Don’t count him out: Hincapie says he’s still a Roubaix favorite

George Hincapie talks about Paris-Roubaix past and present and his chances this Sunday

Hincapie at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix

Sixth-place was five positions lower than American George Hincapie was aiming for at last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, but it proved that even at 37, the popular BMC Racing leader is still in the hunt for a cobbled-classic victory.

Hincapie made several selections early on at Flanders, but acknowledged he made a critical mistake when he sat behind remnants of the day’s breakaway being absorbed into the bunch on the Molenberg climb, and watched top favorites Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen ride away in the winning move.

Adding insult to injury, Hincapie had super legs at Flanders, just as he had one week earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem, when he finished fourth. At De Ronde, Hincapie finished second to compatriot Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) in the bunch kick, for sixth. Next up is Paris-Roubaix, a race Hincapie has had a love-hate relationship with throughout his career.

Hincapie’s P-R record, and the years’ winners
1994: 31st (Andreï Tchmil)
1995: 21st (Franco Ballerini)
1996: 29th (Johan Museeuw)
1997: 59th (Frédéric Guesdon)
1998: DNF (Franco Ballerini)
1999: 4th (Andrea Tafi)
2000: 6th (Johan Museeuw)
2001: 4th (Servais Knaven)
2002: 6th (Johan Museeuw)
2003: DNS (Peter Van Petegem)
2004: 8th (Magnus Backstedt)
2005: 2nd (Tom Boonen)
2006: DNF (Fabian Cancellara)
2007: DNS (Stuart O’Grady)
2008: 9th (Tom Boonen)
2009: 44th (Tom Boonen)

From the first time he raced Roubaix in 1994, finishing an impressive 31st, it’s been clear it’s a race designed for Hincapie’s powerful riding style. Yet it’s said that luck plays a big role at Roubaix, and Lady Luck generally hasn’t smiled Hincapie’s way at the Queen of the Classics. Punctures cost him heavily in 1997, 2000 and 2001, and in 2006 he saw a perfect opportunity turn into disaster.

From 1999 through 2002 Hincapie was always in the mix, yet riding for a U.S. Postal Service/Discovery Channel team built around Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France aspirations meant he repeatedly came up short against the Mapei/Domo classics powerhouse managed by Belgian Patrick Lefèvre. Of the 14 times Hincapie has raced Paris-Roubaix, teams run by Lefèvre have won a staggering 10 times, including two podium sweeps.

In 2001, race winner Servais Knaven said Hincapie was the strongest man, but the American could do little against the Domo-Farm Frites juggernaut.

In 2002 Hincapie had his most embarrassing Roubaix moment. With Johan Museeuw one minute up the road and just 16km remaining Hincapie lost control in the mud and slipped into a roadside ditch while Boonen, his teammate at U.S. Postal Service, paced him. Hincapie could not contest the sprint for fourth place while Boonen, just 21, ended up on the podium — and as Museeuw’s teammate the following year. Hincapie later said he’d simply bonked.

“I felt so good,” he said. “I was so excited, so motivated, that I forgot to do little things. I didn’t have enough clothes on. I didn’t eat enough. I basically crawled to the finished line.

In 2005 Hincapie rode a near-perfect race, making the final three-man selection, with Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha but was outmatched in the sprint for the line by his former U.S. Postal teammate. It was the closest he has come to winning the fabled race.

The following year disaster struck. With 45km remaining Hincapie sat in a perfect position. He was with two teammates, Vladimir Gusev and Leif Hoste, in a 13-man lead group; Cancellara had one teammate and race favorites Boonen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Peter Van Petegem were isolated. However a crash earlier in the day had set off a fracture in Hincapie’s steerer tube, and following the Mons-en-Pévèle pavé section, the fracture gave way, sending Hincapie awkwardly to the ground on a bike with a handlebar attached only by cables.

Paris-Roubaix will be live on on Sunday.

“I had two teammates in the lead group, I was thinking it was looking pretty good,” Hincapie said. “I knew I had good form, I had just had finished third at Flanders a week earlier, and Boonen didn’t look great. Flecha was strong but not riding very smart — he was showing his cards way too early. Cancellara was really good, but I was confident I would be able to go with them. Then the bike broke and I couldn’t move my shoulder. It was definitely one of worst moments of my career.”

In all Hincapie has crossed the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome second, twice fourth, and the top 10 seven times.

We caught up with Hincapie at his team hotel in Kortrijk Thursday evening to find out how he spent the days following De Ronde, and how he’s feeling heading into Roubaix.

VeloNews: Obviously if you felt like not going with Cancellara and Boonen was a mistake in the moments after the race, that hasn’t changed. But when you look back at how Flanders went, are you at peace with your result?

George Hincapie: Yeah, I think Cancellara was unbeatable on Sunday. Even if I had been able to go there, he was on a super day so he would have been really tough to beat.

VN: As far as the form, you felt like you had it in you to be there later in the race?

GH: Yeah, I felt as good as I ever have in a Tour of Flanders. All day I felt good, super focused, at the front. On the climbs I felt great and I had good power at the end. So as far as the form goes, I was really pleased with that.

VN: What do you have to say about Tyler’s ride?

