Grown men wept. Hard, tough, professional cycling men. Men who went out every day in all conditions, training as hard as they raced, sacrificing their lives to the bike. Year after year, day after day, men who understood pain as well as they understood themselves, if not better.
This was what they were paid to do: suffer.
But this day was too much for many of them.
They got off their saddles with frozen claws for hands, near-frostbitten feet, and yes, some wept like little boys.
It was 1988. The race was the Giro d’Italia Stage 17. The mountain was the Gavia Pass, its summit sitting at 2621m, the average percentage being 7.9 %, the maximum slope 16 %, which the riders would cover over 20 kilometers.
Hampsten of 7-11 sets the early pace.
The Giro had been failing in previous years from poor-management and dwindling television viewing figures. The organisers were desperate to reinvigorate the race, and so set about devising a route that would put the riders to the test and draw back the spectators. And so they included the Gavia climb – it hadn’t been ridden in a Giro since 1962, when the Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul won the stage.
However, even in their wildest imagination the organisers couldn’t have dreamt of a day like this, when conditions and the route combined to serve up a cyclist’s nightmare.
This was the day when the Gavia Pass came alive, the mountain throwing all it had with all its might at these interlopers, these skinny men on bicycles who dared to have the temerity to believe that they could conquer such a beast.
The stage profile shows the difficulty that faced the riders. Yet what a simple map cannot show is the conditions – it was snowing heavily down at the start of the stage, before the riders even began racing. As you’ll know, if it’s cold and snowing at 200m above sea level, you can be sure it will be even worse at higher altitudes.
American rider Andy Hampsten, of the 7-11 team, was sitting in 5th place at the start of the stage. Many of the 7-11 team helpers were based in Colorado and familiar with such conditions. With this knowledge of how to live and train in heavy winter weather, team manager Mike Neel sent his staff to visit ski shops and buy up thermal clothing, thick gloves, wool balaclavas and ski hats. Every rider was covered head to toe in lanolin wax. By comparison, the race leader that day, Franco Chioccioli, rode the stage without warm gloves or a hat.
Hampsten said that the riders, before the climb, were “scared.”
“The roads were wet, we’re just getting soaked to the skin,” said Hampsten. “The cloud cover’s really low, it’s belting down on us, it’s really thick clouds, sometimes it’s foggy, sometimes we’re just below the clouds. we just know it’s gonna be incredibly cold further up.”
The 2014 Giro in similar conditions. Chalapud Gomez Robinson of Colombia.
He attacked at the foot of the Gavia, where the road immediately rears up from the flat at a 16% gradient. He went on to ride up alone, catching an early breakaway, leaving the others trailing out behind him like confetti tossed to the wind. As the riders climbed the temperatures dropped quickly – yet due to the effort required to get up the Gavia they had discarded most of their warm weather clothing.
By the time the riders reached the top of they mountain they already knew – and had been fearing – what lay ahead….
13 kilometres over treacherous icy roads, in driving snow and sleet, with a howling wind. Low cloud cover meant visibility was just 8 or 9 metres. Looking at the race footage, you can see the riders on the summit unable to zip up their flimsy, near-useless raincoats. Their inadequate gloves were no protection from the cold. They had none of the hi-tech materials we can now rely on. Spectators helped them zip up, others rubbed their legs in vain attempts to get some heat into them.
You can imagine them thinking “I want to stop… I want to stop…” The riders could barely hold their handlebars on the way down, their hands were so cold.
Half way up.
…So I looked down at my legs and they were bright red with a sheet of ice on my shins… I thought ‘Man I’m in big trouble…’ I know there’s nothing on the mountain, if I stop, there’s no team car behind me because it’s too snowy – they can’t go, the Giro director was already down in the next village just hoping that the racers would make it through…”
About 15km from the finish line the snow turned to sleet, which meant the temperatures were slightly rising, but not by much. Some riders got off their bikes half way down the mountain and climbed into any car they could find, imploring the owners to turn on their heaters to full. Others simply crouched by the side of the road desperately trying to keep warm as they waited for help.
Hampsten was caught by the eventual stage winner Eric Breukink with about 8km to go, though he held on to win the Giro d’Italia overall, becoming the first American to do so.
Hampsten said of the day that “It was the most difficult day of my life. nobody would have complained or argued with me if I had pulled over and not raced. It was above and beyond what anyone is asked to do at a race.
“After I crossed the finish line, I headed straight for our soigneur, Julie. I was in such a rage trying to get down the mountain in one piece that when our team doctor, Max Testa, came up behind me and tried to put his jacket around me, I didn’t realize who it was and since he was keeping me from Julie and my warm clothes, I started punching him. Eventually I got in the team car, which was running it’s heater full blast! When I started to warm up the pain started to come back. Mike then told me I had the jersey [race leader’s jersey] and the pain and the euphoria swept over me and I just started crying, laughing and shaking. A whole wave of emotions covering the range of finishing the stage to the realization that I would survive gave me a brief and refreshing emotional meltdown. . . .
“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.”
Speaking immediately after the race, he said:
“Today it was not sport… it was something beyond sport.”
The Gavia. Stage 17, the Giro d’Italia, 1988.
Andy Hampsten in the greatest ever pro cycling kit (IMO) in warmer climes.