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The Gavia: epic, heroic, poignant and – clearly – unforgettable.

28/03/2022

The 10 most iconic climbs of the Corsa Rosa: the Gavia

After the Zoncolan and the Stelvio it’s the Gavia’s turn.

Discover the 10 most iconic climbs of the Giro d’Italia with a dedicated section with tales, facts and statistics for each one.

White, pink and cyclamen

The Gavia – rising to 2,621 metres in altitude, between the Valtellina and the Val Camonica – was first ascended at the Giro in 1960. Imerio Massignan, hailing from Vicenza, cleared the climb in the first place. Along the descent, however, he punctured not once or twice, but three times. By the end of the stage, he was rolling on the rim. After Charly Gaul had beaten him to the line in Bormio by just a handful of seconds, he burst into tears.

It was not until the second ascent in 1988, 28 years later, that the Gavia went down into the history of the Giro. It was one of the most legendary days of modern cycling. On June 5 (stage 14), the peloton would race from Chiesa Valmalenco to Bormio in just 120 km, however tackling the Aprica and the fearful Gavia. The weather forecast called for a real chance of snow, but it was decided to go ahead with the stage to please the eager public. Franco Chioccioli was in the leader’s pink jersey. With seven riders crammed in less than three minutes behind him, the general classification was all but settled. The first attack, however, didn’t come from a GC contender, but from Johan Van der Velde, who aimed at sealing stage win to consolidate his point’s cyclamen jersey. Pulling away on the lower slopes of the climb, the Dutchman was the first to witness the rain turn into sleet, the sleet turn into snow, and the snow turn into a full blizzard. He rode all the way up the Gavia in just shorts and short sleeves, with no leg warmers or rain jacket, no cap or gloves. American Andrew Hampsten, in 5th place overall, launched the second attack. He knew his advantage would be decisive in the end. His team, 7-Eleven, was the only well prepared to that day, having bought warm clothes and gears which they handed out to their riders along the climb.

Two photographs taken that day somehow manage to describe how crazy and unbelievable that stage was.

One depicts Van der Velde along the climb, down to shorts and short sleeves, his bare hands gripping at the handlebars, his head and shoulders covered in snow. The other shows Hampsten covered in snow as well, however with ski goggles and warm wool gloves, cap and sweater.

At 2,600 metres in altitude, when battling through a snow blizzard, this difference in gear made a huge difference. If Van der Velde was unprepared for the climb, he was even more so for the descent. The Dutchman went first over the top, nearly one minute ahead of the American, and then plunged down along the descent, as if he were in a trance, without even stopping for warmer clothes. He didn’t go far, though. Eventually, he had to give up, and took shelter in a campervan, where he enjoyed warm covers and tea. He would resume the race long after, finally appearing in Bormio 47 minutes back.

At the top of the Gavia, instead, Hampsten changed into dry clothes and set off again. Erik Breukink followed closely.

The road to Bormio was still long, slippery and treacherous. Their team cars were lost who knows where in that nightmare of ice. Despite suffering badly (Hampsten would later say, “We could spend a few hours while I figure out how to describe how cold I was…”), the two eventually made it to the line, with Breukink outsprinting his companion to win the stage.

As for him, Hampsten celebrated taking the Maglia Rosa, which he would defend all the way to the last stage, hence becoming the first non-European to win the Giro.

Everyone else had fallen way behind. Jean-François Bernard finished 9’21” back. Giuseppe Saronni and Roberto Visentini appeared 30 minutes later, and Tony Rominger 35’ later, Chioccioli lost 5’04”, which ended his dreams of winning the Giro d’Italia (ad not just for that season). As he would later say, “In the following stages, I was lacking energy and spirit. That day left me devastated. I hadn’t really recovered until three years later, when I crushed the Giro d’Italia”.

June 5, 1988 went down into cycling legend as one of the most epic, heroic, poignant and – clearly – unforgettable days in the history of this sport.

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