29 April 2013

The Day the Big Men Cried: Andy Hampsten and the Passo del Gavia

When Andy Hampsten won the Giro d' Italia just under 25 years ago, he became the first American and non-European to snag the title. It was an especially incredible feat when you consider when he gained the Maglia Rosa (the leader's jersey): the 14th stage from Chiesa in Valmaleneco to Bormio on June 5, 1988.

The race passed over the Passo del Gavia climb in horrid blizzard conditions—so bad, in fact, La Gazetta dello Sport dubbed it "The Day the Big Men Cried." 

While Erik Breukink won the stage, Hampsten finished just a few seconds down and took the lead. He never gave it up.

In his account of the stage, Hampsten wrote:

"Things started to look grim on the descent of the Aprica. I was wearing tons of clothes, but the rain had been coming down in buckets from the start of the stage and I was shaking badly from the wet and cold. In the valley going up to the base of the Gavia I was upset because this was going to be my big day and it appeared that it was not going to happen. Slowly, I began to accept that it was going to be bad and that it was going to be bad for everyone else...

"I realized that I had to go 100% on the attack and hold nothing back. I had about 10 kilos of wet clothing from the weather, but I had to get rid of everything. I dumped my leg warmers and 2 extra jerseys. I was down to shoes and socks, shorts, 1 undershirt, a thin long-sleeve polypro top and clear Oakleys. I was wearing the "performance" jersey which is the rider with the best combined point totals in sprints, climbing and overall classification made of pretty thick wool, which was nice! My biggest asset was that I kept my neoprene gloves. I realized that I had to keep my hands warm or I couldn't function... I remember telling Bob Roll that this would probably be the hardest day on the bike in our lives.

Photo via US Bicycling Hall of Fame
"As I climbed higher and higher, my mind started wandering and the psychological aspects of what was happening started to creep into my mind. I felt that I had achieved my results, to date, without taking any shortcuts, but when it started getting bad, I thought about what I could do to make things better. I gave up on asking God for any help, I was blessed already having the privilege of racing, instead I speculated on what I would bargain for if the devil showed up. Demoralized by this chain of thought, I realized that at the beginning of the day, I had relied only on myself to get me through the stage. On the Gavia, as always, there where no shortcuts and I had never looked for help from pills or other aids, although I was in such a mental state that I doubt I would have resisted any temptation that delivered me to Bormio. I must rely on myself to see me through...

"Within 10 minutes of the finish, I was up on the podium. The pink jersey felt good. I slipped it on and all my doubts went away. The TV interviews began and I remember saying, 'Incredible, I have never seen conditions like this, even in Colorado. Today it was not sport, it was something beyond sport.'"

TV commentator and Hampsten's teammate Bob Roll also described the day in his book Bobke II:

"I grabbed a plastic hat, long-finger gloves, and Oakley Pilots and took off down the pass for Bormio, a mere 15 kilometers away. I thought I could ride 15 kilometers in any condition, at any time, anywhere on Earth. I have never been more wrong in my life.

"Meanwhile, I kept my head down and hammered, following the tire grooves through the snow. After only 1 kilometer, I was bloody cold. After 2 kilometers, I was frozen to the core. After only 3 kilometers, I was laughing like a lunatic and passed Rolf Sorensen, screaming at the top of my lungs in an attempt to generate some warmth. After 5 kilometers, I was crying and about to slip into a frozen coma. About halfway down, I was not thinking straight and was making poor choices. At one point, I got off my bike and began to run back up the hill in a lame attempt to warm up."

Andy Hampsten in the Maglia Rosa.  Photo via CyclingNews.
Over the next few days, Hampsten managed to win another stage and built up a 2-minute lead over Bruekink. The American, known more as a climber than a time trialist, limited his losses in the final time trial and ultimately won the race.

But what if this incredible stage had never happened?
After seeing how awful the weather would be, the technical director, Francesco Moser, urged Director Vincenzo Torriani to cancel the race. But for some unknown reason Torriani thought the show should go on and the cyclists should suffer through. While we'll never know if Hampsten would've still clinched the lead without the Passo del Gavia stage, one things is for sure: without the epic snowstorm, we likely wouldn't still be talking about with such wonder and amazement as we are now.

No comments:

We are on a mission to spread meaningful content and give you awesome deals on cycling clothing. Like us on Facebook and see for yourself.