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The Four | A Ride With Andy Hampsten
WORDS/INTERVIEW: Andy Hampsten | PHOTOS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley
We have been fortunate to meet some incredible people through the Rapha Continental. Locals, shop-owners, constables, hosts, and riders of all sorts as we've made our way across the States. Boulder, CO is known as a mecca for riding, the outdoors and cycling journalism, and it happens to be the home of Andy Hampsten. So when we received an entry for a great ride in Boulder, we knew that it should be part of the Continental tour this summer, especially when we were able to entice Andy Hampsten out to join us for the day.
What follows are Andy Hampsten’s thoughts on what cycling is for him today.
Back over the Ocean
I’ve been riding, I think I can just say forever. I started when cycling wasn’t much of a sport, just this little Midwest cult. And now it’s the new golf. Which is great, but it’s hard to see this one aspect of it, this event that happens in France every July becoming the only thing people know about the sport. In the beginning, I looked back over the ocean at what the Europeans were doing, which in the realm of the sport was logical because historically that’s where all the exciting races happened, but now, it’s not about being a professional. It’s about choosing to ride with great people.
When I started and you saw someone out on a bike, you’d stop and invite them home and maybe they’d sleep at your house that night. It’s fun to enjoy spectacular mountains and streams with wild flowers going off, all with friends. There are a lot of really obvious things going on for people clued into nature and natural rhythms along with their own moods and feelings, and it’s great to ride with those people.
Sift through the nonsense
On long rides I get what I think are my better ideas. Really doing anything hard physically helps me sift though the nonsense. After the first couple of hours things start to really make sense. So, if I am still thinking about business or personal things, I can usually find creative solutions because I’m doing this very monotonous physical activity. Dirt roads work for me that way too. They involve that little obscure corner of my brain that road riding short distances doesn’t. On dirt roads you have to keep a soft focus on the distance ahead while scanning for immediate obstacles in your path. You can occupy that part of your brain concerned with Bank of America with rocks and ruts instead, and let the creative side wander undisturbed.
The culture in Italy always comes back to food
The natural beauty, you can argue, is better in America than Europe. At least I think it is. But Europe has this great peculiarity. They put roads over mountains on goat paths where they don’t really need a road but they make a road anyway. And then someone comes along and opens a little café at the top. So you can ride really, really hard to the summit knowing that when you stop, you can indulge in great coffee, sandwiches, plates of local cheeses and meats. All kinds of things.
Italians have this incredible patience, or maybe it’s just discipline, regarding their appetite, they really don’t snack very much. It drove me crazy at first. And I’m sure it’s true with different cultures as well but they know meals will be so good that they wait. They go for maybe six hours between lunch and dinner, and if it’s summer, they don’t eat at six or seven, they wait until nine or even later. I think it’s some innate psychological ability to relax and not get grabby when they’re hungry. They just know the food and meal experience will be insane. But I don’t try to push that on anyone on one of my tours and I often snack on bars between big meals. It’s just an interesting culture difference that explains why it’s hard to find food at four in the afternoon.
I moved to Italy when I was still racing because it’s a fantastic place to train, but also because the culture here is, work hard for 8 hours a day, then go eat food, drink nice wine, hang-out with family and friends, and talk, and you know, do something with your day besides work. And that ethos certainly works well with cycling. I’m not a genius, I just find great places to ride, interesting sights, wineries, mills, farms and hobby farms, and fun people, who when stoned on endorphins, appreciate great food and wine. In minutes or even seconds regardless of what you’re doing, the culture in Italy always comes back to food because lunch and dinner are sometimes the two most important events of the day.
See along the way
I tell people half the fun is riding on social rides, with pretty fit people and plenty of guides to care for all the different abilities, and to point out local sites. Most of my clients are from America and flying all the way to Italy, just to hammer on your bike doesn’t make much sense to me.
I often have guests tell me on the first day – “You know I could just fly home right now, that was such an awesome ride, it would all be worth it.” I’ve prepared them and told them a little bit about what to expect - mostly just trying to get them physically ready for the challenge. And I try to get the gung-ho, racer-types to slow down, like, ‘let’s not hammer because there are too many cool things to see along the way.’ It’s all just a hunch. It’s so cool to be with people that haven’t ridden together and to watch things click into place, and to see all those nuances that make a great day unfold.
Slowing down to see something that as an organizer I probably should ignore, is often worth it because those can be the best things of the whole day or trip. It’s about getting into the rhythm of things. It’s about being awake.
My favorite ride is a 12 kilometer section of road between Sassetta, my home village, and Suvereto. It drops three hundred meters and there’s not one straight-away, it’s all turns but no hairpins. One day I counted 287 turns, the locals hate it because it’s so twisty and turny. It’s my favorite road on the planet. I’ve lived on that road for 29 years or so and I like it more every time I ride it.
I sweat it completely
I sweat it completely. I can’t just take people on my favorite roads because some are obscure or hard to get to or too steep. I really like ridge roads in Tuscany. It’s all corrugated so if you can get up on a ridge instead of being in a valley or just crossing all the ridges, it’s just a lot more fun. You do maybe one climb and maybe it dips along the ridge, and I just love having a view in both directions.
