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A Wheeler, But No Dealer

Cyclist Andy Hampsten keeps a low profile, but he rides into next week's rugged Tour de France as America's highest hope

Andy Hampsten could easily have chosen another restaurant in which to have supper in his adopted hometown of Boulder, Colo. He could have selected the Morgul Bismarck, for instance, where the names of distinguished cyclists are etched on mirrors and where a rider of Hampsten's standing can expect a glass of fine wine to hit the table soon after he sits down. But he has picked this subterranean Chinese joint for essentially the same reason he chose Boulder itself: It will indulge his desires to be nourished and to be left more or less alone.

Hampsten has finished his plate of steamed vegetables and cracks open a fortune cookie, FIRE PROVES GOLD, ADVERSITY PROVES MEN, the slip reads. Hampsten doesn't need to be told this; it's a credo by which all cyclists live. Adversity will prove the man who rolls into the Tour de France next week carrying the hopes of American cycling through the 26 days of the sport's most grueling and prestigious event.

There's a message in the medium here. Hampsten is the type of person for whom a fortune cookie is as legitimate an instrument of communication as a minicam. This would be fine, except that the Southland Corporation, which keeps 7-Eleven revvin', is paying Hampsten a reported $200,000 this year to be an advertising vehicle.

Hampsten, fourth-place finisher in last year's Tour de France and perhaps the best mountain racer in the world, signed with 7-Eleven over the winter, before defending Tour champion Greg LeMond was accidentally shot in the back and side while hunting turkeys in April. With LeMond recovering and not expected to race again until late summer, Hampsten, as the top returning American finisher and now a proven Tour racer, will attract a good deal of attention during the Tour. But he's an absolute media na‚àö√òf, a 25-year-old demographic aberration who doesn't own a TV and still uses terms like "selling out."

Hampsten was LeMond's sole American teammate during the 1986 Tour, when both rode for the mighty French La Vie Claire team. And he was at the center of LeMond's historic Tour victory, the first ever by an American. But it was a stormy center. Hampsten barely endured the emotional rigors of serving as a sort of chambermaid on one of the greatest cycling teams ever assembled, of being expected to chase down breakaways and draft for LeMond and the legendary Bernard Hinault of France.

But worse was the turmoil involving LeMond and Hinault within La Vie Claire. LeMond had dutifully worked for Hinault in 1985, sacrificing his own chance to win to help set up Hinault's record-tying fifth Tour victory. In return, LeMond understood that '86 would be his year—that all the resources of La Vie Claire, including Hinault, would be marshaled in his behalf.

But by 1986, Hinault harbored other notions. In what he had announced would be his final Tour de France, Hinault set out for an unprecedented sixth victory. A bitter LeMond felt betrayed. With all of France and much of his own team aligned against him, LeMond enlisted Hampsten in his effort to win.

As the Tour moved through the Pyrenees, Hinault took the lead and tried to put LeMond away by breaking from the pack during the ascent of the Super-bagnères, a rugged stage of the race culminating in a 1,160-meter final climb. It was left to Hampsten, the mountain rider, to chase down Hinault, permitting LeMond to charge over the last five kilometers of that stage and wipe out most of Hinault's cushion. LeMond would say later, "Hampsten won me the Tour de France."

The struggle between Hinault and LeMond had repercussions into the winter, ultimately delivering Hampsten to the relatively inexperienced 7-Eleven team. "I'd been on the inside of one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen," Hampsten says. "I know Greg would never want to do something like that to me, and I know he'd never want me in a situation where he'd fear I'd do it to him."

Because of LeMond's accident, Hampsten would have been the premier rider on La Vie Claire (now called Toshiba-Look), but he doesn't rue his decision to jump to the only American-sponsored team in the Tour. Hampsten is now clear of the shadows of cycling's two great riders and the specter of French nationalism. "I can create a team like La Vie Claire for me," says Hampsten, unconcerned that 7-Eleven's top finisher last summer was 63rd. "I like taking risks."

It's fitting that he is known as a climber, because for all his life Hampsten has gone from the low spots to the high ones. He grew up in Grand Forks, a North Dakota farm community and college town. How one masters the mountains by learning to ride in a glacial lake bed is anyone's guess, but Hampsten credits the biting head winds of the Dakota flats with approximating the resistance of an ascent. Cycling was, Hampsten says, a way "to get my yayas out." He and his brother Steve were considered strange both by their hockey-playing peers and by the sugar-beet farmers whose pickup trucks they would dodge during training rides.

Elizabeth Hampsten, Andy's mother, who, like Andy's father, Richard, teaches English at the University of North Dakota, insists that the only time she was really comfortable while pregnant with Andy was when she was sitting on a bicycle. "My parents thought cycling was a stage I'd grow out of, so they let me do it," Andy says. "But when they saw how much I liked doing it, they didn't stop me."

Hampsten also received help and encouragement from others. When he began racing seriously in junior events, at the age of 16, Hampsten spent summers with a family in Madison, Wis., a cycling hotbed at the time. Andy got free parts from a bike salesman so long as he promised not to tell anyone. But after a few years of racing, he was down to $16 in his checking account. "When those $16 were gone, I was going to quit," says Hampsten. "If it had come down to either training or eating, that would have proven to me that cycling was too impossible to do." But an Ames, Iowa, cycling coach named Michael Fatka invited Hampsten into the Skunk River Cycling Club and provided him with sponsorship so that he could continue training.

