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From the pages of Velo: A Gentle Giant

In our July 21, 2008 cover story, we look at George Hincapie, America’s most accomplished active racer and the international peloton’s nice guy

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Editor’s Note: The following cover story appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of VeloNews. We revisit the story of George Hincapie’s career after he announced his coming retirement on Monday.

NANTES, France (VN) — Think you’re having a busy summer? Consider George Hincapie’s schedule. In late June Hincapie celebrated the birth of his second child (a healthy boy, Enzo) and his 35th birthday with his wife Melanie, a former French model and podium girl, and then headed from his second home in Girona, Spain, to the start of the Tour de France.

After setting an American record of competing in 13 Tours, Hincapie will head to Beijing for his fifth consecutive Olympic Games — another American cycling record — before he returns to his first home in Greenville, South Carolina, where he hopes to repeat his national championship victory of 2006. From Greenville he’ll head to the Tour of Missouri, where he hopes to defend last year’s overall victory.

In between races, Hincapie will consult with his older brother Rich in managing their growing apparel company Hincapie Sportswear and their upscale Greenville housing development Pla d’Adet, named after the Pyrenean mountaintop finish where Hincapie won the toughest stage of the 2005 Tour de France. That stage win, which Hincapie cites as one of the finest of a 15-year professional career, was a reward for his service to Lance Armstrong for all seven of the Texan’s Tour victories.

Sound like a charmed life? It is. Through it all, America’s most accomplished active racer has remained, quite simply, a nice guy. Virtually anyone who has spent five minutes in his company can confirm this. Just ask Armstrong, who has known Hincapie for the better part of two decades and calls him “one of my best friends.”

“I’ve known George for a long time, and very rarely have I heard him say something bad about someone else,” Armstrong told VeloNews in an exclusive interview on the eve of this year’s Tour. “He’s not loud, he’s not obnoxious. He’s a quiet man. It would take a very serious offense for him to say anything negative about a person. And that’s strong when you consider these days it’s so easy to be cynical and rude.”

Hincapie also considers fellow pro Michael Barry, a teammate at U.S. Postal Service and now Team Columbia, among his closest friends. In Girona, Hincapie is the elder statesman of the growing contingency of American pros building a European base; his daughter Julia Paris Hincapie attends the same Spanish pre-school as Barry’s son, Liam. In 2001, Hincapie stood as the best man at Freddie Rodriguez’s wedding. According to Armstrong, the Spanish-speaking son of a former Colombian racer has been well liked throughout his career, and across multiple nationalities.

“George is hands down one of the most respected and most popular riders in the peloton,” Armstrong observed. “I never saw him lose his temper in a race, he was always a professional. And his Spanish helps. If he’s doing a race in Spain, he can speak with half of the field. That makes him very popular as well.”

Like Armstrong, Garmin-Chipotle team manager Jonathan Vaughters has known Hincapie since they came up through the junior ranks together. Vaughters rode alongside Hincapie with the U.S. national team in the early ’90s, and again at U.S. Postal in 1998 and 1999.

“George is a gentle giant,” Vaughters said. “He’s just a super sweet, nice fellow. I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anyone else. Never.”

However that niceness also serves as a double-edged sword. A widely admired rider, particularly with cycling’s female fan base, Hincapie is swarmed for autographs on both sides of the Atlantic and wrestles with maintaining his personal space. Demands on his time have only grown following the launch of Hincapie Sportswear in 2004 — his name now doubles as a brand.

“For me it’s still strange, because I still just see myself as your normal everyday person,” Hincapie said. “To go out there and have people asking me for autographs even to this day, it still feels kind of weird. But I know that it’s part of being successful, it’s part of the deal. I just try to deal with it as best I can. I don’t throw myself into situations where I know there’s going to be a lot of attention on me. I try to stay away from those things, but sometimes there’s no choice. But that’s also a sign that things are going well, that you’ve been successful, so it’s also a positive thing.”

Some of Hincapie’s critics say he’s too nice, that he lacks the killer instinct to seal the deal at the finish of the race. Indeed, he does have a high ratio of top-10 finishes to wins.

