We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming -- NBA and NHL playoffs, baseball in full swing -- to celebrate one of the coolest performances in the history of cycling. Literally.
The Giro d'Italia, one of cycling's three grand (three-week) tours, is currently unspooling across Italy. This 96th version of the Giro marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most dramatic upsets in cycling history, a smart, insanely courageous ride by a talented climber from ... the plains of North Dakota. Before he won the 1988 Giro, Andy Hampsten had plenty of rough days racing the amateur circuit in Italy.
He and his fellow Americans, many of whom would become his 7-Eleven teammates, often crashed in the bunks on the third floor of a working class joint called the Bar Augusto, outside the ancient walls of Bergamo, in northern Italy.
Augusto, who ran the place, was mad for cycling. Framed jerseys hung from the walls of his bar, including a maglia rosa -- the pink jersey sported by the Giro's race leader -- once worn by the legendary Fausto Coppi. After long and often discouraging days in the saddle, Hampsten and the Yanks would stare at those jerseys, and reflect on the vast gap between them and I Grandi -- The Greats.
Behind the bar, chained in the driveway, skulked a sullen guard dog. "If guys were having a really bad day," Hampsten recalls, "they would say they were 'as miserable as Augusto's dog.'"
The Giro offers up large helpings of such misery. "I despise it in some ways," defending Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins told reporters on the eve of this year's race. "But there is an attraction ..." With its obscene gradients -- riders wince at the mention of the Stelvio, the Mortirolo, the Colle del Finestre -- and the sometimes ridiculously long transfers between stages, the Giro often seems more sadistic than the terrible beauty that is Le Tour.
Yet Wiggins and other cycling purists cannot stay away. Like the haunting portrait of Kramer in the Seinfeld episode "The Letter" ("He is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can't look away"), the Giro remains oddly irresistible. They appreciate the visuals and vibe of the event -- more beautiful than the Tour, yet less full of itself -- and the passion of the tifosi, the Italian cycling fans whose knowledge and reverence for this sport is unmatched in other countries.
Which explains why Hampsten is better known in Italy than he is in North Dakota.
Should Wiggins win -- he lurked in sixth place after five stages -- he'll be the first Briton to win the Giro. This will happen a quarter century after Hampsten became the first American to win the same race. It's not quite accurate to say that his feat has been largely forgotten in this country, because that would imply that that people knew about it in the first place.
Plenty of mainstream American sports fans can only name a single cyclist. As it happens, Lance Armstrong and Hampsten were Motorola teammates in the mid-'90s, Armstrong in the dawn of his career, Hampsten in the twilight of his. The rising tide of EPO was forcing riders to make an excruciating decision. Hampsten retired, at the relatively early age of 34, rather than dope. Armstrong took a different path.
While the sordid revelations in USADA's Reasoned Decision diminished Armstrong, stripping the luster from his feats, it had the opposite effect on Hampsten, who left the sport he loved rather than cheat to stay in it. The more we learn about what was going on in those days, the more heroic he looks.
Two elements in particular made Hampsten's Giro victory especially epic. He rode for a pioneering 7-Eleven team that had only been racing in Europe since '85. The hamburgervreters (hamburger eaters), as some Euros called them, had not been warmly welcomed. American riders were considered greenhorns, and reflexively blamed for crashes, whether they were at fault or not. The Yanks raised eyebrows by bringing a female soigneur -- a woman! -- and stepped on toes in a score of other, minor ways. That willingness to break with Euro cycling tradition helped Hampsten win.
He took the lead on a day so historic that it has two nicknames. Stage 14 of the '88 Giro took riders over the legendary Gavia, a long, wickedly steep and partially unpaved mountain whose upper reaches, according to local lore, were prowled by wolves. The peloton arrived at the base of the Gavia just as it was eclipsed by a late-spring blizzard. Hampsten's daring attack in the snow remains one of the most dramatic days of riding in the annals of the sport. The tifosi still refer to it as "Il Giorno Della Neve" -- The Day of Snow. It's also known as "The Day the Big Men Cried."
By 1988 it had been nearly two decades since the race had traversed the Passo di Gavia. To increase the chances of Italian riders like Francesco Moser and Beppe Saronni, race officials had avoided the storied passes made famous by Coppi and Gino Bartoli.
