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by Shane Stokes
April 25, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Difficult conditions at Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège acted as a reminder that the weather can be a big challenge for riders. That will likely be even more pronounced in the high mountains of the upcoming Giro d’Italia. The UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol was introduced to put limits on the conditions riders have to race in, but has led to some debates. The 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten gives his thoughts, and argues that an essential part of cycling could be lost if the right balance isn’t found between caution and challenge.
Picture two moments from cycling’s past. Eight years apart, one a Classic, the other a Grand Tour. Both affected by brutal weather, freezing temperatures and snow. Both brutally hard on the riders, but also part of cycling’s legend.
The first, the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With two thirds of the peloton calling a halt in the conditions, Bernard Hinault attacks 80 kilometres from the line and solos in almost ten minutes clear of the next rider. Shattered at the finish, the frostbite he suffers causes lingering issues with the circulation in his fingers. But the victory is one of the most impressive of his career.
The second is the 1988 Giro d’Italia. Or, more specifically, stage 14 of that race. Run off in awful conditions, it scales the Gavia climb, where a blizzard and muddy conditions upend the race. Erik Breukink wins the stage, but American rider Andy Hampsten takes over the race lead and grips the Maglia Rosa until the end.
Like Hinault in Liège, Hampsten’s resilience and determination produce one of the most stunning performances of his career. His achievement is also one of the enduring images of the sport.
Decades on, is there still room for such exploits now? A push for safety has led to a number of big changes in the sport, including the introduction of the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol.
Setting out guidelines for when races should be cancelled or the routes changed, the protocol led to the abandonment of stage three of this year’s Paris-Nice. It also caused the shelving of stage five of Tirreno-Adriatico.
And while it wasn’t invoked during Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which had some tough conditions, it could come into play in the upcoming Giro d’Italia.
For many that’s a good thing, a sign of the times. Others believe there is a danger in being too proactive, and that some of the sport’s romanticism could be lost if decisions are made too quickly.
Hampsten admits to being torn by the issue.
“It is a good thing to have intelligent people looking at all aspects of bike racing,” the American said, speaking to CyclingTips recently from his home in Boulder, Colorado. “It is good that there is a discussion. But my point of view is that riders and the sport need to be careful to make sure that they keep the interesting elements of cycling happening.”
Hampsten is keen to make clear that he isn’t dismissing safety measures out of hand. “It doesn’t have to be a macho slugfest through the worst conditions ever,” he states. “If there is something terribly windy like what happened in Spain this spring, then the riders’ safety is paramount.
“But from a fans’ point of view, I am seeing a lot of bike racing turning into numbers and not glorious battles like in the old days when I raced.
“I think a lot of fans, especially in Europe, want to see a really good race no matter what happens. Not dangerous conditions, but also not hear about arguments like, ‘it was one degree above zero and it wasn’t snowing yet, but the forecast looked bad on this website that I found.’”
During Tirreno-Adriatico Vincenzo Nibali expressed similar sentiments. He and his coach decried the decision to abandon stage five the day beforehand, claiming that conditions had sufficiently improved by the morning of the race.
Hampsten’s argument is that there needs to be balance to the discussion. He acknowledges that some might believe he is picking on the riders, but he also points out that there is a danger in moving too quickly when there is doubt about racing conditions.
“A lot of the intrigue in our sport is the boys and girls riding their bikes pretty much no matter what,” he says. “It is how it has been for a long while. I would hate to see the popularity go away because of that.
“On the other hand, the riders’ safety is paramount and the weather and other elements of bike racing need to be looked at to ensure it stays a safe as possible.”
His message? Things need to be thought out carefully, and the Extreme Weather Protocol only used when it is absolutely necessary.
Hampsten in the 1989 Giro
The notion of cancelling stages or single-day races because of extremes of temperature might seem like a modern one, but Hampsten makes clear it has been in place before.
Indeed, he uses one example to show that sometimes decisions are made too hastily.
“In 1989 there was a little bit of snow on the Gavia and it was completely cancelled. We drove over it in the sunshine with fans swearing at us. It was a disgrace.
“Sometimes I take my tours to the Gavia [for several months each year, he runs bike tours in Italy – ed.]. We hang out and talk to some of the local people and we find out just how much all of the stages over the Gavia means to them. Life is kind of hard whether you are a sheep herder or work at a ski resort or running a café at the top of a mountain pass. They really appreciated all of the riders.
“Not just me, not Breukink – they appreciated the race happening just like it did in their father’s age, in their grandparents’ time.
“And it wasn’t just the race fans either. The people, the residents of that area who really identify with the mountains just love the fact that all the guys rode over the mountain and struggled through it. That the stage wasn’t cancelled, even though it was pretty horrendous.
“People who were kids at that time and didn’t see it…when they talk about cycling in Bormio [where the Gavia stage finished – ed.], they say ‘were you one of the guys who rode over years ago when it was super cold?’ It is a big part of the sport in Italy.”
Hampsten, of course, gives one perspective in a multi-faceted discussion. Some will disagree with his points, others will see value to them. His words shouldn’t be taken as an absolute, but be part of the broader debate.
Riders’ safety is clearly important, but he warns that there is also a danger in being too cautious. Who amongst us haven’t taken satisfaction out of pressing on in awful weather conditions, battling nature and persevering? He says it is the same amongst the professionals, and that the struggle is part of the epic nature of the sport.
“That stage was the greatest moment I have had on a bike. Emotionally it was so, so hard pushing myself to get through it. It was just as hard for all the other riders.
“For me, personally, it ended up being the one moment in my athletic career where I pushed myself psychologically harder than any other moment just to get through the conditions. Years later, it is like, ‘wow, I am really glad I made it through that week.’ I had bronchitis the rest of the season, but I am glad as an athlete that I had that opportunity.”