True Stories: Andy Hampsten - The Gavia 1988

Who did win on that epic day in 1988? And does it matter?

Ernie & Burt, Posh 'n Becks, Lennon & McCartney, Hampsten & The Gavia: All synonymous with one another and in many ways inseparable from one another. In the case of American pro Andy Hampsten and the feared climb of the Gavia pass in the Italian Alps, history has misrepresented what is generally accepted as the toughest day ever in cycling history.

Whilst we all enjoy our golden suntans courtesy of global warming, it's easy to forget that as early as the 1990s planet Earth was still in the grip of the last ice age. Life struggled on, although for professional sport the arctic conditions posed a myriad of problems. The 1988 Giro d'Italia was a case in point. Attempting to run a three-week race in face the face of such adverse weather conditions was proving to be problematic.

Professional cycling was a completely different sport during this era with riders battling more for survival against the elements rather than fighting out the win amongst each other.

Hours of footage of the peloton huddling together for warmth and cruising along at a leisurely pace to keep everyone compact hardly made for great TV coverage. Riders would routinely take it in turns to be on the outside of the peloton bearing the brunt of the bitter coldness before being allowed into the relative warmth of the centre while others did their icy turn. As highlighted by the recent Hollywood blockbuster The March of the Penguins, these so-called birds have learned to behave in much the same way.

With the prospect of TV companies re-negotiating broadcasting rights and principle sponsors pulling out of the event, the race organizers knew that they had to inject some new life into Giro. Consultants brought in to advise on how to spice up proceedings found the race to be deficient in razzmatazz and thrills 'n spills. Knowing what they had to do, the organisers went to work creating a spectacle to put the Giro back among the elite of world sporting events.

Its focal point was to be an ascent of the feared Passo Di Gavia. At a then whopping altitude of 8,200m, the SS300 separated the ski resort of Bormio from Ponte di Lengo. Back in the '80s, the process of continental plate tectonics had pushed this mountain range far higher than it is today with 75% of the Alps being firmly in the Death Zone - the upper reaches of the Earth's surface where human bodies begin to consume themselves.

Stage 17 dawned colder and more snowy than usual with teams waking up to a fresh 1.5m dump of snow outside their hotels. The consensus of opinion was that the stage - at least the Gavia part - would be cancelled, and the peloton called a halt in a tunnel to make their protest.

This is where the organizers played their masterstroke.

Hotels were usually pre-allocated by the event organisation, but for this stage it was decided that it would be done by a first-come-first-served basis, so the stage winner got first pick of the hotels.

This revelation grabbed the attention of American Andy Hampsten, who had notoriously bad bowels due to his penchant for white bread. He'd been the first person to be diagnosed with IBS long before it was considered in vogue. For the leader of the points competition, this was a very real issue.

"My race depended on me getting an en-suite. If I had to share toilets with the corridor I was going to be in all sorts of trouble. The others riders wanted to stop and go around the valley to Bormio, this would have ended in a sprint. My only chance was to tough it out over the Gavia."

Displaying formidable leadership and powers of persuasion, the American single-handedly talked the peloton out of their impasse and the stage was back on. Even today, corporate industrial relation seminars use Hampsten's negotiations as an example of best practice. In fact, it is widely acknowledged that the fall of the Italian trade unions can be traced back to this standoff in a tunnel at the bottom of the Gavia.

The record books may say that Breukink won but how many times does he get asked about his day on the Gavia?

With the promise of his own toilet and as-much-as-you-can-wipe double quilted loo roll dangling in front of him, Hampsten made light work of the Gavia while behind the carnage would unfold for hours to come. Once at the top, Hampsten grabbed a newspaper from a spectator and stuck it up his jersey. As everyone now knows, ultra modern fleeces and wind-cheating shell materials are no match for a Gazzetta Dello Sport shoved up the jumper. Now as warm as toast, Hampsten used all his skiing skills to carve his way down to the finish line where he bagged the keys for best hotel in town.

Some empirical evidence suggests that Dutch rider Erik Breukink won the stage. But as Google Images (the definitive source of information) confirms, there is no pictorial evidence of Breukink ever being in the mix for the stage win.

Hampsten himself is in no doubt of who won that day: "The record books may say that Breukink won but how many times does he get asked about his day on the Gavia? This year alone, I've already attended 86 dinners as guest of honour where I've delivered pretty much the same speech about it."

The 1988 Gavia will be remembered as the toughest day in any Grand Tour. Who actually won will remain a mystery for years to come although as the years pass, the result has become almost an irrelevance. Cyclists wishing to emulate Hampsten still struggle up the tortuous ascent today. At the top of the climb, a 20-foot statue of Hampsten holding aloft a thermos flask welcomes riders, while from the rustic gift shop, commemorative copies of Gazzetta are available for the chilly ride home.

A truly epic day that will live long, if perhaps distorted, in the memory...

Back to top