Hampsten and the 1988 Pink Jersey: Part 4

Andy Hampsten and his 7-Eleven-Hoonved team appeared to have everything under control before the 1988 Giro d’Italia’s final stage, a long time trial on a rolling circuit at Vittorio Veneto. The American climber, 26, enjoyed a spaghetti lunch after a short morning stage and then rested in his room prior to the Giro’s ultimate challenge.

By John Wilcockson

Andy Hampsten and his 7-Eleven-Hoonved team appeared to have everything under control before the 1988 Giro d’Italia’s final stage, a long time trial on a rolling circuit at Vittorio Veneto. The American climber, 26, enjoyed a spaghetti lunch after a short morning stage and then rested in his room prior to the Giro’s ultimate challenge.

One concern was that the 73km road stage into Vittorio Veneto was won by a Swiss named Urs. This was Urs Freuler from the Panasonic team, who took the stage in a mass sprint finish. Did this portend a happy ending in the afternoon for another Swiss named Urs? Unlike Hampsten, Urs Zimmerman of the Carrera Jeans squad was a time-trial specialist, and he needed to beat the American by 1:50 over the 43km TT to stop Hampsten from becoming the first American to win the Giro.

Hampsten’s 7-Eleven team director Mike Neel had driven up from the Venice coast the night before to make a full inspection of the course. He told his team leader that it was a fast and fair challenge, except for a dangerous downhill turn, 18km into the stage. However, the real danger came from another source: the massive black storm clouds that were gathering over the Venetian vineyards on that hot, humid afternoon. And with only two minutes covering the first three riders on GC — the Gavia stage winner Erik Breukink was in third — any mistake by Hampsten could prove costly.

Race leader Hampsten, the last of the race’s 125 survivors to start the time trial, began well. After 10km, nearing the top of the third of three short hills, he was a few seconds faster than Zimmermann and a few seconds slower than Breukink. Just then the skies opened, and torrential rain began to fall amid forked lightning,

The thunder claps were as loud as the cannons used at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, where the Austro-Hungarian Empire met its demise at the hands of allied forces at the end of World War I in November 1918. Seventy years later, a battle of a different kind was raging in the hills above the Piave Valley.

Breukink made it safely down the winding descent at 18km. But fourth-placed Flavio Giupponi, leader of the Del Tongo team, didn’t have the same luck. His front disc wheel slid out, he careened onto the slick, black asphalt and skidded head first into a deep ditch, his bike still locked to his feet.

Three minutes later, runner-up Zimmermann appeared, anxiously coasting around the same sharp turn. He, too, went crashing off the pavement and slid onto the soggy grass hillside. His team mechanic ran to help him to his feet and pushed him back into action.

“I heard on the race radio that Zimmermann had crashed,” said Neel, who was following Hampsten in the 7-Eleven team car. “So I screamed at Andy, ‘Slow down! Slippery!’”

Hampsten heeded the warning, “I slowed down,” he said later, “but I still slid out. It was like being on ice.” The American made it around the long curve without falling, but only just. One factor that probably saved him from potential disaster was the fact that he used a spoked front wheel. The riders who fell, it seemed, couldn’t control their front discs in the strong wind gusts.

At the next time split, 5km after the crash scene, Hampsten had dropped to 19 seconds behind Breukink, while Zimmermann’s troubles had dropped him 25 seconds behind Hampsten. The maglia rosa looking a little safer, but with the rain still falling there were still some anxious looks on the faces of Hampsten’s support crew.

Fortunately, the second half of the TT course was flat and straightforward, and the skinny guy in the pink skinsuit was soon racing beneath the ancient, narrow stone archway back into the heart of Vittorio Veneto. Even though Hampsten had conceded two minutes to the stage winner, Lech Piasecki of Poland, who raced in perfect conditions two hours earlier, the race leader lost just 23 seconds to Breukink — who thus snatched second place overall from Zimmermann.

So that’s how Andy Hampsten, born in Columbus, Ohio, on April 7, 1962, raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and now a resident of Boulder, Colorado, became the first (and still only) non-European cyclist to win the Giro d’Italia (along with the King of the Mountains title).

