How Andy Hampsten Won His First Giro d’Italia Stage

[Continued from Ron Kiefel Brings Team 7-Eleven–and America–Its First Grand Tour Stage Win]

Team 7-Eleven is the extraordinary story of how two Olympic speed skaters, Jim Ochowicz and Eric Heiden, pulled together a small group of amateur cyclists and turned them into one of the greatest cycling teams the sport has known. 

Despite such flashes of brilliance, evenings in the hotel still resembled a hospital ward, with riders wheezing, nursing wounds, and flirting with collapse. “I remember one day in the middle, I could barely get going,” said Hampsten. Seeing this situation, Erminio Dell’Oglio, the team’s omniscient benefactor, began insisting that Ochowicz needed a team doctor to help bring the boys back from their moribund state.

But medicine and science were not an easy sell in the 7-Eleven camp. In the early days the team had rebelled against “scientific” training of any sort. Consecutive, 600-mile weeks had been the foundation of their joyously uncomplicated regimen. If you had a cold, you took a couple of aspirin and rode through it. If you crashed, you got back on your bike and picked the gravel out of your wounds later. “What do we need a doctor for?” asked Ochowicz.

Team 7-Eleven by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz
To Europe: For the newly minted pros, the 1985 Giro d’Italia was a leap into the void. From left: Ron Kiefel, Davis Phinney, Hoonved sponsor Erminio Dell’Oglio, Jonathan Boyer, Jim Ochowicz, and Eric Heiden. Erminio Dell’Oglio, who owned the Hoonved washing machine company, provided the essential backing and insider connections to bring Team 7-Eleven to Europe and obtain invitations to race in the Giro d’Italia.

In the end, though, Dell’Oglio prevailed, using his connections to procure two doctors for the team, including a precocious and recently minted physician by the name of Massimo Testa. “He looked like he was about 12 years old,” said Ochowicz. Initially, Testa was to have been overseen by the more experienced doctor. But the older man, evidently bored with the upstart Americans, summarily left the race, leaving the relatively green Testa in charge of matters. “Basically, I pulled the short straw,” said Testa of his newfound position.

He was soon pressed into service. Hampsten had been throwing up and had diarrhea. Testa proposed an IV of simple electrolytes. But Hampsten, ever the purist, was having none of it. “Needles don’t grow on trees,” he scoffed, spurning any potions he suspected might contain unnatural ingredients.

If Neel was the team’s horse trainer, guided by intuition and feeling, Testa was the antithesis, a rigorous disciple of science. He likened athletes to specimens, and the racecourse to a laboratory. Using all of his powers of scholarly persuasion, Testa patiently went to work on Hampsten to convince him of the legitimacy of the IV. “We had to speak to him for an hour,” said Neel. “The guy was as pure as the driven snow.” Eventually, Testa was able to administer the medicine, showing every vial to Hampsten along the way, ensuring him that there were no mystery substances. The next day, Hampsten finished in the same group as LeMond and Hinault, feeling refreshed and recovered.

With that one episode, Testa passed into the inner circle, as a doctor and a confidant. No longer “Massimo,” he was now “Max” to the boys and welcomed without reservation. “After that, and throughout my career, I always worked with Testa,” said Hampsten.

But one small matter remained: Testa’s mentor, the older physician, had by now returned to the race. Testa, figuring he was about to be upstaged, prepared to leave and go back to his university to continue his medical studies. He went to say good-bye to his charges, many of whom had benefited from his ministrations. But they balked.

“We said, ‘Forget it, we want you!’” said Hampsten. It was all the prodding Testa needed. He remained with the team, as its physician and trainer, throughout its history.

Thanks to Testa’s careful doctoring, Hampsten had been steadily gaining strength, so much so that he’d begun making noise about attacking. “I was starting to do really well in the mountains the final week,” he said. “I had worked all my life to be here. So I thought, ‘What the heck—I’ll attack.’”

Initially, he targeted the mountainous 19th stage. But Neel had a plan: Hampsten should save himself, continue to rebuild his strength, and attack in the 20th stage, to the summit of Gran Paradiso.

