I was in pretty good shape that year but I was always got sick in the spring, so I went to the 88 Giro just ‘hunting’ – to see if I could win but if not, I’d go for stages. There were a lot of mountain days but the Gavia stage was the one that stood out. It was short but sometimes the shorter stages are the hardest.
It’s started well and I’d won the uphill finish in Stelvino two days before, so I knew I was riding well; I was right up there on GC, exactly where I wanted to be. I hadn’t ridden the Gavia before but my team doctor, Massimo Testa, had grown up in the area and described it to me pretty well. It’s a tough climb, much of it unpaved with switchbacks spaced evenly but the finish came after a chaotic descent.
On the morning of the stage I woke up to see it was snowing outside. I was disappointed but I’d grown up in an extremely cold climate in North Dakota. I’d ride my bike to and from school in the snow and my cut off for winter training was 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6C), so I didn’t let the weather deter me from sticking with my plan. I was going to attack on the climb, ride at around 95% and save a good amount for the 25-kilometre descent into Bormio.
The build up to the climb was horrific. Sleet was coming down in sheets and people were terrified. I was terrified. I remember a conversation with Bob Roll on the false flat between the descent of the first climb, the Aprica, and the bottom of the Gavia. I told him, “This will probably be the hardest day of our lives on the bike.” My teammates were drowning me in hot, sweet, tea from our team car and asking me if I needed anything. Our director Mike Neil was nervous and wanted to know how I was doing. He asked if I had my game face on?
Around 10km before the climb, shivering under four layers of soaking wet clothes, I told myself to shake off the self-pity. I studied my competition, like climbers do: Franco Chioccioli who had the leaders jersey, Erik Breukink, Urs Zimmerman and Flavio Gioponi. It was like of a death march, they looked like ghosts. The snow was getting heavier and people were scared but, nastily enough, it encouraged me to push on. “I’m a bike racer…” I said in my head.
It was at that point that I stripped off my leg warmers and shoe covers. This bundle of sodden clothes carried back to the team car told my team director, Jim Ochowicz, all he needed to know. I kept on a red, long-sleeved base layer – one super thin layer on my arms – the blue, wool combined points leader’s jersey and my pair of neoprene diving gloves but nothing on my head. I was freezing but getting rid of it was psychological and sent a message to my competitors – I was serious.
The team was clever and had prepared musettes with dry clothing for each member of the team – they’d even been shopping for wool hats and ski gloves earlier in the day. The soigneurs had flasks of hot tea too. Before the start, someone had called the little Fugio restaurant at the top of the Gavia to check out the weather, “It’s blowing snow,” they said. “And it will be much worse on the way down”.
But I was still basing my ride on the descent, not the climb, so I left on my own thinner gloves – the gains that could be made on the descent would be much bigger than the seconds you could claw back on the climb, so I had to be able to use my hands going downhill.
Back then the road to the summit was essentially a track and apart from the final few kilometres it was mostly unpaved, which was a real advantage. We were riding on slush, and the soft dirt underneath actually gave better traction than the pavement. It wasn’t dangerous, not for a bike racer.
There was some discussion of forming a union with the other teams but that never happened. My team, 7-Eleven, was leading and someone shouted from the main group, “Hey Andy, you’re not going to attack are you?” As we hit a corner the gradient ramped up to 14%, the surface changed to dirt and I went, I rode away on my 39×25 with all my rivals watching me go.
As I started catching people along the climb, I remember feeling excited and thinking that this could be the day that I take over the lead. At around five kilometres from the top I got my hat and neck warmer from the team car. What started as sleet had now turned to thick snow and my hair was soaking and frozen. I wanted to dry my hair before I put the neck warmer on. As I ruffled my hair I knocked a snowball off my head. It rolled down my back and rather than melting it stayed in this tight, compact ball of ice – I was so cold that my body heat couldn’t even melt the snow. Luckily in those days I wore Oakley Pilots’, which almost covered my face, so there was hardly a piece of visible flesh on my body, other than my bare legs.
I started to then reassess and wondered if attacking early on the climb was the right thing to do. The motorbike rode past with the chalkboard displaying the time splits; some guys were already two or three minutes down on the climb, so the attack was working.
Near the top I took a bottle of hot tea from the soigneur and a plastic rain jacket from my musette but instead of stopping to put on the jacket, which is uncool as a bike racer but smarter, I wasted time swerving around on the slushy road trying to get the jacket on. By the time I was sorted I wasted 43 seconds and Erik Breukink had caught me.
As he started to descend I decided to follow his line. If he slid off the edge I would just go the other way! However he took the descent really slowly, so I passed him. It was eerie riding down alone. There was no lead car, no team car and no motorcycles. By now it was a white out and the visibility was down to 20 or 30 yards. Suddenly out of the snowy gloom a mechanic from Carrera appeared carrying spare wheels. I remember he had these beautiful waterproof trousers and coat from their sponsor Gore-Tex. But the guy was walking up the middle of the road, cursing – he thought the race had been abandoned and left him behind. I had to swerve to avoid crashing into him. I could hear his shouting fade I carried on down the descent.
By now I had I only had one gear – the rest had frozen and my shins were covered in a layer of ice – but I was done with moaning, shouting and asking God for help. I just had to make it the Santa Caterina and then another 13km to the finish. With 8km to go Breukink caught me – he must have been right behind all the time. I couldn’t hold his wheel and my mind was racing with thoughts, ‘is it warmer to put the brakes on and go down this hill at 10 mph, or is it better to go 40-50 mph on this straight 8% slope and risk hypothermia?’
Breukink won by seven seconds but that day was my greatest moment as an athlete. I can’t put into words what went through my mind, how hard it was, how I terrified myself and how I suffered, like I’d never suffered before.
Written by Andy Hampsten for Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs