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Tour de France

George Hincapie leads the peloton to Paris in his last of 17 Tours de France

Former teammates on Sky give the Tour veteran the honor of leading the bunch onto the Champs-Élysées

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PARIS, France (VN) — Big George Hincapie led the peloton into Paris Sunday, a nod to the American’s completion of his 16th and final Tour de France.

Of course, the bunch had to make him do it. Hincapie never was much a “me” guy, was he?

This marks his 17th Tour de France — the most ever, by any rider. He’s completed 16 of those, and ridden on nine Tour-winning teams along the way.

“I usually like to lay low, and I wasn’t expecting that. But a lot of the guys on Sky were my ex-teammates, and they all kind of forced me to. So, it was nice. It was a nice gesture. I was honored to do that,” Hincapie said on the Champs-Élysées.

The completion of the Tour draws the curtains on a massive part of Hincapie’s storied career. He’s still not sure what to make of it.

“It’s one of those things that happens that you can’t quite believe it. I’m still in bike-racer mode. I think once this is over and I’m able to reflect back on my career, I think I’ll really be able to appreciate them. For sure, all the fans along the way and the whole tour, my whole career, have helped me pursue this. It’s been a fun run.”

Hincapie rode his first Tour de France in 1996. It was the only one he didn’t finish.

The big American was part of nine Tour de France wins: seven with Lance Armstrong; one with Alberto Contador; and the final with Cadel Evans, in 2011.

What’s his most memorable moment in France?

“For me, meeting my wife here in 2003 in Paris. I met her there and spent the next three weeks chasing her. Now, we’re married and we have two beautiful kids. That’s my fondest memory of the Tour de France.”

He couldn’t have dreamt the run he’s had.

“I could have never imagined doing 17 Tour de Frances,” he said. “It’s something I’m proud of. I’ve spent so much time in the sport. I’ve given everything to the sport. I’ve always wanted to promote the sport and done what I thought is best for the sport.”

It wasn’t the victory lap that BMC Racing had hoped for, but Hincapie seemed to enjoy it all the same.

“I just tried to soak it all in,” he said. “I tried to appreciate all the fans on the side of the road. A lot of emotions were going through me during that time trial.”

Hincapie’s final Tour included a tough day and even a crash, and the American’s name came out as a witness in the case against longtime teammate Armstrong. But even under those circumstances, he came out of the bus and was the only rider named to truly address the situation.

“I’ve always tried to do the right thing for the sport. Right now I’m here to do my job and I’m going to try and focus on that,” he said at the time.

Hincapie is one of the most decorated American professionals in the country’s road cycling history, and a three-time national champion. In his 19th year as a pro, he is the top American classics rider of his generation, winning 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 the Tour. He’s ridden in five Olympic Games.

He’s also been part of three squads to win team time trials at the Tour and won a mountain stage at Pla d’Adet in 2005. He’s even worn the yellow jersey.

What is truly remarkable about Hincapie is his selflessness. He was — he still is, even today — a powerful rider in his own regard, but willing to pass a bottle or swap a bike or do anything, really, to help his team.

“I chose to focus on what I’m good at. And that’s my gift, is to be a good team leader, and I’m happy with that,” Hincapie told VeloNews.

Evans says Hincapie “is irreplaceable.”

“He is one of a kind and I always admired him even before I knew him as a guy who puts so much into his own career, into his own results in the classics and he always came [for] his team [at] the Tour,” Evans said. “There are the riders who have the capability to do that physically but they don’t have the mentality, the motivation to do it.”

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 to the Alps.

“But he always had it and did it year after year. George always rode a shorter season which I think helped his longevity … but he always seemed so professional,” Evans said. “He is the first rider to go to bed at night, the first guy still at his age now and that’s amazing. Having him as a teammate is like having an extra set of eyes.”

Former teammate Frankie Andreu said at the finish in Paris that Hincapie’s impending retirement will leave a void in the sport.

“It was kind of emotional for me, because he’s been around for so long and is such a huge part of the sport. I saw him when he was young, growing up racing and never imagined he’d accomplish as much as he did,” Andreu said.

“George is an icon and has a ton of fans and followers and has been someone that I’m sure many aspiring and younger cyclists have looked up to. He’s meant a lot to a lot of people for a very long time. And, again, him leaving he sport — you talk about leaving a hole in the system? There’s a pretty big hole with him gone.”

Hincapie’s legacy on the road lives on, of course. He’s ridden with Tejay van Garderen on the BMC squad, and the American finished fifth this year in Paris. Things are looking up for the stars and stripes.

“George is a huge idol of mine,” van Garderen said. “And I got a chance to room with him throughout these three weeks. He’s just such a great guy, and he’s going to be missed in the peloton.”

Indeed, he will.