Sunday, May 19, 2013

Recalling the 1988 Giro d'Italia, Hampsten's Victory

5 June 1988

The bad weather of the last two stages at the summit finishes recalls the much more severe conditions on Passo Gavia at the 1988 Giro d'Italia. Andy Hampsten donned the pink jersey after this stage and went on to win the race, the only American to do so (and also the first non-European). The story of that day in June at the 1988 Giro d'Italia as told by Andy Hampsten:

"We were about 400-500 meters above sea level, in this big valley in Lombardy… and it was snowing. Most of us on the 7-Eleven team were from Colorado, and were pretty good at math, and if it’s snowing and you go up… and it’s SNOWING… it’s slushy, it’s coming down and then melting, it’s belting in… There’s no hint of anything changing, looking at the weather forecast. So the Giro organizers held an emergency meeting with all the team managers, telling them “hey, we’re doing the race, the roads open, snowplows are keeping it clear. It’s not icy on the Gavia, but it is snowing.” When we left it was just raining… kind of sleet-rain, but bucketing down. We went over the Aprica pass, a category 2 with a pretty short descent, but even on that descent I was wearing ALL the warm clothes I could possibly put on. I was shaking uncontrollably on that silly little descent. Then we were up at about 800 meters (altitude) climbing on a long false flat. A break went away and my team was chasing it but we weren’t going too hard, there wasn’t anyone really dangerous up there.And everyone was freaked out. All the racers were just… “scared”. The roads were wet, we’re just getting soaked to the skin. The cloud cover’s really low, it’s belting down on us, it’s really thick clouds, sometimes it’s foggy, sometimes we’re just below the clouds. We just kno-o-o-w it’s gonna be incredibly cold.Andy’s voice lifts for a moment when he remembers “My team was taking really good care of me bringing me hot tea every 5 km, we had a big thermos, our team was really well prepared. They’re asking “Andy – should we chase that break? Should we catch ‘em before the mountains?” But we just did tempo, I think Chiocciolli’s team with the leaders jerseys did a moderate tempo as well.

We went through the town of Ponte di Legno, across the wooden bridge, then we turned left towards the Gavia. It’s a gradual climb for about 4km, things are stringing out a little bit but there’s quite a bit of talk amongst (primarily) Italians… about ‘hey, let’s have a little strike, let’s not really race it, let’s get in the cars, let’s just go home’…And someone says: ‘hey Andy, you’re not gonna attack are you?’I just looked at him… and I didn’t say… a word....they knew damn well I was going to attack.

The road was still paved, but after a couple of km it turns to dirt. My team doctor - Dr. Massimo Testa – who’s from Como and knew the roads really well told me it would go around a left hand turn, still paved, then narrow to one lane under a grove of fir trees, and it’ll be 16%, right away, and turn to dirt.

So sure enough, I was right at the front, with my teammates doing tempo. Road turns to dirt… and it’s a long way to go. But I knew everyone was terrified… I was scared… So I attacked. Not a hundred percent, but because everyone was sooo intimidated by the whole climb… It was the climb of the race, everyone had been talking about it. Gianni Motta, who was always really friendly with Americans, super encouraging, told me the first day ‘you can win this race, and you can win it on THAT day…’ And they hadn’t used it for 30 years – the last time was 1961 & 62 when Charly Gaul won both stages into Bormio…It’s a really hard climb 18% in parts, never really gets below 10%… dirt, one lane road – a really good dirt road, with every few hundred meters there’s a little parking place carved out of the mountain, so when two cars meet, one can pull over and pass…Steady, steep grades, tons of switchbacks. The top is paved for about 3 km. Then it turns back to dirt on the way down, pretty much a one lane road, incredible number of switchbacks… turns, gradual turns, super sharp turns…

Usually in a race I’d go 100% up a climb and be able to hold it together in good weather, even rainy weather, on the descent. But, when my head’s spinning a little due to the effort on the uphill. I’m risking losing time due to a crash on the downhill. So in these conditions, I decided to go up the hill at 90-95%. Physically, but psychologically the uphill there I was producing some heat, while for the downhill, I just kneeew… because the storm was coming from the north, which was the direction we were traveling – I knew the descent would be colder and snowier than the climb.When I attacked it was still pretty much raining, but within a few kms, it turned into big, heavy snowflakes, plummeting down – like in the Christmas movies…So I dropped everyone right away, and it was in the switchbacks so I could really see my main rivals – Breukink, Zimmerman, Chiocciolli, stretched out behind me, it’s too steep for anyone to organize anything… I like dirt – I really like riding on dirt roads, I was kind of having fun (he chuckles). It wasn’t gravelly or chunky, it was a good dirt road, no potholes. A perfectly fine dirt road to ride your bike on, soft enough that I could see my tires were leaving imprints, so quite a bit of resistance, but technically nothing challenging. Which was wonderful, because over the top I was testing to see if it was icy, and it wasn’t. It was just slush on top of a very wet dirt road, so it wasn’t ever very dangerous…When we had a meeting in the morning, we were more worried about the descent, due to the weather, than the climb. So I certainly kept that in mind. Even when I attacked with 18km still go… I was thinking ‘okay you’re going to go really hard, but it’s a really long climb – obviously don’t blow it – ‘So on the way up it turned to snow, I could see I was opening gaps up, checking the time splits, catching a bunch of riders who had been away. Johan Vandevelde had jumped away earlier, and he was a bit up the road, and I was slowwwly closing on him, but I was trying to be first over the mountain…A few kms from the top I got a bottle of hot tea from one of my soigneurs we’d planted there. 2 kms from the top I got a musette bag filled with clothes that each one of us prepared and gave to Jim Ochiwizc (our team manager), and we were the only team to prepare warm clothes for this whole thing…On the way up I got rid of all of my warm clothes, my legs were bare, no shoe covers. I did have a pair of neoprene diving gloves that I kept on for the entire climb. Along the way my team car gave me a neck-gator and a wool hat.I wanted to dry my hair before I put it on – maybe 4-5 ks before the top, so I brushed through my hair, thinking I was going to wipe some water out, and a big snowball rolled off my head, and down my back.I thought – ‘Oh my gosh – I’m really not producing much heat, even though I’ve been going up a really hard grade.’ So then I had my raincoat, a super thin polypro undershirt on , so my arms were covered, but I was NOT warm at the top of the mountain. We could spend a few hours while I figure out how to describe how cold I was…

But I was thinking ‘it’s still a race, I’ve still got to get down the other side, as fast as I can. I kept pedaling on the downhill, but no one was there – no team car. Breukink – I followed him for a few hundred meters and figured out he had no clue how to ride in the snow and I’d rather make my own mistakes. Visibility was okay, but it was probably 20 or 30 yards. I kept one gear moving because all my other gears were frozen up with ice. It was –4 celsius (25F) at the top.There was slushy snow on the road, they’d been plowing the road beforehand, but stopped probably an hour before we came over. I think I was riding in a 53x 14 or 15, and I pedaled the whole way down. I’ve been back twice, in the summer, so I know now what the road actually looks like – it’s a fantastic road. But you can’t go very fast on it anyway, because it’s soo narrow, and soo many turns, there’s really no place you can open it up and go too fast…

I told myself “neevvvver look down at my legs”…so I looked down at my legs and the were bright red with a sheet of ice on my shins… I thought ‘man I’m in biiiigg trouble…’ I know there’s nothing on the mountain, if I stop, there’s no team car behind me because it’s too snowy – they can’t go, the Giro directeur was already down in the next village just hoping the race came by, there’s no lead motorcycle, nothing out there.There was one Carrera team mechanic with a spare pair of wheels on the dirt downhill, just walking down the middle of the road, sweaarrring and ranting because he’s been left alone, thinking they cancelled the race and no one told him about it… he freaked and shouted when I went past him.Meanwhile Vandevelde - I didn’t see it but he stopped. This road goes back to Napoleon, and there’s 2 refuges, he stopped at the second one, his team gave him a cotton hat and a plastic raincoat … and he just freaked out – he finished 48 minutes later. He was sooo cold, and so unprepared for the descent…

So I’m on my way down, I don’t care about the race I don’t care about anything, I’m pissing and moaning and grumbling, done asking God to come help me and I’ll make a deal with the devil if he shows up! (laughing) But there’s just me and my silly bike and there is a village after 15km of descending and I’m just telling myself to go go go. I knew if I put a foot down I was just going to freeze up. I can’t tell you how cold I was, but I was calculating “can I make it to that town?’ The only choice was to just keep going, try to create some heat – braking and pedaling at the same time.But I think I was going at a fairly good pace for the conditions because it was snow until about 3kms before the village of Santa Catarina and by that time I’m trying to do little tricks with myself – ‘oh joy! now it’s just sleet – it’s warmed up to just freezing!’ And I really don’t know if I’m going to make, it but I’m committed to going as hard as I can. Breukink caught me with about 8ks to go, and I tried to jump on his wheel… he must not have nee far behind me on the descent. I could not hold his wheel, but then I thought I could use him as a bit of a rabbit playing the silly game in my head… ’is it warmer to put on the brakes and go down this hill at 10 mph, or is it better to go 40-50 mph on this straight 8% slope?’ I’m going to get there quicker, but am I going to get hypothermia? But I figured if it’s so cold that I’m in danger of freezing, I’m just going to fall off my bike anyway… So I kept going down, kept him within 7 seconds at the end. I didn’t even want to stop at the finish line, but I didn’t even know where the hotel was anyway! (laughing) So I just sort of collapsed at the finish line, got warmed up, putting on the pink jersey, which was really really fantastic. At that point I ‘kind of’ cared about the race more than a hot bath… but not by a long shot. Talking about the Gavia… I get… pretty emotional each time. I’ve been back a couple of times to ride it with journalists and recount the day, and man, I’m waaasted by the end of the day…!”

Related story:
Andy Hampsten's 1988 7-Eleven Huffy Giro d'Italia

Sports Illustrated: During a snowy stage of the '88 Giro, Andy Hampsten rode into history

Note: Hampsten Cycles was founded in 1999 by Andy and his brother Steve Hampsten. Visit Hampsten Cycles at for a look at some beautiful frames that are being made. This poster is also available from them:

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  1. Fantastic story. Inspiring. Next time I'm out riding in the cold and snow I'll remember Andy's story!

  2. I was lucky enough to do a ride up the Gavia with Mr. Hampsten in 2008 which is part of his annual summer Dolomite tour at At the top we gathered for a picnic and he regaled us with his personal thoughts about that day. To top things off he is a remarkably humble and thoughtful man.