Thursday, February 26, 2009

Inside the '86 La Vie Claire Team: a Talk With Andy Hampsten

Road Bike Action approached Padraig to write an analysis of the potential for conflict within the Astana team by comparing the scenario Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador face with the conflict between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1986 on La Vie Claire. Naturally, he needed to talk to someone who had a ringside seat for the fireworks: Andy Hampsten. Padraig used quotes from this interview in the feature, but it was too long to run in print and it was just too good not to give readers the whole thing.

Check out the RBA feature in the issue on newsstands now, or order a subscription here

Padraig: At what point did you realize that Hinault planned to ride for himself? Was there any indication before Stage 12?

Andy: I thought all were on plan for La Vie Claire to tear apart all the other teams before we hit the mountains. Hinault took off on the first mountain stage. On that day we went over the Marie Blanc first, the group had 3 LVC riders and maybe 15 others. Hinault was doing hard tempo in the group to keep it going. I asked LeMond why he would be doing that, Greg didn't know. So I went to the front and asked Hinault if he wanted me to pull, he grunted something affirmative, his sarcasm was lost on my meager French.

Padraig: It has often been said that only you and Steve Bauer supported LeMond. The French riders all rode for Hinault, while the Swiss riders Rutimann and Winterberg attempted to remain neutral. Is that your memory of the team's split?

Andy: Very true. The Swiss riders loved everyone and were neutral, Ruttimann was a great and loyal rider who made a career out of being indispensable to Hinault on his traditional bad day in the mountains.

Jean Francois Bernard was Hinault's lapdog. The younger French rider [Philippe Leleu] was up to his neck just trying to make it through his first Tour. The veterans Alain Vigneron and Charles Berard were lobbied by Hinault to help against Greg, but I can't think of a thing they could have done to damage Greg. JF would do hard tempo to set Hinault up to attack, like on the day into St. Etienne when Hinault went away with Stephen Roche, and Bauer and I had to chase him down. That hurt, it was the first and last time I had to chase a teammate.

I worried a bit about myself when I had a flat on one of the last days. I was only the third man on the team in GC, so I was a domestique, but i was in the white jersey and 4th place.

When I flatted the pack was going all out on rolling hills. I was able to neutralize any attack I went with, so I had been active and really didn't want to be left behind with a mechanical.

I was near the front when I flatted, but neither Swiss rider saw me and Steve Bauer didn't either. I figured I was on my own and knew even with our car being first in line and my legs being good I would suffer getting back to the front, and that made me bitter about the team being divided.

As soon as I got a wheel and was making my way up to speed I saw Alain and Charly right in front of me. They got me to the front of the peloton in record time and I could only give them a quick merci before I was jumping into attacks again.

After the stage I went to their rooms and thanked them for the help, and made it clear that I understood that they were likely going to suffer Hinault's wrath for helping me out. And that I appreciated them being cool to me with all the fratricide among the team.

They let me babble on for a while and said "No problems. Your prize money for 4th and the White Jersey will come out to be 130,000 French francs, why wouldn't we help you?"

Padraig: How tense were meal times?

Andy: Tense, we were working hard and having a blast in the first half of the race, the supper table was were we would share tales and young riders like myself could learn a lot.

It was acute on the evening after Superbagneres. Greg had just pulled back his deficit on Bernard that day, and Messr. Tapie had helicoptered in to "take command of the situation." He met with Greg, then Bernard that night and all of the team was looking forward to the tension being resolved. That didn't happen.

Tapie sauntered into the dining room with both Izod collars pointing up, the riders were seated with the French guys at one end of the table, the North Americans on another, and the 2 Swiss guys in the middle. It was tense. Greg cannot not have fun for more than 5 minutes. Tapie had been blathering for 5 minutes so we all understood nothing was going to change. Then Greg asked him loudly:

"Hey Bernard. Now that Andy has the white jersey will he get your Porsche if he wears it to Paris?"

(Tapie had very publicly announced that J.F. Bernard would be awarded his Porsche 911 when he won the best young rider white jersey category.)

That sure as hell got some laughs from our end of the table. Needless to say I didn't get the car.

Padraig: When you attacked on the climb up Superbagneres, how confident were you that the outcome would be a stage win by LeMond with him taking the yellow jersey? Did you fear any reprisal within the team?

Andy: I was sure LeMond would win the stage, and we knew that Hinault had cracked, which happened often to Hinault and was a day his rivals always hoped for.

He was dropped with the initial attacks on the easy slopes below Superbagneres. I followed Robert Millar up to the 5 leaders, and could see LeMond was twitching with energy but everyone else was keying off of him. I was near empty but understood Greg needed things stirred up so he could launch a real attack. Robert and I caught them just as the road turned right onto a steeper pitch. I attacked off his wheel and past the leaders before they really knew we had come back to them. I gave Greg a look without the capital L as we went past so he knew I was going up the road for him.
Breukink and Zimmerman had to chase me, and Greg launched off that to join me. I pulled him as much as I could for a couple of ks then blew.

Interestingly, the team car with the director sportif Koechli came up to me before Greg bridged up. I thought I was going to get an earful and have to explain I was just up the road to help Greg, and started doing so when the car was next to me. I was shocked when Paul told me to stop worrying and ride! "Andy, there is no reason this team doesn't want YOU to win the Tour! Greg and Bernard are fighting over who gets to win, and having you take the jersey will stop them arguing."

That was the greatest compliment of my career, and I wasn't even thinking of winning the stage because I knew I had already been dropped and I was racing with empty legs.

