From the pages of Velo: Hampsten’s Giro: ‘I was so happy to survive’

We visit the Velo archives for this interview with Andy Hampsten from the morning after his unbelievable ride over the Gavia in the 1988 Giro d'Italia

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Editor’s Note: The following interview appeared in the July 22, 1988 issue of Velo-News. We revisit the story of Andy Hampsten’s 1988 Giro d’Italia on the cusp of Ryder Hesjedal’s attempt at becoming the second North American to win the Italian grand tour.

Not in half a century has there been a stage in a major tour as dramatic and decisive as the 14th stage of the Tour of Italy on June 5.

Three factors contributed to the drama: an unseasonable day of continuous rain that turned to snow above 6,000 feet; the horrifically steep climb and descent of the 8,600-foot Gavia Pass (with long stretches of dirt road); and the wide-open state of the race. Just three minutes covered the first nine riders on overall time.

At the heart of this drama was a 26-year-old American named Andy Hampsten. He eventually placed second in the stage, seven seconds behind Erik Breukink. But more importantly, Hampsten ended the day clothed in the fabled maglia rosa, or pink jersey, as leader of the Giro.

What was it like to battle the worst conditions possible on a mountain pass that is regarded as the toughest in Italy — maybe in all of Europe? I visited Hampsten the next morning in his hotel room in Bormio. This was how he described the event, one that has already entered the legend of bike racing.

Velo-News: What did you know about the conditions on the Gavia Pass?
Hampsten: Coming down the first descent we were told that the Pass was open. I wouldn’t have been surprised — although very disappointed — if it had been closed. I was already cold coming down the first descent. I think everyone was. Although that was nothing — nothing — compared to the Gavia.

So I started to prepare myself for the conditions. Nobody told me it was snowing up there, but I was certain it was as bad as it was. And I’ve certainly never raced in anything like yesterday.

I even told Bob [Roll] to prepare himself for an absolute epic. He thought I meant that the climb was going to be so hard, but I wasn’t concerned about the climb. I was really looking forward to it, because I heard it was dirt and steep. We train on that [terrain] all the time on our beat rides [in Boulder]. Also, Massimo [Testa, the team doctor] has gone skiing here a lot, and he told me about the road. I was more concerned about the descent and the summit, because I knew it was fairly flat at the top. And I was certain the conditions were going to be bad.

V-N: Is that why you put Vaseline on before the stage? Whose idea was that?
Hampsten: That was Mike [Neel, the team director’s] idea. It’s a big team joke — you’ve got to grease up. I had anti-cold cream and Vaseline everywhere on my body, even my face. I didn’t wear too many clothes. All I wore was a longsleeve polypropylene shirt and my wool jersey and a raincoat over that.

Coming down the first descent I decided I wasn’t going to get rid of too many clothes because it was going to be so cold. Also, we were very well prepared. Not only did Mike have extra clothes in his follow car, we also had Jim Ochowicz at the top with a musette for the descent.

I changed my mind again and I decided — even though I knew the descent was more important than the climb — I was going to get rid of all extra clothing. Bob took back my rain jacket, wool hat, and shoe covers. They gave me an extra rain jacket and rain hat, but I even threw those away on the climb. The only thing I kept that was warm was my neoprene gloves, because I knew that starting the climb I’d be fairly warm, but toward the top my hands would be too cold to put on my gloves. So I kept them on.

At the top, after Jim had given me the musette, I managed to get on a balaclava, a wool hat, and a plastic rain jacket. I lost a lot of time trying to put it all on and Breukink caught me. It was windy and I was pretty uncoordinated and clumsy. And it was hard riding. But [the extra clothes] absolutely saved me.

On the descent I was hoping to catch [Johan] Van der Velde and descend with him. But I didn’t even worry about that. I was going really hard on the climb, but the summit wasn’t my goal. I was just thinking, “Stay in control.” I tried to shut out everything and [I said to myself], try to put some clothes on and make it down the descent.

I think I’ve blocked out most of yesterday. Descending is a very vague image, because if I try to visualize it all I see are clouds anyways. It’s kind of sad, because I’ve almost blocked out the greatest ride of my career.

It was absolutely shocking what I did. I think if I ever ride or drive back up the Gavia Pass and realize how fast I went down it in those conditions, I’d scare myself silly.

V-N: Were you using your brakes much?
Hampsten: I was controlling my speed with the brakes, but I wasn’t really [using them much].

I was looking for road signs and marshals. Everything was fairly blurred together. I couldn’t see where the road was going to go until 100 or maybe 50 meters before me. I was looking for road signs. So every time it said tornante [turn], and every time it had a radical arrow, I would slow down.

My bike was working beautifully. I did have brakes. But really, I let the bike go, just led it, and really went on automatic. I didn’t have the vision to look for potholes, even though it was a gravel road with rocks all over.

I couldn’t look for potholes, rocks, or obstacles. I was only concentrating on figuring out what was a curve and what was a gentle bend. And I was only putting on the brakes if it was a curve.

It’s hard for me to say, but maybe I didn’t go that fast. But nothing passed me. It was really weird. For a while I thought I was on the wrong road because there were no lead vehicles. There was no frame of reference. Everything was stationary. There were no clues that there was a race as I was coming past.

I remember a Carrera support person with a pair of wheels on the gravel part of the descent in a parka. He was just walking up the road against the storm. It wasn’t a race anymore.