Hincapie at Schildeprijs on Wednesday.

GH: Tyler did awesome. He’s a young rider, he’s got a shot at winning these races. He’s already winning them, he won yesterday (GP Scheldeprijs). I like him a lot. He’s a good kid. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, and I’m happy to see him doing so well.

VN: Maybe a rider in the similar mold of your own? You started out as a sprinter and transformed yourself into a classics rider.

GH: I think he’s already a better sprinter than I ever was. And he’s got the potential to be a lot more complete rider, not just a sprinter. If he can be there at the end of a race like the Tour of Flanders, he’s got the potential to improve on those abilities.

VN: When we spoke before Flanders you said you hoped you’d be appointed team leader for that race. What can you tell share about how those conversations went, and if anything will be any different at Paris-Roubaix?

GH: (Alessandro) Ballan came up to me at the end, and so did (Marcus) Burghardt, they made it back up when Tyler came back on, and Ballan said right away that he would help me with the sprint. So he was helping me there at the end. I think going in we sort of said we had three leaders going in, and each of the other guys had a task at hand to help either me, Ballan or Burghardt. We had that sort of plan, to split up the team a bit and help their designated riders.

VN: And for Roubaix?

GH: For Roubaix I am hoping I’m the guy. I think I’ve shown I’m fit, and I’m ready to go, and I have a lot of history with this race. I hope that they’ll put into all on me, and I hope I’ll deliver.

VN: You said once that after a race like Flanders or Roubaix you feel like you were hit by a truck. How did you feel this time around, and how have you spent your week?

GH: Actually I felt pretty good on Sunday after the race, I wasn’t as dead as I have been in the past, and that was a pretty good indication that I’m in pretty good shape. Maybe that was also due to the fact that I didn’t make the final, I didn’t have to dig as deep as I would have if I was going for the win. Although it was still really hard, and the guys I was with were really strong. We were chasing Gilbert down, and we didn’t have the cohesiveness in our group to get back to them, but we were still riding really hard. It was a tough race, but I recovered well. Tuesday I didn’t feel that great; I felt really tired. Wednesday I did Scheldeprijs and felt great. It was actually a pretty easy race to ride in the peloton. If you didn’t attack or go to the front it wasn’t that hard. I was pleased to get a 215km ride in without having to suffer too much. I think it was perfect preparation for Sunday.

VN: I’d love to hear what your relationships are like with Fabian and Tom; these are both younger riders you’ve known for a long time who have become superstars. Let’s start with Fabian.

GH: I have a good relationship with Fabian. He’s a funny guy. He speaks perfect English. He’s well liked throughout the peloton. We’ve hit it off quite well. We get along great.

VN: How about with Tom? You two were teammates at U.S. Postal Service back when he was a rookie and now he’s a big star of the sport.

GH: Yeah I think he’s a very nice guy. We got along very well. He has a lot of respect for me, and I have a lot of respect for him, so we have a mutual respect for each other. Obviously he’s had an amazing career and I think he’s still got a lot more races to win.

VN: And of course you might have respect for each other, but at a certain point you become rivals on the racecourse.

GH: Oh yeah. You see at Flanders, when you are riding on these bike-path sized roads, you’re not giving them an inch. But that goes along with the respect that we have for each other, you know you’ve got to battle it out when it’s the moment, whether it’s an attack and you go, or it’s a small road and you need to be there. You don’t have many friends at those moments except your teammates.

VN: And are Tom and Fabian the two guys to watch most closely on Sunday at Roubaix?

GH: Yeah definitely. There are some other guys coming up as well we’ll be watching, but those are the two favorites.

VN: Who else?

GH: I think Matti Breschel has been looking really good. Who else… (Juan Antonio) Flecha. He didn’t have a great day at Flanders, but I think he’ll be good at Roubaix. And Thor (Hushovd) has been coming up as well. There’s plenty of riders out there.

VN: Obviously they are different races, but a lot of the same riders; what might we expect to see different at Roubaix than at Flanders?

GH: Well, Roubaix is a totally different race. There are no climbs, so you might see guys at the front at Roubaix that you didn’t see at Flanders, guys that don’t go up hill very well but have a ton of power on the flats. Maybe some surprises … maybe some French riders. There’s always a different group of riders that weren’t there in Flanders that you have to deal with at Roubaix.

VN: I was looking at a preview for Flanders in a Belgian newspaper, and they had ranked three-star favorites, two-star favorites and one-star favorites. You weren’t listed, even though you’ve been in the top-10 so many times. Does that upset you?

GH: For me, it’s all about my own personal pressure. I think I deserve to be one of the favorites. I still believe I can win a Flanders or Roubaix. It’s kind of motivating that they would count me out of those sorts of races; the riders don’t count me out. If you see, they won’t let me go, and they have a ton of respect for what I’ve done and they know I’m a factor to deal with at all points. To me, at the end of the day, that’s what’s important, not what the Belgian papers are saying.

VN: That puts you in a hard spot, if guys like Boonen, a top sprinter, and Cancellara, a top time trialist, won’t let you get away.

GH: Yeah, it puts me in a real tough spot. But that’s cycling. One of these days they’ll be watching the other guy, and they’ll let me go.