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How Andy Hampsten Became a Great Climber

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There are images of Andy Hampsten seared into the memory of any over-40s American cycling fan: Andy in giant Oakley Factory Pilots helping Greg LeMond win his first Tour de France in 1986 and earning the maillot blanc of best young rider along the way…Andy braving the freezing Gavia Pass to take control of the 1988 Giro d’Italia on the way to his first and only Grand Tour victory…Andy writing his name among climbing greats with victory atop L’Alpe d’Huez in 1992.

Interview: Ben Edwards
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

A look at Hampsten’s career traces these well-known moments—his start with GS Mengoni that led to his amateur stint with Levi’s-Raleigh in 1985, then the call-up to La Vie Claire where he burst onto the scene as LeMond’s faithful lieutenant and helped “slay the Badger.” From there it was 7-Eleven, Motorola, Banesto—even a year at U.S. Postal—all resulting in an undisputed place as one of the greatest riders in American cycling history, despite an early retirement in 1996.

What that history glosses over, what Wikipedia fails to mention, is three weeks in 1985 when Andy Hampsten’s Levi’s-Raleigh team loaned him to 7-Eleven for the Giro. It was a one-month contract that proved Andy could climb with the greatest and beat them on his day. It was the 58 short kilometers from St. Vincent to Gran Paradiso, two weeks into his pro career, during stage 20 of the Giro that we wanted to know about. We set up the interview and sat down to get started. We ended up asking a single question: “Tell us about your first pro win.”

With a memory undiminished by time, age or years of suffering, Andy Hampsten began to tell us in detail the story of the day that changed his life—the climb to Gran Paradiso.

[ANDY HAMPSTEN] That was my first win as a pro, the Giro. I had the fortune of being asked to fill in as a climber for the race. I’d actually been talking to 7-Eleven in the previous fall (1984) for the whole year. That was my dream, to go to Europe in the spring to race. But they had no idea if they would do well, and there was no motive for 7-Eleven to send them over there. They didn’t have a single store in Europe, so [team manager] Jim Ochowicz said, “We’d love to have you over there, but we might just be racing crits. We’ll go in the spring but if 7-Eleven doesn’t like it…. We can’t hire you, sorry.” So I thought, okay, one more year, but then….

The 7-Eleven team went to Europe—Sicily right away, I think. The spring campaign was mostly in Italy, with Ron Kiefel once again saving the day and winning the Laigueglia Trophy, which is the first big one-day race on the Italian calendar. It’s a big deal.

In typical Ron style he just crushed people. An Italian industrialist, Erminio Dell’Oglio—who owned Hoonved washing machines and always co-sponsored teams, he doesn’t do title sponsorships—sees that [victory] and finds [7-Eleven sports director] Mike Neel. “I’ll sponsor you to do the Tour of Italy. I’ll pay your entry fee.”—which is essentially the hotel bill, which is $50,000. A giant, insurmountable amount of money for a team to find back then and here’s this cigar-chomping industrialist saying, “You guys are great, I got you covered.”

I don’t know how I heard about the Laigueglia Trophy—probably another rider read it in the New York Times. That must have been in February. So, in March, I’m an amateur with my Levi’s-Raleigh team and we go to the Tour of Texas and the 7-Eleven guys are flying over directly from Europe and they won the Laigueglia Trophy! It’s just insane. It’s so cool.

There’s a prologue up some hill in the outskirts of Austin and we’re all kind of game-faced. 7-Eleven’s there, Ron Kiefel’s there—and Davis [Phinney] just rides right up and says, “Andy! Andy, you’ve gotta come back to Italy with us. We’re going to do the Giro! We need you. We don’t have a climber! Wookie [Ron Kiefel] and I can do the sprints, but we need a complete team. Please!”

“I’d love to, let’s scratch our heads and figure it out.”

