The Tour de France is drawing to a close, and Dutch cyclists and teams have so far failed to put their mark on the great race. Local sports writers have started to look elsewhere for heroic stories, and one of those places is the past. And the one story inevitably to be rediscovered is … dun! dun! … The Day the Grown Men Cried.
A story “from the old box”, as we say. On 5 June 1988, the Giro d’Italia was to climb the Passo di Gavia in the Italian Alps. A somewhat ordinary looking stage on paper, but when the cyclists woke that morning, they heard snow had covered the road at the top.
Dutch cyclist Johan van der Velde broke away from the pack at the start of the climb and was the first to cross the pass. But he paid a price! Just before his breakaway he had given his raincoat and sleaves to a surprised team-mate. Rain had already plagued the cyclists, but now, a few kilometres before the top, a blizzard hit the mountain.
Van der Velde managed to get over the top, but two kilometres into the descent his cold body started shaking uncontrollably and he had to stop for fear of falling off his bike. He never finished the descent on his bike, instead he drove in his team manager’s car to a point three kilometres off the finish, where he got back on and cycled the last bit. Van der Velde eventually lost 47 minutes to the winner, but wasn’t disqualified—the jury understood.
The conditions were so harsh that many cyclists had to stop for cognac, hot tea and massages. It was so cold that two of the former Giro winners cried in pain. The snow froze the cyclists’ hands and clogged up their brakes, turning the descent into a dangerous undertaking.
Only two of the cyclists in front finished the descent without stopping and without help. Andy Hampsten of the USA and Erik Breukink of the Netherlands raced off the mountain as fast as they could towards the finish line in Bormio. A couple of kilometres before the end, Breukink sped past Hampsten (PDF) and won the race by 15 seconds. Hampsten however won the pink jersey, the mark of the race leader, and he wouldn’t let go of it until the end, competing a fierce battle with second place Breukink in the remaining stages. Hampsten became the first American to win the second most prestigious bicycle race in the world.
Breukink admitted that it was only the thought of being in contention (Dutch, Real Media) that kept him on his bike during that brutal descent. Until then, he had had the reputation of being a bit of a softy, but the Gavia Pass win rid him of that moniker forever.
Through some miraculous stroke of luck, none of the cyclists died that day, although Hampsten’s team-mate and countryman Bob Roll suffered from hypothermia and an extremely low heart rate of 27 bpm.
There are very few TV images I can show you of this stage. Like today, the major bicycle races then had extensive TV coverage, shot by cameramen on motorcycles often taking even more risks in slippery descents than the cyclists themselves. The images were supplemented by video shot from helicopters that doubled as flying relay stations. The signal from a motor camera will not travel through mountains, and on that day it was discovered that blizzards have the same effect. The only moving images made of this climb were those of a solitary land-locked camera at the top of the pass.
Watching that video made me realise that in those days you could play another game of Spot the Dutchman. French team La Vie Claire (Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond) wore jerseys inspired by Piet Mondriaan’s paintings.
(Photo of the Passo di Gavia by Marco Mayer, some rights reserved.)