But that’s not the end of our story.

Right after Hampsten pulled on the winner’s pink jersey, he and his 7-Eleven teammates piled into their team cars and headed west on the autostrada. They had reserved tables for dinner at the Bar Augusto at Villa d’Alme, just outside Bergamo. It was a joyful three-hour drive for the riders and their entourage.

But why drive so far to celebrate? I would find out when I arrived at the Italian hostelry on that damp, dark night.

On the outside, the stucco-walled Bar Augusto is an austere modern building. Inside, its cavernous reception room is brought to life by hundreds of framed, historic bike-racing jerseys that hang from the walls in glass cases. There’s even the maglia rosa worn by the legendary Fausto Coppi during his sensational debut Giro victory in 1940.

The Bar Augusto has a strong connection with American cycling as this is where the U.S. national amateur team would stay when they were racing in northern Italy in the early-1980s. When most of those national team members turned pro for 7-Eleven after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Bar Augusto became the team’s adopted home. Naturally, this is where the team would gather after important races either to celebrate a new victory or commiserate with each other after less successful outings.

When I arrived there on June 12, 1988, the riders on 7-Eleven’s Giro team were already there, along with the personnel, including team founder and general manager Jim Ochowicz, directeur sportif Neel and team doctor Massimo Testa. Also there was a rotund, balding industrialist (and bike racing fan), Erminio Dell’Oglio, whose Hoonved washing machine company co-sponsored the team when they raced in Europe.

The tall, loquacious Neel — who speaks fluent Italian learned during his own pro racing days in Italy — had become something of a celebrity in the previous three weeks, answering questions about race tactics and U.S. cycling, and translating for his riders on Italian TV shows every day. People were saying that it was Neel’s presence that helped the 7-Eleven team earn respect so quickly in its quest for glory in Europe.

Besides the team, dozens of local supporters came to the Bar Augusto that night, to re-live the 71st Giro through the words of its winner and his colleagues. The eating, drinking and celebrating would continue until 1 in the morning.

The riders talked about Hampsten’s triumph in the snowstorm over the Passo Gavia, when he emerged with the pink jersey. “Terribile, ma bella” (“Terrifying, but beautiful”), said Dell’Oglio, with a Cheshire Cat grin.

They discussed Hampsten’s brilliant win in the Vetriolo stage’s hill climb. “At the finish of the time trial, I was apologizing to my body and thanking it at the same time,” Hampsten recalled.

They also spoke about their nail-biting three-hour chase when Zimmermann threatened to grab the maglia rosa on the last stage in the Dolomites. And the fans congratulated all the riders on the Giro team: the six finishers Hampsten (1st), Raúl Alcalá (14th), Jeff Pierce (46th), Bob Roll (61st), Ron Kiefel (62nd) and Davis Phinney (118th), and the three non-finishers Roy Knickman, Dag-Otto Lauritzen and Jens Veggerby.

Amid the popping of the Champagne corks and the flashbulbs of the photographers, Hampsten moved from group to group in the Bar Augusto, thanking them for their efforts and support. He seemed overwhelmed.

“I’m in a daze,” Hampsten admitted to me. “I set out from the start [of the Giro] wanting to be in there, fighting for the win. But I didn’t know whether I could win.

“Now that I have won the Giro, I’ve proved that my methods have been right. I don’t mean to sound self-centered because [the win] has also proved the 7-Eleven team’s methods to be right. I couldn’t have done this without the team. Everyone worked so amazingly hard.”

At the end of the long night, after the tensions of the long day, one final ceremony remained to be enacted. Not far from the slightly faded maglia rosa worn by Fausto Coppi a half-century before, a sparkling new pink jersey was suspended on a hanger from the ceiling. The signature hastily scribbled on it was that of one exhausted, but happy American: Andy Hampsten.

(This is the final part of retelling the story of Andy Hampsten’s dramatic defense of the 1988 Giro’s pink jersey.)