Cold comfort: Hampsten's day on the Gavia

Andy Hampsten suffered on the Gavia but was rewarded with victory in Italy's biggest race

Andy Hampsten suffered on the Gavia but was rewarded with victory in Italy's biggest race (Image credit: Darcy Kiefel)

By Jason Sumner

It was the greatest victory of his career, but what Andy Hampsten had to endure on the Passo Gavia in order to secure the 1988 Giro d'Italia, no man would envy. As the racers in this year's Giro prepare to tackle this beast of a climb, the winner of the Corsa Rosa re-lives that day.

You know those cheesy motivational posters that picture extreme situations captioned by inspirational slogans such as "Perseverance", "Teamwork" or "Integrity"? Well, there ought to be such a poster from stage 14 of the 1988 Giro d'Italia that reads simply "Guts".

If you follow cycling with even a casual eye, you've probably already seen the perfect image for the poster. It's a slightly blurred photo of Andy Hampsten nearing the top of Italy's famous Passo Gavia. His head and shoulders are covered in snow, his legs bare and pinkish, revealing the effects of the bitter chill. Cars sit just off Hampsten's back wheel, and it's not hard to imagine the American coming to his senses, tossing aside his bike, and jumping into one of those cars.

Of course, that's not what happened. Instead the waif-like climber from the American-based 7-Eleven team ploughed on, cresting the top of the 2621m summit, then surviving the bone-chilling 25km descent on the other side. This truly heroic effort was good enough for second place on the stage behind Dutchman Erik Breukink, and it pushed Hampsten to the top of the overall standings, a position he never relinquished on his way to becoming the first non-European (and still the only American) to win the Italian grand tour.

This year, the Gavia is back in the race route, serving as the opening salvo on stage 20 – a brutal, 224km run that also includes ascents of the Mortirolo and to Aprica. No doubt this will be a hard day and may also decide the race, but it's unlikely that the 2008 edition will inflict the pain Mother Nature unleashed on the peloton 20 years ago. Only those who were there truly know the extent of the suffering, and few know it better than Hampsten.

In March, Procycling sat down with the man in the famous photo. Hampsten is now a 45-year-old father of one who prefers snowboarding to bike riding on wintry days. But when the weather is good, his lean, fit frame is a dead giveaway that he still gets out on the bike two or three times a week.

Hampsten splits time between the comfortable confines of his log-cabin house in Boulder, Colorado, and Italy's Tuscan countryside, which is base of operations for his Cinghiale Cycling Tours company. Indeed, ever since the Ohio native made his European racing debut at the 1985 Giro, Italy has occupied a precious place in his heart.

That race is where we begin, as the legendary Andy Hampsten gives us a privileged peek inside one of cycling's most select clubs: The Men Who Survived That Day On The Gavia.

Read the full interview.

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