Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Gavia

In the 1988 Giro d'Italia, Andy Hampsten endeared himself to Italian cycling fans with his legendary performance on the Gavia, a 2,621 meter/8,599 foot pass high in the Lombardy region of Italy. The stage was marked by heavy snows and sub-freezing temperatures, making an already difficult climb something truly extreme. Although Hampsten didn't win the stage (he came in second), he took the overall race lead and held it to become the first and only American to win the Giro.

The remarkable part about this stage was not the snow and cold--such conditions are not unheard of in the high mountains of Italy. The remarkable part was that the stage didn't finish on the mountain top, but required a treacherous descent as well. In Hampsten's own account of the experience, he quotes Italian cycling great Francisco Moser, who said "I have seen stages where it finished on a climb in conditions like this, but never with such a descent."

Yesterday after work, my brother and I decided to head out on a road ride up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City. The weather had been wet and windy earlier in the day, but it was clear and relatively mild when we departed. Our intention was to climb to the pass at Big Mountain, a little over 20 miles and 3700 vertical feet from our origin.

Things went fine up Emigration Canyon, but on the climb up Little Mountain, it started to rain lightly. No big deal, just made things a bit wet. We were making good time, so we thought we'd be OK. On the way up Big Mountain, though, I noticed that the rain was turning to snow. I wasn't alarmed, though, and actually thought about the account I read in Bicycling Magazine of Hampsten's ride on the Gavia as I made my way up the switchbacks. At the top, I snapped a picture with my cell phone to document the event, thinking the climb and descent in the snow would make a good story.

It was cold at the top, but I felt OK and figured the descent would be fast. I put my phone back in my jersey, and we started down the road. I think we made it 500 meters. On the climb up, we were moving slow enough and working hard enough that we didn't notice the cold so much. But on the way down, we were wet, weren't working hard, and had the additional 30mph wind to chill us even deeper. I've been hypothermic before, so I know what my limits are. And I knew this descent was beyond them. I pulled off to the side of the road, and told my brother I was calling our dad to come get us. I felt like we were little kids again and needed dad to bail us out, but neither of us cared.

Once the rescue party was called, we tried limping down the road just to make a bit of progress. I was shivering so bad that I couldn't keep the bike going straight, and my hands were cold and numb to the point I couldn't grip the brake levers. Plus moving was a lot colder than just sitting still. So we pulled off to the side of the road and waited. My brother had nothing but a jersey and arm warmers to keep him warm. I had a long-sleeve base layer and a jersey. Both of us had bare legs. It's silly to think that neither of us even brought a vest or a jacket considering what the weather had been like all day. It took about 20 minutes for the cavalry to arrive with coats, hot chocolate, cookies, and most important, shelter from the elements.

At the beginning of the climb we had ridden past Donner Park and joked about the foreboding nature of having a park so named at the base of the climb. On the climb up, I thought about how much worse it could be if instead of a trace of snow, we had several inches, like Hampsten dealt with. I figured I'd have to take it slow and easy to avoid going down on the switchbacks. But the thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn't make the descent at all.

Hampsten's team had the foresight to raid the local ski shop for gloves, hats, jackets, and other cold weather gear. I like to think that properly equipped, we would have rallied the descent rather than bailing out. But I'm probably wrong.


  1. You forgot to mention your were lucky to get a cell phone signal, since it was a bit in-and-out up there.

    I'm glad you made it back, and especially non-hypothermic.

  2. Four bars at the top of the climb. All we had to do was turn around if we didn't get a signal from where we were.

    Now if we'd had no phone, that would be another matter entirely. Back in the day, we would have either suffered down or died.

  3. Although somewhat perilous, isn't it good to have an epic ride now and then? Or is this man versus nature just a guy trait (failing)?