Passo Gavia: The Day The Big Men Cried
On June 6, 1988, the day after the 14th stage of the Giro d’Italia, one which crossed the mighty Gavia pass in a snowstorm to finish in Bormio, La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the headline “The Day the Big Men Cried”. Indeed it was. It was “only” a stage of 120 kilometers (75 miles) beginning in Chiesa Valmalenco, descending to the Passo dell’Aprica after 70 km, climbing 650 meters (2000 feet) to the 1181 meter summit (3700 feet) before dropping 480 meters (1500 feet) back into the valley. The next obstacle was the Passo Tonale, a long gradual climb to 1450 meters (4500 meters) that then forked northwards for the Gavia, starting at Ponte de Legno.
The Gavia from this side is a staggering 17.3 kilometers long (10.8 miles) and climbs a mind-boggling 1363 meters (4200 feet) to a summit at 2621 meters (8600 feet) while averaging 7.9% grade. On the start line, the riders were met with heavy rain. But the forecast for the mountains was for much worse.
At the morning meeting for the team directors, it was reported that it was snowing at the top, but the road was clear. Armed with that information, the 7-Eleven directors hit the local ski shops for wool hats, polypro long underwear, and warm gloves. All the American riders would pack a musette with warm dry clothes for the descent as the race did NOT end on the summit but rather after a 25-kilometer descent into Bormio, at 1225 meters (4019 feet). Few of the teams would be as prepared for the savage conditions they would encounter.
1966 Giro d’Italia champion (and frame builder who had sponsored the first ever American Pro team to ride the Giro back in 1984) Gianni Motta had taken a liking to the 7-Eleven squad, and Andy Hampsten in particular. The Gavia had not been included in the Giro since 1960 when Luxembourg climbing legend Charlie Gaul won ahead of Jaques Anquetil, who would go on to win the stage. Motta kept telling Hampsten that the Italian riders didn’t know how hard this climb was and “The Gavia is your stage to take the maglia rosa”.
Hampsten, was well placed at 5th overall, only 1:18 down, and psyched to make a move. A stage winner on the mountain top finish at Selvino just two days earlier, he cast aside self-doubt springing from the miserable conditions, and decided to go “all out on the attack” and as he approached the Gavia. After a fairly pedestrian pace over the first two passes, he shed his leg warmers and extra jersies, but kept his neoprene gloves.
He reckoned the gear he jettisoned weighed about 10 kilos from the soaking rain. The whole team had slathered their entire bodies, not just legs, in Lanolin and Cramer. His teammates regularly brought him hot tea on the approach. His last man standing was none other than Bob Roll, who recounted in his “Bobke” book handing off a wool hat and telling his team captain to “give ‘em the stick!” Only Dutchman Erik Breukink, and Italians Flavio Giupponi, Marco Giovanetti, and Franco Chioccioli were left at the front with Hampsten, as Roll was dropped.
Hampsten was happy to be wearing the Blue Combined Classification jersey which was made of thick wool…notably the last year Castelli supplied wool leader’s jerseys to the Giro. Del Tongo-Colnago had set the pace on the front for their rider, Franco Chioccioli who was wearing the pink jersey, as the climb began and the rain turned to hail and then to snow.
Coming out of a left hand switchback, the road became dirt and pitched up to 16% with 10 kilometers still to climb and Hampsten attacked. He recalled that the dirt was soft and he was in 39×25, but he was used to riding the dirt back in Colorado and regularly rode his bike to school in the snow growing up in North Dakota. This was clearly HIS DAY.
Early attacker Johan Van der Velde of Holland, in a short sleeved wool jersey (the cyclamen points leader which he would hold to the finish), shorts, and shoe covers but shockingly without a hat or gloves was on the ride of his life. He would hit the summit 1:10 clear to claim the “Cima Coppi”, but forsake extra clothes in order to gain time on the descent, as the pink jersey was awaiting him in Bormio. After only 2 km of descending Bob Roll recounted that “he was on his knees in tears and savagely hypothermic”. In complete despair, he actually turned and rode BACK UP the climb seeking warm clothes. He would lose 47 minutes on this day and cover large portions of the descent on foot.
Hampsten took time 2 kilometers before the summit in the heavy snow to grab and a thermos of hot tea from a team soigneur. Hatless for most of the climb, when he brushed his hair off before donning the wool cap, he was shocked to feel a giant snowball roll down his back! Teammates Davis Phinney and Ron Kiefel felt that besides 7-Eleven, no one else was prepared for what was happening. The temperature at the summit was -4C (25F) and Breukink, who started the day in 7th, at 1:47 was next behind Hampsten, who slowed and swerved to get his musette from Ochowicz and pull on a rain cape. 43 seconds clear of Breukink, Hampsten’s struggles with his gear allowed the Dutchman with the iron constitution to nearly close. Breukink grabbed a cycling cap for the descent, but remarkably descended without a jacket or long fingered gloves.
The riders descended into a howling headwind from the north, with limited visibility (20-30 yards on a twisty, steep, narrow mountain road), derailleurs that were frozen in place, and hands so cold they could barely work the brake levers. Hampsten recalled that the gravel road was better for descending as it didn’t ice up, but riders found spectators and team staff wandering all over the road!
With the lead motorcycles stuck in the snow, many assumed the race was cancelled! He recalls trying to pedal to keep his legs moving and forestall hypothermia. At one point when he looked down at those legs, they were bright red and covered with ice! This was so upsetting that he vowed to not look down at them again! 10 km into the descent, the snow turned to rain and Andy’s team car made it up him. At about 6 k to go, Breukink shot past a near delirious Hampsten, almost waking him from a stupor, who noted he was going faster as he had no jacket. “But there was no bloody way I was taking my jacket off!” Both are braking and pedaling simultaneously and also shaking uncontrollably.
Hampsten would lose the stage by 7 seconds to Breukink but take pink and defend it all the way to the finish in Vittorio Veneto, with a 1:43 margin over the Panasonic man. When told he had taken the pink jersey, Hampsten first laughed then cried. His emotions were so intense, that he could only manage a few minutes of interviews and he then he just left. His most memorable quote was “This was incredible, I have never ridden in conditions like this, not even in Colorado. Today it was not sport, it was something beyond sport”.
Roll crossed the line “as blue as Paul Bunyan’s ox”, blacked out, and had to be resuscitated. Back in the hotel after an hour long shower, he went straight into bed…and while still frozen he witnessed “Andy’s beaming face, in a pink jersey” and thought he was seeing an angel! On this unforgettable day, the organizers rescinded the time limit, and allowed all finishers to remain classified. They shared a special bond, the rode over the Gavia in a blizzard, and survived a day that “made the big men cry”.
Photos Sergio Penazzo, Darcy Kiefel, Cor Vos, and Castelli image archives