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The manager of my amateur team was willing to let me go for a one-month contract so I could go race the Tour of Italy with 7-Eleven. So that’s how I got there. For me, it was a one-way ticket. I just figured, this is my one chance, this could go really well, but after the Tour of Italy I go home. I have the whole season ahead of me. I’ve been dreaming of getting here, but I’m not in. I’m the last guy after Bob Roll to be put on this team, but it was really fun, because we were all buddies. We had all raced in Italy together as amateurs, really good races, the hardest amateur races, and a lot of the guys we’d been battling with from ’80 to ’85. We’d all been fighting with eastern Europeans and Italian amateurs, so we knew a lot of the young pros on the Italian teams. They were pretty welcoming, you could ask them questions, but it was a very hostile environment.

We Americans were all rookies, other than Jonathan Boyer, and the whole team was comprised of Americans. None of us, other than Boyer, really understood Italy. Now I live in Italy and I understand a lot more about Italy and sometimes about myself. We felt like we were horribly mistreated by the Italian peloton, and it probably wasn’t that bad. But being American kids, we made a big deal about it.

We’d go really slow, like 24 kph, for hours. It’s hard for 200 guys not to crash talking with their hands and bumping into each other; it just happens all the time. And then we’d go incredibly fast when the TV helicopters would show up at the end. Every time there was a crash the Italians would wave their arms, “Oh, Americani! The Americans did it!” And we were like, “Oh no, we didn’t do it.”

But, I guess, we were in Italy, we should have said, “Whatever. I eat with my left and gesticulate with my right, I didn’t mean to!” Some cultural interference occurred, so we just naturally told them all to “fuck off.” It was just instant. It was so unnecessary but so effective. They were just so offended. I don’t know what they said to us but it was probably: “You guys are way too touchy. In a couple years, you can blame the new guys that show up, just play the game!”

But we didn’t know! We didn’t know all the subtleties. We’d be very offended and very, very, vocally supportive of each other in the peloton. Europeans didn’t really know what to do with us.

But the racing was also very, very difficult. We were getting shelled, but early on our whole attitude was: “Hey, this is great, we have this sponsorship, 7-Eleven’s pretty happy, maybe we can do the Tour, this is what we have been dreaming about. Yes, we’re all neo-pros, but everyone, do your part.”

There’s some prologue and we all do our rides, but the first stage, it’s flat and a big field-sprint finish. We were all going to lead out Davis, but it’s the Giro d’Italia, what’s going to happen? And Davis gets fourth! I wasn’t afraid, you know, we weren’t trying to do a huge train, no one did back then, but Davis just completely did his thing, he was in super form, super-psyched, rallying the troops, telling people what to do, like he would at any other race, but we are all impressed. We’re like, “This really works, this is pretty fun!”

So the next day there’s the first King of the Mountains sprint. We zigzag around, it wasn’t very mountainous, probably a third-category climb, it was pretty long and gradual. It started on a giant boulevard and all the teams were doing lead-outs and it is just chaos. They’re looking around for me and I can’t do anything, there are 200 guys sprinting for this, I sprint and get fifth or sixth out of three or four spots there are for points. I thought, “Well, I sort of failed.”

But now we were going downhill and were strung out, it’s a twisty downhill, then 20 or 30K to the finish, sort of an uphill finish, nothing crucial, but a dangerous finish. So I’m descending eighth in line, and I look ahead of me and there are four world champions ahead of me—Saronni, Moser, Hinault, LeMond and, well, Hampsten. There is no way you hear those four names and then mine, this is surreal. I didn’t get any points. I completely failed in the KOM sprint. But I don’t know. “We’re all here, what should I do? You should attack! No, no, that’s Saronni, you have to ask!”

But we’re 7-Eleven, it’s a one-way ticket, so I attack and get away. I spend five or 10 minutes off the front, and don’t almost win. I get swallowed up by the pack whenever they wanted to, but I was out there. After, Erminio Dell’Oglio, this sponsor who was a huge teddy bear, he’s just smacking my back and chomping his cigar, telling me, “Way to go, that was awesome!” I said, “I didn’t come anywhere near winning.”

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“But you were on TV for 15 minutes! You’re a pro now!”

I thought, “Oh, he’s just happy because I put his name on TV.” Then, I think, “Wait a minute, that’s all we’re really doing, that worked out okay.”

