On June 5, 1988, a snowstorm almost 9,000 feet up in the Italian Alps sent professional cyclists to the side of the road, into support cars and, in some cases, to the hospital with hypothermia. In one of the Giro d’Italia‘s best-remembered moments, American Andy Hampsten — clad in oversized Oakleys, a wool beanie and neoprene diving gloves — rode through the blizzard in the Gavia Pass aggressively, later becoming the first American to win the race since it began in 1909. That distinction still stands today. Hampsten retired from professional cycling as one of the sport’s greatest climbers in 1997, but continued to explore his passion for cycling by starting a frame-building business with his brother, Steve, and running Cinghiale Cycling Tours in Italy, where he spends part of the year. We met Hampsten at the inaugural Eroica California this year, and later, caught up with him about his famous Giro victory, the allure of steel bikes and the state of professional cycling.
Q. I want to jump into some of the history stuff first. Back to 1987 when you went from La Vie Claire to 7-Eleven. I’m curious what some of the differences between American and European cycling were then.
A. At the time there was a huge difference. In ’86 with La Vie Claire, I was with the best team in the world. And we had very famous problems having Hinault on the team. So that’s part of the reason I went to 7-Eleven. It was a pretty small team, and unproven compared to big European teams. But that’s exactly why I wanted to race with it. I wanted to be with Americans. It was organized well and without having a lot of clout behind it. I knew that it would be a great atmosphere for me to race in. And it was certainly a risk going from arguably the best team in Europe to a small American team. But since I’d already raced with them a little bit in 1985, it was a pretty fun risk for me to take.
Q. Why didn’t you want to race with a European team anymore?
A. Well, that wasn’t it exactly. In 1986, I raced with a lot of the La Vie Claire team, and it was — it was just hard to manage, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. So it was more interesting for me to be with an American team, even though it wasn’t as good of a team.
Q. And when you say difficult to manage we’re talking about the Hinault-LeMond rivalry? That’s a bit of a long story.
A. It’s a long, great story. It’s well covered in the Slaying the Badger movie and book. All teams are fun to race with when you’re a gang of brothers against the whole world. And with the La Vie Claire, even though everyone was a superstar and we won everything, it just wasn’t much fun. Looking back on it is fantastic, but at the time it wasn’t much fun, at least for my personality. I’d rather be with a smaller, tighter, more cohesive group of racers than be on a superstar team that didn’t get along.
Q. Since we’re talking about history I’d like to spend a little time talk about the old bikes you rode. One thing that was mentioned at Eroica is that these classic bikes with shifters on the down tubes help you better understand how hard cycling is and allows you to get in touch with cycling’s history. Even some of the bikes that you and your brother make are sort of styled that way. Is it more than just nostalgia? Is there something about these old steel frames?
A. Well, they’re beautiful, if that’s where your eye leads you. I didn’t bring one of my bikes [to Eroica California], so I borrowed a 1950s English bike named Reg Harris — he was a frame builder and World Champion. It was fantastic. It was so much fun on pavement and on those dirt roads that I was kind of shocked. It had really narrow bars, which is nothing like a modern bike; it was heavy, it had horrible gears (I used to race with the same brand Simplex gears). It was so bad when I raced on them. But the mechanic at the bike shop, Wally’s, they did such a good job taking care of the bike that it shifted beautifully.
The day before the ride, I went to my favorite winery in the area. Between obligations I rode the bike out — not in my cycling clothes, just street clothes — tasted a bunch of wine until it got a little bit late, and then I jumped on the bike and rode mostly downhill 40 minutes back to Paso Robles. And the bike couldn’t have handled better. Which just proves to me that, I think bike design had really been figured out about 80 or 100 years ago.
Materials change, wheels change. Things get so much lighter, brakes work so much better now. But as far as being on a bike and having it just go instinctively where I want to go, through curves when — and to be honest, I had too much wine — it couldn’t have been a more comfortable bike. My brother and I run Hampsten Cycles, and we custom make bikes out of titanium and steel and a little bit of carbon fiber. And it’s really interesting keeping up on new material, and I love new brakes and gears that work so well, but it’s pretty fun being in cycling and just realizing how great bikes have been for 100 years now.
