Sunday, August 9, 2009

Part I: Andy Hampsten and the Gavia (and a few other Passes)

Guest writer Buzz Yancich is back with another wonderful story, this one about riding with Andy Hampsten. Part I:

Andy Hampsten and the Gavia (and a few other Passes)

Smiling Andy

After our whirlwind adventures with Eros Poli in Verona we were all excited about the main phase of our trip – the reason we had come to Italy in the first place - to ride Andy Hampsten’s Dolomite Summit Fest: seven days of the best of the Dolomites including the Stelvio, Gavia, Passo Duran, Selle Ring, Marmolada and a whole host of other climbs and passes.

The highlight of the trip would be to celebrate, by riding to the top of the Passo Gavia, the 20th Anniversary of Andy’s history making ride of the Gavia – a day which put him in the Maglia Rosa and led him to winning the 1988 Giro becoming the first, and so far, only American to win the Giro.

Hampsten is a fairly well known figure in Italy – once you get the pronunciation of his name right. During a taxi ride in Verona our driver asked us where we were headed. I explained that we had come to Italy to ride the Dolomites with Andy Hampsten. The driver gave me a blank stare and shrugged his shoulders. I said “You know, Andy Hampsten.” The driver indicated he didn’t know that name. At this point I was getting a little frustrated. I mean, give the USA homeboy a little love – the only American to win the Giro . I persisted, “Andy Hampsten…Giro d’Italia…Gavia...” The light then went on for the driver. “Ah, Gavia, you mean AHNDEE AMPASTEENAY! Grand Campionissimo”.

Hampsten’s Dolomiti Epic would be held in two parts: The first three days would be based out of Bormio, a northern Alpine town noted for its thermal spa waters favored by the ancient Romans giving us direct access to the Stelvio and Gavia and the last four days would be based out of Alleghe, a small ski town nestled on a beautiful lake ringed in all directions by the jagged spires and peaks of the Dolomites and ideal for accessing the nearby Selle Ring, Pordoi, Marlmolada and others.

It might surprise some to tell you that Andy Hampsten, the only American to ever win the Giro D’Italia, as well as a lengthy list of other International races, is a remarkably low key and approachable guy. He responds personally to e-mails and telephone calls and helped us with some great recommendations before the start of our trip – including hooking us up with Eros Poli.

We met Andy in Verona and the first impression is that he still looks like he is in race shape and it is obvious that he has a great deal of self discipline about keeping himself lean and fit.

After a brief “meeting” in Verona we loaded up for the four hour bus ride to the base of the Stelvio where we were scheduled to get on our bikes and tackle one of the great cycling climbs – some say the greatest, in the world.

When we emerged from the bus at the base of the Stelvio to start our Dolomiti Epic we were all surprised to see that Hampsten was wearing a brown polo shirt and khaki mountain bike shorts that stood in direct contrast to everyone else’s team kit. Whether Hampsten’s subdued choice in clothing was on purpose or not it set a relaxed tone that would be carried for the remainder of our trip. What he had in mind for us was not so much about racing up the sides of these mountains but taking time to enjoy the challenge of the terrain, the Italian roads, the scenery, the food culture, the local people and the overall Dolce Vita of riding a bicycle in Italy.

Andy’s advice: Keep pedaling and enjoy the view.

Our first two days would involve tackling the Stelvio. First up the famed 48 hairpins from Prato and the next day from Bormio on the day the road was closed to all motor traffic. Simply put, the Stelvio is a must do for anyone that loves to ride uphill. “Epic” was a word that got thrown around a lot by our group… everyday… about every climb. And truly, the Stelvio may be the most “epic” of them all.

My good friend and riding partner Andy Bowdle and I were trudging up the Stelvio (picture two rowers chained together in a Roman slave ship movie) awed by the scenery, the road and the sheer power of the climb when Hampsten rode past us shouting out a “hey guys – looking good there” while at the same time actually pushing a cyclist uphill in our group whose pedal had broken.

