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Tour de France

2011 Tour de France: George Hincapie eyes retirement — and a Tour de France record

George Hincapie already holds the record for the most Tour appearances by an American. He'd like to best Joop Zoetemelk's mark of 16 completed Tours.

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2011 BMC, George Hincapie
George Hincapie would like to set a Tour record before retiring to the rocking chair. Photo: © Tim De Waele | courtesy BMC Cycling Team

As George Hincapie (BMC) enters his 18th season as a pro, he is quietly hatching plans for retirement.

Not that the veteran American is ready for the rocking chair yet — Hincapie still hopes for a shot at making history at the Tour de France.

“I am thinking 2012,” Hincapie told VeloNews. “It really depends on what the team would want me to do, but it would be nice to do one last Tour and call it quits.”

Hincapie, who turns 38 this summer, already holds the record for the most Tour appearances by an American, with 15 through 2010. Others who match that mark include Viatcheslav Ekimov, Lucien Van Impe and Guy Nulens.

Joop Zoetemelk holds the record with 16 Tours, between 1970 and 1986, finishing all 16 he started. Hincapie is expected to start his 16th Tour this July, but he abandoned his first. If he retired in 2012 with “one last Tour,” that would put him on track for a record of 17 starts in the Tour.

Hincapie is not waxing poetic about his cycling career just yet, and says his move to BMC in 2010 has helped him stay motivated and hungry despite the demands of professional cycling.

“I am just really excited about this team, it came from being a small team, they were sort of courting me, giving me the two-three year plan to become a ProTour team, then all of sudden we hired guys like Cadel, it just skyrocketed,” Hincapie said.

“What Jim (Ochowicz) and Andy (Rihs) sort of presented to me happened a lot quicker. For me to be part of that has been a special deal, I would like to see it through as long as possible. I still feel good, I feel like I can give a lot to the team as far as racing goes, I still enjoy doing it.”

Spring classics still a goal

Hincapie will have a full racing schedule that includes all the major events on the calendar. Following BMC’s January training camp in Spain, Hincapie returned home to the United States and will not return to Europe until March.

His season debut will come at Montepaeschi-Strade Bianchi in early March, followed by Tirreno-Adriatico and a strong run through the spring classics, with scheduled starts at Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. After a short break, he’ll race the Amgen Tour of California, the U.S. national championships before returning to Europe for the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France.

Hincapie admits that his dream of becoming the first American to win Flanders or Roubaix is becoming ever more elusive, but he hasn’t given up hope. His optimism is bolstered by a strong BMC classics team that also includes Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, Manuel Quinziato, Karsten Kroon and Taylor Phinney.

“If we all show up there healthy and fit, we’ll be at the front. It will be the strongest classics team I’ve ever been on. We have so much depth on this team, hopefully we’ll have a lot of cards to play,” he said. “Flanders-Roubaix to win? It would be huge. I know as I get older, my chances get smaller. I do know that on good days, I know I can still ride with the best in the world. If I am super-motivated on a particular day, then it usually goes well. With a little bit of luck, anything is possible.”

Helping hand

Hincapie remains one of the most respected riders in the pack, especially among a new generation of Americans moving up through the ranks.

Hincapie has taken on the role as elder statesman and mentor to younger pros and often plays host to riders at his home in South Carolina looking for mild off-season weather conditions. He regularly trains with Craig Lewis and saw visits this winter from Ted King and others.

“I like (helping young riders). When I was getting started, I had guys like Sean Yates, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson who really took me under their wing. It was really special to me and it helped me a lot,” he said, adding that he vows to return the favor. “I know how hard this sport is when you get thrown into the pro peloton. The racing gets exponentially harder real fast.”

He says he’s comfortable playing that role, something he did with success during his run at High Road, where riders and staff said they were sad to see him leave at the end of the 2009 season in the move to BMC.

“Helping (Mark) Cavendish win Milan-San Remo in 2009 was one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “If I can do something like that for Taylor (Phinney) this year or next year, that would be special for me.”

Hincapie is closing the circle in a certain degree by returning to a team managed by Ochowicz, who offered him his first major pro contract back in 1994 at Motorola. Ochowicz was also Davis Phinney’s manager, so having Hincapie and Taylor Phinney on the same team is a natural way to pass the baton from one generation to the next.

“Taylor’s the biggest rider to come along in a while. He handles it quite well, he’s very funny, he’s always upbeat. He’s had no problems integrating into the team,” Hincapie said. “One of the reasons he came to this team is that the team said for the first year or two, you have no pressure at all. It’s whatever pressure he puts on himself, the team just wants him to learn and push himself as far as he thinks he can go.”