With Moser not contesting the '88 Giro, that unofficial policy came to an end. As if to compensate, recalls Bob Roll, a member of Hampsten's 7-Eleven team, "Those sons of bitches put every mountain they could find in the race that year." Including the Gavia.
On the eve of the race Hampsten was approached by Gianni Motta, a former Giro winner who'd befriended the Americans. This mountainous edition of the race, Motta told his young friend, was custom made for him. Specifically, Motta went on, there was a climb the other riders and directors were underestimating. He urged Hampsten to attack on the 14th stage, on the Gavia.
When Hampsten thanked him politely, Motta bore in, "Hey, I'm not bulls----ing you. These guys" -- other directors, other riders -- "think it's just another climb."
Team Slurpee, as the 7-Eleven team was nicknamed, knew the Gavia was not just another climb. They positioned team doctor Max Testa, whose family had rented a ski house in Bormio, on the far side of the Gavia, where Stage 14 would finish. Another 7-Eleven rider, Davis Phinney, wrote in his book The Happiness of Pursuit (co-authored with this reporter):
"For years, Max had been wearing us out with talk of this obscene climb, this glorified goat track, with its ominous headstones -- memorials to loved ones who left the road, and this earth, in that order. He spoke of the backside of the mountain, a perpetually chilled valley seldom penetrated by the sun. Max was warning us to bundle up for the descent side of the Gavia even before we got the weather report for June 5, 1988.
"It was atrocious."
Hampsten wasn't scared of a little snow, having grown up in North Dakota, then moving to Boulder, Col. In 1985, at the age of 22, he was riding for a domestic team called Levi's/Raleigh, when Team 7-Eleven cofounder Jim Ochowicz made him an offer. The team had wrangled an invitation to the '85 Giro, and "Och" needed a climber for the race, so he signed Hampsten to a one-month contract. His first pro race in Europe would be the Giro d'Italia.
It was the equivalent of making the jump from Double-A ball to the Majors, then debuting in the NLCS. During a mountain stage a week into the race, he was thrilled to find himself hanging with the lead group ... until the final climb, when he lost 15 minutes. As Hampsten recalls, "I spent a lot of the rest of the Giro wondering, 'Will I be good enough to be a pro racer?'"
He would be, as it turned out. He needed to be patient, and ride himself into better shape. Stage 20 was short: a 40-kilometer drag race through the castle-studded Aosta valley, followed by a sharp left turn and an 18-kilometer climb to a peak called Gran Paradiso. Because the stage was so similar to a time trial, Hampsten showed up at the start line rocking a one-piece skinsuit, slightly more aerodynamic than his regular kit. The new guy's unitard provoked some snickering from the Europeans.
No one laughed when Hampsten launched a vicious attack a kilometer into the climb; his rivals were too busy gasping for breath. At the base of the mountain, a Spanish rider had shot ahead. As he was overtaken, the peloton relaxed ever so slightly. Hampsten chose that moment to strike, floating away from the best climbers in the world. The rookie won the stage by nearly a minute. After that, no one gave him grief about his skinsuit.
By the time he approached the base of the Gavia three years later, Hampsten had lost the element of surprise. He'd earned a reputation as one of the elite climbers in the sport. Following his stunning debut at the '85 Giro, he'd signed with Greg LeMond's team, La Vie Claire, which was one of the top outfits in the world. He won the rugged, weeklong Tour of Switzerland in '86 and '87 -- with La Vie Claire and 7-Eleven, respectively.
Now, in the '88 Giro, he was once again riding into top form. Two days before the Gavia, he'd dropped a select group of climbers as if he were brushing lint off his lapel, then soloed to a mountaintop stage win in Selvino.
"I was excited for the Gavia stage," he recalls, "which is why I was pretty freaked out when it was snowing that morning."
The race started that day in the village of Chiesa Val Malenco, at an elevation of just over 3,000 feet. The Gavia tops out at 8,600. That morning, a Giro official informed team directors that it was snowing on the mountain, but that the roads were clear. Conditions were not icy. It was cold, but not dangerous, he said. The race was on.
