The fifth of our Re-Cycle series sees Felix Lowe cast his mind back to the day the proverbial hardmen cried, with the hardest of them all braving a snowstorm en route to becoming the first and only American to win the Giro.
In his book Giro d'Italia, Colin O'Brien describes Hampsten's legendary ride into pink on the Gavia as "one of the most indisputably brilliant – and unquestionably ludicrous – days in the mountains."
What 26-year-old Hampsten did that day made Bernard Hinault's 1980 win in Niege-Bastogne-Niege seem – at least meteorologically – like a walk in the park, and the persistent rain endured by the riders in this year's race like a trip to the tanning salon in contrast.
Re-Cycle: Fausto Coppi's majestic ride from Cuneo to Pinerolo in 1949 Giro d'Italia
The American defied heavy snow to ride clear of his rivals on the 16.5km climb, cutting through the slush on gradients peaking at 16 percent. But it wasn't simply a race to the top: with the finish down in the valley at Bormio, it was the treacherous descent of the Gavia that day which was to prove key. After all, the first man to the top would finish 47 minutes back after resorting to walk part of the icy downhill…
But given Hampsten didn't even win the stage that day – something many people forget – just why has the 7-Eleven rider gone down in folklore for his exploits on the Gavia? Let's take a closer look…
Who was Andy Hampsten?
If you close your eyes and think of America's only winner of the Giro, he's probably wearing a 7-Eleven top, a wool beanie, some black gloves and what look like a pair of ski goggles while riding through a blizzard on the Passo di Gavia in 1988.
In fact, if you think of Andy Hampsten in any context, he's no doubt sporting a pair of the Oakley Factory Pilot Eyeshades that he and compatriot Greg LeMond helped popularise in the 1980s. In their sole season together in 1986, the Americans rocked a flamboyant range of sunglasses featuring almost every colour of their Mondrian-inspired La Vie Claire jerseys.
In his maiden Tour in 1986, the 24-year-old rode so well in support of teammates LeMond and Hinault that he almost joined them on the final podium. He'd been snapped up by Bernard Tapie's super team after impressing in the Giro a year earlier when, as an amateur, he was given a one-month contract with wildcards 7-Eleven to make his Grand Tour debut.
Hampsten recently told the Bradley Wiggins Podcast that his 7-Eleven team rode the 1985 Giro like "a bunch of cowboys".
None of us understood any Italian. We didn't care about the hierarchy of Italian cycling. We just wanted to race. It was a rare opportunity in 1985 for a group of Americans to do a fantastic race. We basically told them to f*** off – we knew how to swear in Italian. Maybe we could have been more diplomatic about it but the 7-Eleven attitude when racing in Italy was, 'this is our chance, we've got to take it, their traditions don't mean that much to us'.
Despite their battesimo di fuoco, the American rookies impressed: Ron Kiefel became the first American stage winner in a Grand Tour at Perugia before Hampsten doubled up deep in the race.
Fed up of playing the domestique at La Vie Claire, Hampsten returned to 7-Eleven in 1987 where he won the Tour de Suisse again but struggled in the Tour.
In the absence of defending champion Stephen Roche, however, Hampsten was one of the outsiders for La Corsa Rosa in 1988. Tensions were high following the previous year's race where the tifosi had to endure an all-foreign podium topped by Roche, who famously got the better of his Italian teammate, the defending champion Roberto Visentini.
"So, it was a hostile atmosphere. We knew that if the Italians ganged up on us it would be really tricky."
Riders of the storm
Having grown up in North Dakota, with its famously cold winters, Hampsten was no stranger to riding in the cold. And in 7-Eleven, he had the perfect forward-looking team to prepare for the blizzard to which the riders awoke on 5th June 1988.
The team was based in Colorado where most of the riders raced and trained, and so were familiar with adverse conditions in the mountains. Manager Mike Neel sent his soigneurs to the ski shops in the resort of Chiesa in Valmalenco in the morning to ensure his riders were prepared.
On top of thermal clothing, thick gloves, wool balaclavas, neck gaiters and ski hats, each rider was covered in lanolin wax – sheep's wool fat impervious to water – to effectively waterproof their bodies. The cherry on the cake were neoprene diving gloves, which ensured Hampsten could grip the bars properly and manage his layers. Oddly, neither Hampsten nor anyone else opted for leg-warmers that day.
"I kept a pair of neoprene diving gloves on knowing from experience that once your hands are frozen, you can't put any other clothing on," Hampsten told Wiggins.
