By Anthony Tan
George Hincapie must’ve got a great offer to join his new team.
Because according to one of his old sport directors at HTC-Columbia, Rolf Aldag, Hincapie’s departure to Team BMC gave him the biggest headache of the off season.
How many victories Mark Cavendish would have taken without the help of Big George we’ll never know. But one thing is certain: Hincapie was an integral part of almost all of Cavendish’s major triumphs in 2009, including his stunning victory in Milan-San Remo and his six Tour de France stage wins.
Maybe Cav’, who many consider a once-in-a-lifetime sprinter, will continue his winning streak. Regardless, Hincapie, who’ll turn 37 in this , his 17th professional season, will be sorely missed — not just for his horsepower, but his knowledge of the sport, his undying work ethic, his temperament under pressure, and his ability to foster life-long friendships among his teammates.
That is precisely the reason why BMC owner Andy Rihs and sport director John Lelangue couldn’t be happier.
Because with Cadel Evans and Hincapie as the backbones of this fledgling though highly ambitious Pro Continental outfit, they go into 2010 with the belief they can challenge for the podium in cycling’s two biggest Grand Tours.
But before they do that, this six-foot-three gentle giant of the peloton wants to have another crack at what he still feels is possible: a win at Paris-Roubaix. Before the final stage of the Tour Down Under last month, where he eventually finished 12th overall behind an old teammate of his, André Greipel, VeloNews caught up with the man from Greenville, South Carolina, in the foyer of the Adelaide Hilton.
VeloNews: After what you saw of Cadel (on the fifth stage of the Tour Down Under), you can only feel reassured about the team you chose for 2010, and also with Cadel?
George Hincapie: Absolutely. A lot of people were questioning my decision to come to Team BMC, and just by the way we started off the year, I think people now understand why I came here. The vibe among the team is great, the ambiance among the team has been fun, and the people really accept and support our team.
VN: When you decided to leave Columbia for a relatively immature set-up, was RadioShack ever a consideration, given your affiliation with Lance?
GH: RadioShack was definitely a consideration. Lance and I are great friends, a history together that I’m very proud of and something I’ll never forget.
But I also wanted to keep trying new things in my career; I’ve been a professional now seventeen years – this is my seventeenth season. For me, it’s important to keep things new, and have new challenges. So, for me going to BMC, and me helping them become a world-class team was very appealing to me.
VN: How do you view the entry of these mega-budget teams like Team Sky – what’s your take on it?
GH: It’s great for cycling, to have these new sponsors like RadioShack and Team Sky. It’s a positive sign … but I’m focused more on our team. I think we’ve started off the year wonderfully, the crowds have loved us — I see a bunch of Team BMC jerseys out there, and all the fans have them now – and it’s just been really exciting to see.
VN: The early season races are obviously important for you. Are you confident your team will be selected for the big Spring Classics – or has your team already been selected?
GH: I’m pretty confident we’ll be selected; I don’t know if it’s official or not, but we’re definitely planning on doing all the Spring Classics, for sure.
VN: Do you still feel confident of making the podium in a race like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, or is it time to start nurturing the next generation of yourself in your team?
GH: I still believe I can be podium. I mean, if you look at the years past, barring any bad luck, I’m still there amongst the best.
And this year in particular, I feel as good or better than ever. That’s with the bad weather that I had at home this winter — I still trained properly, felt really good here in the Tour Down Under, and really looking forward to having successes this season.
VN: How many times have you done Paris-Roubaix now?
GH: I don’t know… Fourteen… maybe fifteen. (smiles)
VN: You must have developed some early morning rituals by now. On the morning on Paris-Roubaix, when you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see?
GH: (laughs) I try not to do any rituals. I try not to be very superstitious before Roubaix just because there’s so much that can go wrong. I try not to think of all the different variables that can happen throughout the race — I try to focus more on how my season’s been up to that point, and how important that day is for me and my family. If you don’t keep trying, you’re guaranteed never to win.
VN: With so much attention on the Tour de France every year, it makes sense for Cadel to target the Giro, right?
GH: We’re hoping we can target both. Cadel showed last year he can do the Tour de France, then he almost won the Tour of Spain and then went on to win the world championships. So he’s shown last year he can do two grand tours back-to-back, and he’s very smart with his training.
Really, his whole cycling life is geared towards success in Grand Tours. And it’s a bit of a surprise for us to see how well he’s going here but I think it’s only positive; he’ll be ready for the Giro, and hopefully we get into the Tour de France and he’ll be even better for that.
VN: I was looking through your palmarès … I don’t think you’ve raced the Giro, or have you?
GH: I did, in 2007, but only two weeks of it.
VN: So what were your impressions – did you like it, and how did it compare with the Tour de France?
GH: I enjoyed the Giro. It’s very hard racing, obviously, lots of transfers … but I really enjoy and appreciate the Italian culture, and the ambience amongst the fans. I would love to do it again, but obviously I want to do the Tour of California this year.
VN: I understand Lance has reconsidered his position on going to this year’s world road championships here in Geelong, Australia. Have you had a chance to scout the parcours or look at the profile, and what’s your take on it?
GH: I have not. I’ve just heard from different riders about the course but I haven’t seen it. But yeah, we’d obviously have a strong team if Lance went, and with Tyler Farrar, who is making a huge step up as far as performances go … I’m sure he would be one of the favorites.
VN: I’d like you to reflect a little on your team at Columbia. You had a proven winner in Mark Cavendish, whom the team could draw a lot of inspiration from; where will you draw your inspiration from at BMC — will it come naturally through guys like Cadel and yourself?
GH: Well, it’s not always about winning every race. I had an amazing team at Columbia, made some amazing friends, established some great bonds among the riders, things that won’t go away. Mark (Cavendish) and I still talk several times a week, we still have a great relationship, and he understands my decision to come to Team BMC and why I came here.
My inspirations are easy — they’ll come from the team being successful, the team being cohesive, and the team gaining worldwide attention. Whether that comes from winning bike races, I don’t know, but inspirations are simple, for me.
VN: Your previous sport director, Rolf Aldag, said your departure gave him the biggest headache over the winter, which is a nice way of saying how valuable you really were at Columbia. Everyone speaks about Mark Renshaw being a big part of so many of Cavendish’s wins but they talk less about your role — do you think Cav’ can continue to be as successful without you, particularly in a race like San Remo where you really we there for him in the final kilometers?
GH: I think with the team of Rolf and Bob (Stapleton) and Allan (Peiper) and Brian Holm, they’re really smart and they’ve been really successful at finding new talent, year after year. So I’m sure Mark (Cavendish) will miss me but I think he’ll continue to be successful. Look at Andy Greipel here in the Tour Down Under — I’m not on the team anymore and he’s still winning (smiles), so… the team (HTC-Columbia) is an extremely successful team, and I can imagine Mark to continue to be as successful.
VN: Final question: do you believe it will be the Armstrong-Contador-Schleck show at the Tour de France this year — or do you believe someone else can be in the mix and really fight for the win, such as Cadel, such as Bradley Wiggins?
GH: I believe so. I mean, there’s not just one dominant team anymore. There’s obviously the dominant rider being Contador. (But) Lance is going to have a very strong team and the Schleck brothers are going to have a strong team, and if we go, we’ll have a great team with Cadel, and Sky with Wiggins …
I think that’s going to open up a lot of doors. It’s going to be very difficult for the leading team to control all those sort of attacks, so it could be one of the most exciting tours in recent history.