The tone of Frankie Andreu’s voice when told George Hincapie announced his retirement is best described as one of shock.
It took Andreu, a former teammate of Hincapie’s on the U.S. National Team, Motorola and the iconic U.S. Postal Service squads, five seconds to get his head around it.
And that seems to be the general reaction today across the digital and actual pelotons — one of shock and even a bit of sadness, at the announcement that Hincapie would retire in August. “Big George,” it seems, will leave a big hole in the peloton.
“He’s been racing forever, that’s for sure. He’s been one of the best U.S. classic riders we’re ever seen, and definitely accomplished a lot more than many people had ever thought,” Andreu said.
Hincapie is legendary for his discipline, and for the way he’s conducted himself in a career spanning teams and decades and types of racing, from the classics riding for himself to the Alps, defending Lance Armstrong.
“It takes a lot of hard work with the training and the riding. But I bet a lot of that was easy for him,” Andreu said. “Everything, probably, was second nature. He knew what he needed to do when he needed to do it.”
Hincapie is one of the most decorated American professionals in road cycling. He shepherded Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans to a total of nine Tour de France overall wins. He may make it 10 this year, if Cadel Evans can repeat.
Hincapie, in his 19th year as a pro, is the top American classics rider of his generation and won Gent-Wevelgem in 2001 and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2005.
In 2005, he was second at Paris-Roubaix and won two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de France. He’s ridden in five Olympic games.
He’s is a three-time team time trial winner at the Tour and won a mountain stage at Pla d’Adet in 2005.
Oh, if he toes the line, as planned, in Liège, Belgium, on June 30, he’ll have started more Tours than anyone, ever.
Chris Butler (Champion System) met Hincapie when he was a college kid in Greenville, South Carolina, racing Cat. 5 with the local Furman College team.
“I owe everything to him. Him leaving the sport is huge. He has so much knowledge, and the past couple years he’s spread that out and shared it with as many people as he possibly could,” Butler, 24, said.
“He took me under his wing. I met him when I was a Cat. 5. And four years later, I’m on the same ProTour team as him. He’s given me everything.”
Butler rode with Hincapie on the BMC Racing squad in 2010 and 2011. He described Hincapie as a consummate professional.
“He dedicated himself to the sport so much. A lot of people can be a professional for four hours on the bike, on the training ride. But he was professional 24 hours a day,” Butler said.
Andreu recalled lining up with Hincapie for his first Tour of Flanders:
“And it’s crazy: the fighting, the chaos, the crashes, the rain. Sometimes guys get on the start line and guys don’t want to be there at all, but George, he loved it.”
Afterward, Hincapie declared his affinity for the race, an affair with the classics that would run through his career.
“You knew right there, he had a fight in him. He had that fight. He got criticized a lot by some people saying he’s not mean enough — but there was more to being a bike racer than being a jerk on the bike,” Andreu said.
The two worked for one another for years. Andreu remembers crying on the finish line after Hincapie won his USPRO title in 1998 in Philadelphia.
“He was part of that special group of guys during those early years of U.S. Postal,” said Andreu. “We got along really well. He was a great teammate. I loved working for him.”
Sean Petty, USA Cycling’s chief operating officer, was also a bit surprised at the news. For some reason, everyone thought Hincapie would keep racing forever.
“I guess you knew this day would come sometime. But with George, you figured it would be a few more years,” he said. “He was an amazing professional… George. Always ready, always reliable. Amazingly hard working.”
Hincapie probably won’t say it, but his major regret has to be missing out on the top step at Paris-Roubaix, a race he coveted for years. He finished inside the top 10 seven times in the Hell of the North. He finished in the top 10 seven times in the Tour of Flanders as well.
“But there’s a ton of people who don’t have that on their resume,” Andreu said of a win at Roubaix. “The strongest guy doesn’t always win. Twice, [Hincapie] was the strongest guy. But that’s just the way the cards fell.”
What is truly remarkable about Hincapie is his selflessness. He was — he still is — a powerful rider in his own regard, yet willing to pass a bottle or swap a bike without hesitation.
“As we know, and saw during his career, George is certainly good enough and talented enough to win races,” Petty said, ticking off Hincapie’s abilities on the flats, rollers and even the high peaks.
“I think given the dynamics of the teams he rode on and his overall ability, George could be there. He was uniquely qualified to be a great assistant. He’s a bit rare in that regard.
“I think George, as we all know, sacrificed some of his individual success to be a valuable team player.”
There isn’t much left to say about Hincapie’s results, save this, about the one that’s yet to come: “He’s done everything,” Andreu said. “I’m glad he’s doing the Tour. It’s an incredible record. To do 17 Tours is just ridiculous.”