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Peloton flashback: Andy, the Badger and the Alpe

From issue 87 • Words by James Startt with images from Graham Watson

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Few riders can boast as stellar a start in the Tour de France as American legend Andy Hampsten. In only his first year of racing as a professional in Europe, in 1986, Hampsten finished the Tour in fourth place and won the white jersey awarded to the best young rider. He would go on to become the first American to win the Giro d’Italia in 1988, but he struggled to match the success found in his Tour debut. That all changed in 1992, when he again finished fourth and won the coveted stage to L’Alpe d’Huez. We caught up with Hampsten as he looked back on his amazing breakout year with Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond at the French team, La Vie Claire, as well as that memorable solo ride up the Alpe.

Andy, although you were not the first American to ride the Tour de France, you made quite a splash in your first Tour in 1986. Yeah, in 1985 my domestic team Levi’s-Raleigh released me to do the Giro d’Italia with 7-Eleven. I was essentially hired labor for one month. But, in 1986, I signed with La Vie Claire and did my first full year as a professional in Europe. I was essentially hired to help Greg LeMond in the mountains, but then I finished fourth in the Tour de France and was the best young rider. It was funny really because I was the third rider on the team behind Greg and Bernard Hinault, but I was still fourth in the Tour de France! But that is what it was like on La Vie Claire. We won the team classification and just about every jersey there was to win that year.

Wow, you went from being a part-time pro to being on one of the all-time great teams in the Tour de France. That must have been a pretty steep learning curve. It was just very, very exciting! It was just a thrill all year long to be on the team. We would always be attacking. It could even be a little terrifying and intimidating at times, having to counterattack Bernard Hinault. But it was fascinating. Things got complicated during the Tour because of the infighting, but the team was really well managed all year long. Paul Köchli [the team manager] really explained how he wanted us to race and he really wanted us to race aggressively and take chances. He was very focused on teaching the young riders to race aggressively. Sometimes it didn’t even matter if we won or not but then, of course, with all of the talent we had on that team we did win a lot! In terms of talent, it was the best team ever as far as I’m concerned!

You were sort of the “other” American on the team and closely associated with Greg. But what about Hinault, did you have much of a relationship with him? With nicknames like the Badger and the Boss, he had a reputation for being pretty tough at times. He really reached out to me. There were also a couple other of my Levi’s teammates, Thurlow Rogers and Roy Knickman, that were also on the team as stagiaires and they would come to race occasionally with La Vie Claire. I remember we were all at a pre-season training camp in Briançon in December of 1985 and the team put all of the rookie Americans in the same room with Bernard Hinault. That was the team’s sort of introduction. They just put us straight with the boss! And he would just sit on a bunk bed with us and say, “What do you guys want to know?” It was the most generous mentor situation I can imagine. Of course, he was the Badger and had this sort of nasty reputation on the bike, but as a teammate he couldn’t have been nicer to anyone that wanted to know and was willing to make an effort. And I really wanted to know things and asked him a lot. I would come find him in the race and he taught me how he wanted to race.

When we got to the Tour, his plan, and the team’s plan, was just to bust the race apart and make everyone race defensively. And it really worked. It was hard on Greg because he had to race against a teammate for the victory. It was hard on everyone really. But it worked. Everyone was exhausted from chasing Hinault those first two days in the Pyrénées. We just tore the race apart so efficiently and we won a lot of stages with a lot of different riders.

The following year you signed with 7-Eleven and were very much the team leader, but although you won the Giro in 1988, repeating the success of your first Tour de France did not come easily. That’s well put. No, it was not easy to duplicate that success. After that first year I definitely thought I would have done better, but instead it took me nearly my entire career to equal the success of that first Tour. But the Tour is hard. It’s a beast. On 7-Eleven, my goal and the team’s goal was for me to win the Tour de France. And it never happened. I’d get bronchitis or tendinitis or a stomach bug—and that’s what the Tour is all about. It is to make guys suffer.

You were in many ways a pure climber and the climbs in the Giro and Tour are very different. Those in the Giro tend to be steeper. Was that part of it? Good question. I always thought I preferred the long, steady climbs of the Tour, but the Tour often only had two to four real mountain stages in those years. That is not an excuse, but there wasn’t as much climbing as I would have hoped for. When I won the Giro in 1988, for example, there were probably six to eight mountain stages. The Tour often had less.

Well, you also had that great Tour in 1992, where you got fourth again, this time winning the Alpe d’Huez stage. In a sense it was kind of your swansong. But it was an amazing ride! What is it like to win on such a mythic climb as the Alpe? Well, that day it all came together! There were three mountain stages that year in the Tour, one in the Pyrénées earlier in the race and then two huge stages in the Alps. I remember the day before was one of the most difficult mountain stages there has ever been. We finished in Sestriere, Italy, after like five or six climbs and 250 kilometers. That was the day where Claudio Chiappucci made that classic marathon breakaway, attacking on the first climb and going all the way to the finish. I was in a chase group with four or five riders including Miguel Induráin. I finished fifth on the stage and just sat on the finish line because I just didn’t have the strength to go any farther. But as I sat there I watched maybe the next 20 riders come across the line and I didn’t see anyone who didn’t look destroyed. So I felt pretty good about my chances the next day.

The next day there were four climbs finishing on the Alpe d’Huez. At first I thought I would make my move on the top of the next-to-last climb, the Col du Croix de Fer. But two guys attacked at the bottom of the climb, much earlier than I wanted to do. And even though my head was saying that it was too early, my legs went with the next guy who attacked and we bridged up to the others and we went into the Alpe d’Huez with a three-minute gap.

I really wanted to win on the Alpe d’Huez because it is just such a landmark. There were a lot of good riders in the break, guys like the Frenchman Eric Boyer, Spaniard Jesús Montoya or the Italian Franco Vona, who had finished second the day before. We all knew that pretty much whoever was having the best day would come out on top. I rode a pretty hard tempo already at the bottom of the climb. That is actually the hardest part of the climb. Pretty soon it got down to three of us, and after Dutch Corner I attacked, but I did it sitting down so that it didn’t look like a full-on attack. And that worked. Boyer dropped and I gapped Vona. I only had maybe two bike lengths on him, but I just kept applying pressure and opened up a gap of over a minute by the finish.

So you were solo for much of the second half of the climb. That must have been amazing! What is it like to be driving through the crowds alone as you ride to victory on a mythic climb like the Alpe d’Huez? Well, tactically, a lot of things were going through my head. As a climber, you dream all year long about days like that at the Tour de France, but over the previous seven years I hadn’t had a day like that, so I didn’t want to get too excited and go too hard and blow up. I remember I really made sure that I ate and drank a lot at the bottom of the climb. The crowd on the Alpe d’Huez is just so special. But it can be really confusing riding through an ocean of people like that. It really is like being in a stadium and it is easy as a bike rider to get carried away by that energy. It’s easy to start attacking, to start riding out of our skin, and just blowing up. I also knew that the climb gets really hard again near the end so I wanted to be ready to go really hard there and not have to think about eating and drinking. And then suddenly you come out of the crowd a couple kilometers from the finish as the barriers start. Suddenly you can breathe oxygen and see the horizon and really focus on going up the road as fast as I could. Suddenly, rather than being “pushed” by the spectators, the finish line is sort of pulling you. It may not be the hardest climb in the Tour, but it is the most important finish. It’s the big daddy!

From The Official Tour de France Guide (issue 87). Buy it here.