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In June 1982, he made his debut in the Coors Classic, finishing fifth in the twelve-day, thirteen-stage race, ten minutes behind Colombian winner Patricinio Jiménez with another racer from the Andean country, Martín Ramírez, in second. Taking on the Colombians and the Mexicans, as well as competing in Central America and Colombia at junior and then amateur level, broadened Andy Hampsten’s growing knowledge of climbing as part of his racing toolkit.
“I would mimic their riding style in training, by repeatedly attacking at high altitude. It was probably a terrible way to train when I read about recovery now, but doing those efforts certainly helped me. My only means of winning was by making those short, sharp attacks to get rid of stronger riders, to exhaust them, get a gap and then let them do the math, to think about chasing me down on flats later on if there were any.”
Two years later, Hampsten was runner-up at the Coors Classic to fellow American Doug Shapiro, in a race that had been shifted back a month in the calendar and finished on the same day as the Tour, where Greg LeMond took third place and the white jersey as best young rider on his debut, the yellow jersey going to his Renault teammate and defending champion Laurent Fignon.
By then 22, Hampsten was beginning to wonder how far he might be able to take his racing career, and acknowledges that the encouragement he received from LeMond, who had become a good friend, led to him seeking the opportunity to test himself in Europe. The following season he got his chance when the American 7-Eleven team offered him a one-month contract to ride the Giro d’Italia after they’d received an invitation to make their Grand Tour debut in the race.
“It was my first pro race. I’d been riding amateur races in Europe like the Tour de l’Avenir and the Grand Prix William Tell, doing well in the mountains, but this was a huge step up. Yet I really wanted to turn professional, so I leapt at the opportunity,” he says.
As 7-Eleven’s principal climbing specialist, he had his first opportunity to test himself in the high mountains on a 237-kilometre stage to Val Gardena in the Dolomites. “It was a really hard, long climb, it was raining and it came at the end of a really long day. I started with the front group of sixty riders or so and just didn’t have any energy. I lost a tragic amount of time and I was like, ‘I thought I’d be a climber and here we are on the first day . . . I’m not really cut out for this.’ I had a pretty bad experience. But as the race went along, we did more hilly stages and I started being in that first group of favourites, and pretty comfortably.”
Eighth on the Gran Sasso, alongside race leader Hinault, the Frenchman’s recently-signed teammate LeMond and the other favourites for the maglia rosa, seventh the next day on a hilly stage to Perugia where Ron Kiefel gave 7-Eleven their first stage success, Hampsten served up a second victory in the final week on the short stage to the Aosta valley resort of Valnontey di Cogne.
Having already been tipped off by LeMond about his countryman’s talent, Hampsten subsequently received a contract offer from La Vie Claire for the 1986 season.
Victory at the Tour of Switzerland in the June of what was his first full season as a pro guaranteed him a place on the French team’s line- up for the Tour de France, which featured what was arguably the deepest line-up of climbing talent in Grand Tour history, including Robert Millar, Peter Winnen, Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado, Steven Rooks, the young Miguel Induráin, Joop Zoetemelk, Thierry Claveyrolat and the two outstanding Colombian teams of the era, Café de Colombia and Postobón, the former featuring Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra and Patricinio Jiménez. In all, there were more than two dozen possible contenders for the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey.
Reflecting on those names, let’s return to that fundamental question: what is a climber? The American offers a good basis for examination of this question with a concise dissection of the qualities that made his two leaders at La Vie Claire such formidable racers.
‘I don’t think LeMond was a climber,’ Hampsten asserts. “He was the strongest rider I ever rode with, because, physically, he didn’t hurt. When he was fit, he could go fast up, very fast down, he could sprint, he could certainly time trial, he just went fast. As for Hinault, he was famous for not liking the climbs. He’d only have one bad day in the Tour – he’d usually suffer on the first mountain day. But he’d always be attacking on that day to put climbers like me on the back foot.
“I think they were just extraordinarily powerful riders who could use that power going uphill. They also knew how to suffer, and they knew how to demoralize climbers by just being there.”
Climbers: How the Kings of the Mountains conquered cycling by Peter Cossins is published by Hamlyn, £20, www.octopusbooks.co.uk