“He’s been one of the strongest in the world for years and years, but he’s not necessarily an aggressive or killer personality, which shows up in his racing,” Vaughters said. “I think he’s found the correct roles for his strengths. He used to be a helper for Lance, and now, later on in his a career, he’s a mentor figure for younger riders at Columbia. Those are good roles for him. When he has to produce as a team leader, that’s a harder place for him to be with his personality.”

It’s a knock Hincapie has heard before — in the cutthroat world of European road racing, a rider can’t simultaneously be mild mannered and have the instinct of a champion. As usual, he just shrugs it off with a smile, saying, “I’ve always said that I can be in a breakaway with a guy, and I don’t have to hate him to want to beat him more than anything. I think the fact that I am a nice person just comes down to the way that I was raised. My dad is the same way.”

Armstrong, who holds a permanent place in cycling’s “killer instinct” hall of fame, said that Hincapie’s misfortune is a bigger part of the story. Punctures cost him heavily at Roubaix in 1997, 2000 and 2001, and in 2006 he saw a perfect opportunity turn to disaster when his steerer tube broke late in the race, resulting in a separated shoulder.

“There have been years where he’s had terrible luck, or not great support,” Armstrong said. “But had a few things gone differently, the headline would have been ‘Nice guy with killer instinct wins Paris-Roubaix, or the Tour of Flanders.’ I’ve seen him be awfully tough. He absolutely punishes himself in training. He is one tough guy.”

A Classy Specialist

Groomed as a racer since he was eight years old, bike racing is the only career Hincapie has ever known.

“The only other job that I’ve ever had was a newspaper route one summer,” Hincapie said. “That didn’t last very long. My friends would meet up on their bikes to deliver the newspapers. I had about 30 houses, and we would do races around the block. I don’t know what I would have done if I wasn’t a cyclist. It’s all I’ve ever done my whole life.”

Hincapie grew up in Queens, the Long Island borough of New York City, the son of a former Colombian amateur racer. He and his brother Rich became teenage stars in the gritty racing scenes of Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

Hincapie won numerous national titles on the track as well as a bronze medal in the 3km pursuit at the 1991 world junior track championships. At 18, Hincapie followed Rich to Charlotte, North Carolina, where his brother attended college.

After a trip to the 1992 Olympics — the Games were still amateur-only then — Hincapie turned professional with Motorola in 1994, alongside Armstrong, Frankie Andreu, Andy Hampsten, Phil Anderson, Gord Fraser and Sean Yates. That year, in his first attempt at Paris-Roubaix, he finished an impressive 31st. He also famously won the 1997 USPRO Championship in Philadelphia, but was reduced to tears when, 30 minutes after the finish, officials relegated him for drafting a team vehicle following a flat tire late in the race. He returned to win the stars and stripes the next year, without controversy.

As he matured, Hincapie showed increased class on the bike, and looked poised to develop into a cobbled classics specialist. However his career was forever changed when U.S. Postal Service unexpectedly won the 1999 Tour. Suddenly he and Armstrong found themselves in the unlikely position of being America’s biggest cycling stars.

“Even then, we weren’t that good,” Hincapie laughed about that ’99 Tour. “We were very inexperienced. Lance was great, but the rest of us were all just kind of lost. Every day we were wondering how we could help as much as we could.”

One rider whose career has paralleled Hincapie’s is Australian Stuart O’Grady. Hincapie and O’Grady came up through the amateur ranks together, both beginning their careers as sprinters before evolving into hardmen of the cobbles. Both have worn the maillot jaune, and both will head to their fifth Olympics in August. Their paths diverged, however, when Hincapie became Armstrong’s right-hand man while O’Grady rode in pursuit of green jerseys.

“I have the utmost respect for George,” O’Grady said. “He has a huge capacity. He’s a great guy, very down to earth and a hard worker. He is one of the specialists of the peloton.”

Though Hincapie is the only American to win the northern semi-classics Ghent-Wevelgem (in 2001) and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (in 2005), Hincapie said the 2005 season proved to be a crossroads in his career. With Armstrong’s imminent retirement opening the door for a new GC leader at Discovery, in April of 2005 Hincapie began an intensive training regime to improve his climbing and time trialing.

