A Visit With Andy Hampsten

Andy Hampsten Andy Hampsten, looking classic, as always. (photo credit Andy Hampsten)

Andy Hampsten is a former professional racer. Winner of the Giro d’Italia, veteran of the Tour de France, team rider for the Motorola Cycling Team, 7-11, La Vie Claire, and Levi’s, Andy has seen many a mile on and off the bike. Andy was kind enough to take the time to chat about about bikes and biking. Andy was a rider for the Levi’s Professional Cycling Team back in the early 1980s. I was his mechanic back then, and learned a lot from his example and attitude. It is always a pleasure to hear from Mr. Hampsten. Note: Calvin’s question in italics.

When do you first remember getting a bike or riding a bike?
First bike ride at age 5. The hand me down blue thing that Sarah and Steve used. First ride without training wheels was across the yard at 2621 4th Ave N, Grand Forks, North Dakota. From edge of driveway to single tree in middle of the yard. Moderate impact, too happy to cry.

How old were you when you began racing?
I was twelve. Must have been ’74 or so, at a crit in Grand Forks, with an ABLA license. Steve Hampsten was 1st, best buddy Peter O’Kelly 2nd, me third....nobody 4th.

How old were you when you began fixing things, taking thinks apart?
4 and 2 respectivily. Wood seemed to be my preferred format, chainsaws were withheld from me for reasons my therapist and I are working out still. Sawing logs, splitting them and watching them burn being the best way to keep the mess contained, my mom would then cook great food over the fire. Life was grand.

Blocks and tinkertoys and model cars/planes/fireworks all came at the age appropriate times.

How old working on bikes?
8 years old. My Sears Spyder had a small chain ring (that front thingy) and I had to pedal like mad to keep the lead I would get off the line when we raced around the block. I tried putting smaller and larger chain rings on, or maybe the cog needed changing? The crux was getting a chain together to fit it using a hammer and nail. That part of the old days I do not miss. I heart Park tools.

What is the most recent thing you fixed? (i.e. Toilet, VW, roof)
Fixed, huh? My toilet is now clogged, the ’67 bug has plates from ’92, and my roof is calling for solar panels, so I avoid is since it is snow time.

Fixed would be the toilet tank in my house in Tuscany, the scraping door, (in Italy the doors are made so a couple of brass washers raise the door a bit). This past year I installed a wine cellar from mostly reclaimed materials. The door and frame were not made for each other, so I have a nice perspective on how much time goes into carpenter’s lives.

Oh and the downspout on my house in Tuscany! 1 and a half stories of gushing mess, just enough copper spout material WITH 2 FEMALE junctions even. A dull hacksaw did the trick with the back end of it taking out the burs. Glory to the tactile qualities of copper.

What hands-on work do you enjoy?
Shoveling, snow, dirt, sand, anything that doesn’t smell. I am getting over my love of my 9″ disk grinder and the diamond rock cutting blade. Digging trenches is OK if they are my own, actually any work for my house is fine.
Splitting wood is the best. I followed Dr. Stihl’s advice and use an electric chain saw now.
Fixing bikes is fun. I have a fantasy of riding around and oiling chains and pumping tires for people. I think I would look OK in the cape and leather shoes and gloves outfit, but the people most in need are in my home town in Tuscany, and those battle axes would flatten me if I pulled them over with a pump and lube bottle in hand.

Did you ever work in a bike shop? Was that before your racing or during?
Worked in a lot of bike shops before I started racing, and while I was a junior racer. Nomad in Grand Forks, the Grand Forks something shop. I began by sweeping floors, that type of things. Next was assembling bikes out of the box. After I started doing repairs, I rose to head mechanic, at age 17. I also worked at the Yellow Jersey in Madison, the Bike Pedaler in Santa Rosa, filling in for Gavin Chilcott (now team manager, BMC Professional Cycling Team — CJ).

As a professional racer, what technology helped you in your career?
Oakley eyeshades were a great help. My eyes are sensitive little fellas and I feel I saved a lot of energy not squinting all day. Lots of cogs was nice too. I was the first one to race with 8 speeds in Europe. My TI Raleigh that I used in my debut pro race at the ’85 Giro d’Italia had a nice home filed 8 speed cogset, made by Calvin Jones and Charlie Hansen if I remember correctly.

I was pretty happy to have it. On the first stage I could hear to Dutch guys counting my gears and talking about it. One was Gerrie Kneteman who asked me “Hey Andy how many gears are back there?” “8! My friends made it” (that should make me cool somehow to these Euro gods). “Wow, 8 gears, I remember when we had 5, and then 6 came out and that was fantastic. But we always needed one more, so now there are 7 gears. Now you have 8! Just tell me one thing Andy, is 8 enough?” “Well gosh Mr Kneteman, you know on a mountain stage I could use one more gear.” “Just as I thought, we are never happy with what we have.”

