Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Brothers Hampsten

Steve and Andy Hampsten have loved bicycles since they were kids growing up in North Dakota. Steve has worked at different jobs including gourmet cooking and blacksmithing, but he always returned to the bicycle industry, first as a shop mechanic, then as a bicycle maker when he and Andy founded Hampsten Cycles in 1999. Since then, he has been running the company full-time.

Andy is a cycling legend who does not conform to the "rock star" image seen in so many of today's racers. While the professional bicycle racing crowd became famous for its steroid-drenched egomaniacs, Andy developed a reputation as a genuinely nice human being. Kent Eriksen, Andy's long-time friend and a frame supplier to Hampsten Cycles, describes Andy as "a gracious guy with an incredible talent for climbing hills. He is a good spirit, very unassuming." Even when he was winning some of the biggest races in Europe, Eriksen explains, "Andy always liked to eat good food even more than he liked cycling."

Andy has found a way to pursue both passions in Cinghiale Cycling Tours. His company is known for fast-paced riding through the Tuscan countryside, but it is also famous for the wonderful food and wine consumed along the way.

Andy (left) and Steve (right) Hampsten

Question: Steve - You have learned to build many things in your life, from gourmet meals to items from a blacksmith's forge. How and why did you finally choose to devote your career to building bicycles?

Answer (Steve): I think it chose me... at one point I met with a career counselor - and this was after five years wrenching in bike shops followed by seventeen years cooking - following an hour of tests and chatting she said "You should be building bicycles." About that time I started leaning to work with steel and I've never looked back.

Question: In a nutshell, describe the design philosophy at Hampsten Cycles, please.

Answer (Steve): "Road bikes for all types of roads"

Hampsten Zucchero

Question: How many bicycles/frames does Hampsten Cycles sell in a typical year?

Answer (Steve): Fifty is about normal, this year we're at forty as of the beginning of May. Should be an interesting year.

Question: Do you hope to grow the company? If so, what directions do you see such growth taking?

Answer (Steve): I'm really happy with the size we have and that I don't have to spend my days managing people. If we grow I'll need to spend more time managing the business, less time working with customers and on design - so that feels like a dilemma. But if I had another builder who could wrench and help in some other areas - painting, shipping, or organizing the work flow - we could conquer the world.

Question: Does Hampsten Cycles build frames at fixed sizes/geometries, or are most of your frames custom-built for each customer?

Answer (Steve): On one model, Crema, we push fixed sizes and limited options - but we're still flexible - everything else we do is custom.

Hampsten Crema

Question: You have recently moved much of your your manufacturing from outside companies such as Co-Motion Cycles and Ken Eriksen Cycles to in-house production at "HampCo Towers." You have hired Max Kullaway, who has extensive fabricating experience at Merlin and Seven Cycles, suggesting you are very serious about achieving world-class titanium fabrication quality. How has the move to in-house fabrication worked out for you? Do you intend to keep developing your in-house capabilities, or are you considering going back to out-of-house vendors?

Answer (Steve): It feels like everything we've done here has been evolutionary: first our frames were built by Match, then Dave Levy, then Moots got involved, etc. At the same time, since we started, I've been buying tooling and we've long had the ability to produce lugged frames with Martin Tweedy wielding the torch. So it's been a back-of-my-mind goal to build welded frames in-house for some time and meeting Max made that happen. But if he moves or goes to divinity school then I'll be looking at my options again, won't I? Of course there are other people who can build bicycle frames but there are very few who can do it as well and as consistently as Max - really, it's a short list.

But in terms of this year and last year, doing 95% of production right here has been the best thing possible for the company and for the bikes - it would be difficult to rely on others after this experience. It's not that we don't appreciate how IF/Co-Mo/Eriksen/et. al. build their frames, it's that here we can have each frame done the way we want down to the smallest detail.

Hampsten Gran Paradiso

Question: Why did you choose to create a separate "Tournesol" brand name? Please tell us a bit about the Tournesol models.