“After my daughter was born in 2004, something clicked,” Hincapie said. “Racing with the team allowed me to race the classics and go for some stages of the grand tours, and I wanted to focus on getting the best results I possibly could. I had a great spring in 2005, I finished second at Roubaix and I just felt really good, really confident in my abilities. I had never focused on my climbing and time trialing, and when I did, it showed. I had six weeks off after Roubaix, and when I returned to racing I won the prologue of the Dauphiné. That gave me huge confidence, and then I ended up winning a mountain stage of the Tour.”

Hincapie’s stage win atop Pla d’Adet, at the tail end of Armstrong’s seventh Tour win, caused some grumbling among European fans who had grown tired of the seemingly endless American domination of the Tour. “Now a Roubaix rider takes victory on the hardest climbing stage of the Tour?” they asked. “Eeem-possible.”

Yet Armstrong said Hincapie is the rare rider who can nearly do it all — sprint, time trial and climb with the best in the world.

“Physically, George is very well rounded,” Armstrong said. “He’s very strong. Look at those years where he was at the front of Roubaix and on the climbs at the Tour. Just look back over cycling history — almost nobody can do that. I just don’t think there’s been anyone like him, so strong in April and in July in such different conditions, different weather, terrain, road surfaces, everything. You name it, he is good.”

The 2006 Tour proved to be a bust for Hincapie’s GC hopes. He tanked in the first time trial and finished 32nd overall. In 2007 he returned to his role riding as superdomestique for Levi Leipheimer and eventual winner Alberto Contador.

As Hincapie has aged, he’s had to adapt his skill set. No longer packing the sprint that saw him take his first national championship in 1998, he now finds the right breakaways and dominates smaller bunch kicks. At last year’s Tour of Missouri Hincapie found his way into a 13- man breakaway that put 14 minutes into the peloton. He took the stage win in a sprint and went on to hold off all-comers in the time trial to take the overall victory. It was the classic example of a veteran finding ways to outdo younger, less-experienced rivals.

“As you get older you have to change your game a little bit,” Armstrong said. “George has been racing for so long, he knows how to get into moves and conserve more energy than the rest. And he’s still faster than 98 percent of the guys in the peloton.”

Overshadowed By Lance?

Of all the years Armstrong and Hincapie raced together, it was at the 2003 Tour, the most challenging of Armstrong’s seven victories, where Hincapie’s positive attitude made the biggest difference.

“For those seven years George was my best friend, my default guy, the guy I sat next to on the bus,” Armstrong said. “At the 2003 Tour I was in the dumps. And every day, George would say, ‘Today is the day you are going to do it.’ He would say that every day, even though I kept coming up short. George had an iPod before anybody, and he had all this music loaded on it. On the bus he would play some music for me and tell me, ‘Today is the day.’ Most of those days were not the days. I would come back, I would disappoint, and the Tour seemed to be slipping away. But every day, back on the bus, he would say, ‘These are new days, today is the day.’”

Finally, it happened. After Armstrong’s famous tangle with a fan’s musette bag on Luz-Ardiden, the Texan charged away from the pack to take the stage win and clinch the yellow jersey. It’s Hincapie that Armstrong is pointing to in the celebrated photo from the podium that day, as Hincapie crossed the finish line 20 minutes later. “That day was the day,” Armstrong said. “Just like George kept saying.”

Little did Armstrong know that Hincapie would later marry the Crédit Lyonnais podium girl standing next to him in that photo. Hincapie met Melanie Simonneau when she awarded U.S. Postal the team classification award following the 2003 Tour prologue.

“The next day we all went to the podium, and she gave us these little lions and a medal,” Hincapie said. “I was kind of mesmerized when I first met her. I came back to the bus and told the guys, ‘Oh man, you guys, I just saw an angel.’ They started laughing and gave me shit. But every day I tried to talk to her and ended up writing her a little note and gave it to her boss. We started sending text messages to each other. That was pretty much my whole 2003 Tour, just trying to get her to talk to me.”

