I have to admit – I like a grim day on the bicycle. The sort of ride that hollows you out. Eyes sunken in, skin turned white, knuckles rasping on the handlebars – too cold to even bother to eat or drink. It’s days like these I imagine myself as Andy Hampsten, breaking away on the Passo di Gavia in the 1988 Giro d’Italia. It helps that it was the year I was born, it helps that it was in the Giro, and it helps that it was lashing it down with snow and sleet.
This was Andy Hampsten’s greatest moment on a bicycle, the moment he won the Giro and cemented himself in cycling history. The Gavia is itself an iconic climb, owed in great part to its sheer height (2621 metres) and also to the rough conditions that racers often meet when it’s raced over in the months of May/June.
Back to that stage on the 5th of June 1988. The weather was seriously poor, a mix of rain, sleet and snow – in those kind of conditions it’s hard to get warm as a cyclist because of the windchill. Add in long descents and the windchill multiplies. There’s a long interview at Pez Cycling News with Andy about that day, and he recalls how all the racers were scared…it takes a lot for these guys to become scared! Andy Hampsten is one of the greatest climbers to come out of the US – nicknamed Le Petit Lapin (The Little Rabbit) due to his ability to bounce away on tough climbs, he showed promise before in the ’85 Giro. Now he was amongst the favourites but not leading coming into the stage that took them over the Gavia. With everyone “freaked out”, and his team, 7-eleven, forcing a decent pace before, and on, the Gavia, now was his time to shine. As the road narrowed, became dirt, and shot up to 16% gradients The Little Rabbit attacked – mostly through fear and apprehension.
He didn’t attack at 100%, showing a clear mind he decided to hold back a little, he knew he’d need all his energy for the descent to Bormio, where the stage ended. If anything, the effort of riding this truly epic climb up into the high Alps must have warmed Andy…the descent was going to be much, much harder. Climbing the dirt in 39×25, the tires slightly sinking into the mud, Andys mind started to fog up and panic set in – given how cold he was now, how on Earth would he survive the descent. The wind was blowing so hard, it was an effort to even stay upright. He quickly caught and passed the early break, except for Johan Vandevelde. Sitting up to put on a jacket, no hands on the bars, he lost 30 seconds to a lone purser, Erik Breukink and by the top Erik had made up all the ground – they would drop to Bormio together if they both had equal amounts of nerve.
To begin with Erik was descending slowly, so Andy dropped him in the only gear he had left…the rest had iced up in the cold. No longer a race, more a race for survival, both riders were risking hypothermia for a chance of winning a stage of the Giro d’Italia. Johan Vandevelde stopped, it became too much – he’d finish 48 minutes down on the stage winner. A long way before here, most others would of stepped off the bicycle but The Little Rabbit keeps on, knowing that the ’88 Giro could be won. Erik Breukink’s team manager yelled and cursed at him, to not keep a jacket on…riding in just a jersey he eventually passes Andy, who has nothing left, and can’t respond. Erik wins the stage. It is Andy Hampsten who wins the Giro, with a truly daring and historical attack on the Passo di Gavia – he sets the tone, along with Greg LeMond, for the invasion from the USA. Chapeau Andy, chapeau.
Andy Hampsten ’88 “Today it was not sport, it was something beyond sport.”
There isn’t much footage from the climb but what you can see is absolutely brutal: