That was quite a lineup—but missing from the extensive portfolio was another prominent Italian, 25-year-old Flavio Giupponi, who’d placed fifth and fourth overall in the Giro’s previous two editions. Was his omission a mistake? We’d have to wait and see. The same could be said about three others starting that 1989 Giro: Hampsten, Fignon and LeMond. They all had question marks against their form, fitness and fortitude.
Hampsten was the storied winner of the 1988 Giro thanks to his taking over the maglia rosa (the “pink jersey”) with a battling solo attack over the Gavia Pass in a blinding snowstorm. He was planning to repeat that feat (hopefully, without the snow), because stage 16 was due to culminate over the Gavia, with a finish at the bottom of the same descent he had aced 12 months earlier. That victory was a breakthrough for him and his American team, 7-Eleven, and they were confident for this new tilt at the Giro.
Fignon had similar goals, but the French star was on a far different journey to that of the American. Already the winner of two Tours (1983 and 1984), Fignon had since experienced five years of indifferent results in grand tours, twice abandoning the Tour, with a best result of seventh overall in 1987. Tendinitis of the Achilles was his first problem, but he later managed to reach optimum form in the classics, gaining notoriety in Italy by winning Milan–San Remo in both 1988 and ’89. Fignon said about his long, slow return: “The media try to bury super-class racers too soon. For me, the hardest criticism to bear has been the suspicions about my health. Will he come back? Won’t he?” This Giro would go a long way to answering that question.
LeMond too was desperate to end years of purgatory following his near-death ’87 hunting accident…but things weren’t looking good. Besides having to recover from lost muscle mass and having three dozen shotgun pellets still embedded in his body, he’d struggled with tendinitis of the shin. After a bleak 1988 season, LeMond quit his Dutch team, PDM, over ethical differences and he was now riding with the modest Belgian outfit, ADR—which had trouble paying its riders. A side sponsorship with U.S. team Coors Light helped LeMond and allowed him to prepare for the Giro at the 10-day Tour de Trump—the same race Hampsten contested. LeMond struggled through that inaugural U.S. event, finishing in 27th (Hampsten was 10th), before flying to Italy. Also stressed by financial problems with his bike company, LeMond was not thrilled at the prospect of riding a tough Giro.
As for Giupponi, his absence on the list of favorites compiled by the influential Gazzetta dello Sport confirmed his “invisible” status within the sport. He was regarded as a country boy, coming from the hillside village of Ponteránica, north of Bergamo. Though Giupponi showed good climbing skills as an amateur, winning the Settimana Bergamasca, Valle d’Aoste and Giro delle Regioni stage races, he worked as a gregario for Del Tongo in 1987, and then for Saronni the following two years, while his teammates Chioccioli and Conti remained higher on the team totem pole. Saronni, now nearing the end of his career, was Giupponi’s supposed mentor—but others said the former two-time Giro winner was critical of the young rider’s lack of ambition.
The course for the ’89 Giro, starting in Sicily, was one of the most challenging in its 80-year history, featuring 22 stages and no rest days. The first big challenge, on the second day, was a summit finish on Sicily’s Mount Etna. Most of the favorites finished together in a front group of a dozen, but the two American stars weren’t among them. Hampsten lost a minute, and said: “I didn’t have a climbing edge, but then I didn’t want to. I wanted to be a little behind what I was last year, because I want to come out of the Giro stronger than I am going into it.” For LeMond, even finishing the Giro seemed like a distant prospect when he lost eight minutes and later conceded, “When I got dropped on the Etna climb I asked myself if I should look for another job.”
LeMond had another blow the next day, when UCI officials ruled that the two Coors Light riders on his nine-man ADR team hadn’t been registered and could not start the stage 3 team time trial (or the rest of the Giro). More critical to the race was the performance of Hampsten’s 7-Eleven squad. With strong men like Sean Yates, who’d won the major 1988 Tour de France time trial, the American team was expected to be among the contenders in the 32.5-kilometer TTT along a rolling coastal road into Messina.
In recounting the team’s performance, Hampsten said: “Everyone was feeling good. Our midway time didn’t put us among the leaders, but we weren’t far down…and I remember thinking with about 6K to go, ‘We’re really flying.’ Then, with only 3K to go, came the black cat…. I was second from last in the paceline, and I saw the cat—boom, b’boom, b’boom—crossing the road. It hadn’t seen us. Yates was leading and he decided to go on the cat’s inside, but the cat ran right into his wheel. We were full on, 60 kilometers an hour. Yates came down. Davis Phinney, Jeff Pierce, Bob Roll and Dag Otto Lauritzen crashed into him. There was a terrible bang. And the cat scampered away.”
That was the end of 7-Eleven’s challenge, but the team still needed to complete the stage with five riders to record an official time. So Ron Kiefel and Gerhard Zadrobilek circled back to join Hampsten while Jens Veggerby waited—and they needed one of the fallen riders to join them. Lauritzen’s was the only bike working, but “Dag Otto said he was dead,” Hampsten added, “so we all said, ‘No problem. The four of us can do all the work.’” Then, 500 meters later, there was another big bang. Lauritzen’s tire had blown, and he rode to the finish on the rim as the others slowed to stay with him.
“We must have lost from one-and-a-half to two minutes,” Hampsten said, “and we finished just over two minutes down on the winners.” Of the other favorites, Saronni and Giupponi’s Malvor team placed second, eight seconds ahead of Breukink’s third-place Panasonic squad and 54 seconds faster than Fignon’s Super U men. The opening stages may have proved a disaster for Hampsten, but he remained philosophical about that stray black cat. “We talked about it later,” Hampsten said, “but there was no doom and gloom. So we left Sicily having lost three minutes and I was back in about 50th place.”
The first four stages on the Italian mainland were mostly flat and long (the 275-kilometer stage 5 took more than eight hours!) prior to the next significant stage, from Rome to a summit finish on the Gran Sasso d’Italia. Hampsten fulfilled his prediction that he “needed at least a week to just try to finish with the lead group.” As for LeMond, when interviewed after stage 4 into Cosenza—where three years earlier he’d won a Giro stage ahead of Saronni (before going on to place fourth overall)—he said, “I feel like I’m in a tunnel and can’t see the end.”
That tunnel looked even longer to LeMond in the following days, while Hampsten was still seeking traction in his title defense. Staying at a Rome hotel that “wasn’t good” on a night of high humidity and thundery rain wasn’t the best preparation for a stage that ended with a climb of almost 30 kilometers up to 7,000 feet of elevation. For most of the gradually ascending road to Gran Sasso, the riders battled a crosswind. But Café de Colombia’s Herrera eventually jumped, followed by Breukink and Roche. “I wasn’t at the very front because I didn’t quite have it,” Hampsten said “But when Fignon came by I hung on his wheel the last kilometer to rejoin the Roche group.” Hampsten was 10th on the stage and moved up to 35th on GC, 2:44 down on the new race leader, Breukink.
Another big test awaited the team leaders in 48 hours: the first of this Giro’s three individual time trials. It came after a hard-fought, windy stage of six hours across the Apennines. “You’d have to struggle up in the wind,” Hampsten said, “so I knew everyone would be tired going into the time trial—which made me more confident.”
The time trial, 36.8 kilometers from Pesaro to Riccione, opened with some short climbs before a flatter finale along the Adriatic coast. “The first part was tricky, up and down, with lots of turns,” Hampsten said. “Most riders used disc wheels, but I didn’t, neither did [Malvor’s] Lech Piasecki [who won the stage]. I don’t have a lot of power and if I have to keep accelerating that mass, a disc can kill me. I survived the hilly part pretty well, and the splits show that I picked up time on everybody on the flat part except for Piasecki and Roche.”
Indeed, over the final 20 kilometers, Hampsten was six seconds faster than race leader Breukink, and 14 seconds better than Fignon, finishing in ninth place and moving up to 20th overall. As for Fignon, he said it was “my best chrono since 1984—so it was a sort of victory for me.” Even more encouraging for the Frenchman was his rise to third place overall, a minute down on Breukink, while Giupponi was up to fifth. That GC remained unchanged until the first of the major mountain stages.
Stage 13 headed into the cloud-covered Dolomites, ending with an interminable climb to a mountaintop finish at the mythical Tre Cime di Lavaredo—where Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx and Spanish super-climber José-Manuel Fuente previously crossed the line first. The favorite this time was Herrera, whose teammates began winding up the pace with 60 kilometers to go and continued their strong tempo until the Colombian made a decisive move. “When Herrera attacked, Breukink tried to go with him but no one could follow,” Hampsten said. “I was about 10 guys back and just tried to ‘baby’ my form along. I didn’t want to have a crisis on the steep part.” A more confident Fignon was prepared to go with Herrera, but Guimard shouted to him from the car: “Don’t go!” So Fignon placed second, a minute down on Herrera, with a defensive Breukink and an invigorated Hampsten on his wheel.
The dramatic finale was played out in heavy rain with huge crowds watching from the snow-covered mountainside. But the real drama was happening behind, where LeMond was experiencing the worst day of climbing in his career. Dropped early in the Lavaredo ascent, he was suffering in the icy rain beneath a yellow rain jacket. “I’ve never felt like that. Every time there was an acceleration, I went anaerobic,” he later said. “I couldn’t breathe, and my heart rate wouldn’t go above 130.” LeMond struggled across the line 17 minutes back.
In the group just ahead of him was Irish rider Paul Kimmage, a domestique for Roche on the Fagor team. Kimmage wrote in his diary: “Near the top the rain turned to sleet, then snow, and we were all frozen getting off our bikes. I was ushered into the kitchen of a hotel…and was given a basin of hot water and some hot tea. I had almost finished washing myself down when Greg LeMond walked in. He was shivering and didn’t bother to remove his shoes or socks before placing both feet in the basin of water. His words echoed the thoughts of many: ‘God, that was awful.’”
It was even worse the next day for stage 14, which crossed five mountain passes where snow weighed on the pine trees and gusting winds blew rain, sleet or snow into the riders’ faces. “It was a stage for the ages,” Fignon said. “Just climbs. Usually in such conditions, it’s not worth my while starting.” But before the start, his personal masseur, Alain Gallopin, gave Fignon the choice of three levels of liniment: red hot, orange or basic. “I can’t even support using the mildest one,” said the French rider. “But Alain insisted, and in the end I said: ‘Okay, the orange.’ And what did he do? Without telling me, he smothered me with the red—legs, lower back, chest! Ye gods!” Hampsten too made radical preparations, repeating what he’d done a year earlier for the Gavia stage: “I covered myself in Vaseline and a medium-hot balm. It just burned! I wore a Gore-Tex jacket that I didn’t take off—just unzipped it on the way up so I didn’t sweat. And I had shoe covers and neoprene gloves.”
After the leaders stayed together over the first two climbs, the Giau and Santa Lucia passes, the first hard attack came from Herrera on the steeper, longer Marmolada. And Fignon counterattacked. “Guimard was afraid of me attacking,” Fignon said, “but I’d thought it all through. I made that first move just to see.” At the Marmolada summit, the Frenchman was two minutes behind the day’s first attackers, and just 14 seconds ahead of Hampsten, who was pulling a small chase group that contained race leader Breukink, Giupponi and Herrera.
“On the descent,” Fignon continued, “I forced myself to pedal, to stop getting blocked. In eight years as a pro I’d never raced in such bad weather.” The road was smooth but wet, with wind-blown snow on the descent. Several riders fell—including Herrera. Hampsten said, “I was still jamming myself with food whenever I could, and this paid off later. I got pretty chilly on the fourth climb, the Pordoi, but it was nothing like the Gavia in ’88. It was hard because we had been out there a long time and expended a lot of energy….”