So we go all over Italy, I get completely shelled. There’s bucketing rain, the long 200K stage in the Dolomites at the end of week one, but I learned many things. I learned if your name is Francesco Moser you can line people up in running shoes and they will push you up the climb so you don’t lose too much time on Hinault… and nothing happens because it is the Tour of Italy.

We go to southern Italy and there are crashes and mayhem and the Italian’s get completely demoralized in southern Italy because to them it’s Africa, blah, blah, blah…. But the food’s better, the roads are a little worse, the Italians are bummed out but we feel better. Second week of the race we start coming back and are feeling pretty good, our attrition rate is pretty good, we’re holding our own and we come up with a plan to help Ron Kiefel win [a stage]. He takes off and leaves everyone on an uphill going into Perugia…we gave him our little lead-out and he rockets off the front and just rides away from everyone.

Every GC guy is sprinting as hard as they can, time gaps everywhere. Kiefel just wipes the floor with them. We’re just out of our minds, “Oh my god!” But that’s Kiefel.

There aren’t many mountainous stages left because the whole thing is designed for Moser. The Cima Coppi [a prize for first to the highest point in the Giro] is in a tunnel under the Petit Saint-Bernard; there’s the old road over the top, but the tunnel was for cars, and I was there, it was the day before I won.

Neel said, “Andy, don’t sprint, don’t attack.” It was a big stage, huge climb at the beginning, 150K of flat in Switzerland, big climb at the end through the tunnel, descend to the village at the end. “You’re climbing so well, don’t go for the Cima Coppi, don’t waste any energy, wait until tomorrow!” I grumble about it, but I do it anyway. [Editor: The Cima Coppi was actually on the early climb, the Simplon, and the tunnel was at the top of the Grand Saint-Bernard.]

So now we’re at the 20th stage of the race and the whole team is: “Everything for Andy today!” So it’s a 58-kilometer stage. Last climb. We’re going to go flat, gradual flat, big valley through Val d’Aosta, take a left and we’ll finish up at Gran Paradiso. Since it’s a [short] stage, it’s going to take an hour and a half. We start at 4 p.m. or something, so we can go for a warm-up ride and check it out. I go with Jonathan Boyer to preview the course and I’m really disappointed, because riding the whole climb, it just peters out. It’s never hard, there’s no little ramp with 3K to go where I can look at the other guys and when they’re tired I can try and sprint away. Typical little climber, waiting for guys to feel horrible.

On the drive down, I’m in the car with Mike Neel and Jonathan Boyer, and Mike says, “It’s not your typical climb, but everyone knows you’re riding well. The GC boys have to hammer it out, you’re in 20th place or something and our goal for the whole team was let’s win a stage and get one guy in the top 20. Kiefel already won a stage and we think you can win this stage. Top 20’s looking good. But you need an element of surprise because you’re climbing really well and been moving up in the last week. This is the last chance for climbers to win but Hinault, LeMond and Moser are going to battle over their seconds, they don’t really care about this stage but they’ll be riding as hard as they can today. Really, the only place for you to attack is at the bottom because it’s the steepest, there is a little descent after that, you have to go with the element of surprise.”

I’m just thinking with my little climber brain, “No, no, no…. I have to wait until everyone is tired, attack when their eyes are rolling back in their head.” But that’s not really going to work. So Mike says, “Why don’t you attack right there?” and we’re just driving along, I could see the town, we’re about 1K up the climb, and he remembers it’s the steepest part. It’s this big right-hand curve with this stonewall, pretty easy, but out of town.

I just said, “Whatever, it’s an 18-kilometer climb, there will be 16K to go or something. It’s way too far but I’ll attack there. Maybe I’ll get my little group, I’ll pretend I’m not doing well, we’ll do the climber thing later.”

It’s weird doing a road stage when you have lunch first, all the time in the world for a team meeting and I’m getting nervous. It’s like a time trial. The day before, there were these two big climbs and I wanted to fight it out and show what a strong climber I am because I’d love to get on another team.

