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Heroes of the Tour de Suisse: Andy Hampsten and Company

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North Dakota's top export won twice in Switzerland, but with some crucial help.

Andy Hampsten's Giro d'Italia victory in 1988 is literally the stuff of legend, to the point where Erik Breukink fans have a bone to pick with a lot of us. [Hampsten didn't actually win the infamous Gavia snowstorm stage, yo. Just sealed the overall victory.] But the back story of Hampsten the Grand Tour Contender traces back to the Tour de Suisse.

Coming into that Giro, Hampsten was not only a former Tour de Suisse winner but its double-defending champion, and the stories of both races are pretty cool for an American rider. In 1986, Hampsten was riding for the La Vie Claire juggernaut, having been loaned out to the French team at Greg LeMond's insistence after Hampsten, riding at home for Levi's, pushed LeMond to his climbing limit at the '85 Red Zinger Race (soon to be renamed the Coors Classic).

Hampsten leads Lemond at Coors Classic David Madison, Getty

Nostro Andy wet his feet a bit in the Dauphine Libere (as it was then known), taking third on a climbing stage, and was in good shape coming into the Tour de Suisse. Back then, the TdS ran from June 10-20 (and the Dauphine began in late May), and teams loaded up their rosters with stars of the Tour de France. La Vie Claire sent LeMond, Hinault, Steve Bauer and all their key domestiques. Panasonic went with Phil Anderson, Breukink, Peter Winnen and Robert Millar. Kelly led Kas; Delgado led PDM. Roche and Zimmerman with Carrera. And so on. Only Systeme U missed the boat, and Fignon wasn't racing much that year regardless.

With all those big names, Hampsten anonymously rode his own race while the rest honed their form for July. For about 8km anyway, because by the end of the prologue around Winterthur, near Zurich, Hampsten was in the leader's jersey, having taken the stage by a single second over LeMond. He was still there four days later as the race arrived in Innertkirchen, where Breukink won the stage but Hampsten finished with the bulk of the climbers 15 seconds later. From there, Hampsten surrendered the jersey to Jean-Claude LeClercq on the fifth stage, a mountain time trial up the Sustenpass.

But the next day, LeClercq was gone, and Hampsten, who had taken second at Sustenpass, was back in charge of the race. With the remaining favorites finishing stage 6 in Visp together, only Millar was within a minute of Hampsten, and the remaining stages tended to end in valleys. Andy Hampsten became the first American to win the Tour de Suisse, and La Vie Claire served notice to their rivals (without expending much energy in the process) that they were not to be messed with that year.

Lemond and Hinault postrace Frederic Reglain

Why would anyone leave this charming family?

All well and good, but the story of the 1987 race is the real kicker. Obviously at this point everyone knew who Hampsten was -- not only the defending winner, but by now a 1986 Tour fourth-place finisher and maillot blanc winner. He was a man on the rise. And on the move too, having fled the internal strife of La Vie Claire back to his original team. 7-Eleven themselves were known entities at that point as well, coming off a surprisingly credible Tour performance with a couple stage wins. Now, however, they were entering the realm of GC teams at the Tour, with Hampsten the #2 finisher in '86 (after Urs Zimmerman) among riders taking the start in '87. Now there was real pressure.

Still, it behooved them to go get warmed up at the Tour de Suisse, and with a vacuum of star riders the lead had bounced around to various people for eight days, landing then on Didi Thurau, a classics guy who had won the time trial stage earlier on, and hung around long enough to take the overall lead. But on stage 9 from Scuol to Laax, the climbers finally took over, as Thurau slipped out of the lead, and Peter Winnen of Panasonic led the GC riders home over a minute behind stage winner Alessandro Paganessi. Vying for the virtual lead, Winnen trailed Hampsten by eight seconds, so when he gapped the American in the final few hundred meters, it was time to count seconds. Being the signature race of Switzerland, it was important to count the time gap correctly, and the judges took many minutes before determining that Winnen's gap was seven seconds, putting Hampsten in yellow by one second, with one stage to go. [Sadly, the iPhone was several decades away from being available to record Panasonic manager Peter Post's undoubtedly priceless reaction.]

Well, with only a flat finish in Zurich left, where the bunch would come in together, one second is enough to win, right? Maybe, but there was a ten-second intermediate sprint out there, and Winnen and his Panasonic guys would be in pretty good position to take it. Winnen was a climber with two Alpe d'Huez wins to his name, but he could definitely outsprint Hampsten. Enter Ron Kiefel

Ron Kiefel Coors Classic John Kelly

As 7-Eleven's top remaining sprinter, it was his job to keep Winnen from claiming the prize, and when the time came, he sat in on the Panasonic train, came desperately from behind, and made it happen. That saved the jersey for Hampsten and the team rolled home with the overall victory in Zurich. Re-live the action here:

Hampsten would go on to no great distinction at the wacky '87 Tour, running low on energy (illness?) and finishing 16th, while Roche, Delgado, Jeff Bernard and Charly Mottet battled for yellow. Fourth was the best Hampsten would ever do in France -- twice, in 1992, when he would in on Alpe d'Huez, as well as '86 -- sandwiched around a Giro win in '88 and podium place in '89. For that, he'll always be Nostro Andy. But in Switzerland, he's firmly in their racing hall of fame too.

Results of the 1987 Tour de Suisse:

1 Andy Hampsten USA in  44h 14m 17.00s
2 Peter Winnen NED at 01.00s
3 Fabio Enrique Parra Pinto COL at 07.00s
4 Marco Giovannetti ITA at 28.00s
5 Rocco Cattaneo SUI at 01m 04.00s
6 Alessandro Paganessi ITA at 01m 25.00s
7 Dietrich Thurau GER at 02m 01.00s
8 Andreas Kappes GER at 02m 10.00s
9 Acácio Mora da Silva POR at 03m 01.00s
10 Gottfried (Godi) Schmutz SUI at 03m 25.00s