Before the last day of riding on the itinerary of legendary cyclist Andy Hampsten’s first tour with his company, Cinghiale, since the COVID-19 pandemic canceled its 2020 season, the Boulder-based former pro—still the only American man ever to win the Giro d’Italia—stood on the rooftop deck of a hotel in Levico Terme, Italy, and pointed at a far-away ridge up in the Dolomites, across a lake and a long, wide valley of apple orchards.
“We’re going right about . . . there,” he said, squinting, after one of the 15 or so American cyclists who’d made the trip to Italy for about 450 miles of challenging rides asked Hampsten to describe the next day’s first climb. For someone who spent the majority of his 20s and 30s competing in the world’s most difficult and mythologized bike races, from the Giro to the Tour de France to the Tour de Suisse, Hampsten is skilled at accurately describing a ride while also being honest about the fact that it’s going to humble you.
On the week-long tour of the northern Italian mountains that I completed in early September with two colleagues from the veterans’ disability law firm where I work and four of our friends, Hampsten would use his dry sense of humor to call an upcoming ride “stupid,” “ridiculous,” or “just insane” but also look around at the whole motley crew of us who’d come over from the United States and say, “Of course you’ll all be fine, though.”
Hampsten started Cinghiale, which means “wild boar” in Italian and stems from a nickname some locals gave him decades ago, after retiring from cycling in the late 1990s and moving to Tuscany, which is still his second home.
“I was 36, and I’d just finished a little house out in the country and was very excited about living there,” he told me recently by phone from Tuscany, where Hampsten, his wife and business partner (Elaine) and their eight-year-old son (Oscar) were spending part of the fall after the first Cinghiale tours since 2019 had concluded.
“My mom came to visit me when I was going into my last year of racing and said, ‘Well, what will your next move be?’ I thought, ‘I really like when friends and family come to visit, so doing bike tours would be really fun.’ Our trip in the mountains [this fall] was mostly just riding and hanging out at the hotel, but my trips in the beginning were all in Tuscany and we’d ride, but in the afternoon it’s more of a cultural thing where we’d visit people that make things or do a cooking lesson, or visit a farm—a bit more exchange with the people.”
Some of Cinghiale’s tours take riders with Hampsten on big, challenging rides that retrace the Giros he competed in, and some tours are as much about cooking lessons as cycling.
“I tried one tour in 1998 and it was really fun, and the next year, and ever since, I’ve been doing trips,” he explained. “Half of them, or so, are in Tuscany, but I like moving around Italy. Northern Italy was fun, where you were, but there are mountains all along the peninsula, so we’ve done trips in Sicily, in Basilicata in the south, and Campania around Naples, and in Piedmont—about half of Italy. I won’t say I know all of Italy, but it’s fun for me to have the challenge to go to a new area and introduce guests to slightly different cultures, and completely different ancient cultures that we scratch into.”
When I asked Hampsten, who grew up in North Dakota, if he’d had a love affair with Italy as a kid, like the teenager in Breaking Away, he laughed.
“No!” he exclaimed. “Well, yes, but it started out as hate. When I was 15 my dad took my older brother, Steven, and I on a trip all around Europe, but mostly in Italy. At 15, I really didn’t want to just hang around my dad and not know a word of how to get anything done. My brother and I remember complaining the entire time about, ‘Oh, what a dump. Everything’s old and the trains are crowded and we don’t know anything and we’re hungry all the time,’ until we’d sit down and eat. Youth is wasted on the young, and here I am years later doing everything I can to linger in Italy, and enjoy the culture and the people, as much as I can.”
Hampsten burst onto the international cycling scene in the summer of 1985 at just 20 years old when he won a stage (Saint-Vincent to Valnontey di Cogne) of the Giro d’Italia, a grueling, weeks-long race that began in 1909, just six years after the first Tour de France. The Giro is not as famous as the Tour in America, but in modern history the Giro is actually known as a more difficult race. As a member of the first, and maybe greatest-ever, major American cycling team to race in Europe—the 7-Eleven squad that also featured Boulder native Davis Phinney—Hampsten won the 1988 Giro, showing that his 1986 and ’87 victories in the Tour de Suisse, and his noble effort helping former teammate Greg LeMond win the 1986 Tour de France, were no flukes.
