Johnny and I drove up the night before, the roof was off the car and the smell of barbecues filled the air as we tooted, waved and smiled our way to the top. There was a party going on from hairpin one to 21 – ghetto blasters, guitars, beer, wine, laughter, bikinis – and those barbies.
We got what must have been the last hotel room in town, tracked down a pizza then settled down on the verandah of our room with a case of beers. It was a hunters’ moon and the snow on the peaks across the valley was magnificent under a sky heavy with stars. Shooting stars flashed above us and we had the best of sleeps that night in the sweet, clean, cool mountain air.
The next day it was hot, damn hot as we found our spot just before the red kite. There were no barriers, the crowd was immense and the expectation palpable. Journo’s cars – little did I know that I would be aboard one 15 years later – photog bikes, gendarmes and team cars whizzed past.
Then there was a pause and below us in the valley, the helicopter rotors hacked at the warm air. The lead car passed and we spilled out onto the tarmac. The gendarme motorbikes brushed us back but as one organism we were right back on the parcours, eyes straining down the grade.
All you could see was people, craning, screaming, waving, pushing – it was madness. The sea parted and there he was, an image flashed onto my memory forever – Andy Hampsten during arguably his finest hour.
So slim, so young, so stylish, on the tops, arms bent staring straight ahead, the sweat glistening on his face and arms, legs flowing with the ease that only the real Mountain Kings can conjure. He was oblivious to the mayhem he was causing; he had the rhythm, he had the focus and he had the gap – L’Alpe belonged to the man who came from those other mountains in Colorado, half the world away.
As fast as he’d appeared, he was gone. Behind him the race director was standing on the front seat of the car, torso out of the sun roof, screaming, waving – as if we’d take notice. The chasing group was riding tempo, they knew that the day’s glory had been stolen.
Indurain, imperious, the yellow jersey glowing as if internally lit. Robert Millar, our wee man from Glasgow right there with the Kings of cycle sport – it was hard not to get emotional. But the day was all about one man. Up until that afternoon, I’d never really been an Andy Hampsten devotee – but he gave me a special memory that day.