. Perhaps it was over a glass of ginger beer. But don’t fool yourself, you mutter, there are more severe tests to come.

One of them being the bicycle you’re riding. Loaned by a friend in the Veneto, the steel-framed 90’s classic is geared for the flatlands: standard rings (52 / 39) and a six gear (12 / 24) cog in the back. For most of the way it’s simply impossible for you to ride directly. Out of the saddle, s-turning between the slim shoulders, you’ve learnt a swishing mantra: two strokes, then a swinging lean into the next turn; two strokes, then, inches from the mossy bank, avoiding pine cones and loose stones, a swinging lean into another. Panting, mumbling, your heart banging louder than the abominations spitting from your mouth; the burning in your legs surpassed only by a fear of having to start again after a rest, you climb through the pine and chestnut forest, accompanied by past heroes of the Giro. Gazing from commemorative placards set at the big turns are the contorted faces of Merckx, Pantani, Anquetil, Indurain, and finally Coppi, gaunt and serene as a saint.

Three riders overtake you, spinning in their saddles, riding directly, breathing into their chests. A furtive wave from the last, but nothing more is offered. All know what the other is going through. We’re not racing, we’re journeying up this right of passage. There is no first to the top. In fact, there is no top, only this endless switchbacking into the clouds, this pendulum of suffering which, if we’re lucky, swings us closer to the heavens.

Twice, three times, you stop to calm your dizzy head, your gasping body. You lift your water bottle and take more than you ordinarily would because it’s impossible to drink while riding. Partly recovered, you back your bike up the embankment, set one foot, then push off for an instant of momentum that allows you to set the other foot before the bike can stall. Then you crank with everything you have.

The sun peeks from slate-grey clouds, the road eases for a short stretch above a cliff face and suddenly there’s a view of the valley below: a clutter of rooftops that could be pebbles, the town of Ovaro on the river and the forested mountains of the other side. You can’t believe you’re this high, and for the first time, remembering from the contour map how the steepest parts were below this overlook, you feel a sliver of hope. The cranks spin a little easier; the chants of encouragement painted on the road are directed at you: Vai, Vai Campione di Zoncolan! Is it possible you might do this after all?

And there ahead are the famous tunnels. You feel a boost of strength. Your hard breathing has synchronized the torment in your body; the bicicleta seems to lighten, like a mule that has gotten off its haunches. Only another hundred metres to gain, but you don’t allow yourself the hazard of satisfaction.

Instead, entering the dark gun-barrel tunnels, chasing the light reflecting off their puddles, you realize the devil isn’t in this masochistic road, in this looming mountain, or in a paisano delaying your mission with a beer. The devil is inside your cranking heart, and he won’t be freed until you leave those dripping tunnels and make the last ramping turn into the amphitheater of the summit. And even then he won’t be freed, so long as there is another turnante in the road, another pass to gain, another glass to be emptied, another hope to lose.

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