After Giupponi jumped clear over the Pordoi summit, “Fignon waved for me to come through and said, ‘Come on.’ There was enough snow on the road that I didn’t want to follow anyone down,” Hampsten said. “I’d rather make my own mistakes, because my glasses can fog over and I don’t want to follow someone over the cliff. So I replied, ‘Sure. I’ll go.’ I wasn’t taking risks. I had fun catching Giupponi, and then I was going through the cars catching the two in front, Conti and Giovannetti. Going into the last climb, the Campolongo, 14 kilometers from the finish, I felt pretty good and I was right at the front when Fignon attacked—and Breukink was dropped.”
Having bonked, the race leader completely blew, so Fignon knew that when he jumped (“a little more brutally this time”) he was headed to his first grand tour leader’s jersey since winning his second Tour five years earlier. Hampsten caught Fignon before the summit and descended with him before being joined by Giupponi and Giovannetti. On the gradual uphill finish into Corvara, the unheralded Giupponi accelerated to win his first-ever pro race ahead of Fignon and Hampsten. Fignon was the new maglia rosa, 1:50 ahead of Giupponi and 2:31 up on Hampsten…while Breukink fell to eighth after losing six minutes. It had been a brutal day.
Remarkably, one man who raced strongly in the blizzard conditions was LeMond, who came home in 37th—100 places better than the day before. To find out what caused the turnaround I went to see LeMond at a drafty alpine inn. Before knocking on his door, I could hear that his pregnant wife Kathy and young sons Geoffrey and Scott had arrived; so LeMond came and sat with me on the darkened staircase. Besides the morale boost from his family’s arrival, he said his physical health had also improved.
After being on the point of quitting pro bike racing altogether, he said “the team doctor did some tests and found my iron level was very low. I’ve never had vitamin shots in my life, but he gave me some iron, and today I could breathe again. And I would have finished a lot higher if I hadn’t gotten a bad start. I had some problems with my brakes and set off behind the group. The race split apart on the long descent, and I was three minutes behind the leaders when we began the first climb. I was chasing all day, passing people, and I just got up to the main group when the race exploded on the Marmolada. Then, just before the top, my rain jacket fell from my pocket into the wheel. I had to stop to retrieve it. If I hadn’t, I’d have frozen to death in the snow.”
While LeMond was looking to consolidate his recovery on the next day’s double-dose—a mostly downhill stage in the morning and an afternoon circuit race—Hampsten was already looking ahead to the Gavia. “So far I haven’t killed myself on any stage. There have been days when I’ve been tired, when I’ve gone as hard as I can, but I really haven’t exposed myself,” he said. “My whole tactic up to now has been to watch, choose which moves to go with and conserve myself for something drastic.”
That “something drastic” was a plan to repeat his 1988 Gavia attack. But, then, on the morning of the stage, the drastic news came from race director Vincenzo Torriani. He announced that the stage was canceled because of “organizational problems.” Apparently, trucks transporting equipment for the stage finish were trapped overnight by landslides—which were not on the race route but on a valley road that, other than the Gavia itself, was the only access to the stage finish in Santa Caterina. Torriani said there was a risk the whole race could get stuck in view of the bad weather. But race followers who drove over the 8,600-foot Gavia that afternoon reported that the KOM banner was in place, the road was clear of snow and sun was shining.
A disillusioned Hampsten and his team drove the first part of the stage route before riding to their next hotel. “The roads were fine all the way to the Gavia, which may have been a bit chilly, and slushy roads. But we could have raced it,” he said. “My strategy was all pivoted on getting into this day in good shape—which I am—and being able to survive it. The Gavia would’ve torn things apart.”
Besides Hampsten, runner-up Giupponi had also planned to attack on the Gavia; and had those two riders combined forces they might well have taken the pink jersey away from Fignon. Indeed, the Frenchman later said he was suffering from the cold weather. “When I was young I had a bad ski accident and hurt my right shoulder. Now, when I race in the cold, it gets very stiff and hurts a lot,” he explained. “I have to use anti-inflammatories to ease the pain. The cold, the rain, the snow—this wasn’t good for me. And on the morning of the Gavia stage, I had an incredible pain in that shoulder… bone calcification so painful that I couldn’t even move my arm. I ask myself what might have happened had Torriani not canceled the stage.”