Q. What informs the kind of the frames that you guys make?
A. We just dumbed everything down. Our bikes steer very nicely. We call it neutral handling. If you lean a little bit, they turn a little bit; if you lean a lot in the corner, they’ll turn sharper. But they’re very predictable in the way they handle. We spend a lot of time both on frame and the components, saddles, pedals, tires and seats, working with our customers to make sure they’re really comfortable on the bike. Some people want to race; a lot of people want to just do a 40-mile ride; other people want to take it to Europe and go over the most famous paths in the Dolomites and Alps. But they all handle with the same predictability, no matter who we’re making it for. And that’s just geometry that was figured out 100 years ago. Selecting different materials with a customer has changed quite a bit.
But it’s really simple in the same way that having a suit or a dress made is very simple. You could fly to Hong Kong with your favorite designer suit and say, “Hey, make me three of these”, and they’ll do a good job, and it’ll be a lot cheaper. But the tailor will say, “Okay, what material do you want? Do you want to just copy someone else? Look at this crazy, cool Italian-made wool. Wouldn’t you prefer this? And wouldn’t you like to change the style a little bit?” We know the geometry and how to get it to handle properly. We know about different materials, but until we have a few conversations with a customer, we really aren’t sure if they’re gonna be delighted with this bike. And some people just want another bike for their collection. But it’s more interesting to work with people who, like someone getting a custom dress or suit, really want to feel it in a certain way, and they can describe it to us. It’s fun for us to work with people who are enthused to develop their bike.
Q. This may be the wrong question for you, because you seem like a really sort of humble guy, but you live in Boulder which has a reputation as super competitive, even when you’re out for a training ride. Are you ever out for a casual ride sometimes, on a climb for example, and you get people who are trying to challenge you?
A. That’s a very, very good assessment on all accounts. What I learn daily living in Boulder, Colorado is that everyone’s cooler than I am, no matter what they’re doing. There’s a lot of competitive people here that are a bit serious about what they do. Which is fine, I can’t criticize that, but it’s also a very beautiful place to ride. And usually I’m not very competitive when I ride. Sometimes I’m short on time and I’m trying to go fast, and I don’t mind passing people, and I certainly don’t mind faster people passing me. It’s usually some pretty interesting people riding their bikes here, so every time I try to get into a conversation, it usually ends up I ride with someone who’s pretty fun and pretty cool. But back to the subject you’re touching on — just how competitive people are here. It is the reason why I like dirt roads on the flats and in the mountains. If they’re on a dirt road, they’re not trying to set a Strava time. So that’s a little bit more of my people rather than blasting up Flagstaff.
I think bike design had really been figured out about 80 or 100 years ago.
Q. But do you ever have to just drop the hammer and show somebody who’s boss?
A. I should say I’m not that competitive, but I live at the base of Flagstaff, which is sort of our mountain here in the middle of town. So sometimes late in the afternoon when I’ve been at the computer doing other things all day and I’ve — I need to get my ya-yas out. Sometimes I only have an hour, and yes I’ll admit I might go a little faster just to try to chase someone down. And just when I think I’m cool, someone will come blasting past me.
Q. I do want to talk about the Giro d’Italia in 1988. It’s probably one of the most famous races and moments in cycling history, stage 14 and the Gavia Pass. I read that people were crying and drinking cognac on the side of the road. Can you walk me through the race and the specific event?
A. I’ll try not to spend too much time telling you how cool I am.
Q. This is pretty cool.
A. That year there were a lot of mountains in the 1988 Giro, which might not sound that brilliant, but Italian racers weren’t very good climbers in general in the period before that. So in the mid ’80s there was a lot of ho-hum… Giro d’Italia. They were making up for it, the promoters, when they designed the course. In 1988 they put a lot of mountains there, including the Gavia stage, which wasn’t very long and it had a smaller mountain early in the day. And then the Gavia Pass. So it’s one small mountain, one giant mountain. It wasn’t a huge mountain with three, four or even five peaks.
So a lot of other racers didn’t take it that seriously. It was like, “Oh, there’s a small mountain, I’ll warm up on it.” And this giant mountain that the old-timers say is really hard, but the racers were thinking they’d just go as hard as they can and it doesn’t matter what the climb is like. But that’s not very true, and I had good friends who — Italian ex-racers, who are always very kind to me — and they said, “Hey, when I’m talking to these Italian teams, they’re like, ‘Oh whatever, my race director said it was really hard, but he’s this dumb old guy, what’s he know? We’ve got modern bikes, we’re gonna blast over it.'”
