Today’s post is a short story that I wrote. It’s a little early for the Giro d’Italia, but the weather seems more appropriate to April in Minnesota, than June. Sorry Elly, this is another cold one.
The leaden clouds press down on the valley. It is 2 degrees Celsius outside of the hotel, and sleet is pinging like ball bearings on the roofs of the team cars. The mood among the team is as dark as the sky.
Sitting around the breakfast table, Kiefel is the first to say what is on all their minds.
“Do you think they’ll cancel the stage?”
“Nah, they never cancel a stage because of weather.” Responds Phinney
“What if the pass is snowed in?”
“Trust me, the Italians will race through ankle deep snow if they have to. This is the Giro. If the Red Brigade dynamites a bridge, they just climb off their bikes and swim across.”
Andy Hampsten sits at the table, drinking coffee, and eating. It’s the 14th stage, and fatigue is a constant companion. Some riders wilt more than others as the race progresses, but nobody gets faster.
This is the first time in 28 years that the race will pass over the Passo di Gavia. They have planned this stage out for over a month. The team is to lead him to the base of the climb. About 14k from the top the road changes from a modern two lane down to a one lane dirt road. There, on the 14% grade, he is to launch his attack.
The riders all turn and look expectantly at Mike Neel as he walks into the room.
“Well, they are going to shorten the stage today because of the weather.”
“So, we’re not going over the Gavia?” Kiefel asks hopefully.
“Oh no, we’re still going over the Gavia. All they did was move the start 20 km down the valley.”, is Neel’s reply.
“What the fuck is the point of that?” interjects Roll.
Neel smiles, “I guess they figure the towns people here won’t be upset since they got to see the finish yesterday, so no mayor is going to be calling up the race directors to complain.”
“Hell, not even the tifosi are crazy enough to watch the start in this frickin’ shit.” Roll complains.
There’s much muttering, and complaining, but Hampsten is quiet. Is has been two days since his stage win, and his legs feel good. This is the stage he had been waiting for, but he is having doubts about the weather.
“Och’ and the guys have been out shopping at the ski shops. We’ve got Gore-tex gloves, and wool hats, and we’ll have the soigneurs rub you down with lanolin.” Neel explains, “it’ll be cold, but we’ll be as prepared as we can. Just remember, everyone is going to be suffering today. The guys that hold it together the longest will be the guys that win.”
But winning is the furthest thing from their mind right now as the rain pelts against the windows. The riders head out to make their final preparations before leaving for the start.
Lying on the massage table Hampsten relaxes until he feels nothing but the strong hands of the soigneur working his muscles like putty. He smears lanolin all over his legs, arms, back and chest. Over this thick coating of grease, he pulls on a thin long sleeve polypropylene shirt, and over that goes his wool jersey.
Standing astride his bike at the start line, with his rain jacket pulled tight around his neck, the rain is coming down in buckets, dripping off the bill of his cap in little rivulets. There is bitching and moaning in seven languages as the peleton rolls out of town.
“This isn’t fucking right.” Kiefel moans, “We need to start a union so they stop treating us like animals.”
“Shit” Roll barks, “they’d fucking treat horses better than this.”
The group soft pedals down the valley toward the first climb of the day. Eventually the complaints fade away, until there is just silence, and the sound of spray off of the tires. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and the rain pours down in sheets. It numbs their faces, and legs, and works its way into every seam until their clothes are soaked through. There is no piss break today, the riders just wet their pants for what little warmth the urine can give them. The smell of the urine, and the exhaust from the motorcycles is a constant for the first half hour.
Hampsten is riding near the front of the pack with the other leaders. None of them are in any mood to start racing. As the first climb of the day approaches a small break of 12 riders goes off the front. There isn’t anyone in the break who is a threat to the overall lead so the peleton is content to let them go. The domestiques are busy dropping back to the team cars to bring up water bottles filled with warm tea. The riders stretch their legs on the Cat 2 climb. Over the top of the pass, and down the other side, a few riders go down on the wet pavement, amidst the chilling clang of metal hitting asphalt.
At the bottom of the descent Hampsten signals his team to the front. After his stage win two days ago the other favorites are all watching him and waiting. The 7-Eleven boys move to the front, and pick up the tempo as they climb the 20 km false flat before the mountain. There is no talking now as they go to work, taking their turns pulling on the front, working in the practiced rhythm that only comes from weeks spent riding together. Hampsten shivers uncontrollably trying not to think about the cold, or how far they have yet to go. He wonders if he has the legs to make the attack that they all are expecting. What if he tries and finds nothing in them? He puts the thought out of his mind, and rationalizes that no one would be disappointed if he tried and failed, but he would not forgive himself if he failed to try.
The clouds press lower, and the Dolomites loom up in front of them, their presence felt rather than seen. Hampsten takes off his rain jacket, and extra clothes until he is just wearing his wool jersey, undershirt, and neoprene diving gloves. His glasses fog from the heat of his breath, and the road spray leaves specks of grit stuck to the lenses. As they hit Ponte di Legno the climb begins.
Alcala goes to the front and raises the tempo. The peleton strings out behind them, but the favorites are all still there. Hampsten can see little, but a dark silhouette is all he needs to identify them. Chiocciolli the race leader, is on his wheel, behind him are Bruekink, Giupponi and Zimmerman. They are moving into the clouds now.
Fir trees crowd the slopes, and make the day seem even darker. The rain has changed to snow. There are no tifosi lined up along the climb today. The pavement ends, and the road narrows to a single lane of dirt. This is the moment. Rising out of his saddle, Hampsten attacks.
