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LES HERBIERS, France (AFP) – American George Hincapie has found himself in familar territory at the Tour de France helping Australian Cadel Evans in his bid for an elusive yellow jersey.
But the New Yorker, who celebrated his 38th birthday on June 29, said he is already honored as he prepares to equal the record of 16 participations held by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk.
Zoetemelk was the last rider from arguably the flattest country in Europe to conquer the world’s premier cycling event, in 1980.
But in the years in between Hincapie has first hand experience of that kind of triumph, being the only teammate of Lance Armstrong’s to play a role in all seven of the American’s record victory streak on the race.
A day before the start of the 98th edition, Hincapie looked back at how he has learned to deal with the suffering on arguably the world’s most demanding bike race.
“My first Tour was so hard that I was praying I would crash, and I did. I think I got eight stitches in my head,” said Hincapie, who pulled out after the 14th stage of his debut in 1996.
“Now I’m stronger and fitter and gauging my efforts a lot better.”
From his 15 previous participations, Hincapie has finished 14 times.
Never a contender himself, he finished a career best 14th overall in 2005 when Armstrong claimed the last of his victories.
Yet he already feels he has surpassed the expectations he had at the start of his career.
“At the start of my career I hoped I would maybe race 10 years and do a couple of Tour de France. Being here 18 years and 16 Tours de France later is an honour and something I don’t take for granted,” he said.
“You might be surprised, but the highlight of my career has nothing to do with cycling — it was meeting my wife in Paris. Now, we’ve got two beautiful kids.”
Evans, a former two-time runner-up in 2007 and 2008, is riding his seventh Tour but faces tough opposition in three-time winner Alberto Contador and Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, the runner-up the past two years.
Although Evans has a tough task on his hands Hincapie said he will do his best to support his BMC teammate.
“My goal is to help Cadel win the Tour de France,” added Hincapie.
“He’s been a phenomenal racer and his consistency is unparalleled in this sport.”