The Gavia, 1988. It’s a sign of how rich our sport is that some of the most heroic rides in Cycling history go virtually unmentioned. Not necessarily spectacular victories but deeply impressive feats, drawn from deep in a rider’s physical and mental reserves. There is no better example than Andy Hampsten’s ride over the Gavia in the 1988 Giro d’Italia.
Riding a Huffy. It wasn’t actually a Huffy, but instead a bike made by famed American frame builder John Slawta, of Land Shark, but it said Huffy on it and we all know you’re not allowed to lie in writing. Growing up in the States, Huffys were for kids, and even by our childish standards they were crappy bikes. At the time we imagined Hampsten’s bike was heavy and felt like spaghetti and meatballs on wheels, and had a coaster pedal-brake.
Hampsten had found some success in the Professional world in 1985, when he won Stage 20 of the Giro while on a one-month contract with Team 7-Eleven. Hot on the heels of that success, Bernard Hinault snatched him up and brought him into La Vie Claire as a Mountain goat domestique.
But by 1987, 7-Eleven was in search of a new leader, having sacked Alexi Grewal on account of his consistent violation of Rules #36 and #37, a lifetime commitment to violating Rule #43 and his highly questionable headgear choices.
The 7-Eleven management did not panic when they awoke on the morning of the stage to find it was cold and raining in the start village and to hear that over a metre of snow had fallen high up on the Gavia.
Many of them, being based in Colorado or in the American Midwest, knew a thing or two about snow and promptly bought up all the cold-weather gear they could find in the local ski shops and made plans to distribute it to the team’s riders along the route. It’s fortunate that the management had some inkling as to the ordeal they were in for, since it appears the riders were fairly oblivious, as Hampsten recalls:
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!
Up was cold, but tolerable. Down was excruciating. Those of us who have descended a mountain on a sunny day know that going down is much colder than going up. Those of us who have done it in the cold or rain know that your body gives up on mere shivering and moves on to full-body shakes in an attempt to stay warm.
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.
The Dutchman Erik Breukink flew the coop and won the day, but the big winner was Andy Hampsten, who went on to claim the only American Giro d’Italia win to date. More than that, though, he claimed a place in the all-time Hardman ranks owing to that ride, and a legacy that only seems to grow the older it gets.