Though Hampsten’s most iconic moment, one that can be seen on posters in bike shops and cafes all over the United States in Europe, is his snow-covered slaying of the ’88 Giro’s Gavia Pass stage that many riders abandoned due to a blizzard, it was arguably his blazing performance in the Levico Terme to Valico del Vetriolo time trial that year that actually solidified his historic victory.
Before we biked up Valico del Vetriolo during the Cinghiale tour this fall, reliving Hampsten’s 1988 time-trial victory on an optional ride that some of my fellow riders used as a rest day, I mentioned to Hampsten that I’d realized I was on a fantasy tour. He asked what that was and I relayed how when I was a kid in Pittsburgh I’d heard about flabby baseball fans up and down the East Coast taking out second mortgages to play ball with their childhood heroes at the Florida spring-training sites of the Yankees, Pirates, Mets, etc.
“It’s fantasy for me,” he told me a month later by phone from Italy, “just riding with fun people and lucking out weather-wise and fitness-wise. And you did great!”
I told him the only goal that I’d considered while training in Lefthand Canyon, Sunshine Canyon and other parts of Boulder for the Cinghiale tour (400-plus miles and 40,000-plus feet of elevation gain in a week of riding) was to never “sag,” which is what cyclists call into the support van when you’re injured or just spent.
“That’s what my training was about,” I said. “I just wanted to make it through without getting in that van.”
“And it was hard, wasn’t it?” Hampsten replied. “That’s a really good goal, and you just rode through. We had very experienced riders on your trip, and a few beginners. The camaraderie on that trip was really good.”
Living along the Front Range, I don’t get much of a chance to ride on flat ground, except when I engage in one of my favorite summer pastimes: biking to Coors Field from Boulder for weekend Rockies day games. Climbing up and over mountains is my addiction, my joy, my meditation, and at times even my therapy.
On a few 20-mile stretches of flat ground between climbs in the Dolomites on the Cinghiale tour, I spun and spun, getting dropped by the peloton full of novice riders who I could usually keep up with, and sometimes even pass, on climbs.
“Those flat parts were when it was hard for me,” I told Hampsten.
“And some people don’t have a mountain-motor, they just have a flat-motor, so you handled that well,” he said.
One of the amazing local guides who worked for Cinghiale during the tour—a longhaired, joyful native of Italy named Richard Feichter, who is built like a rugby player—was very familiar, and probably a little frustrated, with my flat-motor by the middle of the week. Tackling some famous climbs like Passo Rolle (my personal favorite), I happily dug in and not only had fun but also felt good about my performance—how I felt physically and how my time compared to others’. But on long, flat stretches I spun and spun, getting slower and slower, and farther behind tour mates who, unlike me, had fancy custom wheels and good all-around training and experience.
Richard, who I referred to as Ricardo when speaking in the minimal Italian I know, eventually taught me a technique that goes along with a saying that’s popular among cyclists in Milan: “Giù un dente!”
It literally means “down a tooth,” but in practice Giù un dente! means that on flat ground the best way to improve your performance is to do less spinning, chiefly by experimenting with your rear gears until you’re in what you consider the smallest, hardest gear you can handle—and then going down even one more.
During the final ride on our itinerary, we started our 67-mile route from Levico Terme to Vicenza by climbing two mountain passes, including the one Hampsten had pointed at from the hotel balcony the night before as we drank wine: Passo di Vezzena, getting passed by small cars and motorcycles through what seem like tenuous, centuries-old tunnels situated on devastating switchbacks. The end of the day, however, featured about 30 mostly flat miles on the way to Vicenza, the final destination of the tour. Richard often appeared near me, shouting “Giù un dente!” in an effort to fan my flames and keep the peloton together all day. It worked, and on bike rides to school in Boulder with my sixth-grader, Sidney, I now often blurt out, “Giù un dente!” to get her moving faster.
Incredible local food also kept me moving during the Cinghiale tour. The days were usually about 65-75 miles with anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 feet of climbing, but Hampsten and some of his amazing employees—including former pro cyclist Kerry Hellmuth, a former Boulder resident who now lives in Italy—actually ended up biking more than that, sometimes looping back to chat with an obviously tired rider or, if you were lucky, hand you hunks of Italian chocolate for energy. Cinghiale’s mechanic/mascot, Gerardo Carpentieri, often had the support van set up at the bottom or top of a strenuous climb with a heaping, helpful spread of fabulous local prosciutto, speck, cheese, tomatoes, bread and fruit.
Hampsten also had a knack for scouting out little cafes each day for at least one caffeine-and-pastries stop.
“The right-distance ride to get to the right-distance food,” he told me after the trip. “It’s just heaven.”
One part of the tour that surely didn’t feel like heaven for everyone was the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, an absolutely batshit-crazy ascent that, in the 1968 Giro, introduced then-22-year-old Belgian cyclist Eddie Merckx, arguably the greatest cyclist who’s ever lived, as a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.
Carpentieri and the rest of Hampsten’s crew—including Hampsten’s wife and son—had a massive table of local food set up at the base of the Tre Cime, which had been spoken about among us tourist-riders the evening before, and on the bike ride there, in hushed, almost terrified tones. The final three miles average about a 15-percent gradient and at times hit 20 percent, and the top—the “three chimneys” formation—takes you deep in the Dolomites just 30 or so miles from the Austrian border, offering one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen—er, earned—in my life.
Most of the riders on the Cinghiale tour made it to the top but, as I told Hampsten by phone a month later, it was brilliant of him to schedule the Tre Cime (which Eddie “The Cannibal” Mercx used to positively demoralize his rivals in 1968) on the third of eight days on our itinerary, and as a loop from our hotel in Brunico, our second base of the tour. Basically, if you could make it to the top of the Tre Cime, every climb for the rest of the week would seem easy in comparison, and if you didn’t have the legs to make it all the way to the site of Merckx’s 1968 christening as the king of cycling, you could just turn around and roll back to the hotel.
“Oh my God,” Hampsten chimed in when I brought up the Tre Cime on our phone call. “It’s the hardest part of the tour, and you’re still kind of jet-lagged and slap-happy. I could not believe how many people went up; I’ve never had that many clients get up it.”
Because our tour was Cinghiale’s first since COVID-19 started ravaging the world in 2020—Hampsten canceled his 2020 spring and fall tours and then also his spring 2021 tour—and flying yourself and your bike from the United States to Italy in late August this year was still so complicated, the 15 or so riders who made the trip equaled about a third of his usual turnout. For the most part, that seemed to mean more serious, eager riders, though it also meant much less money for Hampsten, who also has a custom-bicycle company with his brother, Steven, and a small olive-oil company.
“We can’t do another year or two of only that number of people,” he told me, “but it was fantastic, and the right people are coming. We ask things of them: We ask them to be vaccinated; we ask them, especially on the trip you were on, to be really fit. When we said, ‘The ride is hard,’ the ride is hard. I could try to sugar coat that and encourage more people to come, and say ‘I’ll hold your hand,’ but I’m not gonna try to do tours just to pull in a lot of money and try to make up for the little two-year hole we had, but just keep communicating with the clients.”
We all took COVID-19 tests in order to return to the United States, and we all obeyed the indoor mask orders in Italy. No one got COVID-19, and no one bitched or even moaned about wearing masks indoors.
“I was exceptional,” Hampsten said. “Italy got annihilated, and now they know how to stay healthy, and they don’t want to get sick, so I thought it was good for us to do our part to do all we could not to bring in any illnesses, and no one did on your trip.” Hampsten and Cinghiale put on two more Italian trips, less challenging physically and more focused on a cooking/cycling balance, in the weeks following ours, and no one contracted COVID-19 on those, either.
In the end, my favorite part of the trip might not have been giddly soaring to the top of Passo Rolle, the fun conversation with Hellmuth as we grinded up Manghen Pass together, the gelato in Fiera di Primiero, or even the pretzels in Brunico. Honestly, Hampsten’s bilingual son, Oscar, letting us know each day who was in the running for the maglia rosa (the champion’s pink jersey) each day was the highlight of my trip.
Oscar, a flag enthusiast who can rattle off a description of just about any country’s, is also a fan of cycling and soccer. With Spokane, Washington, retiree Stuart Fealk (who is about to break 10,000 miles biked for 2021) and other amazing riders on the tour, I had no chance competing for the pink jersey, but as one of four or five Cinghiale newbies, I returned to Colorado with a sore knee, a tattoo of the Tre Cime formation that I got in Vicenza, and the honor of being told by Oscar that I’d won the white jersey for “best new rider.”