He swings out around Alcala, and pushes hard on the cranks. It is not his hardest attack, but it is hard enough. After a hundred yards he glances back over his shoulder, and sees the gap widening. Chioccioli is still frozen to his saddle, and Zimmerman has come around him. Breukink is standing on the pedals and looking across to Zimmerman for help.
Hampsten settles into a tempo now. He is not full out, but riding at 95%. The storm is coming from the other side of the pass, so he knows the descent will be worse weather than the climb. Better to save some energy for the downhill.
Rising at 14%, the road begins to switch back and forth across the face of the mountain. As he climbs he can look down onto the road below and see his rivals spread out all over. The race has exploded. Some riding alone, some together with teammates, only Bruekink has been able to respond.
His chest burns, and his legs are numb, but still the pedals keep turning. His wheels trace a steady line in the mud of the road as he sways the bike from side to side. One by one he passes the riders from the early break. They look gutted, hollow eyed, weaving on the road. He tries not to think about the weather, but focuses on the mountain in front of him.
The snow is mesmerizing as it swirls around him. Flakes the size of silver dollars stick to his arms, and begin to pile on the road. There is only Van der Velde now between here and the summit, and he is closing on him. With about 5 kilometers to go he waves for his team car.
Pulling up along side, Neel yells out “Keep it up Andy, you’ve got 45 seconds on Breukink, and over two minutes to the others”.
Hampsten nods, too tired to speak, and reaches out for the hat and neck warmer that Neel is holding out the window. He is feeling warmer now despite the snow, but he knows the real cold is waiting for him on the other side of the mountain. Sitting up he runs his hand through his hair to dry it before he puts on the hat, only to discover that his head is covered in snow. Stunned, he looks again at his gloved hand and realizes that hypothermia is starting to set in. If he is no longer generating enough heat to melt the snow on his head, how can he be sure of what is going on within his body?
Three kilometers to the top now. He has the gaitor pulled around his chin, and can barely feel it against his skin. Working with his scuba gloves, even the touch of his hand against his face feels foreign. The lanolin has gotten smeared onto the gloves, and is all over everything. Trying to wipe the grit from his glasses only makes it harder to see.
At 1 km from the summit, the road is just a path cut between 8 foot high snow banks. He comes upon the support person that Och’ has positioned there with a musette bag full of dry clothes. Taking the plastic rain jacket out of the bag, he struggles to unroll it’s frozen folds. He is slowing now, swerving from side to side as he wrestles with the jacket. His gloves are sticking to the sleeves. At last his arms are through and he is fumbling with the zipper as Breukink passes him.
Hampsten finally gets the jacket closed as he crests the summit. The wind is blowing hard across the pass. There is 2 inches of slush on the road, and he is fifty yards behind Breukink. He sees Van der Velde standing along the road side, in the arms of his mechanic, wrapped in a blanket, and blue around the face. It is 22 km downhill to the finish in Bormio.
His hat pulled down, his neck gaitor up over his ears, the heat of his breath is fogging his glasses, but the wind is so cold he doesn’t dare take them off. Shifting up into his 53 – 14, he catches back onto Breukink’s wheel. The road is winding, but does not have the hairpins of the climb. Breukink is taking it slow, making tentative turns on the slippery surface. Better to pass him now, than to ride into him if he goes down.
Hampsten pulls around him, and begins to increase his speed. The road changes back to pavement, and the speed increases 50 kph, then 60kph, now 70 kph. His arms and legs are numb, but the fastest way to get warm is to get to the finish line now. He pedals to keep his legs from cramping up. The snow has turned back to rain and the wet pavement reflects the gray skies. The motorbikes leave plumes of spray behind them.
The road is straightening out as Bormio approaches. Out of the forest now a few buildings appear, then a few more. With 7 km to go Breukink comes past him and puts in an attack. Hampsten tries to respond but his gears are frozen. The gap is only a hundred yards, but he is unable to close it.
The drop off along the roadside is replaced by a stone wall, then hedges, and they are into the town. Under the 1km to go kite, and Breukink is still tantalizingly close, but he is not thinking about victory anymore, only warmth. Around a corner, and through the crooked city streets, fans line the barricades shouting, and the motorbikes blow their horns. Another turn, and up a slight incline to the line, and it is over. People run alongside him, a coat is thrown over his shoulders, but he stares blankly into their faces. They are pounding him on the back, and he cannot understand what is happening. Slowly he begins to realize they are shouting congratulations, and trying to warm him. He lets himself be led into the heated tent, and realizes that the jersey is his. The jersey! The Maglia Rosa! He had nearly forgotten about it. There is shouting, and noise, and microphones, but all he can do is mumble a few phrases in Italian as Ochowicz leads him to the team bus.
Five minutes later, and the peleton starts to arrive. The finish line looks like a triage center. Riders are collapsing. He looks through the crowd and sees Roll being held up from behind by a bear of a man shaking him, as others press their warm hands against his face to try to revive him. It has been a terrible day, one that people will not soon forget, but all he can do now is struggle to strip off his wet clothes, and put on warm ones. He had to dig deep to finish today, deeper than he has ever gone before, deeper than he even thought possible, but the jersey is his.
In a little while he stands upon the podium, and pulls on the jersey for the first time. Basking in the light of the TV camera’s, he does his best to answer the journalists in his pidgin Italian. His brown eyes are sparkling like a child’s, and his cheeks are as pink as the jersey. How does it feel to be the first American to wear the Maglia Rosa? Molto bene!