My local buddies and I have what we call our “offices”, which are just, of course, our favorite coffee stops, and so every half hour or so we make an official stop in an “office” to talk about some new ride that we’re scouting. And we’ll talk about maybe how we got a late start, which meant that we blew it and hit the really steep climb in the hottest part of the day, when maybe we should have gone up the shady side and come down the sunny side. It’s hard, with a group of twenty or thirty and with a range of abilities, and weather and late starts, to plan a ride.
It got all snowy one day
I do a bike trip with guests in the Dolomites where of course I raced a bunch and it got all snowy one day. And people, you know, always ask what’s it like compared to when I was racing. This probably sounds cliché, but it’s just a lot more fun. It’s always hard riding in big mountains whether you’re a competitive professional or not training much at all, either way you just want to get to the top where the food is. It’s interesting going back to those roads with fun people, still going hard but knowing I don’t need to, knowing that I can slow down anytime and enjoy the exercise of riding.
That day over the Gavia was my greatest moment as an athlete. Mentally, I was able to push myself harder than I ever had done before, but I don’t ever want to do it again. You know, I go snowboarding when it snows. I like being challenged by weather but I don’t like doing dangerous things. It’s fun being challenged, especially in a fairly controlled situation like riding a bike. If it’s really, really cold you can stand on the side of the road and someone will give you a ride. It’s a choice, you had the weather forecast but you thought it would be fun to challenge yourself, to try and get home. Heat is different, it’s not as exciting to me as trying to out-race thunderstorms as a naked animal. It’s kind of fun, you could argue it’s kind of necessary, to pop outside your comfort level every now and then and learn more about yourself. Or not, stay in your air-conditioned SUV if you want.
In Europe there is this great system of races called Grand Fondos, which translates a couple of different ways to basically ‘big base’ or ‘big distance.’ They’re century rides essentially. Local clubs put them on and they cost like 10 Euros to enter and at the end, they give you 3 Euros back when you turn in your number and a bottle of wine. It’s like you make money on these things. The cops are easy, there’s no insurance and they put together these great little food stops right there on the side of the road. But it’s not totally a ‘fun guy federation.’ Ex-racers show up and the first few waves out are pretty competitive - like 50 year old mailmen the fittest they’ve ever been in their lives just raging to go - but once they clear, it’s a great scene.
America has more
I’m seeing a lot more people bike touring than ever before. It’s really cool to see people discovering the country on a bike - we are only going to live so long and America has fantastic people and places.
America has more just raw and incredibly beautiful places and natural features, and with less people and crowds. I’ve done trips in America, in Sonoma County. And like most places, it all comes down to local knowledge. Trying to do my whole rock-and-roll show, like we do it in Europe; putting a group with nice accommodations, really good food with wine, it’s so freaking hard in America. We have great restaurants but luxury here is so expensive, and it’s not integrated into the landscape like in Europe.
I do encourage lots of Europeans to come over and ride, and they love it, they always have a really great time. It comes down to inside knowledge. Even if you’re only flying an hour and half, which for Americans it isn’t a big trip, it’s worth it to find a local; someone to tell you where the bike path is and what roads to hop over and how you skip-past the freeway. Someone to say – ‘You have to stop at this bakery which is closed Monday and Tuesday.’
So it can be done here, like the ride we did yesterday, Four Canyons. I know all those roads but I wouldn’t have looped them together quite that way. And I thought it was just stunning. Gold hill is one of my favorite towns and going up to Brainard Lake was really cool, but he didn’t slaughter us with every crazy road. It was fun for me too, just to be a local, not really a host, but still involved enough to see how everyone got into it and had fun with it.
I’m sick of plastic clothing
Steve and I were both blown away when Rapha contacted me about the jersey. We had some ideas but through running Hampsten Cycles we learned to shut-up and let designers do their thing. And it was really interesting to step away and see how it came together. I would never have put my name on it but when I saw Andy Hampsten in the 7-11 font, and you know I really did have a mussette bag cut-up and sewn on to my jersey, I loved it. I loved the design. It was exciting to see all the details and the story in the pocket all come together. Confidentially, I’m sick of plastic clothing, so when I saw the Rapha jersey was wool, I loved it.
I’m old and crotchety. When I ride my bike now it’s for fun and it’s with people I like. Often, I’m back in t-shirts and shorts when I’m only out for a couple of hours. Because it’s fun to go jump in the river or just go and do something else if you want. I did the whole race thing and it was the best 20 years. I couldn’t have had more fun, but I look at some of my old race clothes and think ‘man, I looked like a sausage.’ And I remember I couldn’t wait to get out of those clothes. So now that I get to wear wherever I want, and the Rapha stuff is really fun. What Rapha is doing is cool. And you can see they’re spending a lot of money with the Continental, sharing rides, but it feels like only 10% is for them while the other 90% is for us, for riders.