Obligatory Stelvio Photo

47 tornante later...

Now the fun begins – the descent to Bormio

Stelvio Bike Day- 5,000 cyclists and not a single car on the road

Our visit to Bormio was timed to coincide with the closing of the Stelvio to motor traffic for one day each year. All the local bike clubs turn out in force as well as cyclists from around Europe to enjoy a car free day. The climb up from Bormio is just as spectacular as the famed 48 hairpin turn ascent. It features 38 or so hairpins a couple of galleria – open window tunnels and endless views.

Stelvio Tunnel Galleria

The view back down towards Bormio

Each Tornante or hairpin turn gets its own special sign. We also appreciate how well each turn is marked with black and white chevrons indicating the approach of the turn.

Local cycling clubs had organized rest stops stocked with fruit pastries and other edible treats along with a variety of beverages including a restorative tea, honey and lemon drink we dubbed “Stelvio Tea.”

The top of the Stelvio on Bike Day

After two spectacular days of riding the Stelvio we soon settled into our routine: Healthy breakfast, the day’s ride, a mid day lunch on top of a mountain, the post ride shower, late afternoon exploring or nap, dinner, wine, wander around Bormio at night, a nightcap or two and then a deep sleep in the alpine night air.

Gavia Day

Gavia day arrived and the group was buzzing with anticipation. This was it. Quite a few members of the group showed up that morning wearing commemorative pink wool jersey’s to celebrate the day. Hampsten himself was kitted up with a pink jersey and was all smiles as he described the route for before leading us out.

The climb up from Bormio began with a long uphill pull through a valley along a cascading river and through some Alpine villages. Eventually, the climb itself began.

There are two ways to climb the Gavia, from the Bormio and from Ponte di Legno. In point of fact, the 1988 Giro ascended the Gavia from Ponte di Legno and descended to Bormio. Once at the top there was an option for us to descend to Ponte di Legno and turn around and climb back up retracing Hampsten’s race day. Of course, that meant climbing the Gavia twice in one day – a tall order after hitting the 9,000 foot Stelvio for two straight days.

The climb up the Gavia was beautiful. It is a road that in places a bit rougher than the Stelvio but also has far less vehicle traffic. In fact, we pretty much had the road to ourselves on the ascent.

Make no mistake, although the climb up from the Bormio side is considered “easier” there was nothing “easy” about it. It is a tough, long haul with some sustained steep sections but once again the scenery more than makes up for the effort of the climb.

Eventually we arrived at the top where Refugio Bonetta is conveniently stationed full of memorabilia from the times the Giro has passed including various photo montages featuring of Hampsten himself. (Another GREAT feature of riding in Italy is the seeming presence of a Refugio – a cafĂ© / restaurant / rest stop located that the top of every mountain pass we crossed)

Collection of memorabilia at Refugio Bonetta

Andy and his crew had a great lunch set up for us made up of local breads, meats, cheeses, chocolates and the like. They did this everyday for us. We picnicked right at the top of the pass in a little rest stop area. As if on cue a fog rolled in a bit to set the mood and as we gathered Andy set about telling us what led to the day in a snow blizzard during the middle of the Giro that changed his life. Anyone interested in all the details should go to for an excellent article written by cyclo journalist Bruce Hildenbrand. Lunch time/story time.

As we were soaking up the atmosphere standing at the top we were approached by an Italian cyclist wearing a local team kit. He was probably in his 50s. Several of us were riding bikes designed by Andy’s brother Steve bearing the Hampsten moniker. The Italian rider was drawn to the bikes that were leaning up against a fence and was inspecting them when we approached to say hello.

