Cycling coverage in Colombia during the 1980s was exhaustive. The nation was absolutely mad for the sport, and the press was happy to provide the necessary content to get high ratings, and sell newspapers. As knowledgeable as Colombian fans were (and still are), we have always been a rather dogmatic bunch. Our patriotic mindset was so hardwired when it came to the sport (for reasons I've explained before), that Colombian fans simply didn't follow or develop deep connections with riders from other countries. They respected them, and honored them (particularly when they rode in Colombia), but those they connected with were always Colombian. The struggle of the Colombian cyclist mirrored their own, so to see themselves in anyone else was impossible. There was always an exception to that rule, however, and that was Andy Hampsten. That exception remains alive to this day.
Early on in Andy's career, he came to Colombia, and won the prestigious Premio Caracol. That race was considered one of the toughest events in the Colombian calendar, and was purposefully designed to suit Colombia's tiny climbers. So who was this blond, American rider standing at the top of the podium? He was beating Colombian climbers in their own terrain, which was unheard of. Even Fausto Coppi had failed miserably in Colombia, having to retire from the "Doble A Pintada" race due to the extreme topography and temperature shifts that are common when you're that close to the equator. Not Hampsten. He not only won, but was hailed as a hero, rather than a foreign scourge (as was often the case in many other countries at the time when a foreigner won a race). Years later, when Andy won the Giro, Italy welcomed him with open arms. There was something about Hampsten that everyone seemed to like back then, and that continues today. Speaking about Andy Hampsten with an old professional in Colombia last year, he was quick to state why Hampsten was so loved: respect. As he saw it, Hampsten was respectful of the countries he visited, of other riders, and other nationalities. He was, in effect, the antithesis of the "ugly American" stereotype.
Hampsten was loved by the Colombian press from early on, a love affair that continued as his career blossomed in Europe. At one point, El Tiempo newspaper (the biggest in Colombia) even mentioned Hampsten as having been sent "by the Holy Spirit" to help his Colombian teammate Alvaro Mejia at the Tour. In a country that is roughly 90% Catholic, this is very high praise. It was that type of coverage that Hampsten received in Colombia from the time he was an amateur. Loved by all, considered by some to be an honorary Colombian due to his climbing abilities, Hampsten remains one of the only riders to be welcomed into the inner circle of Colombian cycling fans.
It's with this in mind that I wanted to speak with Andy, to get his take on racing in Colombia, and in Europe alongside some of Colombia's greatest cyclists. Thanks to Andy for taking the time to do this interview.
As a young cycling fan growing up in Colombia, I consistently assumed that only Colombian teams were viewed as outsiders to the sport. It was not until later that I came to see how American teams and riders were themselves outsiders within the European peloton too. Was that obvious to you when you first arrived to Europe?
Racing the '85 Giro with 7-Eleven we were all neo-pros, other than Jonathan Boyer. A lot of the Italian racers tried to blame us for crashes and treated us with disrespect. There were a lot of small arguments in the first week between our team and some riders. We always told them to fuck off. That is a typical reaction from many people from my country and it makes us look ugly. But in the professional peloton, it was a useful reaction to the bullying that the old Italian racing order expected us to follow. Now I think racing is international enough that racers would not pick on a new team as much.
I imagine Colombian riders suffered more abuse in the 80s when they started racing in Europe, and they were polite enough not to react like the assholes...we North Americans did. They were also better with their results, and winning big stages in the major tours is a nice revenge.
Do you think that teams like 7-Eleven and Motorola tried to strike a balance between retaining their American identity, while respecting the European tradition? Cafe De Colombia as a team was certainly Colombian in every way, almost to a fault.
On 7-Eleven we kept our family feel on the team, but studied the European habits that we needed to adapt to a new culture. By the time we were the Motorola team, we acted more like a European team, and racing was less fun.
The Colombian press often spoke about your connection to Colombian rider Norberto Caceres in the 80s. How did that come about?
My best racing in those years was at the Coors Classic, the Colombian riders where the ones to try to stay with on the mountain stages, and Norberto was one of the best riders. He stayed in the USA to race and live, and raised the level of racing for US riders. He was very dedicated to helping me win in Colombia. He suffered a lot leaving his country to live in the US, and wanted me to win in Colombia to help raise the level of racing in his home country. He explained some of the political problems the cycling federation had at that time, and thought that the best thing for riders in Colombia would be for a foreign rider to win. Maybe it is similar to what I saw happen to the European peloton when Colombian riders came to the Tour to win in the early 80s.
How did you end up racing in Colombia for the first time?
I was racing for my US team then, I had been with them as an amateur for 6 years: Levi's/Raleigh. I was invited by Gustavo from Caracol Radio, he introduced himself at the Coors Classic. I came with a soigneur and Norberto Caceres as my manager and trainer, he wanted to make sure I honored my hosts by racing at my best. I did very well, but as I recall a Colombian rider beat me on points during the race series, but I started with points that were awarded to riders who won the King of the Mountain category at major tours, and the Coors Classic.
How were you treated as an American racing in Europe, and in Colombia, a place where so few foreigners ever raced?
I was very inspired by the Colombian's success at the Tour, Lucho winning in the mountains being my biggest memory. I also saw how Colombians were treated unfairly by many of the ignorant people in European bike racing. It was hard for me as a foreigner to live and race in Europe, but I did not have the racist problems that my Colombian brothers experienced. When I raced in Colombia Norberto made sure that only had to worry about the racing, and he introduced me to the warm spirit that drives Colombia.
