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By Andrew Hood
It was 20 years ago Saturday that Andy Hampsten rode through a blizzard over the Passo di Gavia to claim the pink jersey and become the first and only American to win the Giro d’Italia.
Most people seem to remember that it was Hampsten who also won the stage, but it was another young, up-and-coming rider who was first across the line into Bormio on June 5, 1988.
The winner by just seven seconds was Erik Breukink, who was 24 years old at the time and riding in his second Giro. He ended up second behind Hampsten in the overall classification for what turned out to be the best grand tour result of his career.
Now 44, Breukink retired at the end of the 1997 season and joined Rabobank as a sport director in 2004. Much like Hampsten, that day over the Gavia was one of the defining moments of his career.
With the Gavia on tap in Saturday’s decisive mountain stage, VeloNews spoke with Breukink about the climb, the blizzard and how it marked his career. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: How important was the stage over the Gavia in the fight for the overall in the 1988 Giro?
Erik Breukink: It was still close. I think I was still within a half minute. Everything was still possible. I was Andy’s most dangerous opponent to win the Giro, for sure. I won the stage and Andy took the jersey, so that was the most important stage of that Giro. It was a very special day. When you ask Hampsten, he will tell you the same. It was a once in a lifetime you have a stage like that. I’ve never seen a race like that again in those circumstances. You don’t see stages like that very often.
VN: Did the riders and organizers realize it was snowing snow hard up on the Gavia?
EB: We didn’t know. At the beginning of the stage it was raining. Only halfway up the climb did it start to snow. If we knew it was snowing, then you can maybe cancel the stage, but when it happened when you are already halfway there, then you had to continue. It was only getting bad at a certain moment. It happened in a very short time and no one could do anything about it. So we just kept racing.
VN: Did you have the proper clothing?
EB: Because it was bad weather from the start, you already had a lot of clothes on. I had arm warmers. I tried to put my rain jacket on the summit, but I couldn’t manage it because my fingers were so cold, so I threw it away. So I rode through the blizzard with only my arm warmers, but it was OK, I was able to go on. A lot of guys to put on clothes, but when you stop, it’s worse, because that’s when you get really, really cold.
VN: When did the heavy snow begin on the Gavia?
EB: About halfway up it really started to snow. With 5km to to go, you were really in the snow. At the top, it was really a major blizzard. It was difficult to see. The snowfall was very heavy. On the downhill, you were really alone, because you didn’t see a car behind, there were no fans on the road, you couldn’t see anything in front of you. You had to find your way, looking for a few marks in the road. When you were at a certain altitude it, it started to rain again, so you could go on better.
VN: What was it like at the Gavia summit at 2,600 meters?
EB: It was all white. The road was buried under the snow like this (holds up hands about 6 inches apart). (Johan) van der Velde was over the top first. It was so cold, he stopped at the top to put on more clothes, but that was a mistake because he finished at 40 minutes back. Hampsten and I were close. He was in front of me and I took him at the end of the downhill. I passed him at the bottom of the climb.
VN: What were the conditions like going downhill?
EB: You concentrated on going without crashing, very slow, carefully. When the road was OK, then you could go full speed. Then at one moment, I saw (Hampsten) riding in front of me, I thought I have to catch him because I can win the stage. It was a finish in Bormio with a little bit uphill. When I passed him, he couldn’t even lift up to try to catch me. Then we stayed at the same gap for the final kilometers.
VN: How did it shake out in the GC?
EB: I finished the stage in second overall and he took the maglia rosa. It stayed that way until the end. I think he took a little more time on me and I ended up about two minutes behind (Author’s note: the gap was 1:43).
VN: Had you ever faced conditions so severe before?
EB: I’ve had a lot of races with bad weather, but never on a mountain at 2,600 meters. When it’s on a flat road, you put on more clothes, then it’s OK. When you have to do downhill from 2,600 meters, I’ve never been so cold in my career. Even one hour and one and a half hour after the stage, you were still shivering. You couldn’t get warm. After a few hours, after taking a shower, after some warm spaghetti, it was OK.
VN: How important was that victory at that point of your career?
EB: When you win the stage in those conditions, it’s one of the best things. I remember it as one of my biggest victories. The year before I was third, so I came there to do better and I was close to winning. The year after, I had the best chance to win the Giro, but in one day also in bad weather, I had hunger pains and I finished fourth. I came there a few years to try to win the race, so it was a nice few years of my career for me.
VN: Have you ever spoken to Hampsten about it since you’ve both retired?
EB: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him. I think a few years ago I saw him and we always remember that day. It was one of the epic days of cycling.
VN: Is that your best memory in your career?
EB: It was very special. The 1990 Tour was also very good, I was third and won two stages. But that day over the Gavia was very special, with the weather, so whenever the Gavia is in the Giro, people like to recall those moments.
VN: Do you think today’s riders would race in those conditions?
EB: Bad weather can change everything in a race. These days, when they see snow over the top of a climb, they won’t go over it. It’s too dangerous. It was too dangerous when we did it. They shouldn’t have had the stage, but the circumstances changed during the race and there was nothing they could do about it. The stage had already started.
VN: Many riders were complaining about the Plan de Corones time trial, do you believe it’s appropriate?
EB: When there’s bad weather, they cannot climb the course. To have a stage like that brings some spectacle, but it’s not fair if the conditions are bad. I think it’s a little too much for the riders.