He asked us if the Hampsten bikes were related to Andy Hampsten and when we confirmed that they were he then launched into a story about his day on the Gavia 20 years earlier when he witnessed the race in person. I should tell you that this gentleman did not speak any English and we spoke even less Italian. He spoke very passionately in a blur of Italian, nonstop for five minutes about Hampsten and the Gavia. It didn’t matter that we didn’t understand the words because it we certainly understood his emotions. He was wrapping up his tale when he rubbed his bare arms, pointed at the road just yards away from us and said: “Hampsten freddo, freddo” which we knew meant “cold, cold,” Yes, the tifosi were really impressed by Hampsten’s ride that day – a day in which cycling and the Giro itself was honored by a skinny American racer from North Dakota.

Realizing that this man did not know the actual Andy Hampsten was standing about 15 feet away from us, my friend and I looked at him and said “Andy Hampsten?” The man, standing up straight as if he had been challenged stated very proudly said “Si, Andy Hampsten.”

We turned him around and pointed out the Campionissimo himself. The look on the Italian’s face was priceless as his jaw dropped and without missing a beat he left us and walked right over to Hampsten where Andy engaged him in conversation. (Hampsten speaks fluent Italian).

We thought to ourselves that guy sure was going to have a story to tell his cycling buddies when he got home and so would we!

Hampsten and friends – all smiles

After lunch a group of us descended to Ponte di Legno to retrace the climb Andy took to his place in cycling history. I wasn’t sure about how wise it would be to do this. After all we had ridden the Stelvio twice and descending the backside of the Gavia would mean turning around at the bottom and climbing another 6,000 feet in order to return to Bormio.

Stepping back in time and history. The old road raced by Hampsten in 1988 now bypassed by a tunnel. Imagine riding up that in a blizzard.

I’m glad I took up the challenge because the climb back up, retracing the actual route Hampsten rode that day, is a true cycling highlight. The climb is literally breathtaking in its beauty and challenge. The road, as wide as a sidewalk and in sections averaging a 16% grade, hugs the side of the mountain as it ascends.

The bottom of the climb where the road narrows to its’ sidewalk width is a brutal piece of work – like riding up a very steep driveway except it is kilometers long.

As I rode up the Gavia I couldn’t get over how Hampsten managed the climb. Keep in mind that in his day in 1988 the road was dirt from bottom to top and it was snowing and freezing.

I was surprised to learn that Hampsten had only returned to the Gavia a few times since his win in 1988. He told us that he had to dig really deep that day and went to places in his mind and body that he never hoped to experience again. I guess he left a bit of himself on the mountain that day. We sport fans are often unaware that the moments of triumph and glory for an athlete are actually the culmination of years of painful sacrifices and as Hampsten explained having to push yourself to places that a normal man would not willingly venture to.

Looking back on it I can’t remember the climb ever letting up. In fact, towards the top as one encounters a tunnel built since Hampsten’s 1988 foray and from there to the top - a couple of kilometers distance -the road begins to pitch up steeply again through a series of hairpins carved into the side of the mountain ravaged every year by the extreme winter conditions.

Really, for Americans, I think the Gavia is the most significant of climbs in Europe. That day proved an American based cycling team could win a major tour. Think too, of the hundreds if not thousands of Americans that have come to Italy to ride inspired by Hampsten’s all or nothing effort and his 1988 Giro win. Thanks Andy!

After coming off the mountain the descent back into Bormio featured a screaming 45 to 50 mph descent along the smoothest road I think I have ever encountered. It was like the road crew came out and repaved it that morning. All in all a spectacular day that featured more wine and food and laughter as the night wore on.

The remainder of our trip was based out of picturesque setting of Alleghe and featured the jagged peaks and spires of the Dolomites – a terrain that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

To be continued............

Buzz Yancich's previous story was about riding with Eros Poli, and Verona ( ). An account by Andy Hampsten on his famous day on the Gavia can be read at Stories, including cycling trip stories, for the Italian Cycling Journal welcome; contact


  1. Thanks so much for a fine story on a great winner!

  2. Great write up and pictures - really enjoyed it.

    Taking one of the Hampsten tours would be a dream vacation.

    Maybe one day....

  3. there is only one way up to the Gavia!

    ------> Ponte di Legno.