The team was Koechli's. He explained that all the drama from '85 when Greg had to wait for Bernard was simply that the team started the day with 1st and 2nd in GC. When Greg attacked and was joined by Roche the team told him could not work with Roche. If he could attack and win solo that was OK. But the team would not allow him to work with Roche and out the team in 1st and 3rd at the end of the stage.

I don't doubt Greg's version that he was deceived about where Hinault was during the stage to discourage him from riding hard. But I agree that a racer in 2nd can't work with an opponent in 3rd to move them both ahead one place.

Padraig: Who was really the head of the team: Koechli or Tapie?

Andy: Koechli, but Hinault was riding his own race.

Padraig: Who was the diplomat who worked to keep things as calm as possible? Koechli?

Andy: Koechli did a great job with a tough situation. Hinault's aggressive racing destroyed Zimmerman and anyone else who thought they might take a shot at the lead. So the team was free to fight over which rider would win.

Padraig: The '86 Tour is legendary for its attrition rate, with 38% of the field failing to finish. Notable among them was temporary poka-dot Robert Millar. Compared to other races of the era, did anyone--including Zimmerman--seem truly competitive against LeMond and Hinault?

Andy: Zimmerman was a very strong and consistent racer with a good team. Fignon was amazingly stupid early in the race trying to out Hinault our team by using Hinault's intimidation tactics. He would have his guys hammer at the front when there would be a hint of cross wind. La Vie Claire would be just behind then snickering. Never swing a small stick.

This was mid '80s, Italians would stay home or wish they had, and Spaniards were not a big force yet. Everyone else was pretty far back, and I was 4th so it was easy for me to control everyone behind myself. Zimmerman did a great race, but he was completely out gunned.

Padraig: La Vie Claire placed four riders in the top 10 on GC at the race's finish, making the team prize inevitable. By the race's end, was there much of a sense of accomplishment or even elation?

Andy: I was happy! We took every jersey but the points. Ruttiman and Bernard won stages to add the Greg and Bernard's collection.

J.F. Bernard was given Tapie's Porsche as soon as he won a stage. I guess that is why Tapie was thought of as such a good business manager.

After the race we went to a reception for Greg at the American Embassy, located just behind the finish line on the Champs Elysée. Good food, pleasant interns, very humble French dignitaries, and worth the visit for the 19th century American West art alone. The team then celebrated with a traditional French Spectacle: Steak, frites and poor wine in a club followed by 6 hours of mostly naked, far too energetic dancers performing on stage.

Paris, France, 1986 with the King of Cycling and the Bad Boy Winner. And we celebrate by sitting down watching other people dance until our butts spasmed with cramps. What a wasted opportunity after 26 days of great racing.

Read Andy's previous BKW interview here.

Images courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International


Eloy said...

This is awesome!

RMM said...

As a follow-up it is interesting to note where the 3 main characters in this story ended up.

Hinault-Has held honorable positions with the Tour de France organization,possibly as a reward for his 1986 ride for the glory of France

Lemond-Had a bicycle company, now is mainly the butt of unkind jokes.

Hampsten-Makes bicycle frames,recently honored by Rapha with a commemorative jersey. All around nice guy.

Padraig said...

Eloy: Thanks!

RMM: True enough. That said, while we are disappointed by LeMond's present circumstance and feel for the downturn his life has taken, we still revere his exploits on the bike around here. We do sincerely hope he can find a way to turn his fortunes around. We'd like nothing less than to have him remembered more for what has taken place in the past 24 months than for his truly memorable career as a rider.

Touriste-Routier said...

Great Interview! How nice to read the views of the situation from someone besides Lemond or Hinault. Andy has always been insightful, and though 23 years ago, this is very fresh and crisp. Thanks for sharing it with us!

jza said...

Great read!

Richmond Roadie said...

Andy "FREAKING" Hampston was one hell of a PRO! Btw, his interview on "The Competitors" podcast are well worth a listen.

Unknown said...

Great piece P. I have been waiting for the comparison between this years Astana situation and the Hinault vs LeMond drama... which started in '85 as you know. I say bring on the drama, as a fan it will be exciting to watch. Personally this one is routing for Contador.

LeMond and Hampsten paved the way for sure... they are hero PRO's in my book.

Brent's Tour de France Picks! said...

Great Interview.
Hampsten was always one of my favorite riders, and LVC is by far my favorite all-time team.
I was lucky to work in a shop in Iowa where his White Jersey from the '86 Tour was proudly displayed in a corner of the shop dubbed "Andy's Corner".

Dan O said...

Great interview.

Being semi-old guy - remember the '86 Tour. The '80s were a cool era for American cyclists.

Andy Hampsten always comes across as honest and sincere. Hearing his version of this story - and others - is always a fun read.

Thanks for the post.

Steve Dennis said...

Fantastic post - must get to read the original soon. The 80's are when I became interested in cycling with names like Roche, Millar and Yates (being a Brit myself) and I still think that it too is a classic period of the sport. Just watching the 80's videos of racing with the garish colours and over the top personalities is great fun.
To top that Hampsten seems like such a great rider and a great ambassador for the sport now.


artnshel said...

Great read

RMM said...


Ultimately, all grand tour champions are remembered for their on the bike exploits.

For example, Merckx, though a great frame manufacturer will always be remembered as "The Cannibal." Armstrong may be a cancer survivor and a cancer advocate, but history will remember him as a seven time tour winner, while the cancer and his advocacy will be relegated to a footnote.

I was merely noting the interesting and often unexpected twists that a person's life can take.