Hall of fame: Theo De Rooij about June 5, 1988

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17.12.2007/ The legendary Passo di Gavia is often part of the Giro d'Italia and his 2621 metres have marked more than once the Cima Coppi, the highest point of the race. The Gavia became a legend on June 5th in 1988 when stage 14 of the Giro passed the Passo in a merciless blizzard. The legendary stage was won by Dutch rider Erik Breukink, with American and later winner of this Giro Andy Hampsten in second place. Cyclingheroes will publish a series of interviews with riders and team employees who were at the Gavia at June 5, 1988. The third interview is with Theo De Rooij, at that time a team mate of Erik Breukink at the Panasonic-Isostar team. The interview was made in December 2006.

Copyright Panasonic-Isostar
Theo De Rooij did the descent in a PDM coat...(picture: Panasonic-Isostar)

Cyclingheroes: Some teams knew before the start that there was snow at the Gavia. Did the riders of the Panasonic team knew this as well ? And.. was it already raining at the start in Chiesa Valmenco ?

Theo de Rooij: I believe it was raining during the whole stage, I didn't know that it would snow on the Gavia. At the start of the Gavia climb it was 16 degrees [Celsius], it was raining and we got rid of all unnecessary clothes and gave it to the team car. Most of the time I had bad luck because I did not climb with the riders at the front, but way ahead of the 'groupetto'. So the team cars were always  ahead or far behind me..

Cyclingheroes: Before the Gavia you climbed the Passo Aprica, did you had an idea how things would be on the Gavia?

Theo de Rooij: No. I believe we didn't race very fast because the group was pretty big as we started to climb the Gavia.

Cyclingheroes: Teun van Vliet was in an early breakaway, do you remember how the stage developed until the beginning of the Gavia climb ?

Theo de Rooij: No I can't remember anymore. But the climb and the descending of the Gavia are burned in my mind.

Cyclingheroes: Johan Van Der Velde was the first rider at the top, but he had to stop as he was shivering from the cold. Did you see him at the descent?

Theo de Rooij: No, I think he was still at the top when I arrived there.

Cyclingheroes: You could almost see nothing because of the snow and the road had not been paved then. What went through your head during the climb of the Gavia? Were you affraid or did you just ride ?

Theo de Rooij:  I remember very well the road changing from asphalt into 'terra battuta' [an unpaved country road] during the climb. The tubes sunk into the mud, the rain changed into snow and various cars had trouble to reach the summit. Some cars didn't make it, spectators pushed the cars and at some cars there where people sitting on the luggage trunk to get more grip on the slipping back wheels. About one or two kilometers before the summit, I saw PDM's pr officer Harry Jansen standing at the side of the road with a padded black ski jacket. I stopped and begged him to give me his jacket because I was wearing not enough clothes. It was so cold that I felt like I was riding naked through the snow. Harry gave me his jacket but it was too late, I was blue from the cold.

It was a survival tour. I only could use two gears because my gears were full with ice. At the summit I changed gears and used my big crank. During the descent I lost a cap and my glasses.  The snow was biting in my eyes and I was holding one hand before my eyes to protect them and looked through the slits between my fingers. I was steering with the other hand, the road was slippery and no asphalt. 

It was very cold, on the moments that I was able to hold my steering wheel with both hands, I stood up and I strained all my muscles, and while I was screaming for more power, adrenalin and to produce some warmth, I rode down. Every now and then my whole body was shaking heavily, but at the next moment I had it under control again. Sometimes I thought I was getting insane...

I told myself that it would be one degree warmer after each kilometer [1 km. 10%= 100 meters. lower =1 degree]. Suddenly Jesus Suarez-Cuevas [from the Spanish Zahor Chocolates - Macario team] was riding with me. It appeared that he had put some warm clothes on at the summit, took a bidon with hot tea and cognac and rode down. He saw my deplorable condition and offered me a sip of hot tea with cognac. I still had one hand before my eyes, the other one at my steering wheel and was shaking heavily. At first I was affraid to take the bidon because I had to use the hand that was before my eyes. The snow in my eyes was realy hurting. He was yelling at me that I had to drink and I took the bidon. A few nips of tea with alcohol had an anastatic effect and soon I felt better.

I was riding on asphalt again and it was getting warmer. Almost down in the valley I was flying, passing pink jersey holder Franco Chioccioli, he was wearing a yellow Del Tongo rain coat and was riding 20 km/h...

Cyclingheroes: What was going through your head after you returned to the hotel and how do you look back to the stage now, 19 years later?

Theo de Rooij: When I arrived at the luxury hotel I remember how bizarre it was to walk along the luxury reception looking like a mineworker. On dirty and wet black socks on a beautiful marmor floor. At first I was suffering as all my limbs were getting warm again after my blood circulation got its act together.  My limbs were incredibly itching during and after I took a bath. After that I was lying on my bed, swollen with pride, proud because I made it.

Cyclingheroes: Did you experience something similar during your career ?

Theo de Rooij: Yes the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège was terrible as well but I did not finish that race. In a tour you don't abandon.

Cyclingheroes: After you retired as a pro, you started a career as a sports director. First with the legendary Peter Post and later with Jan Raas. Both teams had a relation full of tension. Why did you make this move ?

Theo de Rooij:  I always respected Jan Raas and vica versa it was the same.

Cyclingheroes: We will probebly never have a stage like the 1988 Gavia again. The finish at Plan de Corones at the 2006 Giro d'Italia for instance, was postponed. Imagine you would still be a sports director and a stage would have similar circumstances as the 1988 Gavia stage. What advice would you give your riders?

Theo de Rooij: I am very restrained as it comes to advising in situations like that. The show must go on, dicussions like that mostly lead to nowhere: One sports director thinks its irresponsible, the next one says: ride. Especially Italians are saying quickly 'sciopero!' [strike]

Cyclingheroes: With Colle Delle Finistere, Plan De Corones and Zoncolan the Giro d'Italia has been very tough, spectacular and maybe even dangerous in last couple of years. Is that a good developement and were do you think is the limit?

Theo de Rooij: Cycling should stay cycling, don't fiddle to much. But it goes to far to look for 'artificial' obstacles. Climbs that you have to ride with mountainbikes just don't fit in.

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Hall of fame: Gavia June 5, 1988 interviews

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