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Giro d'Italia

Andy Hampsten: America’s only Giro champion looks back, and forward

The Outer Line recently caught up with Andy Hampsten to discuss his historic Giro d'Italia win, and his thoughts about the current state of pro cycling

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a story originally published on The Outer Line by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell.

American pro cycling in the 1980s is synonymous with Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten. Both were supremely talented riders. While LeMond was a superstar who paved the way for American pros as both a junior and a pro world champion and multiple winner of the Tour de France, Hampsten quietly rose through the U.S. ranks until he got his first big break on the international stage in the 1985 Giro d’Italia. Hampsten’ s climbing ability, mental toughness, and tactical instincts helped him build an impressive set of career credentials — including winning a mountain stage at that ’85 Giro; fourth place at the Tour de France in 1986 (supporting LeMond) and in 1992, when he also won the stage to l’Alpe d’Huez; winning the Tour of Switzerland in 1986 and 1987, and the Tour de Romandie in 1992; and taking stages in such races as Paris-Nice and the Coors Classic — when the Colorado event was still a major event on the calendar.

But it was his victory in the 1988 Giro, famously highlighted by his legendary ride over the Gavia Pass in a driving snowstorm (as well as two superlative climbing stage wins) that cemented Hampsten’s place in cycling’s lore and history. He was not just the first American to win the Giro; he won a Giro that was perhaps one of the toughest of the 1980s, one which was made even harder with the harsh weather conditions. Hampsten’s ability to quietly deal with adversity on the road was what made him a champion rider, but it also prepared him to successfully leave the world of pro cycling behind when he retired in 1996. Twenty years on, Hampsten now splits his time between the cycling mecca of Boulder, Colorado, designing custom bikes with his brother Steve; and the storied countryside of Tuscany, where he runs a popular cycle touring company with his wife Elaine. The Outer Line recently caught up with Hampsten in Boulder, and had a chance to hear some of his reminiscences as well as his thoughts about the current state of pro cycling, and the future of the sport.

A career on his own terms: Many of the European riders hired into the 7-Eleven team (and the later iteration of the team sponsored by Motorola) were shocked at a system that actually looked after the health of all of the riders, says Hampsten. The Italian teams were totally different, he says. “If the leader of one of those teams was doing badly in a stage race, nobody else on the team could ride for a result; they thought that would overshadow or disrespect the leader.” But on Hampsten’s team, even though he was the team leader, on a given day he might work for any rider in any race, and no one was expected to have to race when sick. “That was a different model back in those days.”

“We had a good culture on that team,” says Hampsten, “and it came from the top down. Mike Neel, our director at the beginning, had previously trained racehorses, and he kind of coaxed us in the same way. He would say, ‘Don’t eat crap after the race, it’s going to damage your engine.’ That was just one of his philosophies, and he was totally against any kind of doping.” Hampsten also points to the influence of Dr. Max Testa at the time. “Max was also very good with us; he understood stress and illness very well. If we ever needed IVs, it was with sugar and vitamins only. We always raced 100 percent believing that we could do it without drugs. I can tell you that I was always really reluctant to take anything; I read every single line on every single vial or bag.”

Hampsten says it was a psychological advantage to know and believe you could race and win without using performance-enhancing drugs. He recalls a conversation with the celebrated distance runner Frank Shorter, who told him, “Never underestimate the strength of your convictions; don’t worry about what others are doing or who is taking what. Just do what you do and wait for your moment to shine.” Hampsten says he truly believes that this sense of conviction — of knowing that you are doing the right thing — could actually be transformed into a physical advantage in races for him.

Reforming the sport: Hampsten wound down his career on the U.S. domestic scene after spending the better part of seven seasons at the top end of European racing; he retired at the end of 1996. By this time, the waves of change which had started during his career were beginning to have a profound effect on pro cycling. The influx of EPO and blood doping had changed the racing landscape, and various UCI reforms aimed at modernizing the sport were starting to develop — a lot of change has happened since he left the pro peloton. Although he now has many other responsibilities and interests, Hampsten still follows the pro sport as much as possible. He has a lot of observations, insights, and personal recommendations on how to make the sport better in the coming years.

For example, Hampsten says he doesn’t believe the current season is too long, because most riders don’t really race the whole season. “They focus their racing on the first part of it, the middle part of it, or the end, you know? Classics guys are happy to go out and race the Middle East races in February, because they aren’t going to try and win the Tour later in the season.” For this reason, he doesn’t believe that a long season necessarily means more doping — an argument that some observers have put forth. To him, every single race “is crazy hard — if you’re going to cheat, you’re going to cheat; it doesn’t matter how long the season is.” Hampsten typically raced about 100 days a year, and that didn’t seem outrageous to him in the least. Riders should be able to race more if they want to, he says.

Regarding calls to move more toward a league structure, or requirements for all the top riders to be competitive in more events, Hampsten takes a more pragmatic viewpoint. He doesn’t see any advantage to this model. “For example, if every star had to ride every event, would races like Paris-Roubaix have to take out all the cobbled sections, so that Chris Froome could ride it? Such changes could destroy the character of important races.” For Hampsten, the most exciting races are the lesser-publicized ones, like the Three Days of De Panne, in which hungry young unknown riders have an opportunity to make an impact, or where riders like Nairo Quintana this past spring — climbers with no real chance on the cobbles — put in a 100 percent effort to improve and broaden their skills.

Anti-doping — then and now: Hampsten is candid about his views of the doping culture which compromised the sport and peaked after his retirement in 1996, and he has some ideas for what could be done to resolve it in the future. Hampsten says he never felt like he was “trapped” in cycling, or that he had nowhere else to go, and hence, “I never really had the temptation to dope in order to keep my rightful place in the peloton. But I think a lot of the European guys did feel that way,” he says, “and some guys probably still feel that way. You also have to remember, in my time, that many of the riders were asking for a lower hematocrit threshold (regarding the 50 percent threshold adopted after 1996 -Ed.), but it was the UCI which wanted the ceiling to be higher. You can see how that might have seemed like kind of an open-door policy, or an invitation, to riders in my era.”

Hampsten believes that the temptation for doping is still there in the peloton. He remembers his early days as a pro, and points out that “when you have a bunch of 20-something kids, they can make some bad decisions if the opportunities are there.” He points to “everything from bad advice from an agent, to a questionable prescription obtained from a veterinarian to a family friend in the medical profession.” To stop this behavior, he would like to see some kind of stronger and more consistent reinforcement of the current rules — more clearly stated and enforced, so that riders understand the repercussions, and explicitly understand that if they’re caught, they may not be coming back. “A lifetime ban would be so nice,” he says. In any event, he says, cycling has to get away from the mentality of just not getting caught. “We have to get past this,” says Hampsten, “and to a point where we have a culture where cheating isn’t tolerated at all.”

At the same time, he says, “It seems like today’s riders are subjected to a humiliating regime of testing and policing; there has to be a better way.” Hampsten believes that a more comprehensive course of ethics training could help everyone to understand the rules and expectations. “You have to remember — with a bunch of 20-year-olds though, this is where the decisions can really go wrong.” Returning to the topic of a rider’s association, Hampsten does believe that a stronger union could have a positive impact by providing training to help riders start their careers clean and stay clean. He believes that not enough is being done to influence the peer group mentality of the peloton, and that the right role models — and the right presentation format — can help connect with and show younger riders what it takes to be a clean rider. And if the sport moves toward some kind of certification model in the future, it has to be done at the peer group level – perhaps as a requisite to joining a future riders union — to have a lasting change. “We have to somehow or another create a different kind of social atmosphere — a peer pressure to race clean,” he says.

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