In those days Hampsten would react to, not dictate, the action in a race, and he was not at his best sprinting to a finish. "He never had a tremendous amount of confidence," recalls Michael Aisner, director of the Coors Classic and a Hampsten confidant. "When it came time to punch the ticket of the rest of the racers, he wasn't doing it. He had the body and smarts, but everyone questioned his killer instinct."

When Hampsten failed to make the '84 Olympic team, he decided to turn pro. Early in the '85 season, after Hampsten had ridden well in the amateur Tour of Baja, Aisner urged 7-Eleven to sign him for the Giro d'Italia in May. Hampsten stunned Europe by winning one of the race's most daunting mountain stages. Hinault looked on, scarcely believing that this could be Hampsten's first professional race. Bernard Tapie, sponsor of La Vie Claire, made certain it would not be his last.

Ever since, Hampsten's greatest victories have come in the hills. Later that season he won Colombia's premier climbing race, the undulating Gran Caracol de Montaña. Beating the Colombians in their mountains is akin to beating the Celtics in their Garden. Hampsten won not only the race but also the entire nation with his gringo nonchalance.

Hampsten is a "goat" in the only sport in which you want to be one. Alas, in cycling, terrific climbers often suffer terrible spring seasons. European spring cycling is radically different from the summer season with its day-by-day stage races. In spring, cyclists compete in one-day purgatories, through raw weather and over cobblestones and muddy back roads. Hampsten was lost early last season, racing poorly and falling ill. "I wonder how long I'm going to be doing this stupid February racing," he wrote Aisner on the back of a postcard. "So dumb. So dumb." A few months later, racing for La Vie Claire with Hinault and LeMond, Hampsten won the Tour de Suisse. A month after that, he finished fourth in his first Tour de France.

"I've always overcome odds and surprised people," Hampsten says. "I've pretty much always gotten good results before anyone really expected it. I have to keep doing that. If I ever think, Oh, I'm the favorite, that's when I'll stop progressing."

Says former cyclist Henri Regamey of Switzerland, "Andy has enormous recuperative power. The Tour is a veritable war of attrition. In that respect he is second to none." Hampsten knows he can become a better sprinter, but he also knows that climbing ability is at a premium in long stage races like the Tour. "I have to decide whether to improve my weaknesses or make my strengths even stronger," he says. "It's terrible to race 200 kilometers and get beat by a meter in a sprint at the finish. But if you can't climb, you won't be anywhere at the end of a Tour. Even if you can't sprint, you may still win the race."

But if you won't play ball with the media and the marketeers, you might as well not win the race. Or so the sponsors are inclined to think. Southland has already been around the block with a reluctant hero; 7-Eleven signed former Olympic speed-skating star Eric Heiden and discovered that he was a reticent player in the high-profile, front-man game. "We couldn't get him to wear a coat and tie," says a former Southland executive. "If he were on the Today show and Bryant Gumbel said, 'I understand you're riding for a team now,' Eric would have said, 'Yes, that's true.' "

Says Aisner, "Andy thinks Eric's cool. Everybody thinks Eric's cool. It's only the yellow-tie with 7-Eleven who says, 'He didn't say my name' and gets upset. Andy's got a kind of '60s mentality when it comes to that sort of stuff. He really is the most famous invisible person in cycling."

Every year in the spring and early summer, Hampsten retreats to a villa in Yverdon, a town in the French-speaking southwest corner of Switzerland. His father understands Andy's motives: "The Swiss have a kind of modesty—a lack of arrogance—that the French don't have. And, after all, it's mountainous." Says 7-Eleven teammate Doug Shapiro, "Maybe in a past life Andy was a cattle herder or something. The minute he crosses the border, he's at home. I guess he sees the beautiful sights and draws energy from them."

In Boulder, too, Hampsten has found a suitable home. No state except California has more licensed bicycle racers than Colorado. "In North Dakota a lot of people resented the fact I rode my bike," says Hampsten. "But here, if I ride down the street with funny clothes on, no one looks at me. There are a lot of weird people here, and I guess I'm one of them."

The 5'9", 140-pound Hampsten has experimented with Aston-Patterning, a sort of holistic massage; he has tried a variety of diets; and he has dabbled in plyometrics, a training system that involves explosive jumping. Says brother Steve, "Andy will try any crackpot thing that comes along."

Hampsten has always seemed to go his own way. One day more than 20 years ago, at a time when he still conveyed himself by tricycle, Andy brought a block of wood into school and began hammering nails into the block in a precise pattern. The teacher dragged him away and explained another task the children would be doing that day. Andy listened politely and then went back to his block of wood and his nails.

Come July in France, Hampsten will be pounding nails into wood blocks for 3½ weeks, pounding them into patterns and bloodying his fingers while doing it. And a few yellow-ties will probably wish the most famous invisible person in cycling would look up from his wood block from time to time.





Hampsten (left) and LeMond celebrate Andy's Swiss win.



One of the best mountain racers in the world, Hampsten is at home in the hills of Boulder.