What are your memories of Colombia, and how were the fans and crowds during races?
I felt odd as a foreigner in Colombia because I was spoiled by my hosts. I stayed in 5 star hotels with the other foreigners, they flew me to races, and had an armed guard follow me on training rides. Norberto helped me understand where I was by taking me to his family's house, an orphanage, a coffee farm, as well as the pretty sights in the cities we visited. Outside of the hotels I felt very good when I was out on my bike. The [Colombian] race fans are the best in the world. There are a few places where bike racing is understood and followed in depth: The Brittany region of France and the Basque area of Spain being the only other areas I know of that are as intensely passionate about bike racing as Colombia in the 80s.
I believe its fair to say that your first big race as a professional was the Giro in 1985. Such a thing is unheard of these days, partially because it could be detrimental do a rider's development to ride a grand tour so early. Looking back on that race, are you surprised that you were able to win a stage when you were so young?
Yes the '85 Giro was my first pro race. I had a one month contract to race with 7-Eleven for that race, and I needed to make the most of it. I was 23 years old then, and had raced as an amateur in Europe and South America, but I wanted to be a pro, and that was my chance to get a contract for the next year. I didn't expect to win a stage, and I knew I may never have another chance to race with pros. I rode easily the day before I won my stage so I could put in an early attack and try to win a stage. I think a Colombian rider might have been second. I was asked to sign with La Vie Claire for the next year, so I was very happy.
In 1993, Motorola became "Motorola-Postobon", since the team was co-sponsored by the Colombian soft drink maker. Over time, I've found almost no reference to the team's name including "Postobon" anywhere outside of the Colombian press. Was the sponsorship deal struck as part of Alvaro Mejia's deal with the team, since he came from Postobon?
I don't know about Postobon, they were on the jersey but I don't know the arrangements with the team.
How was Mejia as a teammate, particularly since he spoke no English and (as far as I know) no one in the team really spoke Spanish?
I spoke enough Spanish to get the point across with Alvaro, or I think I did. He is very instinctual, he knew how to race, and we did very well as team mates. I think he had fun in Como, Italy where he lived. A lot of people liked him and I think he had enough help with day to day things to get by. At races he might have missed a few points about when to be ready, but it worked out well. I know it is not easy being on a team and not knowing the language.
In the book Kings Of The Mountains, Lance Armstrong references how Mejia would always ride with arm warmers, leg warmers and gloves, even on the hottest days. The author of the book, Matt Rendell, puts forth the theory that this could have been as a result of Mejia's awareness of the racism that existed within the European peloton. Does any of this ring true based on your experiences in Europe?
All I know is Alvaro liked stuff. Too much stuff, I had to nag him to get rid of clothes and extra junk in his pockets during races. He didn't ask his team mates to carry things back and forth to the car for him, he was too nice to ask for help. He suffered for it on a day in the Pyrenees from Spain to France when he was in the top three at the Tour. It was cold at the top and I tried to get him to wear more clothes, but he got cold on the descent and could not respond well when the attacks came on the final climb. Everyone has a bad day in racing, his was only because we had cold weather in July. So in retrospect, he might have known that cold might be his weakness, and he tried to keep extra warm all the time.
Hinault was often portrayed in the Colombian press in a very negative light, particularly because of negative comments that he made to Colombian riders. How was he as a person, as a teammate, and as a leader?
Hinault was a great team mate, he was determined to help his team mates win races. I can't speak about every idea he was quoted in the paper, but in person he was extremely gracious to me and the other neo-pros from America when 3 of us joined La Vie Claire in '86.
I got the idea that to him, team mates deserved more respect than other riders until they proved themselves to be idiots. I've been around some huge egos in our sport, and from the inside, Hinault was always nice to me and generous with his knowledge.
During your time as a professional, you were teammates with Hinault, Lemond, Armstrong and Indurain. While being around these individuals, did you notice any commonalities in their personalities or approach to the sport that might explain their high levels of success?
They are all pretty different. Indurain was always calm at a race, Lemond couldn't sit still. Hinault talked all night with journalists or anyone who wanted to listen, Armstrong needed to be mad at someone to focus.
Of the Colombian riders that you rode with and against, who were the most memorable?
Its a long list, but today my memories are:
- Mejia winning the '89 flat time trial around Lake Annecy in the rain at the Dauphine Libre, He was the most liquid and beautiful pedaler I had seen.
-Lucho schooling the Euros in the early 80s. He broke down a lot of doors for riders to make it racing in Europe, including me.
-Fabio Parra. Winning a great stage at the '88 Tour solo, and he helped me at a crucial stage finish at the Tour of Switzerland to help me keep my slim lead.
- The riders I didn't even know when I raced in Colombia. One moment in particular stands out at the [Premio] Caracol. We were on La Linea with about 15 riders left. A rider who was young, I figured 16 or 17 years old, and had an old bike with no toe straps was in the group. I was amazed that he was there, and was thinking about how proud I would have been to be him when I was at that age. And then he attacked! He was suffering to be with us and attacked us, then was dropped when the race surged up to him. What spirit! That showed me how excited Colombians are about bike racing, and it was an honor to race with riders who loved to be going uphill so hard, and still have fun racing.