Passion for the Sport: Andy Hampsten
From Issue 80 • Interview by James Startt, Images by PhotoSport International
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Thirty years ago, American cyclist Andy Hampsten had one of the greatest-ever rides in the sport, battling through a blinding blizzard over the Gavia Pass to become the first American winner of the Giro d’Italia. Today, he is still the only U.S. rider to have won the Giro; but his love affair with Italy continues as he spends nearly half of the year living in the small village of Castagneto Carducci, tucked away in the heart of the Livorno province of Tuscany. We caught up with the amiable American to discuss his differing interests in the sport today and look back on what was a truly epic day in cycling history.
Andy, you are one of the most illustrious cyclists in America, having won an epic Giro d’Italia in 1988, not to mention the prestigious Alpe d’Huez stage of the 1992 Tour de France. But in many ways you’ve kept a relatively low profile since retiring in 1996, although I know that you are still active in the sport and spend a lot of time in both Colorado and Italy. Tell us a little more about where you’re at both physically and professionally….
Well, I live in Boulder for much of the year, but I’m living almost five months of the year now in Italy. Back in my racing days, I discovered this amazing part of Italy thanks to Willy Balmat, my old team chef from the 7-Eleven days. He was Swiss but was always talking about this place in Italy. So I came down here as a racer to train, and fell in love with it. It’s just the nicest place where I have ever ridden a bike. It’s got a great climate, right next to the Mediterranean, quiet roads, with some hills, but no real mountains. I can ride inland to Siena, which is only 105 kilometers away. And there is really only traffic for the last 8 kilometers. I had some land with a small olive orchard for a while, but now I just have a small apartment on the outside of town. But I have a big garage for my bikes, and I can easily ride into town and have my coffee in the morning and then come back, sit on my terrace and watch the olive trees grow. It’s pretty relaxed really!
I know that you have recently launched your own brand of olive oil….
Yeah, it grew out over the years. Back when I had a little farm, I had an olive orchard and I would take the olives to a mill and have them pressed into oil. I would bring it back to friends in Boulder and more and more people wanted it, so it has become a small business, as my wife and I import about 1,000 liters a year.
And the rest of the time you seem to be pretty busy with your bike company, Hampsten Cycles, as well as your bike touring company, Cinghiale….
Yeah, I would say that my bike touring company definitely takes up most of my time. My brother Steven runs Hampsten Cycles out of Seattle. I help a bit, especially if a customer comes to me to be fit, and I do some of the design. But he does way over 99 percent of the work. And the business model is such that it’s going to stay small, because every bike is a custom order. Steve really likes talking with the customers, be it over the phone or on a ride, and figuring out what they want and then we hire master craftsmen to build each bike to spec. We don’t have an inventory to move. As a small business, it really follows the economy; so if the economy takes a hit, then we get half as many bike sales. But then the next year it comes back because, well, how long are you going to go without riding your bike?
But, really, most of my time is with the touring company. We generally have about five custom tours a year, although I also must spend a lot of time preparing for each tour, visiting the hotels and making sure that everything is in place and up to our standards. Next year, for example, we will do two trips in southern Italy, south of Naples, and that involves driving down with some guides to check out all of the ride routes and hotels, etcetera. We have a lot of Americans and most of our customers are couples. It always blows my mind just how organized they can be, because, well, they have to get both of their work schedules arranged so that it fits perfectly with our trip. And they have to get everything arranged pretty far ahead of time. So we have to make sure that everything is really set well in advance.
But it’s a lot of fun working with people on vacation. Half the fun is the bike rides. But then most days, in the afternoons after the ride, we go visit a local farm or do a cooking class. Basically, it’s about getting off the bike and doing something with the local culture, which for me often is about food or wine. People really like it. I get a lot of feedback from people once they get back home, and a lot of people tell me that after our tours they make a real point of taking time out for lunch, or stopping work a bit early at least once a week to prepare a real meal. It might sound pretentious to say that I am exposing people to a more relaxed lifestyle, but that is what they are telling me. And that’s satisfying.
