The first bowl of pasta I ate in Italy was the best I’ve ever had, out of thousands and thousands. It was 1982 and I was over with the US national team. Gios Torino were our sponsors and took us out to lunch. It was nothing fancy, tablecloths on the table and a dozen of us round it.
The jet lag was leaving our minds, we were all excited and scared about the whole adventure. And they served pasta al pomodoro, this simplest, most beautiful plate of pasta. I spoke a little Italian, so I took a stab at asking the waiter for more. And sure enough, we each got another bowl. It was the greatest.
Over the next months, it became a game: would the waiter actually bring us more? Eventually, I had to learn to control how much I ate. Living in a country with such delicious food probably set me back a few years.
In 1985, the American squad 7-Eleven had a successful spring campaign and found a co-sponsor, Hoonved washing machines. They needed a couple more racers to round out the team, so I joined by the skin of my teeth. The Giro d’Italia was my first professional race, my one opportunity to really do something.
It was an introduction to a bizarre way of racing. On flat stages, we would go so slow till the TV helicopter showed up for the live coverage. Everyone was telling stories, braking and bumping into each other, there were a lot of crashes. It took our team a week to learn not to eat everything in our pockets in the first hour through sheer boredom. And then, when we did start racing, we would go so fast for an hour and a half – as quick as the last lap in an American criterium. We couldn’t believe anyone could possibly be at the front attacking.
On the second stage, I went for the King of the Mountains sprint; I think Acacio da Silva won and I was eighth, not even close. Huge doubts were going through my head at that moment. Who knows if I’m even good enough to be a pro? Maybe I bit off more than I could chew. Going over the top, I figured I might as well stay near the front.
Four of the eight descending ahead of me had been world champions: LeMond, Hinault, Moser and Saronni. I had a little voice in my head saying ‘this is absurd, how did you get here and what are you going to do?’ I attacked as soon as it flattened out, but got caught with ten kilometres to go and ended up crashing in the sprint.
Afterwards, Erminio Dall’Oglio, Hoonved’s owner, came over. He was this big, expressive teddy bear industrialist who always smoked a cigar that he’d put out if he was around the riders. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but he was pumping my hand and slapping me on the back.
I’m scratched up, irritated and sweaty, wondering why he is thanking me. Mike Neel, our directeur sportif, was translating: “You went for it, you were on live television for 20 minutes. And that’s what he’s in this for, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t take the victory. Now you are a professional.” When I won the stage to Gran Paradiso three weeks later, Erminio was so happy that he commissioned a gold coin with an ibex on it, the mountain antelope symbol of the Gran Paradiso national park, and gave one to every 7-Eleven team member. I saw that kindness over and over again in Italy.
With a limited vocabulary, our interests were food. That’s how we communicated with people, which came at the expense of some of the cycling journalists. They’d want to ask their usual race questions and when I realised I wouldn’t be able to go much further in the conversation, I learned how to say in Italian ‘I felt really good today and last night we had the best pizzoccheri.’ I’d mention the regional dish, and the general public loved that.
It was easy for me to be comfortable racing in Italy because I could always find moments to relax with locals. We wanted to talk to them more than diehard fans anyway. These people we bumped into who would tell us about the olive oil they made, or the fish they had caught that day. We were homesick, and it’s comforting to have that human connection outside of the race.
At the end of my career, I moved from Switzerland to the Tuscan village of Castagneto Carducci, where I still live. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from my friends and observing people. Sure, they have stress, their economy is terrible, it would be a horrible place to run a business with all the bureaucracy. But I think Italians live well and their priorities are healthy. They spend time and money on meals. Birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated with the full extended family. It takes hours, kids get bored and go play in the street. But it matters to them.
In America, with strangers round a table, we always start off by asking “what do you do?” That’s the last thing I really care about; I’d rather know someone as a person than where their money comes from. Italians are the same.
I definitely have Italy under my skin. I don’t try to be an Italian, but my stomach is Italian. To this day, I always want a second bowl of pasta.
Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro d’Italia. This column was first published in Rouleur 18.3