Each rider had a musette filled with dry clothes which was taken to the summit of the Gavia, while flasks of hot drinks were prepared. This may have seen fairly rudimentary, but it was an attention to deal overlooked by many of the old-school European teams, some of whose riders did not even wear gloves or a hat that day – including the maglia rosa, Franco Chioccioli.
Speaking to O'Brien for his biography of the Giro, Hampsten explained that 7-Eleven "was the only team at that point that was intelligent and flexible enough to adapt to the conditions".
The weather wasn't a complete surprise. It wasn't a major technological advance, it was just common sense. We were always thinking about anything that could help. Why suffer more than you have to? It's fine to tell your grandkids about how hard it was, but if you're 30 minutes down because of it, it's an intellectual lapse not to prepare for that.
Stage 14, Chiesa in Valmalenco to Bormio – Giro d'Italia 1988
Hampsten entered the stage in fifth place, just over a minute behind the Italian race leader Chioccioli. Just 120km long, the stage was all about the fearsome Gavia, which was being used for only the second time in the Giro's history – and the first since Charly Gaul won in Bormio 28 years previously.
With the finish again in Bormio at the foot of the descent, it was thought that whoever went over the summit of the Gavia in pole position would probably win the stage and gain enough time to win the whole race. And having won at Selvino three days earlier, Hampsten had shown that he was the man to beat.
"It was bucketing rain and sleeting, as cold and wet as could be, before we got to the base of the Gavia," Hampsten told the Bradley Wiggins Podcast.
The team kept me drowned in hot sweet tea from the car and I had three layers or rain gear and warm clothes, so I took all of those off, booties off… everything off except for a very thin long-sleeved under shirt, a wool jersey, but no hat. And I kept the diving gloves.
Hampsten put in a series of accelerations at the start of the climb to drop Chioccioli in the slush and whittle down the pack before throwing down the hammer around 14km from the summit. He could see his rivals further back down the mountain on the switchbacks but stopped near the summit to put on a jacket, allowing Dutchman Erik Breukink of the powerhouse Panasonic team back into the fold.
I thought I was in pretty good shape and when I put my wool hat – my neck warmer – on with 4km to go I dried my hair with my hand and a snowball formed on my head which I wasn't aware about and it rolled down my back. So I thought, I think I'm going well but I'm already colder so I've got to watch out not to lose my wits on the descent.
Talking of which, the man who did reach the top in pole position lost his wits good and proper. Dutchman Johan van der Velde fought through the snowstorm to take the Cima Coppi on the summit ahead of Hampsten and Breukink – but at a cost.
There was two feet of snow at the summit and it was a fight for survival. The race convoy edged forward in a thickening blizzard. But Van der Velde’s reward for getting to the top first was a cup of water, a plastic cape and a cotton cap from his manager, who then told him to get going on the descent.
Already borderline hypothermic, Van der Velde allegedly needed a cup of tea from Hampsten's team car to give him the courage to get going again, but resorted to walking down the steepest stretches of the icy road. He eventually finished three-quarters of an hour behind.
The day the hardmen cried
In their book on The Hardmen of cycling, the Velominati summed up the state of play on the summit best:
Chaos ensued. Hardmen wept. Riders stopped at the side of the road and pissed on their hands and legs in a desperate attempt to warm their extremities.
While Hampsten later admitted that he had to dig deeper psychologically than ever before, he did have a fresh set of clothes and that warm tea to revive him before the descent.
First, he narrowly avoided colliding with a dazed mechanic stumbling along with two wheels. Then he passed Breukink on the dirt and gravel section despite his gears being frozen (except for the 53x14) and a visibility of fifty metres.
With 10km remaining the snow turned to rain. Then with 5km remaining, Hampsten was caught and dropped by Breukink. At this point, he couldn't have cared less about the stage win – he just wanted to get to the finish to warm up, ideally not passing the hotel on the way (it would have posed too much of a temptation for him not to stop).
Breukink took the win by seven seconds, Hampsten jumping straight into his team car to recover. Inside, he took stock of the situation but only grew anxious at the realisation of how demanding the day had been. Anger then set in: where was his team management and why hadn't they told him where he was on GC.
Then he heard the loudspeaker announcing the arrival of Roberto Tomassini in third place, 4'39" down, with the maglia rosa coming seventh and conceding five minutes. Hampsten's brave ride through the blizzard had earned him his nation's first ever pink jersey. He now led Breukink by 15 seconds and a distraught Chioccioli (who complained that the stage should never have taken place) by 3'54".
