Andy Hampsten, who learned to ride in what his father calls "one of the flattest areas in the world," became the first American cyclist to win the Tour of Italy because he was king of the race's dozen mountain stages.

On a course lengthened and toughened this year in reaction to criticism it had become too easy, Hampsten weathered a rainstorm Sunday and arrived at the finish in Vittorio Veneto after covering 2,256 miles in 97 hours 18 minutes 15 seconds.

Hampsten, who won two of the race's 21 stages, was 1 minute 43 seconds ahead of overall runner-up Erik Breukink of the Netherlands. Urs Zimmermann of Switzerland, who had been second going into Sunday's stage, slipped on the wet pavement and dropped back to third, 2:45 behind.

In the 70 previous Tours of Italy, the best American finish was a third by Greg LeMond in 1985. LeMond, nursing a leg injury, dropped out of the 1988 race five days after it began, May 23.

"I rode very carefully today," Hampsten said after finishing seventh in the final stage, a 27-mile time trial. "I was afraid of falling, and I knew that I did not have to give my hardest effort after hearing that Zimmermann slipped."

Zimmermann's accident was a fitting climax to a race in which the nearly 200 cyclists battled some of the worst weather in the event's history. Hampsten took the lead on the worst of those days, June 5, and held it through the final week of racing.

Hampsten, 26, is a native of Columbus, Ohio, who grew up in Grand Forks, N.D. His parents are both professors of Renaissance English at the University of North Dakota.

"Andy says, only half in jest, that the wind is always against you in North Dakota," said Richard Hampsten, Andy's father. "He learned to ride against the wind's resistance, and that prepared him to be a strong climber."

Hampsten also gained climbing skills by living in both Boulder, Colo., and Yverdon, Switzerland. Nothing but an iron will, however, could have gotten him through the stage in Italy's Dolomite Mountains eight days ago that proved the race's decisive moment.

The 62-mile stage started in a hard rain at Chiesa Valmalenco, altitude 3,200 feet, and finished in hard rain in Bormio, altitude 4,018. Between those points, as the course climbed to 8,600 feet to cross the Gavia Pass, the weather turned to a blizzard. The 16 miles down from Gavia to Bormio became sheer terror.

Madiot's teammate, Dominique Gaigne, was carried into a mountain shelter on his bike because his fingers were frozen into a grip on the handlebars. Giuseppe Saronni, an Italian star, went into a spectator's home and returned to fight the cold with a brimming glass of Grappa, the high-octane Italian liqueur. Spain's Melchior Mauri could not shift during the descent because his derailleur cable was frozen.

At the Gavia Pass, Theo van der Velde of the Netherlands had a 70-second lead over Hampsten and Breukink. At the finish, van der Velde was 46 minutes behind because he had to stop and spend 45 minutes warming up in an official vehicle before he could continue.

"It was worth the overall lead," said Hampsten, who arrived in Bormio seven seconds behind Breukink, "but the stage should have been canceled. It was terrible."

Hampsten's success on a day when nine racers abandoned the Tour was due in no small part to good planning by his team, 7-Eleven, which became the first American team to have the winner in a European race of such importance.

Its directors, Jim Ochowicz and Mike Neel, positioned two team cars near the summit, one to dispense warm beverages, the other warm clothes. And they had all their riders cover their bodies with Vaseline to fight the cold and wind.

Hampsten, of course, became familiar with such weather during his North Dakota childhood.

He began to ride a bike, like many children, at age 7 and entered his first race five years later. By the time he was 16, Hampsten was so hooked on cycling that he spent summers with a family in Madison, Wis., where races and hills are less unusual.

Hampsten turned pro after the 1984 U.S. Olympic road race trials, in which he was eighth; only the top four qualified for the Games. Signed by 7-Eleven just for the 1985 Tour of Italy, he was the surprise winner of one of the race's toughest mountain stages and finished 20th overall.

That piqued the interest of the France's La Vie Claire (now Toshiba/Look) team, for whom LeMond won the 1986 Tour de France with Hampsten's help in battling the other riders. Said LeMond at the time: "Hampsten won me the Tour de France." Hampsten wound up fourth.

The next year, Hampsten jumped to 7-Eleven, for which he could be the leader instead of what the French call a domestique, or helper.

Before this Tour of Italy, Hampsten's biggest wins were in the 1986 and 1987 Tours of Switzerland, a shorter (11 stages), but equally mountainous race.

"Winning the Tour of Italy was a very important moment for me and my team and for U.S. cycling," Hampsten said.

How much he, or his team, will capitalize on it remains to be seen. Hampsten, who makes $250,000 annually from 7-Eleven, is loath to do self-promotion and public relations work.

"He can say no with some acerbity," Richard Hampsten said.

That will be hard during the next few weeks because Hampsten suddenly has become a favorite in the Tour de France, which begins July 4.