Hampsten had a small chance of taking back time from Fignon on stage 18, a 10.7-kilometer uphill time trial from Mendrisio to Monte Generoso, similar to the TT he won 12 months earlier. “It was raining when I started, so the roads were a little bit slick,” Hampsten said. “When I got into my normal rhythm, my heartbeat was about four beats a minute higher than usual—181 to 184. And it stayed there. I liked the climb. It was hard and steady the whole way…. I was on a 42 ring, mostly with the 19 or 21, and sometimes the 23. I knew I had to lick it at the end, but I just couldn’t accelerate. I swear it was a headwind. I was hoping to steal a minute back from Fignon…I knew I was gaining on him and Giupponi.”
By placing third, 35 seconds behind stage winner Herrera, Hampsten took 36 seconds out of Giupponi and 1:10 from Fignon. It wasn’t the gap he’d expected to earn on the Gavia, but it lifted the American to within six seconds of Giupponi and 1:21 behind Fignon. Despite the race leader’s TT setback, he got some good news next morning: full sunshine for the last four days. On the second of these, a hilly 220-kilometer stage to La Spezia, the warm weather put a spring in his legs and Fignon surged to a sprint victory from a nine-man group that contained Giupponi and Hampsten.
That stage win should have sealed the overall for Fignon, but he had a scare on the last mountain stage. “I nearly lost everything,” he said. “I was on Giupponi’s wheel on a mild descent when I lost my balance and ended up on a low wall before Criquielion banged into me. I wasn’t injured, but by the time I’d straightened my handlebars and got back in the saddle, Giupponi and Hampsten had bolted. It was a dangerous situation as I was totally isolated—it took me 10 kilometers to catch back.”
The final stage was a time trial, a flat 53.8 kilometers between Prato and Florence in Tuscany. Of the early starters, previous TT winner Piasecki set the fastest time of 1:05:34. That wasn’t a surprise, but the performance coming from a rider one hour later certainly was. That rider was the re-ignited LeMond, who said: “This was the first time for years that I was nervous before a time trial. I wanted to do a good ride, so I said to myself, it’s better to blow up with five kilometers to go than to finish fresh.” His 1:06:37 gave him second place—and renewed hope for the upcoming Tour de France.
Hampsten also hoped for the best in his TT. After defeating Fignon and Giupponi in the previous time trial, he could displace the Italian from second and had an outside chance of overthrowing Fignon. “I was looking forward to opening it wide open in the time trial,” Hampsten said. “Instead, I felt really terrible. I don’t know why I rode badly.” He placed only 11th on the stage, conceding 1:07 to Fignon and 1:23 to Giupponi, and ending up in third overall. Reflecting on his Giro, Hampsten said, “Sicily [and the black cat] was a bad start…then I started racing well, and I wanted to win the Giro. So I don’t like ending up on a bad note like this.” Maybe it would have been different if the Gavia stage hadn’t been canceled.
As for the winner, Fignon said in Florence, the city of the Renaissance: “I never doubted I’d come back. My progress was simply delayed by little things, crashes, illnesses. The ghosts of the dark years still stay in my conscience, but I now have a smile back on my lips.” LeMond too was smiling. “I feel great, so happy,” he said, adding that the hardest part of his comeback was “keeping up my morale. It was only blind faith that kept me going. But Fignon has given me inspiration. It’s taken him four years to come back. I’m giving myself two years, this year and next.”
A few weeks later, the rebooted LeMond and revitalized Fignon would be fighting out the closest Tour de France in history. As for the other Giro protagonists, neither Giupponi nor Hampsten ever made it back to a grand tour podium…but they still remember that drama-filled Giro of 30 years ago.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
This article originally appeared in issue 86