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Hampsten’s Huffy

Words by Clive Pursehouse w/Images from Haldane Morris

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When Andy Hampsten pedaled a Huffy bicycle up the Gavia Pass and into the 1988 Giro’s maglia rosa, he cemented his place in cycling lore. A Huffy was also my first “road” bicycle. Its frame was black, and it had an art-deco motif made popular by “Miami Vice.” The logo had purple, turquoise and pink accents, and the handlebars had strange foam grips instead of traditional bar tape. The only thing that my Huffy and Hampsten’s had in common was the name on the frame.

Hampsten’s “Huffy” was actually made by John Slawta, the frame builder behind Land Shark bicycles. As an amateur racer, Hampsten had ridden Land Shark frames when Slawta was one of his team’s sponsors. While the other riders on 7-Eleven-Hoonved’s Giro team had their Huffy frames made by Ben Serotta, Hampsten, who was already one of the world’s best stage racers, wanted something he was familiar with. He paid for the bicycle himself—Slawta gave him a great deal—and had it painted to match the team bikes.

According to Hampsten, it wasn’t a big scandal that all these bikes were labeled Huffy. “I think they had approached the team with a sponsorship offer that was really hard to overlook. I don’t know if it was fifty- or a hundred-thousand dollars, but it was certainly substantial for a pro team at the time. And, to be clear, Huffy wasn’t trying to fool anyone. Our fans, or serious racing fans, were not their demographic, and they weren’t making a 7-Eleven model for the commercial market. It was really just a way to get their name out there.”

Hampsten’s Huffy is nearly 30 years old and usually sits alongside other curated older bicycles among the rafters at his local Boulder bike store, University Bicycles. “Those guys are friends,” he says, “so I’m honored to have it shown there. Though some days, I kind of want to lock it up in a vault.” Even so, he did use it recently. “I took it out for the Eroica California last year. I splurged and got those really nice Vittoria Corsas, and the bike just rode perfectly. It felt just like old times through the gravel—and those vineyard roads, some of those can barely be called roads. I still find it hard to compete with the way steel rides.”

When I ask Hampsten if he thinks he romanticizes the Huffy in a way he doesn’t other bikes, he doesn’t hesitate in the slightest. “Absolutely,” he says. “You know, it’s just an ordinary bike, but what it did was extraordinary.” Though he has probably told the Gavia story thousands of times, there’s still a tremor of magic in his voice when he retells it. “My mind and body were both frozen, and I don’t know if you’ve been on the Gavia but it’s crazy. These aren’t normal hairpins. I mean, it’s got some really crazy turns, and somehow through all that slop, and the cold and the snow, that bike found its way to the bottom.”

The Huffy company itself dates to the late 19th century. George P. Huffman purchased a sewing machine manufacturing company, and as a response to the growing popularity of bicycles, he shifted gears and began making bikes in 1892. The Davis Sewing Machine Company became Huffman Manufacturing in the early 1930s, by which time it had abandoned sewing machines and was focused on bicycles.

In 1949, Huffman Manufacturing produced its first children’s bike and basically invented training wheels, adopting the tricycle technology that dated from the 1860s. The brand became Huffy in 1953 and it would go on to develop other cycling breakthroughs, including some certifiably kooky ideas such as the Radio Bike, which was actually a radio with a bicycle built around it. Regularly, Huffy pioneered new models of bicycles, though it was often similar bikes made by competitors that became better known. In 1962, the Huffy Penguin became the first chopper-style bicycle to come to market, with a banana seat and chopper-style handlebars—though the Schwinn Stingray would vastly eclipse it in popularity.

Huffy sponsorship would include the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, and it also took over the 7-Eleven team sponsorship, which was previously underwritten by Murray. Huffy did try its hand at high-end bicycle research and development, bringing in respected frame builder and carbon-fiber pioneer Mike Melton. But when it came to bicycles the company never got past its big-box-store reputation.

The Huffy Corporation faced serious difficulties in the 1990s, closing all of its American manufacturing operations. Eventually, a Chinese company would purchase the Huffy name and brand. In its heyday, Huffy was closing in on Fortune 500 status. In 2004, its stock was suspended by the New York Stock Exchange and the company went belly up, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, an inglorious end to an American original.

In North Seattle, Andy Hampsten’s brother Steve runs Hampsten Cycles out of a home office and workshop. He partners with a number of local frame builders making handcrafted steel and even a few carbon bikes under the Hampsten name. “Back when road bikes all used the same technology to hold the tubes together—brazed lugs, generally—it was easy for a racer to have his favorite builder provide a frame with the sponsor’s logo and paint scheme added as needed,” Steve says.

“In Andy’s case it was using John Slawta at Land Shark to build his Giro-winning frame in 1988. It seems there had been some technical niggles involving the Huffy-labeled frames that year so Andy felt it best to supply his own frames for the remainder of the season. Later, race frames were welded, so easily relabeled, but rebadging became more difficult as carbon frames took over in the peloton, with most companies using highly shaped tubes that are difficult to duplicate if customizing is needed, but not impossible.”

From the Hampsten brand’s inception, Steve has been making a few of the 7-Eleven-themed frames a year: “The tri-color look has been popular; we sell three to six frames per year—most of them are based on the original 1988 version, but lately we’ve been simplifying and tweaking to arrive at the version shown here. I occasionally wonder what that paint job might look like if Huffy or 7-Eleven had stayed in the sport, but I try not to get too carried away with modernization. Some things from the 1980s may be best left alone.

“For this bike, we’ve used Columbus MAX tubes which were introduced in 1987 but were never used by the 7-Eleven team, at least as far as I know. The modern MAX tubes are lighter than the originals and drawn from an alloy better suited to welding, but the shape is the same along with the option of a larger down tube. While a MAX frame might be overkill for a smaller rider like Andy, it is well suited for the heavier build of someone like myself—we can’t all be grand tour climbers! The robust tubes are shaped to allow for a modicum of flex over rough surfaces, which makes it a comfortable-yet-strong choice for riders wanting a durable frame for gravel or cobbled rides.

“My customer for this bike had seen a previous iteration where we used some branding from a stash of Huffy decals we found and wanted the same look. We charge $2,800 for a MAX frame with Enve fork and the 1988 paint scheme will bump things up by $200. I think if there was one frame that summed up Hampsten Cycles it could easily be this one: classic looks, old-yet-new tubing, retro paint, modern performance…and made in Seattle.”

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