It’s probably the most embarrassing moment of my career. It was during one of those hard mountain stages in the Tour of Italy when it was freezing cold and snowing really, really hard. The day before we’d been over the Marmolada and on this stage we went back up the other side.
As we came down the mountain it was so cold. There was a Colombian guy who was absolutely freezing, he had no arm warmers and no jacket. He was shaking so much that he could hardly hold his handlebars; whereas I had so many clothes on that I looked like Michelin Man, so I gave him my spare hat.
I got down to the bottom and just managed to get onto the back of the last group when I saw there were two Panasonic riders up the front. I remember thinking, ‘what are those clowns doing up there?’ There was only 40kms to the finish so there was no need to ride fast. When I looked again I saw they were taking turns on the front, so I figured there was something going on. Our guy Breukink hadn’t made the front group – he was still wiped out from the day before when he’d bonked and lost the lead to Andy Hampsten – but I knew I had to get him up there. I gave it everything and rode with him on my wheel to bring him back to the bunch.
With Breukink safely up there I went back to the car to get a muesli bar but then it kicked off at the front and the pace went up again. Because it was so cold the bar had shrunk and was rock hard, I was gasping for breath in an effort to chew it.
I decided to give up on the bar so I spat it out but my front teeth came out too! Losing my teeth was one of my life long fears. When I was 13 I’d been elbowed in the face playing football and lost my three front teeth. I’d had a plate put in my mouth and those teeth meant everything to me. There was no way I wasn’t go back to get them.
I slammed on my brakes and did a U-turn. I was riding against the traffic with two lanes of team cars and police motorbikes coming straight for me. And then I saw them, my teeth, lying in the road. I was hell bent on getting them back but the second I got there, boom! The Carrera team car ran right over them.
I remember the sense of panic. I needed my teeth… I stopped in the middle of road thinking about what to do. A second later my team car rolled up right next to me but going the opposite way towards the finish, like I should have been. Peter Post, the Panasonic DS, shouted from the car, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I lost my teeth,” I mumbled. And he starts shouting, “get back in the bunch”, I turned around and started chasing back on. He seemed really angry but apparently everyone in the car laughed all the way to the finish. The mechanic was hanging out of the back laughing so hard that he was shaking. I was really embarrassed about what had happened.
The next day we were snowed in, so we had three meals in the hotel that day. There were 20 people eating together at the table and they kept giving me bananas and soft things to eat. By then the whole team knew and they all found it really funny. Jean-Paul van Poppel just couldn’t stop laughing but when he laughed, I laughed, then everyone would see the gap, which set off the waitresses laughing. In the end the whole restaurant was laughing, all the other teams. Everyone. It’s probably one of the things that I’m most famous for.