Sunday June 5th, 1988 is an important day in cycling history. The 14th stage of the Giro was less than four hours of racing, over the modest distance of 120km, but by the time the crowds had dispersed and the riders got into team cars with heaters turned up high, something had shifted. Something seismic.
The Giro peloton knew that this stage was going to be tough. The distance was immaterial, for the parcours included the climb and descent of the Gavia.
Over 20km long, with a maximum gradient of 16 per cent and an average of 7 per cent, the Gavia is a brute. But when the riders woke that morning in the village of Chiesa in Valmalenco and saw heavy snow falling, they braced themselves for a horrible day.
Some prepared better than others. In the 7-Eleven camp, many of the team helpers were based in Colorado and familiar with such conditions. With great presence of mind, team manager Mike Neel asked his soigneurs to visit ski shops and buy up thermal clothing, thick gloves, wool balaclavas and ski hats. Every rider was covered head to toe in lanolin wax. Flasks of hot drinks were prepared and taken to the summit of the Gavia – a rudimentary approach compared to today’s extreme weather clothing, but in 1988, it was a long way ahead of the Italian teams. The maglia rosa that day, Franco Chioccioli, rode the stage without warm gloves or a hat.
At the start of the stage, the 7-Eleven team had Andy Hampsten sitting in fifth place, just over a minute behind the Italian.
Hampsten wasn’t an unknown quantity; he’d finished fourth in his debut Tour de France two years before. But what his rivals didn’t realise was the depth of his psychological strength. Hampsten was in the form of his life, but in these conditions mental strength was going to be critical.
Gianni Motta, winner of the 1966 Giro, saw Hampsten’s qualities and told him before the start that this was the day he could win the Giro. Hampsten laughed, but Motta pressed home his point. The Italians don’t understand how tough it’s going to be up there, he said. Just be sure to give it everything on the Gavia.
Hampsten did just that. He waited for as long as he could bear, then launched his attack on the lower slopes. Erik Breukink was the only man able to follow. Chioccioli slipped back, though he limited his losses on the climb, and on an ordinary day he would have been able to bridge up to the two leaders on the descent.
This was, however, no ordinary day. The temperature in the valleys was barely above freezing. The cold rain that had been falling on the peloton turned to snow halfway up the Gavia. Back then, the Gavia was un-surfaced so the snow turned the road into a muddy gloop.
At the top of the mountain, the race convoy ground to a halt amidst a thickening blizzard. Johan van der Velde, who had escaped earlier and wasn’t a threat to Chioccioli, led the race to the summit, with Hampsten not far behind. While Hampsten grabbed cold weather kit and hot drinks from Neel, Van der Velde was screaming in disbelief at his manager, who’d just given him a cotton cap for the descent.
Stricken with fear, possibly crazed with hypothermia, Van der Velde stopped not long after starting the descent and began walking down the steepest stretches of the road. Hampsten and Breukink swept by him, then encountered a neutral mechanic walking, disoriented, up the middle of the road holding a pair of wheels. With snow and ice building on their backs, heads and shins, the pair rode together down the mountain.
Behind them, the Giro was disintegrating. Many riders climbed into team cars at the top of the Gavia, terrified at the prospect of undertaking such a difficult descent in a blizzard. Riders were seen crying and urinating on their hands to warm them.
Though Breukink took the stage, Hampsten took the maglia rosa, which he held all the way to the finish at Vittorio Veneto. It was America’s first Giro victory. It was also a race that reignited Italy’s passion for its national race.
The feats of heroism enacted by Hampsten and his peers were redolent of the golden age of Italian cycling, of Alfredo Binda and Tullio Campagnolo.
Hampsten was a new kind of hero – boyish, delicate-looking but clearly tougher than any homegrown rider. And on his Huffy bike, with his white-framed Oakleys and ski hat, he cut a distinctive figure in the peloton. Cycling had gained a new, very modern, legend.