Answer (Steve): Tournesol was originally conceived as a project between myself and Douglas Brooks. We wanted to focus on bikes that fit differently and looked less contemporary than what we were showing with Hampsten They probably feature larger frames, have less saddle-to-bar-drop, and almost always use a rack, fenders, and maybe some sort of light system. We felt that a more retro look suited Tournesol well - Douglas even came up with the name - and I felt that there would likely not be too much overlap in customer bases between the two marques. Rene Herse, Alex Singer, Rivendell, Toei, Mariposa: these were all our influences, inspirations, and some are even our friends. In the last ten years we've seen a good amount on interest in French-style touring bikes, randonneuses (hey, I don't make this stuff up), 650B, front racks, "planing", Mafac/TA/Simplex/Huret - mon dieu...

Tournesol Audax

Additionally, I wanted to avoid confusion with our Hampsten customers. I never wanted Hampsten to be painted with the "retro" brush; classic and commemorative were fine but I didn't feel that looking DeGaulle-era suited Hampsten Cycles very well.

Cycles Tournesol was also a good opportunity to play with a different graphic design look and color palate. The parts we use for most Tournesol builds tend to be silver, frames are usually some dark shade, shiny fenders, nickel-plated racks, gum-wall tires, etc. So it's been a fun direction to go in that stands slightly apart from HC in terms of looks and fit but remains very much a Hampsten in terms of build quality and functionality. Sort of like BMW with Mini Cooper, if you will.

Question: I commute fourteen miles each way to work, with roughly 1300 feet of total climbs on the way. What is the perfect bicycle for such a purpose?

Answer (Steve): Crema, Strada Bianca, or Tournesol - anything that gives you options with tire sizes and whether or not to use fenders.

Question: Cinghiale Cycling Tours has a reputation for "highly energetic" days in the saddle. Say, for instance, that someone is in his mid-forties and carrying 20-30 extra pounds. Could he keep up with Andy as the group pedaled through Tuscany?

Answer (Steve): Hey, that's me! Well, maybe I'm older - and what do you mean by "extra" pounds? But Andy waits, if that's your question - no rider left behind...

Answer (Andy): I'll start early. We are all in our forties or carrying more than we wish. We look for a largish group so when we hit our own groove in the hills we end up with good company. Some trips are in the mountains and we warn people about how hard the riding is, so we get fit riders who know how to pace themselves. Extra weight and all. We regroup a few times a day, or on very long days we stay in one group and roll at a nice constant pace.

All work, no play? I think not...

Question: Andy - Do you ever get strong riders on your tours who are itching to "cross swords with a legend?" If you do, have you exhausted all your competitive urges during your days as a professional cyclist, or do you still feel the need to teach the young whippersnappers a lesson?

Answer (Andy): I am too old to cross swords with the young and overly fit. And too old to not spank them on chosen occasions. Our rides are non-competitive. Of course there are some guys that need to find the pecking order on climbs to be happy. Especially when there is a female rider in the group that has dropped them. We are good at keeping the pace social at the beginning of our rides, and letting the lactic acidly challenged know when they can go hard.

Question: Andy - Cinghiale seems to run tours primarily in the late Spring through early Fall. What do you do with yourself during the rest of the year?

Answer (Andy): Drink wine. I mean do research. I hate to claim title to a legit job but running the trips takes time all year long. Hanging with my daughter and wife tops my list of preferred activities. Finding new roads in my back yards and hitting favorite rides is always fun. For a strange reason I started racing on back country skis in Colorado, that will not be a new career.

Cinghiale tours give riders a chance to ride the Alps with Andy Hampsten WITHOUT trembling in fear

Question: What else would you like to say?

Answer (Andy): Riding is more fun than ever. Or more to the point it is as fun as when I was a kid determined to explore the world on my bike. Having a super bike and fancy food is nice, but riding in good company or alone makes any one of my days a great day.

Answer (Steve): Buy American, support people who make stuff, be nice to others.

Question: What do you like for breakfast?

Answer (Steve): Eggs scrambled with whatever was yummy last night, toast with gooseberry jam, 2 cups of coffee, OJ.

Answer (Andy): An Ozo house special coffee and a breakfast burrito!! Why can't Europe get the second part of this combo??

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