George Hincapie has seen it all. In almost three decades of racing bikes, including 19 seasons as a professional athlete until he retired last Sunday, he has seen American cycling grow from a fledgling national sport into a leader of world cycling. As the sport expanded, Hincapie grew from a skinny New York kid that his Colombian-born dad Ricardo took to pre-teen races in Central Park into a cosmopolitan 39-year-old sports icon with a glamorous French wife, Melanie, seven-year-old daughter Julia and four-year-old son Enzo, living in a tony section of Greenville, South Carolina.
All along, despite racing through the most doping-addled period in cycling history, he maintained his schoolboy-like shyness and ready smile. Unlike many high-profile pro athletes, Hincapie went out of his way to be nice to the media. Whenever I bumped into him during any of his record 17 Tours de France starts, he’d say, “How are you, John? Good to see you.”
Just about the only time I saw him angry was at the 1997 USPRO Championship in Philadelphia. That was an emotional seesaw for Hincapie. He sprinted across the line as the top-placed American, he was awarded the champion’s stars-and-stripes jersey, and some 45 minutes later he was disqualified for being paced back to the lead group by his team car after a late-race puncture. He felt frustrated and cheated because commissaires routinely turn a blind eye to such violations or simply dole out a cash fine.
Over the years, the 6-foot-3 Hincapie became known to his legion of fans as Big George. It wasn’t just because of his height (tall for a pro cyclist) that he deserved that moniker, it was because he was magnanimous of nature and the most popular rider on all the teams he raced for. His sometimes milk-toast character also earned Hincapie a reputation among fellow journalists as a rider who would talk a lot but rarely said anything of substance. With a smile, they even referred to him as boring…but they said the same thing about another big man, five-time Tour champion Miguel Induráin.
From his early roots in Queens, via a high school education at Farmingdale in the suburban part of Long Island, Hincapie soon dedicated his life to cycling. As a teenager, he rode the track at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Velodrome and raced on the road up and down the East Coast. Following the break-through Tour victories of Greg LeMond and the subsequent expansion of elite cycling in the U.S., the young rider established a reputation as a fast, all-around rider. He won a bronze medal in the track pursuit at the 1991 junior worlds before becoming a regular on the national amateur team and turned pro at age 20 with manager Jim Ochowicz’s Motorola team.
He was on the first wave of American pros who went to Europe on an established U.S. team, rather than having to make a solo path into continental racing as LeMond and other pioneers had to do a decade earlier. Motorola’s base was in Como, Italy, where Hincapie and his contemporary Kevin Livingston set up shop in 1994 with their new American teammates Frankie Andreu, Lance Armstrong (who was already world champion) and Bobby Julich. In this youthful rat pack, Hincapie was the fastest sprinter, a fact that helped him quickly rise on the team totem pole.
Even though Motorola had been racing in Europe for a decade (initially sponsored by 7-Eleven), the team was still an outsider. The young Americans mostly trained together with guidance from part-time trainer Massimo Testa, a family doctor in Como who had helped the U.S. national team in Italy before linking up with Ochowicz and Armstrong.
Remembering those days, and his rookie 1994 season in particular, Hincapie told me a few years later, “We didn't know that much about training or about our bodies as we do now. Back then, we would basically train hard all year long, and you just went from race to race and hoped you'd feel good at the races. We'd get weekly tests for lactate and power with Max Testa, who was always so positive about our prospects.
“But Lance's results weren't too good that spring. He trained super-hard but he just wasn't happy because he wasn't killing everybody like he did before. Lance would want to know, 'Why are they so much better? Why are we getting our butts kicked?' Max would say, ‘Tranquillo, tranquillo.’ That was his favorite word. 'You guys are still young, you're gonna be good…and you're world champion, Lance, don't even stress.'”
Hincapie was good in his first pro season. He used his strong sprint to win two stages at the Tour of Luxembourg, and took another at the West Virginia Classic, which was one of the lead-in races to Philadelphia’s USPRO Championship. Besides his track background having developed his sprint, his pursuit ability helped him become adept at short, prologue time trials. He also proved his strength in riding for Motorola leader Armstrong in the shorter stage races before earning his first team selection for the Tour de France in 1996. The first of many….
The opening week saw wet, cold weather almost every day on the mainly flat roads through the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France. Not inspired by any of the courses, Armstrong finished near the back of the peloton every day, and would quit before the mountains, not knowing that three months’ later he would be diagnosed with cancer. “It was such a hard, hard Tour,” Hincapie said. “I didn't want to quit so I was hoping to crash. I was hurting so bad, I thought it would be better to crash and injure yourself than just quit.” Midway through the second week, on a stage through the hills of the Massif Central, Hincapie did crash and, although not badly injured, he pulled out of his debut Tour.
Even before Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis, the riders knew that the Motorola squad was folding at year’s end after 12 years in the pro peloton, a fact that was a major hiccup in all the American riders’ careers. The reason given by the Motorola corporation was lack of good results, but Ochowicz said, “There were several reasons for Motorola dropping out. Internal politics, management changes, and a policy difference. They wanted to do soccer, not cycling. They made a big mistake in my opinion. It was a pity because we had the next generation coming through. I was disappointed.”
