The snow reminds me of a famous day in the Giro d'Italia, Italy's version of the Tour de France. On that day an American riding for an American Team won what most probably consider to be the most difficult stage of any European professional race in the modern era. He not only took the stage, but went on to be the first and only American ever to be the overall winner in the Giro.
The connection with snow is a bit surprising. It was June 5, 1988. The race was in the mountains that day, and one of them, Passo Gavia, was experiencing blizzard conditions. The mountain is a high one, 2652 meters, but even at that altitude, in Italy one does not expect a blizzard on June 5.
The American rider is Andy Hampsten, a sweet-natured, clean-living, child of the 70s who -- from appearance and personality -- doesn't seem likely to possess the iron will and indefatigable constitution needed to not just endure but overcome all opponents in mountainous ice and snow. He's a favorite of mine partly because there is no chance, none at all, that he ever used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. And partly also because we have pretty much the same body measurements and thus ride bikes of the same dimensions. It isn't too outrageous for me to fantasize being Andy.
As the accounts I cite below explain, his performance on the Gravia gave Andy a commanding lead in the competition for overall race leader, but he did not win the stage. The stage winner was Erik Breukink, current manager of my favorite professional team, Rabobank. His account of the day would also make an interesting read. The Dutch riders, such as he, and men of Flanders are notoriously hard men, well-adapted to cold, wet conditions they must endure in training for and racing the Spring Classics, Northern Europe's famous one-day races.
Andy gave lots of interviews describing his ordeal that day. One of the best appeared in 2003: Giro 1988: Andy's Epic Day, by Richard Pestes (PezCyclingNews). Give it a read. Here's the opener: "As part of our series on the Giro climbs, we asked Andy Hampsten to recount his epic day on the Passo Gavia in 1988. A day of unquestioned cycling history, Andy started the 17th stage of that Giro in second place, and despite the Italians pleading with him to ride “piano piano” over the last climb, he went on an epic attack that earned him the maglia rosa, and the only American win of Italy’s grand tour. Pull on your woolies – it’s gonna be a cold one … "
Here are some excerpts from other accounts he's given. Note his self-awareness. His modesty has nothing false about it and it's characteristic that he says he didn't win the Tour de France because there were always a handful of racers better than he; there's no hint that he believes he might have won if they, like he, were drug-free.
1. "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. As a bike racer. . . . It was really hard for me to turn pro and go to Europe. Coming from North Dakota and going all the way to Europe was what I was dreaming about the whole time, so I convinced myself to keep riding and keep racing all the way down the mountain. . . . The fans really appreciated the fact that it wasn't cancelled. It was kind of an end of an era where all the racers raced. Nowadays when the weather is bad sometimes a race gets cancelled. I'm not going to say that's good or bad."
2. "My personality is very good for bike racing. I like doing hard things ... sort of the monotonous beating my head against the wall. And that's the mentality it really takes to do the training to be a bike racer. Now, you know, looking back over the 10 years or so since I've retired, I have chilled out a lot. I don't tell myself everyday that it's another Gavia. I still like to work hard, but I also like to play pretty hard too. One thing I've learned is to not take things so seriously anymore. . . . Do I wish I were a bigger media icon? Personally, no. I tried to win the Tour de France every year I raced, and I didn't. I don't look at it as a failure. There were always three to five other riders faster than me. I'm glad I had all the opportunities that I did to try. I wanted to win the Tour because I respected it. That would have been the coolest accomplishment I could have achieved, and I'm glad I focused on it instead of trying to win more one day races. I wouldn't wish being as famous as Lance Armstrong on anybody. Knowing the way I am, that's not the way I would want it to be. I'd rather just be out riding my bike. . . . [On the descent from the top of the Gavia], at about 6km to go, Breukink caught me, but I was totally blocked and could not respond. Breukink had no rain jacket on, just a jersey, so he could descend faster on the long straight drop into Bormio. There was no bloody way I was going to take my jacket off. . . . After I crossed the finish line, I headed straight for our 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. Mike Neel came over and straightened me out and got me 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 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. The TV interviews began and I remember saying 'Incredible, I have never seen conditions like this, even in Colorado. Today it was not sport, it was something beyond sport.'"
This is Andy on the Gravia.
This is one of his struggling opponents.
Here is Erik Breukink.
Andy in the pink jersey of the overall leader after the Gravia had given him a commanding lead. Click image to view full size.
Here are newspaper accounts from that time. Click to view full size.
There's a YouTube video of some Gravia footage, but it mostly concerns Pedro Delgado, another famous rider, and the images are very fuzzy.