Helmets are the best addition I saw. Clipless pedals and brake levers that also shift made racing a lot safer. And brakes that now stop a rider, even in the rain.

What technology got in the way?
Pharmaceuticals. Bike parts came and went, usually on their own. Aero clip on bars were fast, but a disaster in the peloton. The chemicals will be dogging riders for a long time, but it seems to be mainly the sissies that need them.

What technology or trends did you follow that you now think was silly or meaningless?
Maybe only neon helmet covers? My luscious glory with naturally sun kissed bangs circa ’86 will some day come back in style. Scraping old glue off of rims when I was 14 for the older racers seemed a tad dense, and skimping on the glue on my race wheels at the same age.

What is available now that you wish you had during your professional racing?
Inter EU (European Union) freedom of travel and smokeless planes and airports. The Madrid airport cleaners strike of ’93 still burns in my psyche.

How big a deal is weight to the professional?
Do you mean on my bike or those massive cottage cheese slabs I had on my legs? My bike was fine and usually one of the lightest going, thank you Shimano! If I reallyreallyreally whined a lot my Motorola mechanic George Noyes would let me put some light parts on my bike over his better judgement. Only for mountain stages of course. The seat post I borrowed from Max Sciandri that blew up at the base final climb of the Tour stage as we were finishing in Andorra stands out. I loved my Pino Maronni parts though, great QRs and some very sweet wheels.

Carbon Fiber, is it a blessing or a curse?
I can’t live without it. After all it is the main feature in my Fizik Aliante seat. I have a Hampsten Z1 frame that is simply way too fast to be real. It is made of a few sheets of carbon that the wizards at Parlee made for me. I ride that bike with Reynolds LEW carbon rimmed wheels and it is the fastest bike I have ever even been able to imagine, handles like a dream too. If Och (Jim Ochowiz, Motorola Manager — CJ) woulda put me in the Tour in ’82 with that thing I’da taken it for sure.

Andy's face on his own carbon fiber Z1. Andy's face on his own carbon fiber Z1. (photo credit Andy Hampsten)

If you had not made it as a racer, what would you have done?
For real? I probably would have made it to Wisconsin in any case, and I’d still be trying to fit in liking beer. I would have been happy growing grapes or olives somewhere, but without the people I have met from racing my bike my life would be much poorer.

What advice do you have for any budding racers out there?
Enjoy racing, enjoy the fight and pain of it. After racing you can do just about anything else that you put your racing experiences into. Want to be a pro? Check your physiological composition and adjust your life to how far you want to go. Do not look back, but finish school and have a plan B so you can hold your head high once you are done racing. If your career goes very well you will still want to kick it after your racing years. So don’t make any decisions you can’t live with the rest of your life. If you are a racer and want to get better by cheating, give up on your life being anything but a hollow lie. Drugs are the ultimate buzz kill.

Any advice for any budding mechanics out there?
Go for the women. (If you are a female mechanic I do not need to tell you about how many guys are hanging around you already). Bikes are cool, beer is fun, but racing is a huge blast, people LOVE hanging around the racers and the support staff. Racers get tired, can’t stand long, tend to talk about themselves in the third person. A good mechanic can focus on the bike and relay what he is up to to the customers/spectators. Seriously guys, fix the bikes, look people in the eye, smile, “May I help you?” They will be back, oh yes.

Tell us about your business now.
Other than being on the board of www.worldsworstideas.com, I help my overly competent brother Stephen run Hampsten Cycles, I design bikes for the riding on dirt roads that I prefer, and fit the clients I run into. I seem to be running a cycling holiday company called Cinghiale Tours that people come back to over and over; it must be the food, wine and riding in Italy. “Cinghiale Tours - Partying like it’s 1999 since ’98!” And I now am in the family business selling extra virgin olive oil through Extra Virgin Oil Co.

Andy relaxing after a long day of leading rides in Italy. Andy relaxing after a long day of leading rides in Italy. (photo credit Andy Hampsten)

Olive oil for chain lubrication?
It would work. Our extra virgin oil is the only oil fit for human consumption, lower grades might be fine for mechanical lubrication.

What is in the future for Andy Hampsten?
Riding, eating good food, hanging with my daughter and fabulous girlfriend drinking a nice wine or two as the sun sets. Usually with friends and family, often talking about riding or bikes or even racing until my ladies remind me to get real.