At the direction of Ochowicz and team director Mike Neel, 7-Eleven riders fanned out around the village, buying warm clothes, which would be distributed to the riders a kilometer from the summit. Those garments were to keep them, if not warm, at least sentient, on what promised to be the most agonizing descent of their lives.
Not every team went to such lengths. It was cycling. It was the Giro. You were supposed to suffer. The European tradition of bike racing embraced the code of the "hard man." The Americans weren't afraid to suffer. But they weren't steeped so deeply in that macho ethic. So they prepared for the descent. It was one thing to be a hard man. It was another to be frozen stiff.
At Neel's insistence, riders also covered themselves in lanolin, or wool grease, a moisture-repelling unguent favored by channel swimmers. Hampsten rode the entire 120 kilometers in a pair of cumbersome, neoprene diving gloves. It didn't matter how many extra clothes he had if his fingers froze, and he couldn't put them on.
There was loud grumbling as riders mustered for the start in a pelting rain. Many wanted the stage to be shortened, or canceled. As the peloton pressed on through the Valtellina Valley, en route to the Gavia, several riders asked Hampsten, hopefully, "You're not going to attack today, are you?"
When those guys drifted back, Hampsten directed his teammates to ride faster.
After passing through the little town of Ponte de Legno, the peloton banked left, over an old, wooden bridge, and the grade kicked up to three or four percent. Soon after, the rain turned to snow.
Back in the hotel, Testa had told the team about a spot where the well-maintained, two-lane road would jog left, through a stand of old pines. The road would narrow to a single lane, then turn to dirt, Testa had told them. "There will be a sign that says 'Narrow Road, 16 percent.'"
And that's where Hampsten lit his fuse, to the surprise of no one. "All my competitors were watching me," he says. "They knew I was going to attack." He had little choice, in that moment, than to "take the big stick and swing it."
He still got away. At that point, the Gavia is so steep and the switchbacks are so tight, piling up on one another, that Hampsten was able to peer down, as if looking down a stairwell, to take the measure of his rivals, who were in disarray. He'd put a serious hurt on them.
Ahead of him was a Dutchman named Johan van der Velde, who'd launched an earlier kamikaze attack, hurling himself into the blizzard. Van der Velde's problem was that the storm was coming from the north, meaning the weather would be markedly worse on the descent.
By this time the snow had begun to accumulate on the road. Running his hand over his hair at one point, Hampsten recalls, he felt a big snowball roll down his back. Team cars were spinning out and zigzagging, forcing riders to steer a course around them.
At the top, Hampsten donned a plastic rain jacket, a neck gaiter and balaclava hat. Bormio was 25 kilometers away. From the number on the little chalkboard -- the time gap displayed to him by the man on the motorcycle -- he knew he'd opened up a substantial gap on his main rivals. "And I knew the descent would be everything."
"Twenty-five kilometers," Roll told himself. "I can do anything for 25 kilometers. But after 500 meters I was a block of ice." A knifing crosswind blew snow nearly horizontal. Navigating the switchbacks with compromised vision and brakes proved not just challenging but dangerous, with one missed turn sending riders off steep pitches. Phinney frequently resorted to pulling his foot out of the pedal and slowing himself "Fred Flintstone-style."
Around him was misery on a scale rarely seen even in this suffering-intensive sport. Shivering, unable to continue, Van der Velde had made it two clicks down the mountain before he had to be helped to a team car, where he sat sipping cognac and hot tea. He lost 47 minutes to the leaders. Aussie rider Allan Peiper borrowed a motorcycle jacket from a team trainer for the descent. He later recounted passing "riders who were crying, and some who were walking in ones and twos, the snow blinding their vision and cold sapping their courage." For his part, Peiper found courage in the two shots of cognac offered him by another trainer.
Among those brought low was Visentini, who'd won the '86 Giro but lost the race on this foul day. "Visentini and Saronni were reduced to tears of pain," wrote John Wilcockson of VeloNews, who was on the mountain that day. "We watched Visentini coasting downhill like a rag doll at a quarter the speed he would normally descend."
Italy's Franco Chioccioli had started the day in pink, nursing a half-minute lead over Visentini and a 78-second advantage over Hampsten. Chioccioli did not do well in the cold. "He looked like he was crying for his mother," recalls Roll. "I rode seven grand tours, and after awhile they start to run together a little. But I remember every mile of that stage."