Within a year, the podium girl and the man once considered for ABC’s show “The Bachelor” were married. Those invited by the groom doubled as a list of who’s who in international cycling.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Hincapie’s career is that Armstrong’s record seven Tour wins, which he helped secure, might be the very thing preventing Hincapie from receiving recognition as one of the most accomplished American cyclists of all time.

“In the past there were others who made that assessment and chose to leave the team,” Armstrong said. “George had some other offers, but he was never going to leave. Other guys had other offers and they were gone. George never did leave. He was content. He was very committed to the team, and very committed to me. He could have always gone off and done his own thing. But he was always a true teammate.”

Characteristically, Hincapie downplays any suggestion that he spent the greater part of his career in Armstrong’s shadow. If anything, Hincapie said, Armstrong’s achievements, and celebrity, brought Big George more attention.

“A lot more Americans are aware of cycling than they were in the past, just because of Lance, so maybe if Lance were not there, it would have been only the hard-core fans that have seen what I’ve done,” Hincapie said. “Now there’s a whole different segment of people that realize what cycling is, and they’re a lot more interested in cycling because of what Lance has done.”

American fans accustomed to Hincapie’s long-term commitment to the Motorola/Postal/Discovery dynasty were surprised to learn that Hincapie had signed with T-Mobile in the summer of 2007, before the announcement that the Discovery program was coming to an end. Hincapie explained that after spending the entirety of his career in one organization it was time to move on.

“I had several contract offers throughout the seven years with Lance, and while I looked at them, I never truly considered them,” Hincapie said. “What Lance and I were doing, to me felt like we were making history in the sport, and we were really doing a lot of good for cycling in the U.S. When Lance stopped, it wasn’t quite the same for me. It didn’t feel like I needed to have that 100-percent loyalty to the team because Lance wasn’t there anymore. Sure, I still loved the team, I still had a great relationship with [team director] Johan [Bruyneel] and the riders, but there wasn’t that same bond as when Lance was on the team. For me to consider other contracts out there was a lot easier when Lance left. I just saw a great opportunity with [then T-Mobile team manager] Bob Stapleton, and felt like it was time for me to move on.”

How Much Longer?

If Hincapie is beginning to slow down at 35 years of age, he’s not showing any signs. While his former teammates are directing teams or commentating for television, Hincapie has found a comfortable role as road captain at Team Columbia, and he continues to win races. Heading into the Tour, his 2008 season included stage wins at the Amgen Tour of the California and the Dauphiné Libéré, begging the question — what’s the secret to his longevity?

“I have always tried to cut the season short, cut it in September or late August, and I think that’s helped,” Hincapie said. “I try to keep my races at 70 per year, where a lot of guys do 100, 110 races and end up burnt out super early. I think you do a little less racing — train hard, but the more time you spend at home, the head stays fresher.”

But how much longer can Hincapie’s career continue? Can he surpass Joop Zoetemelk’s record of 16 Tour de France starts? Is a sixth consecutive Olympics a possibility? His contract with Columbia runs through 2009; after that, he said he would consider his options. With Hincapie Sportswear, Pla d’Adet and his involvement with the H30 athlete representation firm — Hincapie is one of the three Hs, along with investors Scott Hirshorn and Mark Holowesko — he’s certainly not racing just for the salary. Instead, he insists he’s as motivated as he was 15 years ago.

“I still have the hunger,” Hincapie said. “I push myself in training as hard or harder than anyone out there. If I am going to be racing, I want to race at the highest level.”

And if Hincapie ends up retiring without that elusive major classics win, and he leaves behind a legacy of the nice guy who couldn’t seal the deal, well, he says he can live with that.

“I have been really fortunate in my life, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything,” Hincapie said. “Part of being a nice person has really helped me succeed in my life. I’ve got a great company, I’ve got a great family and I seem to have a great future after cycling. I think that is all part of having been a nice person, and a genuine person.”

If nothing else, Hincapie’s gentle, easygoing manner has secured a lifelong collection of fans and friends. “I can’t say it any simpler,” Armstrong said. “He’s one of my best friends. I love him like a brother. I’d walk to the end of the of earth for that guy.”