Neel summoned his horse sense to further bolster Hampsten’s confidence. As Neel saw it, his job was to take riders outside their comfort zones, persuading them, calmly and assuredly, to do the thing they could not imagine for themselves. “A lot of times that is your role—to convince people of their own ability,” Neel said. “I told Andy, ‘You can win. Every time there is a selection, you’re in the first group. You’re the best climber—you just don’t know it. If you don’t look back, and you go as hard as you can, you will win.’”

Most of all, he told Hampsten, he needed to attack early, at the foot of the climb.

“But I never do that,” Hampsten complained.

“I know,” said Neel. “That’s exactly why you have to do it now.”

It was a short stage—just 58 km, or 36 miles—and it started late, providing an opportunity to ride the course in the morning and perform some reconnaissance. Boyer, who would so often counsel Hampsten in his early years as a pro, accompanied him on the morning ride, while Neel proffered advice from the team car.

Neel picked a spot, about a kilometer from the base of the climb, at a sharp bend. “He’s giving me a big talk,” said Hampsten. “‘You should attack right here.’ I looked at the curve and said, ‘Okay, I will.’” To further eliminate any confusion, they also noted a building with some writing on the wall as a landmark.

While everyone else rode Murray bicycles in the familiar red, white, and green livery, Hampsten rode a Raleigh, indisputable evidence of his split allegiance. (His domestic sponsor was still Levi’s-Raleigh.) His bike was prepared time-trial fashion, with superlight wheels and just one bottle cage to shave valuable grams. He also wore a one-piece skinsuit. To the tradition-bound European teams, this getup was further evidence of the Americans’ contrary nature. “Some Europeans were laughing at me for wearing a one-piece in a road stage, where you would normally always wear a jersey,” said Hampsten.

For a moment, things seemed to be going awry, when American Greg LeMond, riding for La Vie Claire, attacked before the climb. But Hampsten, showing newfound maturity, waited calmly for the field to bring LeMond back. Then, at the designated spot, Hampsten put his plan into action. “It was the perfect moment,” he said. “I made a really solid attack—100 percent.”

Neel, behind in the team car, remembers a report crackling over race radio: “It’s unbelievable—this little climber is going off like a rocket.” Kiefel, riding in the field, recalled the team cars going by him, and Neel yelling out the window, “Andy is off the front!”

With each pedal stroke, Hampsten could feel his strength growing. It was as if a door had opened on the switchbacks of the Gran Paradiso, and he was passing through it, a portal to everything he had worked toward and dreamed of since he was a precocious junior. “I was hearing voices saying, ‘You can’t do this, you’re just a kid from North Dakota.’ But I just opened it up the whole way. It was beautiful.”

He won by a minute. A picture shows the boyish Hampsten, riding with arms upraised across the finish. His expression was one of joy, but also of unabashed surprise, as if it couldn’t possibly have been that easy.

To everyone, on that day, it seemed a star had been born. “It was really fun,” Hampsten said, “my favorite victory ever. From that point on, it buried any doubt as to whether I was good enough to do all the things I was thinking about for the last five years. I never had an easy time as a pro, but that gave me confidence that if I stick to my plan and give it everything, then I can do well.”

Kiefel, who crossed the line minutes later, looked up to see Hampsten on the podium like an apparition. All he could think of was that things were about to change for the team, for the better.

“There are Italian teams that don’t win stages for five years,” Kiefel gloated. What’s more, Hampsten had squeaked into the top 20 overall on the final day.

Ochowicz’s joy was so abundant that he felt compelled to smoke a cigar in celebration. “He was ecstatic,” said Hampsten. “He had taken the criterium boys to Europe.”

The confidence Hampsten gained in winning the 20th stage of the 1985 Giro laid the groundwork for his epic ride up the Gavia in the 1988 Giro, which he would win becoming the first American to win a Grand Tour.

Team 7-Eleven is the extraordinary story of how two Olympic speed skaters, Jim Ochowicz and Eric Heiden, pulled together a small group of amateur cyclists and turned them into one of the greatest cycling teams the sport has known. 

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