What happened next
Hampsten held onto the maglia rosa all the way to Vittorio Veneto – but it wasn't easy. He extended his lead over Breukink in stage 15 after the Stelvio was cut from the route, but the bad weather continued to take its toll.
Stage 16 saw the riders grind to a stop in a tunnel on the road to Innsbruck to shelter from the elements. They agreed to neutralise the stage only for that man Chioccioli to put in an attack. 7-Eleven and Breukink’s Panasonic combined to chase down the Italian schemer but then Chioccioli broke the agreement once again with another underhand dig.
In the end, karma prevailed: on a fast, wet and treacherous descent to the finish – one the riders were supposed to have neutralised but were riding full gas because of Chioccioli – Hampsten heard the noise of a crash as the peloton zipped across a wooden bridge. Turning around, he saw the rider down was… Chioccioli.
Hampsten would take a minute from Breukink while winning the time trial in stage 18. But the race still wasn't over. In fact, a break by Stefano Giuliani and Urs Zimmermann in stage 19 to Arta Terme put the Swiss rider into the virtual maglia rosa.
But 7-Eleven fought back to limit the losses ahead of the final two sprint stages and the race was Hampsten's. The first and only American to win the Giro did so by 1'43" over Breukink and 2'45" over Zimmermann.
A year later, Hampsten finished third as Laurent Fignon took the spoils. He never won a Grand Tour again, but enjoyed two more top 10s on the Giro and three in the Tour.
Andy Hampsten's legacy
7-Eleven may have upset the applecart when they first entered the Giro, but Hampsten's heroics saw the tifosi fall in love with cycling again because it was redolent of the golden age of Italian cycling, of the snowy exploits of Alfredo Binda in the 1930s and Tullio Campagnolo on the Croce d’Aune in 1927.
Fresh-faced, boyish, lean and delicate, Hampsten had shown himself to be tougher than most that day. Riding on a Huffy bike and sporting the latest fashion trends from Oakleys, he represented something new for cycling – a modern-day star who marked a changing of the guard and, after LeMond’s success, underlined the arrival of the new world in a sport traditionally dominated by the old order.
Speaking to Wiggins in the opening week of the 2019 Giro, Hampsten, now 57, said of his ride on the Gavia:
It was certainly the hardest and most challenging experience I've had as an athlete. But it was also the most gratifying.
For it marked the moment that Hampsten's dreams of being a bike racer, riding a Grand Tour and doing so on a "great team of friends" all came together and reached fruition with his seizing of the maglia rosa.
Stage 16, Lovere to Ponte di Legno – Giro d'Italia 2019
In an edition steeped in nostalgia, Stage 16 of the 102nd edition of the Giro was meant to commemorate Hampsten's landmark ride through horrendous conditions – just as Stage 12 recalled Coppi's legendary break from Cuneo to Pinerolo in 1949.
The planned 226km stage boasted almost six thousand metres of climbing and saw the riders tackle the Gavia ahead of the double-digit gradient of the Mortirolo en route to a finish at Ponte di Legno.
But, ironically enough, heavy snowfall on the Gavia has put paid to that idea. Despite initial hopes that the road would be cleared in time, the summit is still blocked by a wall over three metres high in points. The risk of avalanche and concerns over the iciness of the descent has forced the hands of race director Mauro Vegni.
In its place, after Vegni ruled out a mooted double ascent of the Mortirolo, a shorter 194km Stage 16 features two extra third-category tests instead of the Gavia – the Cevo (making its Giro debut) and Aprica climbs.
The absence of the Gavia means the Cima Coppi will have to be awarded not for the default highest climb of the race – the Colle del Nivolet from stage 13 – but the Passo Manghan, which is tackled on the penultimate day of the race. It's all a bit messy, but inevitable.
While the queen stage had undoubtedly lost some of its lustre, the new-look route still includes 4,800m of climbing and the succession of shorter peaks ahead of the Mortirolo could actually cause far more damage than a token neutralised ascent through the snow on the Gavia.
The same people who tear their hair out each year when it doesn't rain during Paris-Roubaix will be disappointed. But the truth of the matter is that new safety laws in Italy and the UCI Extreme Weather Protocol means its very unlikely that we'll ever witness again anything remotely similar to what Hampsten and Breukink pulled off on the snow-swept Gavia more than 30 years ago.
And that is probably the ultimate tribute that could be afforded to Hampsten's heroics and Breukink's bravery.
Felix Lowe @Saddleblaze
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