Greg LeMond’s been telling his [La Vie Claire] team, “Hey, watch this Hampsten guy, he’s good.” Then he tells me, “I told them you’re good, why don’t you go do something and I get you on next year, I’d love to have you. I need another English speaker.” I don’t have a contract for next year. I’ve been pro for like two or three weeks! So I’m pretty nervous.

The team plan was: “Everyone lead out Andy. There’s going to be pushing and shoving at the front. You know how these Italian’s are once they see something is going on, every team tries to get in on it. The GC guys really do need to position themselves because it’s kind of steep coming out of town for the climb, and Andy, wear a one-piece, make a pocket out of your number or something.”

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I did that attack earlier in the race, but I’m still not getting it that I’m racing with the best pros in the world, I’m not reading about them in a magazine, and I really like racing and I want to keep doing this. I’m thinking, “What’s the best way to make a lot of friends, be accepted in this world?” Normally, the answer is you’ve got to beat them. You got to be invited in. You want to be their enemy, so they hire you into their world.

We were doing this lead-out and I remember people sneering at me. My Italian’s coming on, and my friends in the peloton are saying, “Andy, we don’t wear one-pieces on road stages. I know it’s short, you have a little pocket with something in it, but its just one of those things. It’s just not done.” People are sneering!

It’s kind of weird because I’m on Davis’s wheel. It’s Kiefel, then Phinney. Davis is the last guy. We’d been leading Davis out, so most of the other [7-Eleven] guys are playing the whole game and the other racers are excited because it’s the last mountain day, so if they can show off and do an extra effort for the lead-out they’re up there doing it on this big valley road.

There’s pushing and shoving and I’m seeing LeMond’s been bumped off of his train and [race leader] Hinault’s in trouble, and right before the end I crack my little tough-guy posture and shove Hinault in front of me with the last 100 meters to go before the base of the climb and onto Phinney’s wheel.

Someone just instantly attacks and all the domestiques are still there to chase it and the captains are fighting to get to the front. Everyone’s going absolutely 100 percent. I see the other climbing aces that are these Spanish guys like [Marino] Lejarreta, and they always win a stage for their Italian sponsor. Right when that little breakaway is coming back and the group bunches, Bob Roll is right in the front and he’s looking around, “Andy Andy! Where are you?!”

“I’m right behind you!”

When the [caught] rider is squeezing by on the right-hand side, right in front of Bob Roll and the first line with me right on his wheel, I say, “Move left!” and he shoves me through and I just take off like pinching a pumpkin seed between your fingers, just gone! Exactly at the curve Mike Neel told me to—“Well, that’s a happy coincidence!”

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I think, “I’ll have to attack some more, because here I am, a sitting duck, 16K to go, in front of everyone, what should I do?” And I just understood to follow my legs and put 100 percent into it right away. I turned around once and I could see Lejarreta and the other very good climbers who were hunting for that stage chasing me, but not together. “This is good, they don’t have any more domestiques. This is great, this is happening.” I could see I had my 20 or 30 seconds, I got to be alone the whole climb, with one voice saying, “You can do it!” and the other saying, “You can’t do it, what are you talking about, this won’t work!”

I won by 50 seconds. [Editor: Hampsten actually finished one minute ahead of runner-up Reynel Montoya of Colombia, with Lejarreta in third; Bernard Hinault was 10th at 1:37.]

One of the reliable things about Italy is there was one man who was the announcer and he’d be paid $50 by sponsors to interview riders. He kept bragging to us, he spoke some English, that he had an American “basketball” girlfriend. So he’s asking me questions in English and no one has to pay him today because I won, “How long have you been a pro?” I can understand his Italian, and he says, “Andy has only been a pro for two years and this is his first win.”

My Italian was good enough from studying to say, “No, no. I’ve been a pro for two weeks!” I cringe when I see a tape of it. It’s such poor Italian. But that was the moment I decided, “My Italian is better than that, I’ll just do my Italian lessons on live TV.”

Go ride with Hampsten: cinghiale.com 

From issue 39. Buy it here.