A few years ago I sat in a café in Italy and watched it rain. The kind of rain that only falls harder the longer you wait for it to cease. The good news? Andy Hampsten was sitting next to me, also watching it rain. Two women came up and asked for his autograph. He smiled and signed.
No number of coffees can plug the leaks in the sky. We were sitting on the Ponte di Legno side of the Gavia, after climbing it from Bormio. When the rest of our group went back to the hotel, Hampsten asked if I was going to ride off the back and up again, with him. Who am I to say no to you, Andy Hampsten?
He of course says “this is nothing” because he’s Andy Hampsten, sitting at the base of the climb that made him a legend.
On the Gavia, back in 1988, it was snowing so hard it turned Hampsten’s head into a snowball and he rode with his front brake clutched tight to create more friction (for heat)… So Hampsten can say anything he wants about the Gavia.
The fabled climb could have been on fire, and he could have said “this is nothing” and I would have believed him, and then paid for coffees and ridden into said fire. We put our helmets on and we clip in and begin pedaling and he tells me the story — The story — as the road steps up the green shoulders of the range.
“You know, the Italians didn’t even want to ride that day. They talked about protesting.” Says the only American to have won the Giro d’Italia.
“Of course they talked about protesting! That’s what they do! But all it takes is one guy to light it up and, well, you know…” I said, my internal voice saying: “Is this really happening?” It is still raining. It feels as if the sky has caught a cold and we’re riding into it.
“And here is where we invented the rain bag. We went out and bought all the ski gear in the town.” He says a moment or two later.
We go inside the café atop the Gavia and stand by the fireplace. There are pictures of Andy on the wall. He looks at them and points to himself in this exact place more than 20 years ago. We go back to standing at the fireplace and eventually we get back on our bikes, realizing we won’t warm up at all until this is finished.
Everyone knows Hampsten as a climber. If you’re a stickler for the letters of sporting law, he’s the only American to win on Alpe d’Huez. He was and still is a climber, riding in board shorts and mountain bike shoes just to rub it in.
But that day in ’88 – it was the descent that won him the Giro. And for anyone who’s descended off a mountain in the merest hint of bad weather will have an idea how tricky things can get. The word attrition comes to mind. Bob Roll was spotted running up the mountain just to stay defrosted.
I hold onto Andy’s wheel and take about 20km of rain-spray and liquid-dirt to the face, but I can see how he rode into legend that day so clearly.
Hampsten, writing for PEZ remembered:
So I’m on my way down, I don’t care about the race, I don’t care about anything, I’m pissing and moaning and grumbling, done asking God to come help me and I’ll make a deal with the devil if he shows up! (laughing) But there’s just me and my silly bike and there is a village after 15km of descending and I’m just telling myself to go go go. I knew if I put a foot down I was just going to freeze up. I can’t tell you how cold I was, but I was calculating “can I make it to that town?’ The only choice was to just keep going, try to create some heat – braking and pedaling at the same time.
I hold on but only by the flecks of filth upon my chattering teeth. We ride into the hotel garage and lean our bikes against the concrete wall, walk inside and drink beers. All in a day with Andy Hampsten… He belongs there on the Gavia and in Italian cycling, and is tied to it forever. The rest of us? We pass through and if we’re lucky, it rains.