But I talked to former racer, Gianni Motta, who said, “Oh my God, this bank is so hard. It’ll be 14 percent grade for part of it.” The last 14 kilometers going up will be 14 percent grade for a lot of it. It’ll turn to dirt, and it’ll be one lane wide, kind of soft and really gnarly. And then it’s a 25-kilometer descent into Bormio. All of it fairly steep. The first part is, just this crazy paved goat track: it doesn’t have a regular rhythm of hairpins and straights like you can describe most climbs. And the reason it stood out as far as being really difficult is it was just a really horrible, miserable sleety day down below where the race started. And then the snow line was pretty much with the last 14 kilometers up and over the pass. And then rain and sleet all the way to the finish.
So I was looking forward to the stage, thinking, “Hey, this is really good, it’s a really hard mountain. People aren’t really queuing up for it.” I happened to win the uphill finish stage two days before it, so I knew physically I was just on this awesome peak. But it was snowing at eight in the morning down in the valley where our hotel was. So, of course, it’s snowing much heavier at the top of the mountain. So we knew that we might have to save a little bit of energy for the downhill. But I decided to attack on the uphill, right at that point, 14 kilometers before the top. And the other racers knew that I would attack, because I was doing very well and won two days before. But I thought if they’re all looking at me, knowing I’m going to attack, I’ll just put in a few super hard attacks and do it. Even though I’m a favorite, I’m gonna just take my big stick and swing it.
So I did, and I actually got away right at 14 kilometers from the top, which is a little earlier than I intended to, but it was such a slug fest with no drafting that I knew it was every man for himself. I went over the top pretty cold with quite a bit of snow stacking up on me, but I was able to put on warm clothes from the team car that was following us, so I had a wool hat, wool neck gators, these giant Oakleys kind of helped, neoprene diving gloves on, but nothing on my feet or legs.
So I went over the top with one other rider. There’s a breakaway ahead of us earlier so there was one good rider a minute ahead of myself and Erik Breukink. We went off the top together, but I was still focusing on the 25-kilometer descent to the finish. Normally a racer would go 100 percent on an uphill and coast down as fast as they possibly can. But I knew that the downhill would make more difference than the uphill. So I held back some energy for the downhill portion. I got ahead of Breukink, but then he passed me with seven kilometers to go. And I could use him as a bit of a rabbit, but I couldn’t get on his wheel or come around him at the finish. So he won the stage, I was seven seconds behind him. But the third place finisher was almost five minutes behind us. And the race leader who had less than a minute on me going into the stage finished eight or nine minutes back.
So I didn’t have the race sewn up, because Erik was very close to me going into it. We battled through the rest of the week. But it was really in the downhill, in the snow: I should mention it was snowing from the summit until about 10 kilometers down the descent. The snow turned into sleet, and it was maybe four degrees and sleeting at the finish.
I’d rather be with a smaller, tighter, more cohesive group of racers than be on a superstar team that didn’t get along.
Q. How important was that, that win for you and for American racing?
A. For me it’s the best race I’ve ever won. I was always trying to win the Tour de France, and very obviously never did. The Tour of Italy is the number two race, but it’s just as old. When they do gnarly mountains, they’re gnarlier than the Tour. It has a fantastic history. I prefer the culture. I live in Italy half the year now. It was really, really, really cool after that effort to find myself in the race lead. It’s by far the greatest accomplishment I’ve done on the bike. And certainly psychologically that one day is the hardest I have ever pushed myself in any circumstance, as an athlete or a person. I’m really glad I won, but just having that opportunity to ride completely out of my skin in extreme conditions — it’s not something I relished or would look forward to.
But looking back on the day, I can see as the race went on, when I was shivering on the uphill in the first hour, I just accepted what was happening. I was kind of scared by the elements but realized all I needed to do was do what I was going to do anyway. On a nice day, go as hard as I could. I had to do all I could to stay warm, keep with the strategy of going hard on the uphill, make up a minute or two on the uphill and look for two, three or four minutes on the downhill. Telling you about this all these years later, it sounds really simple, but at the moment there’s a lot of difficulties that I’ve had to overcome to get back to a really simple plan like that. So I’m grateful that I had that opportunity and circumstances and that I was worthy for it that time.
Q. Will you be watching the Giro d’Italia this year, and are there any riders you’re looking out for?
A. Oh I’m so bad at that. The Colombians are killing it on all sorts of different teams. So look out for them. But if I named the three stars that are obvious, they’re all gonna not do well. I love to watch the Giro as a fan now because it’s so hard for superstars: maybe they won a Tour or something, then they go to Italy not being 100 percent prepared and they just get clobbered, because culturally it’s more difficult for a foreigner than France.
There are smaller teams that race it, but they’re Italian so they’re very, very excited about their home race. So I think it’s a more unpredictable race than the Tour de France. I watch both of them, but I always find the Giro a bit more exciting.
