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16-06-2023 | Herman Nekkers

SuperGiroDolomiti, heaven and hell on the same day

Last weekend I was in Lienz, Austria, for the SuperGiroDolomiti, a gran fondo that has been on my wish list for some time. It's not just any gran fondo, because in addition to the 218 kilometers and 4800 meters of elevation, the route also includes Monte Zoncolan. The climb about which Damiano Cunego once said, "The Monte Zoncolan is not a hell, not a monster. It's much worse than that."

At the invitation of the Osttirol tourist office, I spend a few days in the Lienzer Dolomites, a magnificent cycling region. On Wednesday I arrive at hotel Dolomitenhof in Tristach. The accommodation turns out to be a dream. Everything is clean, the staff is friendly and the food is of extraordinary quality. Moreover, it is only three kilometers from the start. There are two races in the event: the Dolomiten Radrundfahrt (120 km) and the SuperGiroDolomiti (225 km), both with their own start time, route and name. I'm here for the long one, which includes the Monte Zoncolan. Those who participate shudder for it.

Thursday I spend with a course recon, a good plan as I encounter a number of surprises. A day later, I visit the beautiful Pustertal Höhenstrasse. This is a panorama road Austian style: good asphalt, beautiful views and tough climbs. Saturday is the day before the gran fondo. I spend it as it should be: collect my bib, prepare apparel and food, double check everything and of course clean my bike. My super light S-Works Aethos with 34*34 is the perfect gran fondo bike. It must be optimally prepared.

Race day

Sunday at 6:30 a.m. I am standing in the morning sun waiting for the start.

As soon as the starting gun sounds, the 355 participants turn onto the main road, which is completely closed to other traffic. The first 21 kilometers go en groupe at an easy 42 km/h. Then comes the first climb, the Gailbergsattel. Six kilometers of easy climbing. So does everyone else, as there is still plenty of chatter around me. The descent that follows is nice and fast and more than an hour after the starting signal I am already at the foot of the second climb: the Plöckenpass from the Austrian side. It's 11.5 kilometers in total. The first half is tough, but not too bad. For a while it descends before climbing again. The second part contains some tricky sections above 10% that are mostly through long tunnels. I shift some light gears and try not to worry about it for the most part. Not a minute goes by without the Zoncolan going through my mind. Save, save, save, is the motto.


Photo: Gailbergsattel

And also food, lots of food. The nutrition plan I came up with in advance amounts to a energy bar about every half hour. Just within two hours I reach the feed station at the pass and take a gel from the table there. It is already the fourth snack that goes in. I refill my water bottles with energy drink. I quickly descend the Plöckenpass towards Italy. The beginning is winding with a few tunnels. The officials stop all car traffic. At the bottom of the descent, the road is straight and wide, so speeds reach above 70 kph without too much trouble. Awesome!

The descending loners regroup and an Austrian warns me about the next climb to Ravascletto. The 4 kilometers to the village would constitute a mini-Zoncolan. Fortunately, it's a bit of an exaggeration, but the calves are definitely getting a hard time. I let the group go and choose my own pace. Don't force anything, the Zoncolan casts its shadow ahead.

Monte Zoncolan

The 10 kilometers from Ravascletto to Ovaro I do in a flash. Those in the know know: Ovaro is the foot of Monte Zoncolan. The most difficult climb in Italy and perhaps in Europe. The numbers don't lie: 9.9 kilometers long with an average of 12.2%. 5 kilometers of 15.2%, of which the most difficult kilometer is 17.2%. Who ever figured out that this climb is rideable on a bicycle belongs in jail. But the pros do it, so amateur cyclists should too. If only once in a lifetime. And that moment has now arrived for me. Fortunately the clouds have increased, at about 20 degrees the conditions are ideal.

The first two kilometers from Ovaro to Liaris are tough at times, but doable. Then it turns right, another few hundred meters is flat and then the misery begins. The next six kilometers will be survival. I have done my homework and know that the first kilometer is the worst, but also realize how relative that is. Last year I rode a similar climb, the Kitzbüheler Horn. Then I was stubborn enough to want to ride straight ahead, resulting in a solid cramp attack. Now I know better and immediately start drifting left to right to keep the percentages down. Just like everyone around me.


Photo: the first meters of the Zoncolan.

I consider myself lucky to have my Aethos, it doesn't get any lighter. Every few hectometers there is a sign with an ex-Giro winner and the distance ridden. I pass Merckx, Moser, Hinault, Indurain and Pantani, among others. The turns are flat, here I can catch my breath and take a sip of drink or a gel gel. I must and will ride to the top. Others stop in the turns and then ride on. It makes little difference, everyone is going equally slow. Briefly the steep section flattens out, the speed rises to a staggering 10 km/h. Unfortunately it is short-lived.

In the end, the toughest six kilometers take me over an hour. The last kilometers to the top can be summarized as follows: false flat, a nasty kicker, three damp tunnels and 500 meters of climbing at 14%. It should not spoil the fun. Song 2 by Blur blares through the speakers, amplified by a young drummer. I got to the top and made it, in a gran fondo! 97 kilometers are behind me, only 120 to go.


Photo: drifting from left to right.

Plöckenpass

At the summit I make some photo and video recordings, after all, I am here as a journalist. The descent of the Zoncolan falls into two parts: the first four kilometers are as steep as the climb, with some tricky hairpin turns. Descents are very gentle. Then comes a large road where the brakes can be let loose and the speed goes up to 70km/h. Before I realize, I am back in Paluzza where the Italian side of the Plöckenpass starts. It is a long, soft climb: 17 kilometers, 6% in average. The nutrition plan has done its job, because I notice that I still have strength and actually pass some riders. About five kilometers below the summit, an endless line of cars forms. I wonder what is going on and realize that the pass is just closed for the gran fondo. How cool is that? Applause sounds. A little boy runs with me. "Go go go," it sounds. I really feel like a pro with all that crowd and the free lane.


Photo: Plöckenpass

It has to be, because the descent on the other side is through the dark, steep tunnels where I had to climb this morning. The road surface is moderate at times. I scouted the route a few days ago and I know the brakes can be released. It feels safe knowing there is no car traffic. In no time I am down again.

Kartitscher Sattel

The last task of the day is the Kartitscher Sattel. On the profile a lovely easy climb that you could take largely on the big ring. But I have explored it and know better. Up and down it goes, sometimes up to 12%. And for 41 kilometers, it is an exhausting beast climb that takes me 2h07. Fortunately the legs still feel good. Although I ride alone for the most part, I still regularly overtake riders.

From the top it is a 35 kilometer descent to the finish in Lienz. Again I know what's coming: 5 fast kilometers and then with a strong headwind through the Pustertal Valley. There is no one in sight to form a group. I decide to descend alone, hoping to get caught quickly. It is suffering and struggling. Not until 6 kilometers outside of Lienz do I hear, "Einsteigen!" Finally a group. There are eight of us, my speed increases immediately. With most of them the best is gone, and in the cozy city center of Lienz I become second of the group sprint.


Photo the finish

Conclusion

My time is 9:50:34. Somewhere in the middle of the 50+ category. Saving all day for the Zoncolan made it far from the most exhausting gran fondo I've ever ridden. The weather also played a big part. Semi-overcast and temperatures between 20 and 25 is just ideal. Sometimes you have to get lucky.

It's definitely one I'm proud of. The SuperGiroDolomiti is just a 5-star gran fondo with a great organization and stunning course. It deserves more participants. Something for next year? Just put June 9, 2024 in your calendar.

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