I was going by spectators with umbrellas just walking down the middle of the road. They didn’t know I was in the race. I was passing policemen on motorcycles going 10km/hr. I was just going — whoosh — past them.

V-N: What about VanderVelde?
Hampsten: He was with me for a while. I caught him just when the descent started, with Breukink. The three of us were together. Then Van der Velde disappeared. I think he pulled over. He had nothing on. It was insane.

I can remember being behind Breukink for maybe 500 meters at the beginning, even drafting with him. I was thinking, “this is great, maybe we can work together and put on some time.” But right away I wanted to get ahead of him.

I was pedaling as hard as I could just to get my legs moving. And after those 500 meters I forgot about him. I wasn’t really racing against him. I had this camaraderie with him, like “Is there someway we can help each other down?” But there wasn’t. It was every man for himself. And I didn’t want to fall prey to one of his mistakes. I’d rather take my own risks.

So, as fast as my bike wanted to go down the mountain, I let it go. I think I probably got a pretty good gap, because at 15km to go — I saw the sign — it was still terrible conditions, still snow everywhere. And somewhere before l0km it changed to rain, and then my vision was fine.

V-N: Did you have glasses on?
Hampsten: I had glasses, which really saved me. Whenever I dared —when the road wasn’t too bumpy — I’d wipe the crust of snow off. And then I’d have to pull them away from my face a bit so they wouldn’t fog up so much. The balaclava I had on caused the heat to rise.

I put clear lenses in. Once I thought maybe I shouldn’t wear them and I pulled them down. And the snow just sandblasted me. My glasses were fogged over on the side, which I couldn’t clean. They had grease from my gloves, which were greasy from my legs. There was a terrible film on them, so everything was a blur. But I could keep my eyes open.

V-N: Had you put shoe covers on again?
Hampsten: No, I took those off on the bottom of the climb. My feet were cold on the way up. And on the way down I remember on one of the hairpins in the snow on the paved road — before it turned to rain — I looked down at my legs. I couldn’t get a clear idea of what they were like. I knew they were going around, and that they stung a bit, which I knew was good. They weren’t totally numb. I made sure I kept spinning. But they were bright red and they had chunks of ice everywhere. Just that one glance terrified me. I’d never seen my body look like that and I refused to look down after that. I remember coming out of a hairpin — I couldn’t feel my feet at all — but I flipped my ankles as I was pumping my gears out of the comer just to make sure they weren’t locked shut. I really had no idea what had happened to my lower body.

And then on the fast downhill part I was pedaling as hard as I could, just with the fear that if I didn’t my legs would just lock up. I didn’t have a huge force. I tried to do my Roy Knickman imitation and tuck down the hill, and I think Breukink thought that out quicker than I did and passed me. I couldn’t respond at all when he came by. This was about 6km to go.

By now I’m beginning to snap out of it a bit, thinking, “Okay, I think you’re gonna make it. It’s raining, it’s not snowing.”

I was thinking the whole way down, for 25km, each kilometer it’s warmer. So get down there as soon as you can. And at this point I’m starting to think about the race. I’m starting to think, “Wow, I might actually win this race.” And it wasn’t until 6km to go that I thought that I was in a bike race instead of just trying to survive the most wretched thing I’d ever done.

And then I just [thought], “Goddamn, I want to win this race.” But that was just a momentary thought. I was just so, so happy that I’d survived it.

It’s not as if I could have gone any faster, or I thought I could have been any quicker. I’m just so proud of myself, as I am of everyone who finished, just to make it to the line.

V-N: Neel bad been blocked by Van der Velde’s team car. Were you conscious of the fact that be wasn’t there behind you for most of the descent?
Hampsten: I can’t imagine how any car could have [gone as fast as us]. For the more than 10km I was descending in the snow, I saw no vehicle. There’s no way I would have wanted a vehicle anywhere near me. If I could have truly seen the road I would have been terrified. And in a car, I should imagine, it was an awful descent.

But I was sorry for the spectators. It was amazing how many people were up there.

V-N: What happened in the last 6km? Did Breukink just take off?
Hampsten: Breukink went right past me. I never saw him, and I really didn’t look back except a couple of times. And I really didn’t see anything.

Then [race director Vincenzo] Torriani came out of somewhere in his car. And there were motorcycles. And it was, “Oh yeah, this is the Giro.” And then it started to look like the finish of a Giro stage, even though there was no helicopter. And it was fast, downhill.

Then I started checking what gear I was in, and comparing it to my speedometer to see if my legs were performing the way they usually do. Things were okay. My legs were really numb. They didn’t respond, but I could wind them up more and more. And even though they weren’t responding to what I was telling them to do, they were doing all right.

I had no snap at all to go with Breukink. He passed me at maybe 5km/hr faster than I was going. There was nothing I could do. But I just took a few breaths and made sure I didn’t crack. I just went as fast as I could a little ways behind him.

I was really happy in the final little uphill. I kept it in the big ring and maybe a 19 or so in the back. I was just happy that I could force my body to ride, happy that my body was functioning.

After the race I was just an emotional ruin. I remember I went up to the podium to try to do the TV interview and I just left. I couldn’t handle it. I went back to the car and hyperventilated — the car was nice and hot — and sat there. Emotionally I was on fire. I cried. I dried myself off a little bit and put on some more clothes. And after 10 minutes I was okay.

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