And all these tours keep you riding it seems. You look fit. How many miles are you doing a year, or what kind of riding are you doing?
Yeah, it does! I try to encourage my clients to arrive fit, especially if they are doing one of our tours in the Dolomites or in Tuscany. Personally, I try to get out four times a week and often do four hours. And, with all of the racing I did, what 30 years ago now, I manage to keep in shape. Right now, it is really hot here in Italy, so I am not able to always do that, but I try to get out regularly.
And then in Boulder in the winter, I just simply try not to go more than a week without riding. I really try to avoid having a two-week stretch where I am not doing anything and then have that dreadful build-up again. But I ride my bike everyday in Boulder, just to do errands. It may be 5 miles, it may be 15 miles. And while it may not be training, it is a 100-percent more than if I didn’t do anything that day.
You mentioned about your racing days. It is hard to believe that your epic Giro d’Italia win with that incredible ride in the snow over the Gavia Pass was 30 years ago. That must be hard to believe?
It is hard to believe, but I go back fairly often with clients. So I get to see it, which is more than I can say about that day in the snow, when I couldn’t see anything. It’s a gorgeous mountain and it is really, really fun to ride. There is this place, where there is a tunnel now, but used to be just this road along a cliff.
What do you remember the most from that day on the Gavia?
Well, there are still a lot of emotions attached to it because it was just such an amazing day. It ended up being a great day for me, but a very painful one. Going into that stage I was pointing my whole strategy in the race to that stage and attacking that day. But then in the morning, when we got up, it was already snowing in our village at 600 meters so we knew that the weather was going to be terrible all day. At first I was disappointed. I was like, “Oh no! This is the day I was going to really attack!” Of course, in the little video that I was playing in my brain, it was going to be beautiful and sunny. It wasn’t, but I had a very good team around me.
That morning, management was really smart and they went and got all of the extra warm clothing they could find in the local ski shops so we had all of this extra clothing that would be handed up to us as the day evolved. We knew that the bad weather was coming in from the north and we really focused on staying warm on the descents. I had been riding really well all week, so I knew I was really good and just had a really healthy altitude. I had won a stage with an uphill finish just two days ago so I knew that I was just flying. And I was racing with my teammate Raúl Alcalá, who was riding really well, as was everybody on the team to be honest.
That said, already the first climb was really hard, just terrible. But, as we do in bike racing, I looked at my competitors and many of them were just absolutely terrified. They were just in a hole. And I thought, “Well, I may have 20 pounds of soaking wet clothing, but all I have to do is tear it up on the uphill and save a little for the downhill.” That’s a very simplified version of the day, but that is pretty much how it played out.
Everybody talks about how much more professional the sport of cycling has become, how much it has evolved. Do you still recognize the sport you were a part of 30 years ago, or does it seem like another world?
That’s an interesting perspective. In some ways, yes, I still scream at the television screen when I am watching the Tour de France. I mean it is so objectionable to be watching all of these incredibly fantastic riders just line up and protect their leader.
In some ways, that goes back to my days racing with La Vie Claire. Back in 1986, we had this incredibly strong team, with Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. But our team tactic was the opposite. We felt that we had to attack. We used our strength to be offensive. A lot of the team riders won stages. We had a lot of fun. And that is the biggest difference because, today, the teams with that kind of strength use their power to be defensive.
I understand it, but it is frustrating. And although I don’t know any riders today, I still know people on teams in the sport. I ask them what it is like and a lot are very frustrated. So many riders it seems are only interested being skinnier than Chris Froome. They don’t eat…and when they fall on the ground they break! Back in the day we just ate sandwiches. Okay, maybe we should have been a little skinnier, but we were more resilient it seems. Now the guys focused on general classification and climbing have become so hyper-specialized that they are more vulnerable and often simply take themselves out of the race.
What do you enjoy the most about cycling today?
Just being out on my bike. I don’t have to do it, but every time I get on my bike I feel like being with “Dr. Bike”—I just unload my mind. And I also still really love discovering new roads. That’s just amazing! It’s discovery and relaxation at its best!