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By The Associated Press
George Hincapie has been a loyal, selfless and dedicated teammate during Lance Armstrong’s six Tour de France titles.
On Sunday, he picked the Tour’s toughest stretch to make a statement of his own.
Hincapie broke away early and held on to win the 15th stage through the Pyrenees, beating Phonak’s Oscar Pereiro in a sprint to the line for his first stage win at cycling’s premier event.
“This ride is so hard. In training I almost didn’t arrive at the top because I was so tired,” the 32-year-old Hincapie said. “It took us seven hours in training. I just can’t believe I won it. This is a dream for me. I’m really in a state of shock.”
The win did not surprise Armstrong.
“Consider what George does in cycling,” Armstrong said. “He was second at Paris-Roubaix. He goes over the top of the (Col du) Galibier with all the favorites. He wins Pla d’Adet — an uphill finish with six categorized climbs today. Nobody has done that since (Eddy) Merckx and (Bernard) Hinault, so the guy is one of the best riders in cycling. Period. I’m so proud of him.”
In February, the affable New Yorker braved snow, sleet and subzero temperatures to win the harrowing 118-mile Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne race. In April, he placed second at Paris-Roubaix – a race he is desperate to win.
“Roubaix is like a different planet to what today is,” Hincapie said. “But I’d say both are as important. Winning Roubaix would be a dream come true, but winning a mountain stage on the Tour is probably something I’d think I could do less. So it’s kind of a big surprise today.”
Last month, Hincapie won the opening prologue at the Dauphiné Libéré race and the final stage, crossing the line just ahead of Discovery Channel teammates Yaroslav Popovych and Armstrong.
On the Tour’s opening time trial, Hincapie finished in fourth place and was disappointed not to do better.
With Armstrong set to retire after the Tour ends on July 24 – regardless of whether he wins a seventh straight title – someone will need to step in as the new Discovery Channel team leader.
Armstrong hinted that the role could go to Hincapie.
“In recent days I’ve started wondering: ‘Why wouldn’t George be put in that position?”’ asked Armstrong. “He’s a complete rider. He can time trial, he can obviously climb, he can ride the first week and stay out of trouble. You never know, I’ll talk to him about that.”
Hincapie was flattered.
“For Lance and (team director) Johan (Bruyneel) to start saying stuff like that is pretty amazing. Hey, if they want to give me a shot, then I’ll do what I can.”