"A lot of the Italian riders had fans and family on the side of the road, so they got into cars to warm up. We didn't know anybody," he said of the 7-Eleven crew. "We just kept soldiering through."
Twelve kilometers down from the summit, at the village of Santa Caterina, the snow turned to rain. "That means it's at least 32 degrees," Hampsten told himself. "You're really warming up now!"
In fact he was suffering deeply, as was every rider on the mountain that day. "It was by far the farthest my mind has ever pushed my body."
Seven kilometers from the finish he was overtaken by Eric Breukink, a Dutch rider who crossed the line seven seconds ahead of him. For his part, Hampsten rode into the maglia rosa. Chioccioli -- who argues to this day that the stage should've been cancelled -- lost more than six minutes to Hampsten. Visentini ceded a half-hour.
Weeping, shivering riders had to be prised from their bikes at the finish line. Stalactites of ice hung like tusks from the mustache of Polish rider Lech Piasecki. Bob Roll finished the stage in 24th place but in bad shape. He was barely coherent, his heart rate a dangerously low 27 beats per minute. Deeply concerned, Testa stashed him in the only warm quarters near the finish line -- the room where the podium girls were primping before the awards ceremony.
Testa left Roll stretched out on the floor with a blanket over him. Upon his return, he found the gap-toothed rider sitting up, sipping his tenth espresso, and chatting up the young ladies. "He came around quite nicely," recalls the doctor.
The next day, the local paper ran a front page photo of Hampsten and Breukink, each with an arm on the other's shoulder, under the headline, "I Lupi del Gavia" -- The Wolves of the Gavia.
After donning the jersey and posing with Breukink and submitting to interviews, Hampsten sat alone in a team car, heaters blasting, and wept.
There are more stories to be written about the week of racing that remained, but let it suffice to say that Hampsten hung on, despite the immense pressure he felt; despite losing the jersey on the road in Stage 19. On a day featuring a trio of Dolomites, 7-Eleven allowed Urs Zimmerman to escape. The dangerous Swiss rider built a gap of seven minutes before Hampsten and the Slurpee quartet of Roll, Raul Alcala, Jeff Pierce and Ron Kiefel buried themselves for 100 kilometers, limiting the damage to three minutes. Hampsten kept the jersey.
He kept it through the final stage, a time trial in Vittorio Veneto. After holding the trophy aloft, Hampsten handed it to a rotund plutocrat named Ernesto Dell'Oglio, owner of Hoonved, a manufacturer of industrial washing machines. Hoonved was 7-Eleven's European sponsor. A bighearted, sentimental fellow, Dell'Oglio had been sponsoring cycling teams for decades, but never gotten so much as a sniff of the Giro trophy which, now that it was in his grasp, he could not bring himself to release.
"He's in all the pictures," says Roll, "because he wouldn't let go of the trophy."
The team dispersed the next day. In the Tour de France two years later, Hampsten attacked his fellow escapees on the slopes of the Alpe d'Huez, and stayed away. He won that stage, and finished fourth in that Tour.
But he never won another grand tour, and retired from cycling in 1996, at the age of 34.
"My due date was up," he says. But that's not exactly true. At 34 he was still lean and fit, and wily as ever, but he hadn't won an important race in at least two years. The riders around him had changed; EPO had turned average Joes into superheroes. Hampsten rode for a Spanish team called Banesto in '95, and recalls a screaming match he had with an assistant director incensed by the lack of "professionalism" Hampsten was exhibiting by refusing to dope. The team official urged him to take "just a little something," that he might "reclaim his rightful place in the peloton."
Who knows how many victories went unclaimed? Did he have regrets?
"I really don't," he says. "Psychologically, [doping] would have come at such a cost. It would've taken such a toll on me. I had a good career. It was enough."
After he and Team Slurpee clinched the '88 Giro, they piled into team cars and headed west on the autostrada toward Bergamo, where they burst triumphantly through the doors of the Bar Augusto, and were embraced as conquering heroes. Hampsten's pink jersey was raised, and he took his rightful place among The Greats.