By John Wilcockson

If there were any doubts that Andy Hampsten was entitled to the 1988 Giro’s pink jersey, they would be exposed on the crucial stage 18, an individual 18km mountain time trial from Levico Terme up to the ski station of Vetriolo Terme. With Frenchman Jean-François Bernard out of the race because of a crash the previous day, the logical favorites for the stage win were the other top climber/time trialists: Hampsten, Erik Breukink, Urs Zimmermann and Roberto Visentini.

There was enormous pressure on race leader Hampsten and his Dutch challenger, Breukink, who were separated by only 42 seconds on overall time. Whoever came out on top on this stage would be in great position to win the Giro.

The battle of nerves between the two was accentuated by their sharing the same hotel in Levico — seeing each other at dinner and breakfast, and knowing what each other was thinking and doing. “The pressure even got to me,” said the 7-Eleven-Hoonved team director Mike Neel, who was looking after Hampsten in the long hours leading up to his time trial late in the day.

“I started freaking out, and I had to go and lie down in my bedroom at 1 in the afternoon. I was shaking, as if I was on drugs,” Neel continued. “But Andy was very calm. After riding up the hill in the morning he went to his room, reading a book and listening to music. And when we reached the start we parked in a shady back street, and Andy warmed up on the rollers. He was super calm — but as soon as the race started he came alive.”

The 7-Eleven team had prepared things to perfection. After inspecting the course, Hampsten chose chainrings of 53 and 42 (instead of the usual 39-tooth inner ring), and an eight-speed freewheel 13-14-15-16-17-18-19-21. Hampsten also followed his Italian team doctor Massimo Testa’s advice for the time trial, keeping his heart rate at 180 beats per minute (this race pre-dated power meters), and riding with a calm intensity that he had rarely displayed before.

The opening 5km was on flat streets in Levico before the course turned right and headed up the mountain. It climbs through 3,055 vertical feet in 11.2km, averaging 8.4 percent, via a dozen switchbacks. Hampsten started strongly and was already four seconds faster than Breukink before starting the main climb. The lean American then continued to gain time on his main rival. Halfway up the hill he was 16 seconds ahead of Breukink … and when he sprinted in a 53×16 gear along the flattish finishing straight the time gap was an impressive 1:04.

Not only did he crush Breukink but Hampsten also won the stage in 43:37 to beat a host of the world’s best climbers: 1986 Giro winner Visentini was second, at 0:32; Zimmermann was fourth at 0:52; future Giro and Vuelta a España champ Tony Rominger was sixth, at 1:39 and that year’s Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado was seventh, at 1:55.

After crossing the line, the exhausted Hampsten quickly braked to a halt and sat down on the side of the ride — no team buses in those days! With his back against a metal crowd barrier, he was soon surrounded by photographers, TV cameramen and reporters. His eyes were still glazed over from his huge effort.

“I hurt so bad it was like a meditation,” the cerebral Hampsten told his astonished audience. “I knew I was winning because Mike was telling me, but I wasn’t conscious of the fact.”

It was a brilliant effort, probably the hardest of his life, and perhaps an even greater athletic feat than taking the maglia rosa over the Gavia four days earlier. Overall, Hampsten was now 2:06 ahead of Breukink, and 5:10 clear of third-place Zimmermann. After the stage, a humbled Breukink said, “The Giro is now over for me. Hampsten is too strong.”

But the 1988 Giro was far from over.

Despite his resounding time-trial victory, Hampsten (and his modest 7-Eleven team) still had to survive another mountain stage, two flat stages and a closing time trial. Breukink may have conceded the victory, but Swiss all-rounder Zimmermann, co-leader of the mighty Carrera Jeans team with Visentini, was not giving up.

It was a warm, sunny day in the Dolomites when the peloton reached the first of stage 19’s three climbs, the Passo Duran, which climbs 3,300 feet in 13km on a narrow, twisting road — much of it on dirt because of road construction. There were still 140km to race from the Duran summit to the finish of the 233km stage in Arta Terme, so when Zimmermann made a sharp solo attack on a 14-percent grade at the start of the climb, the danger seemed minimal.

“I could have followed Zimmi when he attacked, but I didn’t think there was a big danger with so far to go,” said Hampsten, who later admitted, “My first mistake was to underestimate the climbs. They were much harder than I thought.”

On cresting the 5,000-foot Duran, the tall, blond Zimmermann was 45 seconds ahead of Hampsten, who was accompanied by just three others, his 7-Eleven teammate Jeff Pierce and two Italian shadows Stefano Giuliani (one of Rominger’s Chateau d’Ax teammates) and Stefano Tomasini (leader of the Fanini team). Breukink was just behind and caught the Hampsten group on the descent.

Also on the descent, Giuliani bridged across to Zimmermann, and the two riders began to eat up the terrain. They reached Pieve di Cadore, with 115km still to race, 4:10 before the Hampsten group, which now contained six riders with the addition of Italy’s Roberto Conti and Frenchman Dominique Arnauld. Another small chase group, which included 7-Eleven men Bob Roll, Ron Kiefel and Raúl Alcalá, came through town 6:45 back.

The situation had become critical when Pierce led the six chasers onto the first slopes of the winding, wooded Passo di Mauria, with 73km still to race. The gaps had grown to 5:30 and 7:30, making Zimmermann the virtual race leader. It was at that moment that Hampsten and Neel made a huge decision.

“I spoke with Mike,” Hampsten said, “and we decided that we might lose two minutes by waiting for the next group, but we would gain more later.”

The decision for Hampsten and Pierce to slow down and wait for their three teammates was one made without panic, when the pressure was at its most intense. This is when grand tours are won or lost.

By the Mauria summit, the group with Alcalá, Kiefel and Roll was only 30 seconds behind the awaiting Hampsten, and the two groups merged midway down the long descent. But the gap to Zimmermann was now over seven minutes. Had 7-Eleven made the right decision?

The narrow, winding roads, sheltered from the wind by tall pine trees, gave an advantage to Zimmerman and his audacious escape. Giuliani was having to race flat out just to stay on the Swiss rider’s wheel. For another 30km, Zimmermann clung to his lead, and with only 20km left to race he was still in the virtual pink jersey, with a 5:36 lead over a now 50-strong chase group.

The situation was still touch and go though, because Hampsten’s four 7-Eleven teammates had been doing virtually all the work for more than three hours under the hot sun. And the four Carrera riders in the pack were doing their best to slow down the chase for teammate Zimmermann by soft-pedaling whenever they went to the front.

Fortunately for Hampsten, Breukink’s Panasonic team saw that its leader’s second overall place was threatened and they finally agreed to help 7-Eleven. As the gap slowly closed, Hampsten himself took charge of the pursuit in the closing, slightly uphill kilometers.

Even so, more than three minutes elapsed after Giuliani took the stage win before the Hampsten group arrived in the little town of Arta Terme. The American had saved his pink jersey, but Zimmermann was up to second place, only 1:49 down, and his specialty, a flat time trial, still remained.

(This story of Hampsten’s defense of the 1988 pink jersey will be concluded at the end of the week.)