Benefield: Cycling legend Andy Hampsten relishes time with young riders

Max Beach put it into perspective.

Andy Hampsten’s attack on the Gavia Pass in stage 14 of the 1988 Giro d’Italia bike race – the ride over an 8,600-foot pass in a blizzard – is “a top-10 athletic achievement, worldwide, in all of history,” the cycling enthusiast and Team Swift cycling club board member said.

“I would put that up there with the ‘Thrilla in Manilla,’ with Don Drysdale’s no-hitter, with Montana to Clark for ‘The Catch.’”

That courageous ride, one that put the young American in the pink leader’s jersey and led to his becoming the first and only American man to win the vaunted Giro, has become near legend. Italian newspapers declared it ‘The Day The Big Men Cried,’ and Hampsten’s snow-crusted visage still graces cycling publications (check out the cover of this month’s Velonews).

Hampsten’s cycling resume is not a one-hit wonder. He twice won the Tour of Switzerland, he won the classic Alpe d’Huez stage of the 1992 Tour de France and finished fourth overall in that race. He’s perhaps among the top three American riders ever.

And this is where it gets weird.

“He’s a genuinely nice guy,” Beach said, as the unassuming Hampsten, 54, stood a few feet away chatting with young Team Swift riders Tuesday evening.

Hampsten was in town and agreed to join a group ride with the developmental team. He greeted every rider who rolled up, including non-Swiftees who’d heard about the ride and wanted to see the man in person. He talked gear and nibbled on a pre-ride cookie.

How could a rider who slathered lanolin on his skin to repel the cold, who had to wear neoprene diving gloves to keep his hands from freezing, who donned a wool hat and plastic rain jacket, and who attacked on a mountain every other guy was just trying to survive, not be as hard and fierce as the wolves who were rumored to roam at the peak of the Gavia?

“He is the antithesis of a pro athlete,” Beach said.

But Santa Rosan Gavin Chilcott, chief operating officer of Santa Rosa-based BMC Racing, said Hampsten’s polite charm is real but so, too, is his will. Chilcott has known Hampsten since the two were on the junior national team circuit as teenagers.

Chilcott’s family used to host Hampsten and the two used to train on Sonoma County’s revered roads.

It was he and Team Swift director Laura Charameda who orchestrated Hampsten’s ride with the young athletes Tuesday.

“Just because a person is cordial and personable, doesn’t mean he’s not tough as nails,” Chilcott said.

“He was the most focused, the most serious. He had the best judgment,” Chilcott remembers of a young Hampsten. “He’s always been one of the guys that I admire the most. He’s an honest, noble guy.”

For Hampsten’s strongman bona fides, see above.

But for his credentials as a cycling enthusiast and a guy who is willing to share his love of ?the sport with teenagers who ride for a local cycling club, read on.

“I’m more interested in just going out with kids and learning from them,” the Boulder, Colorado-based Hampsten said. “Every time I worry about our world and then talk to our middle-schoolers, it all comes around. I usually come away learning more from them.”

That outlook, as much as his racing credentials, can help a young athlete, Charameda said.

“He’s very humble about what he’s done,” she said. “He’s such a nice guy. That is actually something I like the kids to see.”

“What if they hear one thing or two things and they come away with a great lesson, a little tidbit that could motivate them?” Charameda said. “The bike is bigger than being a bike racer. We didn’t stop riding because we stopped racing. Cycling is a lifetime sport. It has a lot to do with all the lessons you learn along the way, the dedication to the sport.”

I asked some top echelon Team Swift riders what they would equate that ride with Hampsten to - playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan? Playing catch with Joe Montana?

Yes. To all of it.

“It’s amazing,” said Cardinal Newman sophomore and Team Swift rider Gianni Lamperti. “He’s been a hero of mine. Riding with someone I have always looked up to and maybe learn a few things from? Amazing.”

Sawyer Taylor, a Team Swift rider and sophomore from the Marin School of Environmental Leadership in Terra Linda, said just hearing about Hampsten’s career and experiences is a thrill.

“I’m really stoked to be out here riding with him,” she said. “It’s an honor that he’s out here with Team Swift.”

For Chilcott, who rode Sonoma County’s roads with Hampsten when they were the age of the Team Swift riders, seeing Hampsten rolling out with another generation of athletes was special.

“It’s nice when it comes full circle,” Chilcott said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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