Dec 27, 2016 – Things that are classic and iconic are so-called because they are timeless. Bogey’s fedora, Steve McQueen’s turtleneck and James Dean’s plain, white tee transcend their era. A timeless look is grounded in permanence, conveying an authenticity and originality that doesn’t go out of style.
WORDS/IMAGES: CLIVE PURSEHOUSE
This archetypal and iconic style is what makes the images of Andy Hampsten traversing the snowy Passo di Gavia in his giant Oakleys such an unlikely classic. Cycling kits of the 1980s and ’90s were the opposite of iconic and could often more aptly be called eyesores. While the 7-Eleven-Hoonved team kits certainly invoke an American original, that image of Hampsten, covered in snow, benefits from the blue wool jersey of the Giro’s combined points leader. Circumstance, Mother Nature and Hampsten’s gritty performance did the rest, and in the process created an American legend and added to cycling’s timeless standards.
The Hampsten brothers grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a prairie town; their parents were college professors. “Maybe 1974 was the beginning of the bike boom in the United States. We both kinda wanted to get into riding,” says Steve Hampsten, Andy’s older brother. “Truthfully, there wasn’t much to do in Grand Forks, especially in the ’70s. The TV had three channels, so we rode our bikes a lot. Our parents were willing to throw down some money on a couple really nice bikes. From the time I was about 14, through junior high and high school, Andy and I both were riding and racing pretty seriously.”
Andy kept at it, spending his summers in Madison, Wisconsin, honing a talent that would take him to the U.S. national junior team, and ultimately Europe and his place in American cycling lore. Steve tried college for a few years and then left that behind for the culinary scene. He spent some time cooking in upscale restaurants. Eventually, he succumbed to the desire for a bigger city and some nicer restaurants, and left the Midwest for Seattle in 1986.
When Steve tired of the restaurant scene he found his way to welding and metalwork, with time at blacksmith shops learning the trade in Seattle’s industrial districts along the Duwamish River. His initial experiences involved heavy industrial metalwork, from high-end residential to heavy-duty commercial fishing set-ups. Eventually he found his way back to bicycles at the now-defunct Match Bicycles in nearby Woodinville, Washington.
In 1999, Steve Hampsten partnered with his brother to found Hampsten Cycles. While the brothers share the ownership, Steve runs the day-to-day out his off ice and workshop in Northeast Seattle. As the business has grown, Steve’s focus has shifted from the metalworking to a concentration on design, building the brand, sales and customer relations. Depending on the frame material and design, Hampsten Cycles works with an array of talented frame builders in the Puget Sound region for the fabrication.
“I feel like we make bikes for people like us, so if you like what you see you’re going to love what you get,” Steve reflects. The bikes that come out of the Hampsten workshop have great lines and clean welds, and while they don’t do baubles and artsy (and expensive) add-ons, the frames communicate a look that hearkens back to bicycle racing’s golden era. The lines are clean and the frames prove that “crisp and snappy” can also mean “handcrafted from steel.”
For the real-deal steel, Steve works with folks he has a longstanding relationship with. One is Martin Tweedy, who Steve met in the late ’90s at Match Bicycle. Tweedy makes Hampsten Cycles’ lugged steel frames and the brazed steel forks—which are available across the line. Tweedy’s résumé includes building frames for Rivendell and the randonneur frames of Robert Beckman Designs. Hampsten Cycles also has Peter Graham making the carbon Maglia Rosa bikes in house. The shop works with a select few outside builders who have long-established reputations: the talented Max Kullaway of 333 Fabrications, Colorado’s Kent Eriksen (the founder of Moots) for Hampsten’s titanium frames, and longtime custom Seattle frame-building shop Rodriguez, which also does the paint for the bikes.
Who ultimately builds the bike depends on what the customer is looking for, and how backlogged any of those builders might be. The wait time can be two to four months for a Hampsten build.
The frames range from the lugged steel look of the Team Pro to the clean lines of the Gran Paradiso. Besides steel and titanium, Hampsten offers the sleek, racy Maglia Rosa line—which includes hand-built carbon frames. Some of the bikes are built in-house in Northeast Seattle and others are contracted to a who’s who of bike fabrication.
The Maglia Rosa line began as a carbon frame that was being produced by Asian bike manufacturer ADK Technology—designed and spec’d by Columbus at its Columbus Carbon Labs in Taiwan. ADK Technology creates frames used by companies such as Cannondale and Kestrel, so the frames are well made and reliable; but Steve wanted a little more for Maglia Rosa. “They’re good frames,” Steve Hampsten says, “but what we want to focus on with Maglia Rosa is the hand-built carbon bikes that Peter is doing for us and we’ll do some steel frames in that line as well. These are more aggressive frames, shorter head tubes, racing geometry.”
The hand-built-carbon-frame-learning process has been time intensive for Hampsten Cycles. Graham, who has a background in composite materials and worked at the carbon wheel company Mad Fiber, has found it a process of experimentation. “We started with a bunch of ‘make ’em and break ’em’ sub-assemblies,” he says. “Testing these things, the strength of the epoxy is really, really impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the carbon wrapping.”
They start with carbon tubing made by ENVE and to that point the process is very similar to a metal-framed bicycle, though instead of welding you’re joining with epoxy. From there it’s a matter of wrapping and shaping the carbon frame, building in strength and contours to make something that’s uniquely Maglia Rosa. To date they’ve produced just a half-dozen of the carbon frames. In both steel and carbon, the Hampsten frames are sharp looking and carry with them an air of the sport’s classic era, as opposed to something you’d associate with the age of those giant Oakleys. Yet, through custom painting, a customer can decide on the f inal aesthetic. Steve was building up a hot pink frame when I visited the shop. While they’ve gotten requests for mountain and cyclocross frames, the Hampsten Cycles wheelhouse is road racing-style bicycles and gravel-style road frames, the latter in homage to races such as Strade Bianche.
“The bikes we rode in 1974, those were the best-looking bikes, in my opinion, even to this day,” Steve says. “They were classic. We want our steel frames to capture that look—the material is timeless and we hope to build bikes that are timeless too.”
Along with a certain look, there’s the element of rarity. A Hampsten frame is a far cry from commonplace, because the company is producing only 40 to 50 a year. Steve f igures the Hampsten total production over the years is somewhere between f ive and six hundred. He’ll occasionally get emails from folks who may have purchased a used Hampsten off of eBay or craigslist and he’s almost always able to tell them the bike’s entire history. But ultimately the “origin” story is always the same—it’s one that began 40 or so years ago in Grand Forks, North Dakota, with two brothers and a love of riding bikes.