Q. A lot of your wins — the Giro, the Tour of Switzerland, Romandie — they’re steep, hilly races. What makes you such a good climber?
A. I don’t know when to slow down… I mean, physiologically I have a good power-to-weight ratio. I’m light. When I was young, I’d recuperate very well from day to day. So I could really bury myself one day and my body would recuperate overnight better than a lot of heavier riders. If I spun at a fairly high gear, I was just able to get up again the next day and go after it again. Looking back on it, I think physically I had what I needed. I wasn’t a superstar, but especially in these three-week races, I was able to kind of dish it out day in and day out and recuperate between. But when the races got very hard on the steep, long mountains, I’d be able to relax and race at 100 percent of my physical fitness level, not worrying that I was going too deep.
Q. So I’m curious what you think about the state of the sport now with respect to doping.
A. When I was racing a rider who is doping, the conversation would be, like, “Oh man, I got away with it, this and that.” And people would sort of snicker, like, he’s cheating on his test in middle school. Now all the racers understand that if one of them is caught, the Tour de France is gonna say, “None of you are coming.” So I think that the discussions around the dinner table with these 20- and 30-year-olds — not the superstars, but the younger riders — is, “If any of you mess up my chance to compete in the Tour de France because you’re doping, I’m gonna kick your ass.” I think that is the biggest change that the sport can really ask for, is when the riders have a completely different attitude towards doping. And I think that’s occurred.
Q. You live half the year in Tuscany and have spent a lot of time racing in Europe. Are the youth cycling cultures different in Europe and the US?
A. Where I live in Tuscany, someone that sponsors a local youth team will be the equivalent of Joe’s Pizzeria, and his three nephews are on the team, and he was a pro — so this is a huge asset to all the races. While in America, now there’s a lot of local pros, so it’s getting easier in a place like Boulder to get that exposure to the sport. But it’s really not that beneficial in my opinion. Growing up in North Dakota, where I didn’t know any pro, I didn’t know about pro racing, much less have an uncle telling me all the secrets. Kids don’t need that; most of what they’re gonna need if they turn pro, they’re gonna learn as a junior.
And most of that is just have fun, learn how to cooperate with people, learn how to read people’s tactics, have a look at a race from your perspective and all your opponents’ perspectives and figure it out. It’s actually almost better not to start when you’re 12 and win a bunch of races, when maybe your body’s just a bit stronger than other 12-year-olds. It’s better to start when you’re 17 or 18, thinking you’re behind, but having an open mind. A lot of the best pros were okay amateurs. They had to work really, really hard and pay attention mentally to the tactics in bike racing, rather than just being the strongest kid who always won and didn’t really know why.
Q. What’s the ideal meal for you when you’re starving after a huge ride?
A. Just dropping in unannounced is rude, but Italians tolerate it. If you’re invited to a friend’s house for dinner, we eat 10 courses. It’s just too much, and the food’s too rich. If I drop in on someone’s house, they’re having a salad from the garden and either a pasta or soup — plenty of it, no one goes hungry, but it’s not a show off meal. It’s just so refreshing, delicious and easily digestible, especially if I’m really tired. Home cooking in Italy is just phenomenal.
Q. Looking back on yourself as a younger guy — let’s just say 1985 — is there anything you would tell your younger self?
A. I mean, I made so many mistakes, and I’m so glad I made all of the mistakes. And I would’ve tried to have follow the advice, “Oh just relax, everything will work out alright.” It’s interesting you mention this because through my sponsors and amateur racers, the importer of the bikes knew Eddy Merckx because he imported Eddy Merckx’s bikes. He said, “You’re going to Italy. You’re turning pro to do the Giro d’Italia in ’85. Just call up Eddy Merckx, and just ask him.” I thought, there’s no way on the planet I can dial this number and talk to Eddy Merckx. I can’t bug him. What am I gonna say? But at the last minute, I did. He pretty much just said, “Oh man, you know, just relax. Just do your thing, don’t get so hung up on it.” Shit, I was too nervous to remember every word. But he really said, “Just relax, find your way. Don’t lay awake at night thinking, ‘Oh this guy’s a world champion, that guy’s won the Giro three times. What am I doing here?’ Just find your place in the sport.”
Then what I would tell kids now, or I got to tell myself at that point is, “If it doesn’t work, go do something else, but kudos to you for taking the risk.” It’s great having the opportunity to do it, but it could have been incredibly humiliating — in many stages it was — but it worked out really well. So it’s just that basic, do your best, relax, and let it all happen and participate when you can.