By common consent, 1994 was one of the hardest Giros in history.
For Britain’s Brian Smith, riding for Motorola, it was a baptism of fire with, thanks to the Stelvio, a dash of snow. It was to be Smith’s only Grand Tour. But he finished it. And he survived the Stelvio.
“Of course I remember it,” he laughs. “How could I forget it? I was on it for ages. We had about 50km from the start to the Stelvio. It was a nice day, but I remember guys putting on tops, leg warmers, overshoes.
“There was a lot of discussion, but my Italian’s not great and I didn’t know what they were saying. In any case, I fancied myself as a hardy Scotsman, but then I started to wonder. What was I missing here?
“Andy Hampsten, my team leader, told me just after the start, ‘Apparently it’s snowing at the top of the Stelvio.’ We’d sent our soigneur up there with flasks of hot tea with honey and rain capes. But I thought I’d better be prepared. So I dropped back to the team car, got my knee warmers, jacket and overshoes.
“We rode piano initially, and when the climb started we were bunching up. It was okay. It was nice and steady. Everything was cool. I had my 39×23 on; I thought it’d be fine.
“The one thing I was concerned about was staying with a group. The Stelvio came early in the stage; we still had the Mortirolo and another climb after that, so you couldn’t afford to be isolated. If you got dropped, you weren’t coming back.
“Then Vona attacked and that set the cat among the pigeons. The group split to pieces, people were in ones or twos. I can’t even remember if I was in a group for much of the climb. You’re concentrating too hard on just getting up it. I can’t remember much about the crowd, either. The Mortirolo [the stage’s final climb] seemed like a different race. I was back in short sleeves. And the last 500m I didn’t touch the pedals – there was a huge crowd and you just got pushed along.
“Only the hardiest, toughest tifosi had made it up the Stelvio. At the summit the road was clear, but there were 12ft snowdrifts by the side. I’d never seen anything like it. It was surreal: huge banks of snow lining the road. But when I think of the Stelvio I think mainly of the descent. I got up it okay; it was going down that was the problem. Although I’d been back to the car, I’d forgotten my gloves. And I didn’t want to stop.
“I was never one to get scared on a descent. But coming down the Stelvio that day, with my hands freezing, having to close one eye for the tunnels, and then hope for the best once you were inside, is something I’ll never forget. I was petrified.”
Extract from issue 7 of Rouleur magazine. Richard Moore hosts the Cycling Podcast.