All the riders had to find new teams, with Hincapie hoping he could stay with Armstrong when the Texan signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract with French team Cofidis. The negotiations allowed Armstrong to take Andreu, Julich, and Livingston with him to the new squad, while Hincapie was left to sign with the much lower-budget, second division U.S. Postal Service team. "I was a little upset that he didn't take me to Cofidis," Hincapie told me in an interview at his Greenville mansion.
Ironically, cancer stopped Armstrong from ever racing for Cofidis and when European teams snubbed him, Armstrong joined U.S. Postal for his comeback year of 1998. It was a difficult comeback, and Hincapie had a front-row seat when Armstrong quit Paris-Nice that March and threatened to leave cycling for good. The weather was bitter cold, and the racing was typically unforgiving on the opening road stage; but no one expected Armstrong to suddenly stop pedaling, pull to the side of the road, and quit the race.
“I saw him at the hotel,” Hincapie said, "and he was like, ‘I’m done, I'm not ready for this sport.’ He was not happy to be back in Europe, suffering like that, and not winning, and staying at this shitty hotel. He just packed up and left. We were all shocked.”
Without a leader, the young American team turned to Hincapie for results. His first target was the USPRO Championship, one year after his unfortunate disqualification. As it happened, three months after Paris-Nice, this was Armstrong’s second post-cancer return after trial runs at a criterium in Austin and a race in Atlanta. His goal in Philadelphia was to help Postal teammate Hincapie become the national champion in the 156-mile race. “I felt sluggish, as though I was dragging a manhole cover,” Armstrong said at the time. But Hincapie said his teammate “did an awesome job at the end of the race. We had three guys up there [Armstrong, Andreu, and Tyler Hamilton] doing the lead-out train for me, and I won the sprint. Lance was so happy; I'd never seen him that happy.”
So a year after his bittersweet setback in Philly, Hincapie was thrilled to be part of a group of mostly American riders that was recreating the camaraderie they enjoyed in Como with Motorola. By 1999, the Postal team has increased sponsorship and Armstrong, after placing fourth at the late-1998 Vuelta a España, was considered a strong leader for the Tour, with a now-experienced Hincapie at his side. The race began better than anyone expected, with Armstrong winning the prologue and becoming the first American to wear the yellow jersey since LeMond.
“It was like he had just won the Tour,” Hincapie said. “We were all hugging each other, we were so happy. But then we were scared shitless. In previous years, our only concern was getting through the Tour de France. Now we were going to have to defend the yellow jersey and pull the peloton around France. How the hell were we gonna do that? We were all in shock.”
One of their first tests came a couple of days later when the Tour included the treacherous water crossing of the Passage du Gois causeway. The Postal riders kicked up the speed on a bridge some 10 kilometers before the wet, stone-paved crossing. Then, on the approach to the causeway, Hincapie said, “I took Lance to the front, and I really put myself in the red. We were going so hard, and there was no shelter from the wind, that we assumed there wouldn't be many guys left with us. There were only fifteen in front after the Gois.”
That effort by Hincapie virtually won Armstrong his first Tour because the eventual runner-up Alex Zülle was among the favorites who didn’t make it to the front group after being delayed by crashes in the peloton and ended the stage six minutes back. That Tour helped to establish Hincapie as Armstrong’s No. 1 teammate, and he’d be the only one to ride on Armstrong’s team in his run of seven consecutive Tour victories.
Those seven titles are now being threatened by last week’s USADA decision based on an alleged doping conspiracy on the Postal (and later Discovery Channel) team, with the 10 mystery witnesses said to include Hincapie. Two of the probable testimonies came from Hamilton (whose tell-all book is being published next week) and Floyd Landis.
Very little has come out of the mouth of Big George, who said to me in an interview a few years ago: “If people ask me if Lance doped, I tell them they don't see behind the scenes. They don't see how hard he trains. They don't see the sacrifices he makes, like not eating a donut, not eating a chocolate chip cookie—the normal luxuries of life that he just sacrifices when he's in training. I trained with Lance and knew how much he suffered and how hard he worked.”
When I asked Hincapie about the controversial Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari, who would start working with Armstrong and team colleagues, including Hincapie, for several years after a recommendation from Eddy Merckx, he said, “Ferrari was a good guy, very smart trainer, very knowledgeable.”
In his eventual 17 Tour starts, Hincapie would eventually win a single stage. It came in 2005 on the Pla d’Adet mountaintop after a long breakaway in the last of Armstrong’s seven victory years. That remains Hincapie’s most publicized accomplishment, but he was principally a specialist of one-day races, especially the cobbled spring classics. By the end of his career, Hincapie scored seven top-10 finishes in the Tour of Flanders and seven top 10s at Paris-Roubaix from a record 17 starts.
His best years at Roubaix came in the first part of the last decade, starting with 2002 when one of his Postal team helpers was a youthful Tom Boonen, the future multi-time winner of the Hell of the North classic. Recalling that race, Hincapie said in another one-on-one interview. “I made stupid mistakes in 2002. I didn't put a Gore-Tex jacket on when it was freezing rain. I got chilled to the bone, and didn't eat enough, and wasted a lot of energy. I had felt so good that I didn't let it bother me. And then it hit me with 30K to go. And I had nothing left. Nothing.
