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Hincapie: From hell to the heavens

On Thursday afternoon, a U.S. Postal rider charged up the switchbacks toward a stark Pyrenean peak during stage 11 of the Tour de France. The mountain air on the Cat. 1 climb to La Mongie was cooler than it had been in the approaching valley, and the white clouds that closed in on the barren peaks seemed close enough to touch. Down in the trenches, however, on the cracked and painted pavement, it was hot as hell. The rider was George Hincapie, and the setting was a world away from that other place where Hincapie thrives: the cold, dreary and mostly cobbled world of the spring classics. Both

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By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor

On Thursday afternoon, a U.S. Postal rider charged up the switchbacks toward a stark Pyrenean peak during stage 11 of the Tour de France. The mountain air on the Cat. 1 climb to La Mongie was cooler than it had been in the approaching valley, and the white clouds that closed in on the barren peaks seemed close enough to touch.

Down in the trenches, however, on the cracked and painted pavement, it was hot as hell. The rider was George Hincapie, and the setting was a world away from that other place where Hincapie thrives: the cold, dreary and mostly cobbled world of the spring classics. Both are hotbeds of cycling fans’ passions, both holy in their own ways.

Hincapie is the only rider in the world who each year goes from being a spring classics team leader to a crucial cog in the mountain machine of a Tour de France team. From the crush of cowbell-ringing Belgian fans in April to the dense tunnel of orange-clad Basques dancing and singing in the Pyrénées in July, he is a player on both stages.

On Thursday, after he helped set the tempo for Lance Armstrong and the Postal attack over the day’s toughest climb, the “above category” Col d’Aubisque, Hincapie’s day could have been finished. That’s his job: Motor in the early climbs and then let the real climbers on the team — José Luis Rubiera, Roberto Heras and , of course, Armstrong — take over.

But on this day, Hincapie had something more. So when it came time for the final climb, the one that would begin the story of who would be the overall champion of this Tour de France, he was again there at the front.

“I made it over the first climb really feeling strong,” Hincapie said. “So then Lance told me to sit on so I could give everything I had on the first 3, 4, or 5K on La Mongie.”

For the record, he gave 5K, maybe a little more.

And this climbing form is no fluke, insisted Hincapie after he rolled across the finish and took shelter from the blazing sun in the back of a U.S. Postal team car. While it’s difficult to imagine other perennial Paris-Roubaix tough guys leading climbers like Joseba Beloki and Oscar Sevilla up the epic mountains of the Tour de France, Hincapie makes it his job to be ready for these days.

“I’m capable of doing that,” Hincapie said when someone asked him if he was surprised at the way he performed in the mountains. “I do a lot of work in the mountains training. At [The Tour of] Catalonia I helped Roberto a lot in the mountains and I’ve really made a big effort to be able to help in the hills. I was hoping I’d feel good, and all the work I’ve been doing paid off.”

It was a hard day in the saddle for the entire U.S. Postal team, which rode more aggressively than most expected in the first day in the mountains. “We could tell from the gun that ONCE wasn’t controlling, so we just assumed that they were a bit tired,” Hincapie said. “So we decided to just kind of pretend like we had the jersey. Lance felt good, and we all felt good.”

After helping set tempo and keep things under control over the Col d’Aubisque, Hincapie did what the boss ordered and sat in through the valley so he could be there at the end. Besides the ONCE team — which had the yellow jersey on the back of Igor Gonzales de Galdeano, as well as overall threat Beloki — Postal had Laurent Jalabert to worry about. Two days after announcing that he will retire at the end of the season, Jalabert seemed headed for a storybook stage win when he hit the final climb with a lead of 3:20 on the field.

But Postal had other plans. Hincapie started driving the dwindling field at the bottom of the climb, 13km before the finish, and the mountain drama, the drama that usually determines who will be the overall winner of the Tour, began to unfold. After just a few kilometers, Jalabert’s gap was dropping drastically. His long break, which started early in the stage, would end just 3km from the finish.

“After I finished, [Rubiera] took over, and then Roberto took over,” Hincapie said.

The leaders blasted by Jalabert, and over the final kilometers only Armstrong and Beloki could hang with the pace set by Heras. When Armstrong made his winning attack, a little over 200 meters from the finish, it was the final component of a well-orchestrated day for the Postal team.

“It’s awesome,” Hincapie said. “I’m really excited about it.”

Clearly, his teammates — especially Armstrong, who pulled on the yellow jersey over his head at the end of the day — are as well. Who else but Hincapie can conquer the Hell of the North in April and climb like an angel in the Pyrénées in July?