“I completely bonked at the end. I barely made it to the finish line. When you're so bonked as I was, you don't have any reaction time. I'd slipped like a hundred times before I crashed on the cobblestones when 1 was riding with Boonen and fell in a ditch. When you're good and you're focused, you adjust, but in that state you just basically fall.”
Boonen came in third at that race, and still hadn’t improved on that when he lined up for the race three years later, when he and Hincapie were pre-race favorites. Both men made it to the winning break and they sprinted for the win on the velodrome at Roubaix. We were hoping that the American would summon up his old track-racing skills, but after six hours of negotiating the roughest roads in pro cycling, Boonen proved the strongest and fastest, with Hincapie taking a career-best second place.
That year of 2005 was Hincapie’s best. Besides that runner-up spot in Roubaix and his solitary Tour stage win, he’d earlier won the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne semi-classic (after winning Ghent-Wevelgem in 2001) and went on that season to win his only WorldTour classic, the Grand Prix de Plouay in Brittany. With that form continuing in early 2006 with two stage wins and fourth overall at the Amgen Tour of California, followed by third place in the Tour of Flanders, Hincapie was again favored at Paris-Roubaix.
He still had two teammates with him in the key breakaway and was looking like a winner when his steerer tube cracked. The crash put him out of the race with a separated shoulder with 45 kilometers to go. Two years later, now with Team High Road after the Discovery Channel squad disbanded, Hincapie had support riders like Bernie Eisel to help him in the cobbles classics.
At the 2008 Roubaix, after taking fifth at Flanders, Hincapie said, “Bernie was doing an awesome job. We were the strongest guys. I had amazing legs.” Right then, when a Roubaix victory at the 13th attempt was in sight, the American's rear carbon wheel awkwardly hit a cobblestone—and broke. “I'm not sure what it was, probably some spokes,” Hincapie said. “I rode it for about a kilometer, but I could not ride it anymore.”
By this point, the next group had reached Hincapie, and his Dutch teammate Servais Knaven (who won Paris-Roubaix in 2001) stopped to give him his wheel. “I got going pretty quick,” Hincapie said, “but by the time I caught back up to the front the break was gone.” Hincapie's former team director at Discovery, Dirk Demol (another Roubaix winner) concluded, “It was part of George's bad luck. I feel so sorry for him because he's a big rider, a big champion. He deserved at least once to win this race.”
Hincapie, though, remained as probably the best team support rider in the business. After his decade of riding for Armstrong, he proved even stronger riding for High Road sprinter Mark Cavendish, including his closing down all the late attacks and leading Cavendish out for victory at the 2009 San Remo—a race where Hincapie would equal the participation record with 14 starts.
Another highlight was the 2011 Tour de France, where Hincapie helped guide BMC Racing teammate Cadel Evans to his first overall victory, and notably led out the Australian to win the hilltop stage finish on the Mûr de Bretagne ahead of Alberto Contador. But Hincapie will always be remembered for his support for Armstrong, both on and off the bike, during his seven Tour wins (whatever the USADA verdict says), especially in 2003, the Texan’s most difficult year.
Riding in the team bus the morning after Armstrong lost a vital time trial to rival Jan Ullrich, Hincapie was determined to lift the spirits of his leader, who’d suffered from dehydration and near-collapse in the time trial. Hincapie told me in an interview, “I saw what he'd done in that time trial, lost only a minute and a half, and I told him, 'That was probably the most impressed I've been with you in your entire career.' And he looked at me as if I was crazy. So I told him, 'I was impressed that was all you lost after being so sick.'"
Two days later, with Armstrong still in the yellow jersey but looking beatable, Hincapie had another heart-to-heart on the team bus. “That morning I was sitting across from Lance going to the start,” Hincapie said. “I talked to him a lot through that Tour. I was trying to be there for him, trying to make him believe that we all still had faith in him and knew he could do it.
“On that ride I gave him my iPod, I was listening to a song called Alive, by P.O.D., and he put it on. The lyrics definitely pump you up." The first words of that Christian rock band's song are: “Every day is a new day . . . I'm thankful for every breath I take.” That's been Lance's mantra, he said, ever since his mom said it to him as a kid, and reinforced after he survived cancer. When the two men stepped out of the team bus before the stage start in Pau, Hincapie looked across at Lance and said, “I have a good feeling about today.”
At the end of that Pyrenean stage, Armstrong overcame his famous fall at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, came back to attack the lead ground, and went on to one of his most famous victories. As he surged clear, the throbbing chorus of that P.O.D. track was still in his mind: “I feel so alive / For the very first time / I feel so alive / And I think I can fly.”
When Hincapie crossed the finish line, Armstrong was already on the podium receiving another yellow jersey. When he saw his friend and colleague, the Texan pointed at him dramatically and called out to him, thanking him for his inspiration. Yes, indeed, Big George was the ultimate teammate and a remarkable player in the continuing progress of American cycling.
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